romance

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

Love in Winterland (2020)

Love in Winterland is a hot mess, which is ironic because everything from the setting to the characters is so damn frosty. Everyone seems to be acting in a different movie or not at all, and the writers can’t figure out what story they want to tell. It’s a failed effort all around and makes Hallmark’s other Bachelor-inspired movie, My One and Only, look like a masterclass in film craft.

The problems are evident from the start when dishy bachelor Tanner (Jack Turner) chooses Ally (Italia Ricci) to go on a final hometown date. Neither, however, looks thrilled to be there, staring dead-eyed into the camera during what should be a moment of high drama. Ally makes it clear that she’s signed on to this dating show to promote her hotel chain, a bold move that goes above and way beyond her prescribed duties as manager. It’s not as if she owns the company, and anyway, advertisements exist last I checked. Her boss and the producer go along though as if this was the normal way of doing business. Meanwhile, international man of mystery Tanner seems a bit too retiring to subject himself to reality show scrutiny, later revealing that he was set up by friends.

So who thought two disinterested singles would make compelling dating show contestants? Not the writers of this movie apparently. To be fair, Tanner is a brighter presence; Turner has a definite joie de vivre to him, and I felt sorry watching him temper his natural charm to match the film’s dull mood. Ricci, on the other hand, sucks the life out of her character. I know the actor just gave birth and probably couldn’t wait to finish the scene and feed her baby or sleep, which I get, but she also looks like this is exactly what’s going through her mind.

So it doesn’t help when the third side of this disconnected triangle also goes for nonchalant, playing things a little too cool and cynical. Chad Michael Murray completes the set as Brett, Ally’s ex-boyfriend and the guy she can’t quit, mostly because he still hangs out with her parents every weekend. He has some roguish appeal, but if it’s a choice between sweet British dude and sarcastic childhood friend, I know who I’m picking. Then again, I’m not the one on a televised hometown date. Ally gets a fresh perspective on who and what she wants when she returns to tiny Winterland, Vermont for the first time in years. Something about competing in the chili championship and enjoying some lights festival help her realize what she’s been missing all this time she’s been climbing the management ladder.

The movie isn’t just about valuing your tiny hometown though. Instead, it toggles between multiple storylines without ever settling on one overriding narrative. Love in Winterland begins as a reality show love triangle and then moves onto a story about saving the family business before making a late pivot into Ally’s career frustrations. The film could have incorporated all of these elements, but the writers’ room seems to channeling the dynamic of their own characters. Everyone writes their own bit that doesn’t connect with anything else to create a coherent story.

Alt Title: Alice in Winterland
Released: 2020
Dir: Pat Williams
Writer: Neal H. Dobrofsky, Tippi Dobrofsky
Cast: Italia Ricci, Chad Michael Murray, Jack Turner, Aliyah O’Brien, Wanda Cannon, Michael Kopsa, Brittney Wilson, Serge Houde, Edwin Perez, Trish Allen
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020