mystery films

Crossword Mysteries: Proposing Murder (2019)

There’s nothing like an unexpected opening scene to hook in a viewer, and Proposing Murder makes quite the first impression. Some poor guy meets his end when he opens his front door and is greeted by a dramatic white-blue glow, which is not the way things usually go down in a Hallmark mystery. My first thought was death by nuclear blast or maybe alien invasion, but no, dude was just stabbed with a kitchen knife. Not that that’s trivial because it’s horrible. It’s also no small matter to Tess (Lacey Chabert), our crossword puzzle-making, crime solving hero and friend of the deceased.

Lyle (Kyle Buchanan), the victim, seemed to have everything going for him when he met with Tess days before his murder. A recently tenured history professor, he was getting ready to propose to his girlfriend, Abby, via crossword puzzle when he came in deadly contact with a ceramic knife. Suspicion turns to her because she’s a chef and has whole sets of cutlery with which to kill people. The situation looks even sketchier after she’s seen sharing a tender moment with Clayton, Lyle’s TA. When the gruff coed starts asking more questions than he’s willing to answer, he also gets thrown into the suspect pool, along with the ex-girlfriend who sends threatening notes, the colleague passed up for tenure, and the antique book lady who likes to freeze stuff. I’d add Tess’s new crossword intern into the mix too – because you never know.

She doesn’t need the reminder though and can solve all the crimes with or without police detective Logan (Brennan Elliott) hounding her to stay the hell away. Tess, who feels definite chemistry with the good detective even though it’s been a few, sasses her way around his protestations and goes snooping for information anyway. He eventually gives in because girl is tenacious and consistently brings in twice as much evidence as all the dum-dums in that office. Logan’s chiding bothers me as a rule; I can’t stand an overprotective detective. But he also acknowledges that Tess got skills, and he’s not so arrogant as to try to solve a case without her.

This is the movie where I finally get onboard this Chabert-Elliott train. I still think he looks way older despite a reasonable seven year age difference, but that’s details when every other part of their relationship feels so natural. They make this pairing look effortless, and their comfort with one another comes through in Tess and Logan’s playful jibes. Their chemistry gives the film a real boost and keeps things from lagging. Despite a mystery that’s both easy to solve and mildly suspenseful at best, the movie brims with personality.

I’m still wary about how this series will proceed overall. Unlike the first film in which a crossword puzzle figured prominently in the crime, future cases will be probably be crossword-adjacent. The mystery in Proposing Murder, for example, coincides with the codebreaking theme in Tess’s puzzle, which takes a ton of research if this movie is anything to go by (it’s the only thing I’m going by). This may allow for broader possibilities, but it also kind of takes away from what makes this series special. Tess could have any job and we’d still end up with the same basic story.

Highlight for spoilers: The most innocent one is usually the most guilty, and that’s Christina, who plotted her crime along with Emory. Christina felt she was owed some money from the sale of the jewels since Lyle’s success was due at least in part to her research assistance and acquisition of rare books. When Lyle refused, she decided to confront him and killed him in a fit of passion and then tried to pin the crime on his ex, Bethany. Emory gladly got in on this plan after he was passed over for tenure. Clayton and Abby were not in fact having an affair. He just helped Lyle as a thank you to the professor for getting him back on the right track and into college. He also promised Lyle that he would take care of Abby if anything happened.

Dir: Don McCutcheon
Writer: Gregg Rossen, Brian Sawyer
Cast: Lacey Chabert, Brennan Elliott, John Kapelos, Barbara Niven, Genevieve Kang, Romaine Waite, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Alex Paxton-Beesley,
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020

Matchmaker Mysteries: A Killer Engagement (2019)

Matchmaker Mysteries is probably the strangest concept yet to come out of the Hallmark whodunnit factory. Danica McKellar plays Angie Dove, a Philadelphia-based matchmaker and human version of eHarmony’s algorithm. She doesn’t just pair couples based on similar interests and values but seeks out the really important stuff, like lip shape. That’s one reason she knows Aaron (Randy Thomas) and Emma (Helena Marie) are right for each other. When he proposes on Angie’s television show, the couple seem destined for a happily ever after, until Emma ends up stabbed to death at her own engagement party.

Angie can’t help herself and goes right back to the scene of the crime, to the frustration of those around her. Benjamin, her producer, warns her that they won’t get a second season with all this bad publicity, and Detective Kyle Cooper (Victor Webster) could do without a chatterbox who gives him unsolicited grooming tips. Her seriously sharp observation skills are too much to pass up though, and Kyle reluctantly allows her to snoop around.

Knowing the couple as well as she does, Angie disagrees with the police’s suspicion that Aaron murdered his fiancée. Her conversations with their friends and associates yield more likely suspects, like Aaron’s son from his first marriage and Emma’s bouncer ex-boyfriend. When accusations of infidelity and financial misdeeds surface as well, Angie expands her search.

As far as Hallmark mysteries go, this case is pretty standard with little attempt to make it any more thrilling or creative than it needs to be. The script could tease out some of the suspects and their motives more since some are obviously not the killer. Of the debut series in 2019 though, this one feels most off its game. Some of that is due to the unimaginative case, but a lot has to do with the uneven tone. Whereas McKellar and Webster have a good sense of their characters, they don’t have as strong a handle on their relationship.

I actually like McKellar’s fun take on her character. Angie is flirty, mischievous, and optimistic, just what you’d expect from someone who thinks about love all day. Her personality is a fresh departure from the more serious sleuths on Hallmark. Webster, on the other hand, goes for the stereotypical, no nonsense detective type. The actor effortlessly plays cordial but distant, which also describes the relationship between Angie and Kyle. Maybe they’ll find a way to warm up as the series progresses, but I don’t know if I even care to see them again.

I’m also on the fence about the whole idea of using a television matchmaker to front a murder mystery. As someone who squirms at awkward reality-TV-style romantic encounters, I would have preferred a hundred other professions before this one. Wedding planner and marriage counselor are two that come to mind. More importantly though, I wonder if this can work for a longer running series. The matchmaking aspect, while a playful feature in this one film, seems limiting and repetitive in future episodes. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Highlight for spoilers: Rachel, Aaron’s COO, murdered Emma in a crime of passion. The murder had less to do with Declan’s gambling debt, Philip’s embezzlement, and Bo’s jealousy and more to do with the fact that Rachel knew that Aaron would never care for her the way he cared for Emma.

Released: 2019
Dir: David Mackay
Cast: Danica McKellar, Victor Webster, Bruce Boxleitner, Cory Lee, Randy Thomas, Tanya Clarke, Gianpaolo Venuta, Melissa Cultraro, Pip Dwyer, Bukola Walfall, Andres Romo Salido, Helena Marie, James Raynard, Kevin Kase
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020

Crossword Mysteries: Abracadaver (2020)

Crossword Mysteries comes roaring back with Abracadaver, the third installment in Hallmark’s murder mystery series about a New York crossword editor and her homicide detective sidekick. This is the jolt to the brain I needed after months of Christmas romances, and I hope I won’t have to complain about predictability for awhile. The movie is full of unexpected twists and presents a difficult case to untangle unless you have a magician’s way of thinking.

The film opens with Tess Harper (Lacey Chabert) wandering the halls of the Magic Manor, a creepy Victorian mansion where multiple unnatural deaths have undoubtedly occurred. She’s taking classes there to help with her latest crossword puzzle and decides to celebrate her birthday with a show by the Manor’s Amazing Alistair (Noam Jenkins). Her special evening quickly goes down the drain when Alistair is killed on stage while performing a trick. At least that would be the mood if Tess wasn’t so into true crime. She can’t help herself and immediately starts looking for loose ends in the case, which she suspects is murder and not just an illusion gone horribly wrong.

Her sleuthing annoys the hell out of Logan (Brennan Elliott), a New York City police detective and now a good enough friend to be invited by Tess’s aunt (Barbara Niven) to her birthday party. Logan would rather Tess stay out of his investigation, but what can you do when the woman keeps coming back with helpful clues? While comforting Alistair’s assistant, Bianca (Kaitlyn Leeb), she learns that the two magicians had been in a relationship, that is until Bianca wanted a more prominent role in the show. Tess also volunteers information about a conversation she overheard between her teacher, Cormac (Matthew Gouveia), and the deceased.

Nothing is as it seems when magicians are involved though, and Tess and Logan need to figure this out together. Hell, I could have used a partner too. This is one of the more complicated cases I’ve seen from a Hallmark mystery and there’s probably one or two names too many. I totally dropped the ball on some character named Drexler, but the story is not so complex that you can’t see how things fit together when they get a late break in the case.

Overall, I enjoyed the sharp storytelling and the heightened style of this film, which makes the most out of its creepy shooting location. A good mystery inspires suspicion, and I had my eyes on everyone, including the squirrely new crime reporter (Steve Belford) who’s awfully eager to be invited to Tess’s party on his first day. I also liked how Tess deflected suspicion from Bianca, whom she sympathized with for better or worse because a woman can relate. Tess knows what it’s like to be belittled and ignored. I mean, Logan never wastes a chance to tell her to chill with all the crime solving. Granted, she takes some pretty foolish risks that have me questioning her judgment, but she’s clearly an asset to his investigations, and it’s time the law enforcing men of these shows respect that. (I’m still looking at you, Detective Mike Kingston.)

Highlight for spoilers: Woo-wee. Hopefully I get all this right. Alistair never died. All along, it was a plot between Alistair and his lover, Julia, to get rid of her abusive husband, Scott. After he was supposedly shot, Julia killed the house lights, giving her cousin and the guy who delivered the box, enough time to switch Alistair for Scott’s dead body. Julia then went to the coroner’s office, posing as Alistair’s sister to ID the body. Everyone else is innocent and has no clue – including Reed, the new reporter dude. Also Alistair stole the stuff because, well, the magician’s life is not all that.

Released: 2020
Dir: Jonathan Wright
Writer: Cecily Rhett, Kathryn Rhett
Cast: Lacey Chabert, Brennan Elliott, John Kapelos, Barbara Niven, Genevieve Kang, Romaine Waite, Noam Jenkins, Kaitlyn Leeb, Cynthia Preston, Matthew Gouveia, Paulino Nunes, Steve Belford
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020