Hallmark Channel

Chronicle Mysteries: The Deep End (2019)

After a punchy three movie premiere for the Aurora Teagarden series, Hallmark takes it down a few notches with the latest Chronicle Mysteries film. A slow burner that fails to catch fire, this fourth installment is one you can skip. Neither the case nor the players offer much excitement, and I struggled to keep my attention on the film, preferring to take care of the more pressing matter of newly hatched flies swarming my dining room.

The body count in The Deep End turned out to be much lower (RIP, flies), with Elliot Burke being the single fatality. He is found in his pond by friend, Jeremy, and neighbor, Leonard, but it’s his wife who is arrested for his drowning. Circumstantial evidence points to Stephanie, whom the prosecution paints as an angry, greedy soon-to-be ex-wife. Podcaster Alex McPherson (Alison Sweeney), however, thinks differently.

Her connection to the case comes via her best friend, Stephanie’s defense attorney. For some reason, Alex has taken it upon herself to exonerate the suspect and enlists the rest of the Barrington Chronicle gang to help. By gang, I mean three others – society columnist Eileen (Rebecca Staab), reporter Drew (Benjamin Ayres), and Drew’s curiously adult daughter Kendall (Olivia Steele Falconer). Each has a unique set of skills for this job. Eileen works her contacts and effortlessly extracts gossip from everyone, Kendall, being the young, hip one, marshals her tech know-how, and Drew just hangs out with Alex a lot. Together, they dig into the deceased’s life, trying to figure out who had better motive than Stephanie to kill Elliot and whether that person had the opportunity.

The case isn’t anything different from the many others you might see on Hallmark Mysteries, but this story also doesn’t attempt to stand out in any way. None of the characters related to the crime are treated as serious suspects and thus are forgettable. The questionably rich caddy and the grumpy neighbor, for example, are fishy but nothing more. Instead, Alex and Drew take us on a slow crawl for information about some shady finances and a call on a missing flip phone. Though there’s a sense of mystery here, that’s not balanced by a sense of excitement for the chase.

Alex and friends fail to elevate the story too. I had previously written about wanting Hallmark to highlight a team of crime solvers to liven up the dynamic, and it looks like we have that here. Rather than just amateur sleuth and her romantic interest, the Chronicle staff are contribute in smart and efficient ways, but at least in The Deep End, they’re not a group I’d want to spend extra time with. Maybe it’s because we’re missing Chuck, the sunny press manager from the previous films. Hopefully he’ll return for the next case and inject some life into the series.

Highlight for spoilers: Jeremy killed Elliot over debts from a high stakes poker game that the latter had been running. Elliot didn’t need the money and seemingly organized the gambling ring for kicks. He was considerate of people’s situations though and would cut off anyone who was in too deep. Jeremy was one of those who was massively in debt. He wanted to continue playing though, and when Elliot refused to loan him more money, Jeremy bashed him with the golf club in a fit of anger. He still couldn’t find the key to the ledger or Elliot’s cash though, which would have allowed him to scrub his motive and his debts.

Released: 2019
Dir: Nimisha Mukerji
Writer: Melissa Salmons
Cast: Alison Sweeney, Benjamin Ayres, Olivia Steele Falconer, Rebecca Staab, Chelan Simmons, Robyn Bradley, Chenier Hundal, Edward Ruttle, Karen Holness
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

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Aurora Teagarden Mysteries: A Very Foul Play (2019)

Police detective Lynn is only a supporting character in the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, but she gets the defining line of the series when she exclaims, “Stop, this is excruciating!” as lead Aurora and friends try to pick apart the latest murder case. Fed up with this amateur hour crime solving, she interrupts the group and redirects their attention back to the victim, who is one of the stars of this very foul play. Strictly speaking, this twelfth Aurora Teagarden movie is not painful viewing, but I am near maxed out with this three-film premiere event.

The setting is a true crime and mystery conference, hosted by Linda (Kristen Robek), owner of a murder mystery theater. One conference highlight is a whodunit performed in part by speakers and panelists, a fun affair until someone is murdered onstage. Monica, the star, is stabbed to death during a brief blackout, and when the lights come on again, Aurora’s cousin Philip (Dylan Sloane) is holding the bloodied murder. He’s arrested on the spot, but while it’s clear to friends and family that he’s not the killer, it’s not clear who did do it.

I got a kick out of seeing the series’s most reluctant sleuths join Aurora’s Real Murders Club. Her mom, Aida (Marilu Henner), thinks she’s tagging along for a librarians’ conference and has little choice but to involve herself when her nephew gets in trouble. Aurora’s colleague, Lillian (Ellie Harvie), also can’t believe her bad luck when she arrives at the hotel to meet her online date, only to worry that he might be a suspect when he lies to the police. My favorite Aurora antagonist though is Lynn (Miranda Frigon), who is married to Arthur (Peter Benson), another police officer and, as it turns out, an RMC enthusiast. She is less than thrilled to be lending her professional skills to this little club, which she feels is an affront to her job as an actual detective. It’s taken me awhile, but I’m realizing how much pleasure I get from Frigon’s condescension and contempt.

All these forces combined don’t help the case come to a speedier conclusion though. The team find themselves chasing all sorts of leads, some of which further endanger Philip. They immediately suspect Brett, the deceased’s boyfriend, but then uncover information about his father, an unpopular real estate developer, that might point to another motive. Things get even messier when Ro catches someone sneaking back onto the crime scene and when she finds hidden connections between suspects and the victim.

A Very Foul Play looks to be the last Aurora Teagarden Mystery for awhile, at least until the new year. As much as I complain, I do like the new direction though. This is a cornball series held together by Cameron Bure but made enjoyable by its supporting cast. Lexa Doig and Frigon are notable for playing up their anti-Aurora characteristics. Sloane is also growing on me, the likable kid cousin figure who’s always willing to lend a hand. Niall Matter, on the other hand, hasn’t distinguished himself as Aurora’s new boyfriend. He’s an improvement over Mr. Murdoch Mysteries, who was a stronger presence but also a more patronizing one. Aurora has really dispensed with the damsel-in-distress act and is now calling the shots when it comes to her hairy, life-threatening showdowns. I won’t be disappointed to see the next batch of movies, but I’m not counting down the days until we get a new one either.

Highlight for spoilers: When it comes to Hallmark mysteries, you’re almost never wrong if you choose the most benign, unassuming guest character as your prime suspect, which in this case is Linda. Upset at everyone for getting in the way of her dreams, she decides she’ll burn them all, or at least stab, bludgeon, and frame whomever she can. She kills Monica when she learns that she was spying for Boyd, the man who was trying to ruin her theater. Of course Boyd had to go as well because obvs. No small part of the plan though was to destroy Robert, the ex who dumped her the minute he tasted success. She tries to set him up for the fall by planting a manuscript detailing the crime, but Ro foils the plan with her trusty librarian research skills and grammar software.

Released: 2019
Dir: Martin Wood
Writer: Teena Booth, Michael Vickerman
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Niall Matter, Marilu Henner, Peter Benson, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Dylan Sloane, Ellie Harvie, Boyd Douglas, John Emmet Tracy, Matthew James Dowden, Kristen Robek
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Aurora Teagarden Mysteries: An Inheritance to Die For (2019)

A family affair turns deadly in the eleventh installment of the Aurora Teagarden series. The focus shifts from amateur sleuth Ro (Candace Cameron Bure) to her best friend, Sally (Lexa Doig), and Sally’s cousins, Lizzy and Cade (Preston Vanderslice). As the family and all the town’s elite gather for Lizzy’s wedding, the happy occasion is cut short when one Aunt Gladys (Karen Kruper) dies by poisoning. The crime is committed in plain sight, but it’s hard to narrow the pool of suspects, all of whom might have benefited from the death of the wealthy woman.

Keeping track of personal vendettas and grievances proves a chore for Ro. Those who have a reason for killing Gladys all offer a strong reason why someone else could have done the deed. Ro goes with her instincts and places Cade at the top of the suspect list. Cade, a general disappointment to his mother and an irresponsible trust fund kid to others, is ready to pick a fight with anyone challenging his claim to his mother’s fortune. He is already upset when Victor (Michael David Simms), the former CEO of Gladys’s company, shows up at the wedding but becomes even more incensed when he learns that the business is being handed over to Ro’s mother, Aida (Marilu Henner). That’s not the only surprise in store. Gladys’s personal chef, Jeremy (Jason McKinnon), receives a sum that far exceeds that of the other beneficiaries, and the move angers not only Cade but also her long-time personal assistant, Tannis (Alison Araya).

I confess I liked the snarling free-for-all here. If you’ve witnessed any real-life will disputes, you’ll recognize the brazen money grab disguised as tearful concern for the deceased. By the end, you might decide we’re better off donating to stray puppies or some renewable energy project. Humans are way too selfish, and this movie doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Instead, it allows you to experience the whole messy process but without the actual emotional or material investment. The actors also add punch with their comic overacting, a feature I’m learning to love. Doig is my favourite; whereas Cameron Bure tries to be Very Serious, Doig, either by default or by design, comes across as laughably incredulous.

Highlight for spoilers: Everyone’s a little guilty, but in the end, it’s Victor holding the gun and Aurora and her mother hostage. Cade gets the ball rolling by wanting more than he’s already entitled to. Some time ago, he framed Victor for embezzlement, leading to the latter’s firing. Aunt Gladys tried to make amends when she found out the truth, but it wasn’t enough to resurrect Victor’s reputation or his good feelings towards her. Victor decides to go big and bring everyone down, not only orchestrating Gladys’s death but implicating his enemies in the process. He enlists the help of lawyer Elaine to rewrite the will and chef Jeremy to poison the water. Jeremy gets a tidy sum for doing so, but when he asks for even more money, Victor kills him. He also installs Aida as the new CEO, knowing that she’ll gladly give up ownership to him and that it will expose Cade’s power grab.

Released: 2019
Dir: Michael Robinson
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Niall Matter, Marilu Henner, Peter Benson, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Dylan Sloane, Ellie Harvie, Preston Vanderslice, Michael David Simms, Alison Araya, Julia Benson, Fred Henderson,Matreya Scarrwener, Karen Kruper, Jason McKinnon, Dave Collette
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Aurora Teagarden Mysteries: A Game of Cat and Mouse (2019)

A Game of Cat and Mouse moves quickly, but I’m convinced an actual game of cat and mouse would enliven proceedings. Then again, I’m always trying to find new ways to enjoy this series, or at least new ways that will distract from Candace Cameron Bure’s overacting. Her character, a librarian and crime solving enthusiast, somehow finds herself in the center of everything, and Cameron Bure can’t help but exercise every one her facial muscles to show just how serious things have become.

In this latest mystery, Ro looks all sorts of shocked. She has good reason though because someone’s gunning for her. A series of thefts and vandalism, starting with the destruction of her Real Murders Club display board, grows increasingly violent and personal. Someone is taunting her by leaving crime scene photos marked with quotes from old detective stories. Her family and friends and even her snarky colleague are all victims, so Ro is desperate to solve the case before someone dies.

She gets help from her usual team, including her best friend, Sally (Lexa Doig), and sort of boyfriend, Nick (Niall Matter). Detectives Arthur (Peter Benson) and Lynn (Miranda Frigon) also lend a hand, as does Nick’s colleague and Lynn’s friend, Bree (Tammy Gillis). It doesn’t take long for them to compile a list of suspects. Almost everyone who isn’t robbed or assaulted has motive or opportunity, from the town’s cleaning lady (Juliana Wimbles) to the guy (Gerard Plunkett) who’s pissed about Ro’s refusal to add his self-published novel to the library’s collection.

This is the tenth Aurora Teagarden film, and if you’ve watched the first nine, this case won’t be too hard to figure out. It’s a snappy mystery nonetheless, full of amusing misdirection and even more enjoyable melodrama. I’ve learned to embrace the little things, like Sally’s constant look of befuddlement. Girl does not seem sharp enough to be a reporter, but, hey, make-believe. The killer gets a scene chewing reveal as well, and Ro’s last minute heroics are a welcome surprise. Might Hallmark finally be giving its detectives a chance to save themselves instead of defaulting to the boyfriend rescue?

Highlight for spoilers: So this one’s pretty easy. Everyone who guessed Bree wins…an evening with the Granchester lads instead. Turns out she’s just a jealous lover. First she killed her friend, the woman at the beginning of the show. She tried to date the fiancé but when he couldn’t get over his dead lover, she had to start anew. Bree then set her sights on Nick. They couldn’t date because of department policy, however, thus allowing Ro time to develop a relationship with the good professor. Guess Bree saw the writing on the wall and figured the best way to deal with her unrequited love was to hurt everyone around Ro and then kill her rival.

Released: 2019
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure, Niall Matter, Marilu Henner, Peter Benson, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Dylan Sloane, Ellie Harvie, Tammy Gillis, Cole Vigue, Gerard Plunkett, Juliana Wimbles, Nicole LaPlaca
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Christmas Camp (2019)

Hallmark and its contributors have dreamt up some ludicrous ideas over the years, but Christmas Camp is really out here trying to win the prize for dumbest premise. As the uninspired title suggests, the story is about a “Christmas camp,” a weeklong retreat where campers try to regain their Christmas mojo, according to one character. That’s the general goal at least, but in fact, people attend for all sorts of reasons, most of which probably aren’t best solved by spending loads of money on a one-week vacation/workshop just before the holidays.

Haley (Lily Anne Harrison) is the type of camper who could care less about Christmas. She tends to celebrate with a Caribbean getaway and a nice salmon dinner. That’s exactly the attitude her boss doesn’t want her to have, especially if Haley is going to lead the advertising pitch for a major toy company and land a promotion. Her boss suggests, demands, a stint at Christmas camp. The purpose is to help Haley generate some ideas for the toy campaign, but it also might be a ploy to get her to help out with Christmas decorations next year. Nevertheless, she goes, determined to be in and out before week’s end. Christmas camp ain’t that type of place though, and workaholic Haley discovers that the only way to get through is to slow down. It’s a hard ask but one made easier by the presence of the owner’s cutie son, Jeff (Bobby Campo).

An architect and fellow Bostonian, Jeff is helping his dad, Ben (John James), for a week. He also wants to convince Ben to trade the family home and business for a condo in the city. Christmas camp was his mom’s dream, however, and his dad is determined to carry on for as long as he can, which isn’t much longer by the look of things. The camp is losing money, something that shouldn’t be a surprise because the whole enterprise is ridiculous.

The place caters to everyone thus no one. It’s not as if all the guests share Haley’s predicament and simply hope to rediscover their love for gift giving and snow angels. Nor is it a place where Christmas-holics can come together and try every craft on their Pinterest board. Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of people and purposes, a place for therapy or recovery or instruction depending. A newly married couple, for example, are spending their first holiday together and need some very practical advice on how they can bring their two families together and still honor different traditions. Another woman feels lonely while her son is stationed abroad and just wants to revisit the place where they used to spend the holidays. Yet another guest is a divorced father, hoping to make Christmas special for his two young children. Somehow, Christmas camp satisfies all these different needs with traditional activities you can do at home without paying a thousand dollars. Maybe I’m alone here, but I’m going to feel cheated if I spend money so that someone can drive me to a volunteer gig at the shelter or tell me to write my Christmas wish on a piece of red and green paper.

It’s hard for me to see how this movie could have succeeded. Even Bobby Campo, who I could always use more of, doesn’t help the situation. There’s not much for his character to do except flirt with Haley the entire time and ignore every other guest. Harrison keeps things perky, which is nice, but her charm isn’t so great as to overcome the film’s concept.

Alt Title: Christmas Bootcamp
Released: 2019
Dir: Jeff Fisher
Writer: Karen Schaler
Cast: Lily Anne Harrison, Bobby Campo, John James, Geraldine Leer, Shadner Ifrene, Milan Williams
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019