romance

A Christmas Prince (2017)

Let me first get it out there and say that I predict star Ben Lamb, the Christmas prince, will go the way of Sam Heughan and net a career changing role, or at least I hope he does. Heughan, the faux prince in another vaunted television production, A Princess for Christmas, went on to become Jamie Fraser, prince of men, in the cult series Outlander. So let’s make this a productive pastime wherein I get to watch handsome white British dudes slumming it in bad American television before hitting it big.

I guess we will have to wait on the young Lamb though. In the meantime, how about this movie, right?! Thus kicks off my annual holiday brain-melt-a-thon in which I try to down as many soppy TV movies as my little head will allow. And I couldn’t have picked a better one to start the season. Actually I’m sure I could have, but this is what popped up on Netflix, and I didn’t feel like Mindhunter right before going to bed.

A Christmas Prince proves that a movie with a generic title and a predictable plot can still come out on top if you have the right actors and shooting location, and if your audience is within arms reach of a large bottle of vodka. Besides Lamb, who doesn’t exactly get to show off his acting skills but does get to show off his good looking skills, veteran Alice Krige tops the bill as mother to the prince. There is a royal predicament paralyzing the kingdom of Aldovia, which is apparently somewhere close to Romania. Nearly a year after the king’s death, the throne remains empty because the playboy prince, Richard (Lamb), refuses to assume his hereditary duty. The stern, grieving queen wishes her son would just get on with it, and not just for the family’s sake but to stunt the advance of her greedy nephew, who is also in the line of succession.

Yes, every family has a rat. Smarmy Simon, the Lord Duxbury (Theo Devaney), is truly a piece of work. Devaney handles it like a pro, giving his character a fantastic Roger Rees vibe (RIP, Sheriff of Rottingham/Lord John Marbury). He can’t see that everyone hates him. Or maybe he can and just doesn’t give AF because he’s determined to snatch that crown one way or another. There’s not much he can do though. He could scheme with Lady Sophia (Emma Louise Saunders), an equally insufferable aristocrat and former lover to the prince. Or he could exploit the new peasant in the palace.

Amber (Rose McIver, Keri Russell’s little sister in another life) is just your average New York girl caught up in something too big for her to handle. A reporter at some glossy rag that doesn’t respect her writing ability, she is sent off to Aldovia to cover the succession crisis. Don’t ask why a minor, parochial American magazine would invest that kind of money; we just need this plot to work. She’s not happy about leaving her widowed father alone on Christmas, but eh, he’s a jolly owner of a popular diner and she needs to chase her dreams.

When she arrives, however, there’s nothing to report because homeboy ain’t home. The reporters scatter – except for Amber, who’s not going back without some dirt, dammit. She sneaks into the palace and is mistaken for the new royal tutor, and because there’s no such thing as security in Aldovia, she assumes the role of Martha, math genius from Minnesota, and no one is the wiser. Her charge is Princess Emily (Honor Kneafsey), a sheltered girl with spina bifida who easily overcomes her dislike for the interloper when she sees that Amber treats her just like any other kid.

That is the overriding lesson in these prince/princess Christmas movies. Royals are just like us! We’re all plebs. Because as Amber finds out, Prince Richard Bevan Charlton isn’t a globetrotting playboy but just another guy who likes to chill in his dad’s hunting cabin and sunbathe on the beach. He especially dislikes public intrusion into his private life, and that’s what is holding him back from the throne. To which I say, wait ‘til he finds out who the nice tutor chick really is.

Obviously, the romance takes a turn for the worse before it ends up with a handsome prince proposing in the snow. (That is not a spoiler. If you didn’t see that coming, you are not allowed to watch these movies.) It’s sweet. McIver is cute; her character has a habit of destroying valuable works of art and she wears Converse to the first Christmas party of the season. She does, perhaps, need a refresher on journalism ethics, pronto. Lamb is also gentle and princely. The two have good chemistry. There’s horse riding and a wolf. Really, what more do you want? Go get your holidays started.

Released: 2017
Dir: Alex Zamm
Writer: Karen Schaler
Cast: Rose McIver, Ben Lamb, Alice Krige, Honor Kneafsey, Theo Devaney, Emma Louise Saunders, Tom Knight
Time: 82 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

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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

The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

The Heartbreak Kid is not a good movie, and it deserves to be thrown into the Hall of Shame alongside Adam Sandler’s oeuvre. Plenty of films are tedious, populated with grating characters, some are dull and infuse no life into routine plots, and still others overestimate an audience’s tolerance for whatever shtick they’re trying to peddle (see every Adam Sandler movie). The Heartbreak Kid, based off a Neil Simon screenplay and corrupted by the Farrelly brothers, combines all these into one steaming pile of dung.

After San Francisco sports store owner Eddie (Ben Stiller) is humiliated at his ex’s wedding and then berated by his father (Jerry Stiller) for being single and forty, he runs into Lila (Malin Åckerman) while trying to stop a purse snatcher. He doesn’t get the guy but he does get a date with her. A mere six weeks later, he proposes, partly because she’s hot and partly because her job wants to relocate the single people to Rotterdam. Despite reservations, he decides it’s the right decision and starts to look ahead to his honeymoon in Cabo.

The first twenty minutes are, like the characters, deceptively normal if a little dull, but things go downhill in a flash. The script draws from a wellspring of misogyny that Eddie dips into immediately after taking his vows. He and his friend Mac (Rob Corddry) balk when they see Lila’s overweight mother, a sure sign that this relationship is going to end in disaster. His father only adds to the shameful behavior with a mouth that would make Donald Trump proud.

Lila though is hardly a model of maturity and compassion either. She’s even more self-absorbed than her husband and possibly one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen. The wife from hell, she earns the title several times over. Some of her habits can be reduced to harmless personality quirks – she’s a little overenthusiastic about carpool karaoke, for example, but much of her behavior would be grounds for annulment. Lila’s tortured relationship with the truth means that she’s lying even if when she thinks she isn’t. She’s not upfront about her troubled finances, the nature of her environmental research job, or her former coke habit. Moreover, marriage seems to make her feel more entitled and demanding, thus confirming all of Eddie’s fears about long-term relationships and reinforcing multiple stereotypes in the process.

In most cases, I’d be side with Eddie, but Stiller doesn’t give much reason to warm up to his character. He plays the guy he usually does, a beleaguered everyman trying to make the most of a bad situation. It’s not very compelling and he lacks the charisma to justify sticking it through with Eddie. Åckerman, on the other hand, gives Lila an abundance of personality; unfortunately it’s the kind that makes you want to throttle her character.

There’s not one sympathetic soul until Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) breezes in. She’s vacationing with her family, good, sensible Mississippi folks, and is too pure for this mess. But Eddie gets involved anyway, adding yet another layer of deception and hysterics. At one point, Miranda rightly decides she’s had enough, which is that attitude we should all take with this movie.

Released: 2007
Prod: Ted Field, Bradley Thomas
Dir: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly
Writer: Scot Armstrong, Leslie Dixon, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, Kevin Barnett
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Malin Åkerman, Jerry Stiller, Rob Corddry, Carlos Mencia, Scott Wilson, Danny McBride
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

I’ll Be Home for Christmas (2016)

Sometimes you come across Christmas TV movie that looks – for a few precious moments – like it could be tolerable, a treat even. The opening scene is picturesque, the music gets you in the mood, and the lead actor rumbles onto the screen with little apology. I’m describing the first minutes of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, where James Brolin meanders through the countryside in a rusty RV while his wife, the divine Ms. Barbra Streisand, sings the title song. It’s certainly a step up from your usual TV fare, and you’ll be forgiven for wanting a little more from Hallmark.

As it turns out, a compelling script would have been enough. Granted, you’re not watching this or any other Hallmark offering for its original screenplay, but a fresh idea would be wonderful and, please, dialogue that wasn’t lifted from a 8th grader’s journal. But, no, this movie is a depository of clichés with two big screen actors standing around to make the whole thing look respectable.

The movie starts with an argument between Jackie Foster (Mena Suvari) – assistant DA, single mom, and estranged daughter of Jack (Brolin) – and Mike Kelly – police detective, single hot guy, and loyal protégé of Jack. They fight over a parking space, not knowing that this is only their first of three run-ins that day. The Pride and Prejudice rule applies here. Jackie and Mike can’t stand each other, and besides, she’s in a Very Serious Relationship with rich guy Rand (Jacob Blair). That can only mean one thing; Jackie and Mike are bound to be together. (By the way, if movies are anything to go by, single ladies, go out and get yourself into a feisty tête-a-tête right now with the first hot dude you see.)

While they’re busy doing their thing, Jackie must also figure out what to do with Father, as she calls him. This one’s harder to decipher. The status of their relationship is never that clear. Jackie has far more animosity towards him than he does towards her. She resents all the time he spent away from the family, especially during the holidays, while he was working as a police officer and is also upset that he upped and left after her mom died three years ago. I can’t tell when Jackie’s hating on her dad though and when she’s stressed out and exhausted by her slavish need to follow a schedule. For his part, Jack seems conciliatory, awkwardly trying to make amends with his precocious granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg) and forever delaying a planned fishing trip in Mexico. Brolin doesn’t seem to know what his character is up to, which is strange since he directed the damn movie.

Mostly, I’ll Be Home for Christmas is frustrating for its dullness. The predictable plot doesn’t bother me so much as the lack of imagination when it comes to characters. Jackie, Jack, and Mike are entirely forgettable and without one spark of wit. Pretentious Rand stands out a little thanks to his villainy. I mean, the guy scoffs at the mere suggestion of volunteering at a homeless shelter. Various subplots and secondary characters also get thrown in – a destructive police dog, a theft at the local tree lot, the closing of said shelter, but none of this makes the movie more engaging. If, like me, you get to the thirty minute mark thinking you’ve reached the third act, then give in to your urge to change the channel.

Released: 2016
Dir: James Brolin
Writer: Robert Bernheim
Cast: James Brolin, Mena Suvari, Giselle Eisenberg, John Reardon, Jacob Blair, Angela Asher, Laura Miyata
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Rodeo and Juliet (2015)

First things first, Rodeo is actually a horse, so I’m not sure this metaphor works. Secondly, two young lovers who hide their romance from bickering parents does not a Shakespearean adaptation make. Thirdly, no one dies. Where is the happy dagger? Where is the grave man?

Now, I know I should have known better – I always should know better, but the earnest Shakespearean scholar in me thought I might give this a chance for the sake of research. So putting my ninety minutes to use, this yawning horse show is getting filed under “adaptations that allude to Bill S. but in fact are completely unrelated.”

Besides the curious title, which seems to endorse bestiality, the movie tries to capitalize on the timeless tale of forbidden young love with one of its own. City girl Juliet (Nadine Crocker) gets hauled to the countryside following the death of her grandfather, and her new environs do not agree with her – because hello, no cell coverage and what is that fresh air smell? But lucky for her, there’s a barn dance the very next night, and who does she meet but her gentle Romeo Monty (Zeb Halsell). Hands touch, eyes meet, sudden silence, sudden heat – wait, wrong fantasy. But hearts do leap in a giddy whirl, one that’s immediately quashed by Juliet’s mom, Karen (Krista Allen)

This Lady Capulet will not stand by as the nephew of her avowed enemy woos her daughter with his cool country ways. And Lord Montague (Tim Abell), well he’s not just the cowboy who supervised Karen’s dad’s ranch all these years while she was off writing saucy romance novels. Hugh wants a share of the property and, more importantly, a second chance with his old girlfriend.

I can accept this twist on warring houses and in fact think it makes the classic love story more compelling, but this isn’t exactly challenging TV. Karen and Hugh are a world apart from Juliet and Monty; they’re living in a Lifetime movie while the young’uns inhabit a poorly scripted CW spinoff. We’re only reminded that one story has bearing on the other when Karen checks in to make sure her daughter’s having quality alone time with her horse Rodeo and not her man Romeo. Those wanting a countrified Shakespeare will find only a scant two acts from the bard’s play, and those wanting an engaging romance shouldn’t be watching bad TV in the first place.

But if you want some rural landscapes, say because you grew up next to a soybean field and now live in a 250’ flat in Hong Kong, then by all means pop this on while you’re doing the ironing. There were plenty of open fields and tree-lined ranches to sate my country soul. I also gave the movie a single point for including a black character, a wide-eyed rodeo girl who takes on a Nurse/Friar Laurence role. Otherwise, seek out quality Romeo and Juliet adaptions. Even the one about garden gnomes is better than this.

Released: 2015
Dir: Thadd Turner
Writer: Stephen Beck, Harry Cason
Cast: Tim Abell, Krista Allen, Nadine Crocker, Zeb Halsell, Ariel Lucas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Up TV
Reviewed: 2017