romance

Royal Matchmaker (2018)

From star Bethany Joy Lenz’s chic outfits to my favorite supporting actress Brittany Baristow to the fairy tale Romanian filming location, there’s enough to enjoy about this movie that one can forgive its lackluster story and characters. Lenz plays Kate, matchmaker to the stars, who gets an assignment of a lifetime when King Edward of Voldavia (Simon Dutton) enlists her help to find his son a date for the jubilee ball. She and her assistant (Baristow) have one month to match Prince Sebastian (Will Kemp) with a lady of noble blood, a big ask but a job that comes with posh digs at the royal residence

It’s not overstating things to say that Romania makes a magical Voldavia. It has all the grandeur and quaintness that Americans love in their European kingdoms, both real and imagined. Hallmark takes full advantage of the location shoot and features things like castles backlit by the moonlight and narrow cobblestoned village roads. We get fancy interior shots as well, whether it’s the ballroom, dining room, or even the boiler room. The setting makes quite the contrast from the channel’s usual backdrop of small town America.

I can’t help but think the scenery is doing a lot of the heavy lifting though. The story isn’t bad by any means, but I was hoping for something more worthy of its location. Kate and Sebastian get off to a predictably rocky start; she’s pushy, he’s arrogant, and both are determined to get their way. Kate knows that she can break through the prince’s cynicism and help him not only find love but treasure it as well. Sebastian is equally set on proving that happiness lies in his independence and perhaps his affinity for cars.

The story takes a hands off approach just when it needs some intervention. The second act coasts on the warming relations between the two. The trouble is, Kate and Sebastian aren’t all that interesting when they aren’t together or when they’re just politely acknowledging one another. As the prince grows more receptive to the idea of finding love, we see his softer, more charitable side. There’s a secondary plot involving a crumbling community center that he shows an interest in, and it’s a project that also involves his loyal valet (Joseph Thompson).

However, the story is at its best when there’s real tension, when Sebastian’s flinty personality strikes at Kate’s own resoluteness. He isn’t exactly a Prince Charming on first meeting or the second, and their hostility is what sets things alight. Lenz and Kemp don’t have as much fire once their characters are more comfortable around each other. Kate and Sebastian do develop a friendly relationship, one where she delivers breakfast just to get the scoop on last night’s date, but they’re not together enough for that chummy feeling to rub off.

Released: 2018
Dir: Mike Rohl
Writer: Mark Amato
Cast: Bethany Joy Lenz, Will Kemp, Brittany Baristow, Simon Dutton, Joseph Thompson, Elva Trill, Poppy Roe, Woody Hamilton Hurst
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019

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My Secret Valentine (2018)

My Secret Valentine is dopey, loose with plot details, and features almost no people of color, all par for the course when it comes to Hallmark. But the movie also has two actors who leverage what they have and make the most out of a predictable story. Not content with the average “family business owner couples with the guy trying to buy her out” storyline, the filmmakers throw in an additional plot device – secret pen pals à la Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail. Well, it works because this one hits the sweet spot. It comes down to everyone in the production knowing exactly what they need to deliver and how to do it.

We can start with the setting, which is Oregon but actually some gorgeous countryside near Toronto. Though the story takes place in February, at least some of this movie was filmed in a few months earlier. No matter because the result is beautiful fall colors. They complement the sunsets and lush vineyards that are worthy supporting characters.

One could easily imagine a respected family winery hidden here, such as Grange Family Wines. The winery has been around for decades, but the current owner, Truman (Peter MacNeill), is on the verge of retirement and his daughter hopes to establish herself in Portland’s restaurant scene instead of taking over for him. Nevertheless, Chloe (Lacey Chabert) returns home, only to find that her father is thinking about selling the business to a boxed wine company.

Seth (Andrew Walker) is this self-styled trendy wine company’s rep, confident he can secure a deal and thus his promotion to vice president all in two days. He doesn’t count on butting heads with Chloe, who selfishly wants her dad to keep the winery without thinking about who would run the place. It takes Seth a little longer than expected to win over Truman, however, and in that time, Chloe and the winery start to win over him.

The movie could have easily stuck to the bare minimum and worked off Chloe and Seth’s initial dislike and opposing goals for Grange Wines. It would have been enjoyable as is, but the secret pen pal twist is also a welcome addition. Seth unknowingly rents a cottage belonging to Chloe’s family, and the tenant and landlord start leaving cute notes to one another, not realizing they also kind of hate each other. It doesn’t change the story’s trajectory, but it allows for a little more drama when they decide to meet.

This isn’t the real secret to My Secret Valentine though. What is really surprising is that this is Chabert and Walker’s first project as a couple. The two are so natural together, and their chemistry allows for a lot of the funny, playful moments that make this film stand out. Walker delivers some quality dork moments, especially when Seth and Chloe are trying to sell Grange Wines to local businesses. One of the movie’s best scenes is when Seth adopts what I hope is a purposely awful Texas accent and a shocked but amused Chloe has to roll with it. The two actors have an instinctive knack for one another, and each is willing to give as much as they get. They’re a believable couple but, more importantly, a couple I’d like to see more of.

Released: 2018
Dir: Bruno Rocca, Bradley Walsh
Writer: Carrie Freedle
Cast: Lacey Chabert, Andrew Walker, Peter MacNeill, Tara Yelland, Catherine Burdon
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019

Date with Love (2016)

There’s nothing Hallmark won’t try, except promoting people of color as leads, featuring LGBTQ relationships, casting actors with disabilities, so that means they’re definitely willing to take on internet fads that should die. Date with Love is Hallmark’s twist on promposals, those viral videos posted by high schoolers hoping to win a date with an older, richer famous hot person for prom, a strange, strange American ritual.

David Rogers (Quinn Lord, possibly the brother-son of Frankie Muniz and Grant Gustin) is that guy, the one who isn’t one of the cool kids but who really wants to join their number. Since prom is coming up and he’s been rejected more times than he can count, he takes the next logical step and reaches out via YouTube to Hollywood star Alex Allen (Shenae Grimes-Beech). He hopes that everyone will accept him once he has a popular and beautiful actor by his side.

Everything about this idea is horrible. Not only does David want to use Alex to prop up his own self-worth, he also ignores his best friend, Heidi (Bailee Madison). She’s been crushing on him for years, and though she says she doesn’t want to participate in that superficial prom shit, she just wishes he would ask her out. Alex, meanwhile, or rather Alex’s publicist (Andrea Brooks), thinks using an unpopular kid’s gamble to help her client’s career is a great idea. Thankfully Andrew Walker is here to distract from this unethical mess. Vincent, the school’s English and driver’s ed teacher (budget cuts are a bitch), tries to bring everything back to balance. He counsels his misguided student while also bringing some normalcy and calm to Alex’s life.

It’s a delight to see Grimes-Beech, whom I watched on Degrassi when I was way too old to be watching that show, and her glow-up is one I’m still waiting for. Alex isn’t a memorable character, but she is equal parts funny and compassionate, and sometimes that’s enough for Hallmark. I loved seeing her try to guide Heidi through this confusing and often frustrating part of a teenager’s life, and I wish the relationship between those two had been the focus. Of course, I’ll never object to anything with Walker, whatever the pairing, but Alex and Vincent’s romance is more of the same. They bicker, then they reflect, then they take back their words, and then they realize they belong together. Can we not get a different dynamic going, something more along the lines of Alex and Heidi?

Released: 2016
Dir: Ron Oliver
Writer: Brook Durham
Cast: Shenae Grimes-Beech, Andrew Walker, Bailee Madison, Quinn Lord, Andrea Brooks, Caroline Cave, Milli Wilkinson, Raugi Yu
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019

A Winter Princess (2019)

Just because Hallmark can make countless movies about princes and princesses doesn’t mean it should. Case and point – A Winter Princess – a movie that shows we’ve reached some sort of end stage civilization. It’s not even the worst of the genre (have you seen Ion), but it seems like Hallmark is giving up. When “Landora” is all you’ve got for your fictional European kingdom, then it’s time to change things around, like maybe hire more writers of color for starters. (I would never be so lazy with my made-up European countries.)

Something tells me we’re going to keep chugging along this road to nowhere though since this movie is as unimaginative and laughable as all the others. It does, however, have the distinction of featuring an American princess when we’re used to seeing British-adjacent princes. Technically, Princess Carlotta (Natalie Hall) is Landorian but girl has an American accent, American mannerisms, and an American blowout, and all because of a few years at boarding school. Sure.

At least this makes for a good undercover guise. “Carly” wants to experience life outside the limelight and without the pressures that come with her royal title, so she’s been working at a ski resort in Colorado. When her dad, King Kristof (Mackenzie Gray), calls her home though, she has to say goodbye to this low-key lifestyle, one she’s grown to love. It also means abandoning her job just as the resort is about to celebrate its fiftieth birthday. She doesn’t want to go against her father’s wishes, but she also doesn’t want to miss out on the Snow Ball. Girl, who would?

Carly arranges to stay for a few more days and hand the planning over to her boss’s brother, Jesse (Chris McNally). She knows she’s made the right decision when he turns out to be dreamy and devoted to his family, but wait – who are these two guys who suddenly show up at the resort requesting buckwheat pillows? It seems like Carly’s not the only one in Landora with ideas of escaping to Colorado; her twin brother, Prince Gustav (Casey Manderson), and their friend (and possibly cousin?), Prince Emile (Brendon Zub), also want a taste of the gap year life before deciding their next royal step.

To be honest, this was the couple I was really invested in. Sure, Gustav and Emile might not have been a pair, but you’re not going to convince me that these two squeaky Canadian lads with matching sweaters and shit awful accents (Zub’s is slightly better) wouldn’t have made a delicious duo. Both actors seem to be having a good time with their slightly off-center characters, and that’s a sure plus. Anyway, this is the Hallmark movie I really want.

Instead, we’re treated to the perfunctory romance between Carly and Jesse. Like so many Hallmark couples, they fade into the story. There’s nothing bad to say about them but there’s nothing worth noting either, except that I adore Carly’s white Snow Ball cape. Again, I only have eyes for Gustav and Emile, and we can put the other two in their proper place, which is the supporting role.

Released: 2019
Dir: Allan Harmon
Writer: Erinne Dobson
Cast: Natalie Hall, Chris McNally, Lara Gilchrist, Casey Manderson, Brendon Zub, Mackenzie Gray, Kazumi Evans, Lossen Chambers
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019

Valentine Ever After (2016)

It’s not great when you can’t remember a single detail about a movie a mere twenty-four hours after watching it, but that’s how much of an impact Valentine Ever After made on me. In fairness, I have a shit memory, but don’t discount the unspectacular story and the even less thrilling title. Seriously, what does “valentine ever after” even mean? Nothing, if we’re talking about the context of this film, which takes place on a faltering dude ranch in a Wyoming poke hole.

Autumn Reeser plays Julia, a soon-to-be lawyer who is about to enter the family firm. After her rich boyfriend, Gavin (Damon Runyan), pops the question in public, an overwhelmed Julia takes a spontaneous holiday with her rich friend, Sydney (Vanessa Matsui), to regain her bearings. Just hours into their vacation, however, they get in a scuffle that destroys the town’s beloved statue, which has been mounted in the safest, most reverent of all places – the local bar. Forced to do community service to atone for this grievous crime, they come to see a different side of Wyoming.

Julia and Sydney end up at the house of Ben Thomas (Eric Johnson) and his mom (Carolyn Scott), whose place was once on the verge of becoming a tourist spot. But their dreams of transforming their home into a dude ranch and retreat faltered during the recession, and they haven’t been able to recover. The two city slickers lend a hand with ranch work, and after that doesn’t pan out, they help at the hospital. When they learn that the hospital needs a financial boost as well, Julia and Sydney cook up some ideas to fundraise, which is no big deal because these ladies are loaded.

I wish there was something, anything to highlight, but this movie is just not that exciting. I suppose one positive is that it wasn’t so boring that I had to stop watching, and that’s probably thanks to Reeser, who always gives a dedicated performance. It’s that same old trope though – girl gets arrested, falls for a handsome local, and figures out what she really wants in life. Okay, perhaps not the usual start to a romance, and the fish-out-of-water scenario provided a few comic scenes. But it also traded a lot on Sydney making a damn fool of herself and giving city folk a bad name, which we know Hallmark is always game for. A more dynamic co-lead might have kicked this one up a notch, but Johnson is not much of a foil to Reeser. He hits his marks but easily disappears into the background, having hit the “nice but bland” sweet spot.

Released: 2016
Dir: Don McBrearty
Writer: Alana Smithee
Cast: Autumn Reeser, Eric Johnson, Vanessa Matsui, Damon Runyan, Ron Lea, Carolyn Scott, Jeff Clarke
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2019