TV movie

Angel in the Family (2004)

Hallmark didn’t come to play with this movie. It was an unexpected tearjerker, for me at least, and I’ve never related more to something so dripping with sentimentality. My Dish info described this as “a mildly saccharine, high-concept Yuletide drama,” and it is right on all accounts. A story about a long-dead mother who comes back as an angel to help patch up her family during Christmas, it’s both mawkish and moving. I could feel myself being manipulated by the minute and yet also powerless to resist the narrative machinations. It might make a difference that this is my first Christmas at home in years and that my family’s been separated by oceans for over a decade and that every Christmas decoration reminds me of some warm childhood memory and that I would also like to see my long-dead dad. But then again, it might just be a satisfying movie.

The film relies on some tried and true characters and plotlines. A fractured family threatens to disintegrate completely when father Buddy (Ronny Cox) suffers a stroke. He’s been living with his eldest daughter, Sarah (Tracey Needham), an artist going nowhere fast, and it’s not clear that a major health crisis is going to bring them closer. Buddy’s younger daughter, Beth (Natasha Gregson Wagner), isn’t eager to travel halfway across the country either when her life is going swimmingly. A trip home would disrupt her work and mean a visit with the sister she’s never liked anyway.

These broken relationships form the basis of many holiday stories, some of which also get a supernatural assist. Matriarch Lorraine (Meredith Baxter) sees her family in disarray and gets permission from whoever’s in charge of these things to return in human form, but only until Christmas Day. She hopes that her reappearance will help them to overcome years of hurt and misunderstandings and recover the love they once felt for each other.

You can see how things could get schmaltzy in a hurry. Buddy insists on returning to the family home, which happens to be a gorgeous lakefront property surrounded by mountains, and memories both happy and painful come flooding back. Lorraine’s Christmas surprise only heightens these emotions. The movie balances things out though with some unexpected humor. Besides Sarah’s hysteric, and totally reasonable, reaction to seeing her mother again, Lorraine is sometimes nonchalant about the whole ordeal. She goes on baking pies for the family and decorating for the holidays and even gets a little petty about an old meatloaf recipe.

Baxter navigates the funny and the serious with ease, bringing a light touch to her character and the film. Lorraine is like many mothers; her love is gentle and generous, but it’s also sometimes misused or misplaced. I guess being an angel will force you to confront your failings, and her honesty gives the rest of the family permission to voice the pain and regret that they had kept bottled up all these years. A lot of us can tap into those feelings and to the characters’ imperfection. Needham and Gregson Wagner also give relatable performances. One is the sister for whom nothing seems to work out while the other coasts through life without a worry. Both, however, are selfish in her own way and also share a deep loneliness.

The movie allows all these complicated emotions to come to the fore without being overshadowed by a silly plot device. It’s honest about grief, which doesn’t necessarily fade or get easier with time and which can swallow us whole. Instead, the story acknowledges that losing the people we love hurts, even if those people hurt us, but there’s also a way to move forward.

Released: 2004
Dir: Georg Stanford Brown
Writer: Duane Poole
Cast: Meredith Baxter, Ronny Cox, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Tracey Needham, John Pyper-Ferguson, Tess Harper
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

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Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas (2018)

Hallmark movies come from many different sources. Some are inspired by books or real life, some come out of the Hallmark writers’ room, and some, I imagine, are drawn from a hat at a drunken office party. This one comes by way of singer Blake Shelton and his mother, whose similarly titled song led to a novel about some of their memories and forms the basis for the story.

Time for Me to Come Home for Christmas is not about the country artist, but it is about a country artist. Heath Sawyer (Josh Henderson), sometimes called Lee, is a big deal, so much so that he tours in Shanghai, and I’ve never seen any country star touring in China. Unfortunately, he hasn’t released new material in awhile and generally feels like he’s hit a wall in life. A lot of that has to do with his father’s recent death, which makes going home for the holidays difficult. A phone call from his mom and sister, however, convinces him to brave a blizzard and fly back to Oklahoma from New York.

Cara Hill (Megan Park) also happens to be heading in the same direction. Having failed to secure a loan for her family’s natural preserves business, at least one that doesn’t require her to lay off half her employees, she’s wary of spoiling the holidays by returning with bad news. In addition, it’s the first Christmas since her mother’s death, and that means she and her father will be alone, albeit in a huge, elegant house.

The blizzard puts a crimp into both Heath and Cara’s plans, and their flight gets cancelled and rerouted until they have no choice but to find their own way back to Tulsa. If this movie was anything close to real life, there would be a lot of screaming, cursing, and crying, but Hallmark delivers fantasy, and the two instead find friendship and possibly love. They get many chances to admire each others’ personality and talents through conversation and a few eventful pit stops. Cara, who doesn’t recognize the musician at first, finds a down-to-earth singer in Heath, and he sees in her a willful and creative head of a company.

It’s too bad that the friendly mood gets interrupted by a lazy climax. Cara’s proposal to boost the company’s profits with a new line of signature candy bars causes a minor chain of overreactions. There seem to be a lot of these one-minute climax/denouement scenarios lately, though it might just be my lowered tolerance for bad storytelling. The ending is somewhat salvaged by Henderson’s performance of the title song, and the movie would not hurt from more singing overall.

That would certainly distinguish the movie from similar ones, but at least this has Parks. She’s becoming one of my favorite actresses on Hallmark, and I will trade five Candace Cameron Bures for one Park, if that’s how things work. Her characters tend to be soft-spoken but steely, and she doesn’t give off a sense of overperforming. Likewise, Henderson has an Oklahoma kid look about him, showing off his character’s small town sensibility more than his music star aura. Park, however, always draws the attention back to her, which is just enough for me to appreciate this movie.

Released: 2018
Dir: David Winning
Writer: Shem Bitterman, Marcy Holland
Cast: Megan Park, Josh Henderson, Paul McGillion, Susan Hogan, Eric Keenleyside, Enid-Raye Adams, Bernadette Beck, Ellen Kennedy, Tom McBeath
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

Royal Hearts (2018)

When it comes to America-girl-meets-royal plots, I wish Hallmark would color outside the lines a bit. By now, we all know how these color-by-number stories go. A fresh, young American unwittingly falls in love with the crown prince of a tiny European country and must decide whether she’s willing to sacrifice career and country for love (she does). Royal Hearts gives the plotline a fresh twist though, and even if it’s not my favorite royal-themed movie, what makes it enjoyable is what it does differently from everything else in the genre.

Instead of blindly setting off to a foreign country and bumping into the hot local/prince, Kelly (Cindy Busby) knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s getting into, well almost. An English lit teacher, she knows a thing or two about history and wouldn’t dream of traveling somewhere without first reading a book. This is reassuring and should happen more in movies. So when she finds out that her dad has inherited the crown of tiny Merania, she convinces him to jet over to Europe and claim the throne, or at least use the opportunity to learn more about their family history.

The problem is, Kelly’s dad is James Brolin, and James Brolin is a cattleman who wears cowboy boots, a John Wayne hat, and a huge ass belt buckle. He has no business going to Europe, where people live in castles and drink warm beer. Hank, as he’s called, is not the most well drawn character, and when in doubt, the writers default to stereotype. The guy likes, probably in this order, horses, cows, and fish, he likes barbecue, and he likes fixing things with his hands. He also likes speaking in short, simple sentences. What he doesn’t like are fancy titles, servants with names like Bosworth or Grimsby, and fixing things with his brains. He especially doesn’t like those damn book things his daughter’s always banging on about.

Merania does rub off on Hank eventually, thanks to hot young stablehand, Alex (Andrew Cooper), and American barmaid Joan (Glynis Barber). Both show Hank that the tiny country doesn’t have to be so different from his home in Montana and that he can use his ranching experience to help his new subjects. That Hank even has subjects and that he looks so magnificently out of place with his bolo tie at a state dinner oddly endears me to him. He may be portrayed as a joke, but the very qualities that people would scoff at, like his earthiness and practicality, are what make him a loving dad. I’ll also admit that national pride is at stake when King Hank faces off with neighboring monarch, King Nikolas (Lachlan Nieboer).

The latter, ruler of Angosia, figures into several plotlines, and one of the movie’s strengths is that it moves beyond romance; the story also tangles with political intrigue and digs into a tense father-daughter relationship. Kelly, now a princess, likes her prospects with the handsome Nikolas, but her decisions, as well as those of her father, will affect more than their personal lives. Merania’s independence is also at stake, and if Hank abdicates, the land will be ceded back to Angosia. Also, Alex is making eyes at her, so tough decisions.

The story worked well enough that I didn’t mind the lack of chemistry between the two leads. Busby, who played another Jane Austen-quoting English teacher in Hallmark’s Mr. Darcy films, might as well have walked off those sets and into this one. Kelly shares many of the same qualities as Elizabeth, and she’s as comfortable around the arrogant Nikolas as she is around the Mr. Knightley-like Alex. Brolin, meanwhile, looks like he’s walked off an actual ranch into a movie ranch. Hank is appropriately awkward with Nikolas and at ease with Alex, maybe because they’re surrounded by animals and hay. When Busby and Brolin come together though, it’s like they’re acting at rather than with each other. It’s hard to believe they ever shared a home, in part because Busby doesn’t convince that she’s her father’s daughter, a little bit of a cowgirl at heart.

Released: 2018
Dir: James Brolin
Writer: Robin Bernheim, Kerry Lenhart
Cast: James Brolin, Cindy Busby, Andrew Cooper, Lachlan Niebohr, Martin Wimbush, Howard Crossley, Glynis Barber, Olivia Nita
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2018

Christmas in Angel Falls (2017)

I deleted Christmas in Angel Falls once from my DVR without watching it because the recorder was at 100% and sacrifices had to be made. But then I recorded it a second time because I got greedy and had a bad case of Hallmark FOMO. My punishment was to watch the dull movie all the way to its conclusion. Now if only Christmas in Angel Falls could disappear from my memory like its main character is supposed to do after she completes each mission.

The people that guardian angel Gabby Messenger (Rachel Boston) helps would probably want to remember her though. She floats into people’s lives during rough patches and gets involved, often too involved. By heavenly protocol, angels are there to guide, not to interfere, but Gabby can’t help her holy self and wreaks havoc on people’s free will. After her latest infraction, her supervisor, Michael (Beau Bridges), sends her to Angel Falls, thinking that she’ll have less chance to screw things up if she’s charged with helping a whole town rather than just one person. She takes on the guise of a volunteer coordinator and tries to bring the Christmas spirit back to a place that’s been devastated by the loss of a local paper mill.

The story of an angel to the rescue is a cute, Christmasy idea, one that’s very on theme. There are plenty of heavenly nods and overtures to peace and good will. A good chunk of the movie takes place in and around the church, which is, or was, a place of community. Gabby’s attempts to bring people together in love and support also yields dividends, even if it takes awhile. The people in Angel Falls soon find themselves rediscovering old friendships and memories and realize that none of them need to struggle alone.

The film pushes its audience in the right direction towards a big bucket of holiday feels, but it’s not successful in keeping them on that path. There are many characters, each representing some common predicament or feeling – the young girl who wants to enjoy Christmas but whose parents are too busy to celebrate, the teen who tries to celebrate her father’s memory while also grieving him, the woman who doesn’t want to be separated from her son on Christmas Day. Each one tells a moving story, but once they’re off-screen, it’s easy to forget about them. I never found myself invested enough in Angel Falls as a whole to cheer them on to success.

Even main mortal, Jack (Paul Greene), gets stiffed on character development. The town’s literal Jack-of-all-trades, he serves as the volunteer fire chief, the owner of the hardware store, and all-around good guy. He’s Gabby’s first friend in Angel Falls and acts as her guide, but it’s not until the second half of the movie that we start to see him as something more than the super nice, handsome single dude.

Gabby doesn’t come into her own until much later either. She spends a long period on autopilot, cheerily convincing people to volunteer but with little luck. Boston is relentlessly optimistic, as I suppose angels are, so on the one hand, she seems very much in character. At the same time, Gabby is not picking up on everyone else’s lack of Christmas spirit and her constant prodding comes off as pushy. The character gets an emotional last-minute scene that changed my feelings about her, but it also had me wishing she faced some more existential conflict throughout her stay in Angel Falls.

Released: 2017
Dir: Bradley Walsh
Writer: David Golden
Cast: Rachel Boston, Paul Greene, Beau Bridges, Allison Hossack, Bill Lake, Ehren Kassam, Andrew Moodie, Jill Frappier, Lisa Repo-Martell, Jeff Geddis, Natalie Lisinka, Hattie Kragten
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

A Royal Winter (2017)

Hallmark’s not going to rest until there’s a royal romance for every time of year, and this time it’s winter in Calpurnia, where a New York girl meets a dashing king-to-be. The story goes, as it always does, that freshly minted lawyer Maggie (Merritt Patterson) takes a two week break to the tiny European kingdom and unknowingly falls for Prince Adrian (Jack Donnelly), whom she meets when he nearly mows her down with his motorcycle. The trip was meant as an escape since she’s reconsidering her career before it even starts. Maggie feels pressure from her father and the prestigious law firms to which she’s applying to be ambitious attorney, the kind who will give up volunteer commitments so that she can spend every waking hour in the office. Needless to say, she’s not smitten with the idea.

Two weeks away can do a person good though, especially in a fantasy kingdom in a Hallmark movie. I didn’t realize there were so many of these small English-speaking countries with a functioning monarchy in continental Europe, but damn, here they are. Calpurnia looks strangely like Romania, which I’ll take it because it’s gorgeous and like a scene from a 1000 piece puzzle. It’s no wonder that Maggie and her friend, Sarah (Rhea Bailey), are swept away by the beauty of the place, and the people.

Both have no clue that Adrian is the prince. After all, it’s an established fact that young American women don’t know a thing about world affairs because they keep dating crown princes only to be shocked when he reveals his royal position. Maggie might have gotten through law school, but she couldn’t Google some basic facts about her vacation destination. Her ignorance allows her to form her own views about these Calpurnian men though, and she decides she likes them, particularly the ones who volunteer as volleyball coaches and choir directors at a children’s center.

It’s all fun and games for Maggie and Adrian until the queen mother enters the picture and tries to end their relationship. Think of tradition and our royal image ffs. Please, not that American lawyer. At least this is how she conveyed her thoughts in my head. Queen Beatrice (Samantha Bond) has a point though because her son’s coronation is days away, and he’s off motorcycling through the tiny alleys of Calpurnia with another tourist. According to my extensive knowledge of coronation prep from The Crown, this is not how things are supposed to work.

One of the best parts of this movie is Bond as Queen Bea. She makes a frosty royal with just enough camp to signal that she’ll play along with these American games and enjoy her role as a vaguely British monarch if it sates our appetite. The other actors don’t fare as well, but I liked them enough to not dislike them. Of all the fake princes, I’d rank Adrian and Donnelly somewhere in the middle; the character is a youthful charmer but doesn’t cut it as king material. I believe that he can run a kids’ rec center but I’m not so sure about the kingdom since Donnelly still has the look from his Atlantis days when he played the hapless Jason. As for Patterson, she gives Maggie an innocence and kindness that makes her easy to sympathize with but she’s not a very compelling character.

It’s up to the location once again to make up for deficits in storytelling and character development. A Royal Winter doesn’t make a big ado about the coronation and there’s no scheming aristocratic ex-girlfriend to take up air, so the story is about career choices more than anything, including romance. I will not object if Hallmark decides to film more mindless prince and princess movies in Romania though. The castle atop a snowy mountain, the colorful village in the foothills, the narrow cobblestone streets – Calpurnia is exactly how I’ve always pictured it.

Released: 2017
Dir: Ernie Barbarash
Writer: Ernie Barbarash
Cast: Merritt Patterson, Jack Donnelly, Samantha Bond, Rhea Bailey, Cian Barry, Ryan Ellsworth
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2018