romance

No Time Like Christmas (2019)

The Christmas movie season is long, like my neighbors still have their Halloween decorations out long, but I think we have a winner for the worst holiday movie of the year. You literally should not spend any time on this unless you enjoy being tortured by painfully bad acting. My mom and I couldn’t even make it to the halfway mark before turning it off, though I did eventually finish watching it at three o’clock in the morning.

For once, the problem doesn’t lie with the story. The script isn’t great, but the movie could easily be an average holiday feature, background noise for when you’re baking pies and such. Emma (Kyla Pratt) is a copywriter who lands a plum assignment just before Christmas. If she can put together a stellar campaign for a watch company, she’ll definitely get a promotion in the new year. Her plans to work through the holidays at her sister’s place in Vermont change, however, when she learns that said sister is passing her off to the local B&B instead.

The reason? Emma’s ex-boyfriend, Fletcher (Edward Ruttle), is in town to direct The Christmas Carol and happens to be staying at The Exact Same Inn. Surprise, suckas. The two set aside their awkwardness with the help of Fletcher’s daughter, Lola (Sophia Bachart), whose enthusiasm puts everyone at ease. Soon the former couple back to their old creative ways. He finds inspiration to write a brand new play, which he will cast, rehearse, and perform in one week, and she agrees to lend a hand with original music. It’s like the old days, until an actress and a mistaken email attachment screw things up.

One can forgive the occasional odd plot point and the overuse of the clichéd time motif, but it takes a lot of willpower to get through the acting. I’m sorry to Kyla Pratt because she is really trying here. In this film though, she’s channeling the part of fun auntie on a Disney Channel show, a role she would kill by the way, and it’s just not the right fit. Ruttle has a better feel for his character, but his acting suffers as well. I think what I’m getting at is fire the casting director because there is zero chemistry between our supposed lovers. You might as well put a damn mountain between the two; there is no meeting in the middle. Secondary characters Thomas (Rothaford Gray), painter-innkeeper-mayor extraordinaire, and Katherine (Marina Stephenson Kerr), Fletcher’s mom, look more loved up just holding hands.

There is exactly one scene that might save this misbegotten project. It occurs at the end, so the film may be too far gone, but it’s the debut of Emma’s new song. Holy timepieces, Pratt sings the hell out of it. They should have just turned this into a musical with Pratt performing holiday standards. If you’re feeling generous, that might be what saves the film. Better to end on a high note than none at all.

Released: 2019
Dir: Jeff Beesley
Writer: Carley Smale
Cast: Kyla Pratt, Edward Ruttle, Sophia Bachart, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Jade Michael,Rothaford Gray, Jim O’Heir
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2019

Merry-In-Laws (2012)

Meeting the in-laws is one thing, but when your in-laws are Mr. and Mrs. Claus… Meeting the in-laws is one thing, but when your in-laws are Mr. and Mrs. Spencer, it’s a different kind of headache. I’d rather learn that my fiancé’s mom and pop are magical people who bring joy to millions of children around the world than to find out they’re elitist control freaks who suck happiness, and sugar, out of life. Scientist Alex (Kassia Warshawski) looks to follow her brilliant father Steven’s (Greg Lawson) footsteps. He has long conditioned her to value order and knowable facts above all else, something her fiancé, Peter (Lucas Bryant), finds endearing. A kindergarten teacher whose strong suit is glitter crafts and school plays, he willingly takes Steven’s insults if it means spending his life with Alex and her son, Max (Jacob Thumeier).

The tension ratchets up when Mr. and Mrs. Claus (George Wendt and Shelley Long) visit right before the holidays. Peter has kept his family’s identity secret, suggesting that his parents are just really busy toy manufacturers in Alaska. That can only mean more deception, and sure enough, he has to hide the Claus’ souped up sleigh and their elf mechanic (Jessica Zhang) from his in-laws’ curious eye. Alex and her mom, Joyce (Barb Mitchell), are more forgiving of the Claus’ quirks though, and they open themselves up to the warmth of the holiday season. Joyce in particular finds a sympathetic friend in Mrs. C.

Mama Claus, I have to admit, could easily be a character in a Christmas horror film. Long’s hard helmet bob and perma-smile make her seem like a sentient robot. Joyce, however, sees a compassionate mother who also makes a mean gingerbread cookie. She needs a good girlfriend too because it’s not only Alex who feels oppressed by Steven’s sexist, domineering attitude. He makes everyone miserable, even shaming his daughter for getting pregnant at nineteen – at a major scientific conference. I don’t know, dude, but maybe be proud of her for attending this conference in the first place.

His bad behaviour only makes me more receptive to George Wendt Santa, who is as affable and kindly as you’d imagine. Wendt is very dad-like, in the best way, and shares some touching moments with hardened non-believers Max and Alex. The movie could have benefited from more magic, not the cookies-out-of-thin-air kind but the tingles-in-your-heart kind. The new family delivers, nevertheless, showing that a little more honesty and generosity can do wonders.

Released: 2012
Dir: Leslie Hope
Writer: Barbara Kymlicka
Cast: George Wendt, Shelley Long, Lucas Bryant, Kassia Warshawski, Jacob Thurmeier, Matty Finochio, Greg Lawson, Barb Mitchell, Chantal Perron, Jessica Zhang
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2019

A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas (2019)

A spot of winter cleaning this morning yielded some dollar store cat figurines, an inflatable picture frame, and a tube of skinny straws you use for making origami stars. All useless clutter taking up space for no reason at all…kind of like this Hallmark movie. A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas may not be a bad film but it is a pointless one, and not even Rachel Leigh Cook breathes life into the lifeless story. The actor has a talent for wrenching moments of wry humor from a script and does that here, but it’s still as mundane and cheerless as ever.

At the center of things is a wedding and a barn. Willow (Cook) is home to help her sister, Juni (Christie Burke), prepare for her marriage to Austin (Jesse Moss). A snowstorm forces them to look for a new venue, and Willow suggests the Eagle Ridge Inn, the hotel her parents built and her childhood home. It’s the ideal location but worst best man in the world, David (Benjamin Ayres), now owns the place and has nixed all weddings just because we must be some dramatic tension. On top of that, he’s thinking of selling the inn; he’s about to make partner at his law firm and finally realizes that two full-time jobs plus being a single father is a bit much. Willow proposes decorating the barn on her family’s substantial dime. He continues to resist, until he doesn’t.

There really isn’t anything more to say about this movie. Everything is pretty low stakes without great feelings of romance or celebration. Juni and Austin were going to get married one way or another, even if they didn’t get the ten Christmas trees they wanted. Willow was always going to come through for her sister; she’s persistent and, more importantly, has an unlimited budget. The only part of the story up in the air was whether or not David would go through with the sale, but again, that was inconsequential. His family, including his parents and daughter, were already resigned to the idea of leaving Eagle Ridge. Leaving would be a bummer, but staying would mean life as usual. Nor were there many sparks between the main couple. Willow politely wearing David down with her Christmas wedding vision doesn’t make for riveting TV. I think the only thing of interest was handyman Garrett (Billy Wickman), who kept popping onto the screen in weird close-ups. Why, Hallmark?

Released: 2019
Dir: David Winning
Writer: Rick Garman
Cast: Rachel Leigh Cook, Benjamin Ayres, Christie Burke, Chilton Crane, Jesse Moss, Lina Renna, Linden Banks, Billy Wickman, Jill Teed, Kwesi Ameyaw
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Christmas Reservations (2019)

There are at least 70 new Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies this year, and I’m guessing that Christmas Reservations is the only one to include Indian dancing. Dope move, Lifetime, the channel that’s always been ahead of its competitor on the diversity front. Even better, the dancing isn’t a weird, exotic feature but just another part of the characters’ Christmas celebrations. It’s a small but solid addition that gives me hope, which is more than I can say for the movie itself.

The film is an amateur mess of a project juggling too many characters and storylines. It also turns almost every warm moment into an awkward encounter thanks to some epically clunky dialogue. This isn’t one you’ll watch again when it inevitably re-airs several dozen times this season, and it’s a damn shame because the diversity has much to add to the usual proceedings. The worn-out Christmas-at-a-ski-lodge plot could have benefited from new perspectives, something this cast provides, but too often the movie settles for the silly and stereotypical.

The characters themselves are a curious set of personalities, and in the hands of a better director and writers, I’d sympathize with all of them. As things stand, however, they’re mostly rough sketches that act in certain ways to satisfy the plot. Holly (Melissa Joan Hart) is the closest we have to a main character. She runs the family resort with her father, Tom (Michael Gross), and though she likes helping out, she also feels trapped. The appearance of her old college flame, Kevin (Ricardo Chavira), and his two kids reminds her of life outside Treeline Lodge. Sisters Kay (Gigi Rice) and Tay (Markie Post) are two of their holiday guests. They look like twins but have opposing personalities, and only one of them is here for a good time. Preena (Nida Khurshid) and her dadi/grandmother (Mooni Fishburn) are visiting from India and Preena at least ends up getting close to a wide-eyed college student, Leo (Eric Grooms). Rounding out the group is washed up Olympic skier Duffy (Ted McGinley).

Once in awhile, the movie hints at a better story. It’s not often we see a timid woman on the cusp of retirement chatting with an overprotective Indian grandmother while warming themselves in front of a fire somewhere in the Adirondacks. The brief interaction between Tay and Dadi is a reminder of the kinds of stories that are possible when we broaden the lens. I much prefer seeing these two than watching Holly and Kevin figure out how and when they’re getting back together. Tay is fascinating to watch because of all that she holds back, and that makes any conversation with Dadi, who is not shy about sharing her opinion, ripe for exploration. We miss out on this rich material though because the film speeds through plot points when it should slow down for more conversation, preferably not between Holly and Kevin. In fact, I wouldn’t mind excising the two from the movie since there are at least 69 chances to see this kind of pairing just this year.

When you’re not daring and different, it’s easy to settle on stereotypes to keep your story afloat, which is how we end up with characters like Preena and Dadi. Theirs is a familiar tale of generational conflict, and that’s not a problem per se. Preena tricks her grandmother into taking her to this ski resort on the pretense of visiting U.S. colleges. The young woman can’t wait to dive into American culture, the highlight of which seems to be smores and a soak in the hot tub, but Dadi is not here for this freewheeling foreign shit. You can imagine a more nuanced story about a girl eager to gain a measure independence and explore the world and her grandmother who has a hard time letting go, but the movie instead depicts a foolish girl and an arrogant granny, both drawn in the broadest strokes possible.

Released: 2019
Dir: Deanne Foley
Writer: Juliet Giglio, Keith Giglio
Cast: Melissa Joan Hart, Ricardo Chavira, Michael Gross, Moonie Fishburn, Eric Grooms, Nida Khurshid, Ted McGinley, Markie Post, Gigi Rice
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2019

Sweet Mountain Christmas (2019)

I don’t like to admit that I’m a sucker for Christmas TV movies, but I’ll gladly own up to watching them when Broadway stars are involved. So it’s without shame that I share my love for Sweet Mountain Christmas, starring Megan Hilty of Wicked and Smash fame. It’s not the best film of the season (that would be Two Turtle Doves over at Hallmark – I don’t care that it’s still early November), but Hilty’s winning performance glosses over the story’s imperfections.

The actor plays Laney Blu, a Malibu-based country singer going through a rough patch. Her last few albums have flopped prompting her to pivot towards a pop sound, one that necessitates a wardrobe change and some tricky choreography. She’s scheduled to launch her latest song at a holiday extravaganza in New York City but manages to squeeze in a quick visit home before Christmas. That quick visit turns into a longer one when a storm hits and she gets into an accident with a snowplow, a snowplow that happens to be driven by her ex-boyfriend, Robbie (Marcus Rosner).

Unfortunately, there’s only one road in and out of Baxter Mountain, a “beautiful little snow globe of a town,” so Laney is trapped and will likely miss her show in New York. That’s great news for her mom (Teryl Rothery). She’s super excited that her daughter finally gets to spend more than one day at home, and I can relate because, well, my mom complained until I moved in with her. Laney finds that the rest of the town isn’t altogether thrilled about her return though. Aside from a few wide-eyed strangers, most of her old friends and acquaintances are ambivalent and feel like she abandoned the town long ago. But after Robbie puts her to work rounding up performers for a Christmas show, everyone begins to warm up to one another.

The movie sort of adopts one of those “small towns are better” plots. Laney comes home and discovers what she’s been missing all this time. As a rule, I hate these stories. They’re reductive and perpetuate a false narrative that cities are horrible and your far-flung podunk town represents all that is right in the world. I come from one of these towns and can tell you that all places kind of suck. Laney is not unaware of this. She reflects knowingly on how she would have been desperate to leave Baxter Mountain if she had stayed. That’s not her though, so now she just writes songs about people who are desperate to leave.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t lean too heavily into this, and her journey home is more of a way for Laney to get in touch with who she is as a musician. She doesn’t forsake her career and fame for Mr. Snowplow because she knows important life decisions are not so black and white. Without that needless wrangling, the story and characters have room to breathe. Sure, the supporting characters could be more dynamic and a subplot about developers building holiday homes gets dropped, but Hilty makes up for it. She gives Janey plenty of charm; the superstar is easy to like but also lets ego get in the way every now and then. Her snarky relationship with Robbie adds some crackle and pop too. My favorite moments though are when Hilty sings. Whether it’s a short, sweet rendition of “The First Noel” or that final number whose title I can’t find, her voice is a real holiday treat.

No trailer but here’s “The Christmas Song” from Hilty’s 2016 Christmas album:

Released: 2019
Writer: Gregg Rossen, Brian Sawyer
Cast: Megan Hilty, Marcus Rosner, Teryl Rothery, Brittney Wilson, Kate Isaac, Lina Renna, Sebastian Billingsley-Rodriguez, Latonya Williams
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2019