Monday, December 31, 2018


I guess I have time for one more Hallmark Christmas movie. This one manages to be thoroughly average in general while being below average in at least one area and above in another. Emilie Ullerup works as a freelance photographer, but she is hoping to get a regular gig at a Boston newspaper by winning a competition for best Christmas photo spread. It is suggested that she "find something we've never seen" and since she's heading to Cape Cod for her widowed father's marriage, she decides to make a Cape Christmas her theme. Though she is 100% behind her dad's new relationship, she is still dealing with grief over her mother’s death, especially when Mom was a gifted photographer and several of her photos still line the walls of a local gallery. She also comes to realize that she is conflicted about the promise of the Boston job—she would be settling down but might find herself creatively stifled. And finally, one last problem arises: the presence of a former summertime boyfriend (Josh Kelly) who lives on the Cape working in his family's real estate business but is considering a move to London for a new career.

This pretty much embodies the Hallmark template: successful woman facing a life change leaves big city at Christmas, goes to small town and finds guidance with family, new friends, and hunky down-to-earth guy. But this also illustrates how tired the conventions get, especially when Hallmark has produced 37 new movies this year—technically new, but mostly very familiar re-workings of the same old plot and character beats. Everything feels just a little too tired (yet another unrealistic Christmastime business competition rears its ugly head) and undeveloped, and the writer and director can't find anything new here except the Cape Cod setting—and already some viewers have expressed dismay that the movie was obviously shot in Canada and not the very recognizable real Cape Cod (though this didn't bother me). There is one new Hallmark aspect: an interracial couple is featured briefly, but not long enough to really register as an important plot point. I am of two minds about another problem: the lack of any real melodramatic conflict. On the one hand, it's a bit refreshing that the conflicts that exist are fairly low-key and there's no last-minute romantic obstacle in the form of a former boyfriend or girlfriend. On the other hand, the lack of tension makes the last half-hour go by awfully slowly to the inevitable happy ending. The main pluses here are the two leads. I'll watch Josh Kelly in almost anything—he has the sweet, non-threatening masculinity thing down pat. I'd never seen Emilie Ullerop before but she is right in the mold of the blond Hallmark heroine and she and Kelly have good chemistry. It's an odd note on which to end the holiday season: I feel lukewarm about this movie but I'd recommend it as a good intro into the Hallmark Christmas movie mindset. And, you know, Josh Kelly. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 27, 2018


Tom (Dermot Mulroney) used to be a war correspondent but now has settled down and writes human interest stories—on topics like he-and-she closets. Four days before Christmas, he is taking a train from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend Lelia. She's pissed that he isn't flying, but he's hoping to get a good story out of observing the people on the train. It's also clear that he isn't all that excited about seeing Lelia again. Also on the train: Max Powers (Danny Glover), a famous film director, and his faithful assistant and script doctor Eleanor (Kimberly Williams-Paisley); Misty, a friendly psychic; Agnes, an eccentric and occasionally nosy woman who is a regular train rider; young couple Steve and Julie who are planning a wedding on the train, despite Steve's parents objections; Higgins, an older, laid-off railroad worker; Kenny, a friendly bartender; and Kelly, a man still grieving his wife's death, trying to force himself to read Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." On the train, Max introduces Tom to Eleanor, hoping he can help her with a script about train travel, but it turns out that the two had a long-term relationship while they were both reporters; according to Tom, she left him in Jerusalem with no notice, and both still have scars from their shared past. Soon they seem to be striking sparks again, but the haughty and unlikeable Lelia joins the train at one of its stops, with marriage on her mind. Of course, other complications set in. Among them: a petty thief steals small but important items, like Julie's wedding ring, Kenny's railroad car model, and Tom's favorite pen; the minister who was supposed to marry Steve and Julie can't make it, and worse, Steve's parents are threatening to disown him; Agnes seems to be keeping a secret about her past. Then, on Christmas Eve, the train gets stuck in snow in the mountains, ruining everyone's hopes for a happy holiday. But can this delay actually help the passengers and their dilemmas?

This Hallmark Christmas movie is a little different from the usual. It's based on a book by best-selling author David Baldacci and it has slightly higher star power with the presence of Mulroney, Glover, and Cusack. Of course, the plot doesn't diverge too much from the Hallmark template: we still have the white upper-middle class couple who have to overcome their problems by Christmas day, the ethnic sidekicks (in addition to Glover, there's the African American psychic and the Chinese bartender), and plenty of snow and Christmas decorations. The plot is a bit quirkier than usual, with a twist ending that I liked at first, but later came to see as outlandish and a bit shoddy. The performances are good all around: the leading couple has good chemistry, Joan Cusack is amusing as Agnes, Anthony Konechny as Steve is a handsome All-American blond type, and Nelson Wong as Kenny is charming. Overall, a welcome deviation from formula, even if the formula reinstates itself by the end. Pictured from left are Williams-Paisley, Mulroney and Glover. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


Claire (Alexandra Breckenridge) is a venture capitalist whose latest IPO for a company called Mistletoe doesn't launch well. It's almost December and she has a lot of vacation time stacked up so to relax and recharge, she decides to take the month off and head to a small town of Glastenbury, Vermont, famous for its Christmas celebration. Her late mother talked a lot about her visits to the town, but the two of them never got to go together. When she gets to town, she discovers two things: 1) the bed & breakfast at which she is booked is above the Fortenbury Bookstore and part of the arrangement is that she will work as a kind of co-manager with Mrs. Tumulty, the manager (Jane Alexander) while she's there; 2) the town council has cancelled the Christmas displays because of a catastrophic flood earlier in the year, and the small business owners are all feeling a bit depressed because of the lack of tourists. Claire, being good at marketing, starts sprucing up the dusty bookstore and trying to get the town back in the Christmas spirit, and she makes a third discovery: Mrs. Tumulty's nephew, who owns the bookstore building, is a hunky blacksmith named Andrew (Jamie Spilchuk). Sparks fly between the two until she makes a fourth discovery: Andrew is selling the building to the head of the town council who plans on getting rid of the bookstore. By now, Claire has a lot invested in the store and she puts up a fight for its future.

The pluses of this Lifetime Christmas romance: Breckenridge and Spilchuk are easy on the eyes and have a nice rapport; the bookstore setting is fun (especially for me as I used to work in retail bookselling); two of the supporting characters are an Anglican priest and his African-American husband (and their new baby)! However, there are minuses: Jane Alexander, who I normally love, is wasted as her character is basically just an onlooker; the ending is rushed; and the plot is driven by what seems to me to be a ridiculously preposterous notion, that a B&B guest would be expected to help manage a retail establishment. I can't believe that the writer (Michael J. Murray), who seems to specialize in Christmas TV-movies, couldn't come up with a better plot device, like having Claire be related to someone (other than Andrew) at the bookstore. I had a hard time getting past this, but I admit the presence of the same-sex couple—who show up in several scenes and who would never make it into a Hallmark film—made me eventually warm to the movie. [Lifetime]

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) is a widowed village vicar, aging and but still active, tended to by his eldest daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson, with Richardson at left). She is in love with local boy David and they want to marry, but he is about to be transferred out of the country for two years, and Jenny feels that she cannot leave her father alone—she hasn't even told him that she and David are serious about each other. This Christmas, for the first time in years, Martin will have a full house of relatives for Christmas Eve. His son Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the Army and, despite getting in trouble for sneaking into his barracks late after a date, manages to wangle a 48-hour pass. His other daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton), who has been out of touch for years, makes a last-minute decision to come, despite having a secret she is loathe to reveal and which has driven her to drink. There is also Aunt Bridget, a cantankerous spinster, and Aunt Lydia, a widow who is much more pleasant but also becoming more pessimistic about life—she has a lovely line about enjoying the holiday, especially the "dark green and glittering Christmas tree," but facing up to how much magic goes out the season as one ages. The last visitor is cousin Richard, friend and godfather to Margaret, the only person present who knows the agony which has caused her to isolate herself—she bore a child out of wedlock (who later died) and she feels she cannot talk to her vicar father about it without him being blinkered and judgmental. We discover that the family members, though they love the vicar, feel like they cannot be honest with him—both aunts are heartily in favor of Jenny asking Margaret to come and do her part caring for Martin—and the vicar remains oblivious to their concerns, in part because of his obligations to his congregation. After the long day's journey into Christmas Eve during which secrets come tumbling out, will Christmas morning help heal wounds?

This British film is difficult to find—it’s never been released as a region 1 DVD, or even on VHS as far as I know. I first saw it on cable back in the early 80s and remember being a bit disappointed that it didn't really feel like a Christmas movie. But having finally found it streaming online earlier this year (TCM also aired it this season), I must revise my opinion. Though the genre it most belongs to would seem to be dysfunctional family melodrama, it actually references Christmas quite a bit: a tree, sparse but realistic decorations, two lovely scenes of carolers (the "Good King Wenceslas" moment in particular is nicely shot as we see the serious faces of family members listening as they process knowledge that is causing them discomfort), and Aunt Lydia's observation noted above. There’s not a lot of humor here, and the funniest line is rather dark comedy; at one point, Richard says to a pouting Michael, "Cheer up, old boy, in a hundred years, we'll all be dead!" The happy ending feels in this day and age like a too-neat wrapping up of plotlines, but remember this was 1952 when an ambiguous or depressing ending would have been unique (outside of film noir or tragedy).

It's based on a play and does look and feel rather stagy, with most of the action occurring in rooms in the vicar's home, but it never feels closed in or artificial. The acting is excellent all around, with main honors going to Richardson (whose old-age makeup consists of an odd-looking white hair wig) and Johnson. Leighton is fine but her character could have stood more development. It's startling to see a very young and cute Denholm Elliott (above right), whom I know mostly from roles he played 25 to 30 years later. Though a relatively happy ending is in store for all, the bulk of this film is not exactly upbeat. One character is well on the way to becoming an alcoholic; two characters confess to being atheists, which would probably been seen as marks against them back in 1952. At least two of the central issues of the movie are still concerns today. The vicar is told that his children kept things from him because of religion, but he retorts that because of religion, he should be a more sympathetic listener. Whether or not he would have been remains an open question. Also, there is talk about the meaninglessness of life, how we fill our lives with events just to keep going even though we're ultimately doomed to fail. The vicar's response is rather more reflective of Eastern religions: the root of all evil is that we keep wanting. These kinds of discussions don’t feel very Christmassy, but still everything comes together for a very satisfying movie, watchable in any season. [TCM]

Friday, December 21, 2018


On Christmas Eve, 1844, a year after the cranky miser Ebenezer Scrooge (David Ruprecht, at left) was visited by three ghosts and became a generous Christmas-loving man, Jacob Marley's ghost sends him, with no explanation, to the small town of New Britain, Wisconsin in the year 2013 to work some redeeming magic on Timothy Cratchit VI. The head of the Scrooge and Cratchit financial company, Tim (Matt Koester) has become a cold-hearted moneyman just like Scrooge was. When Tim and his associate Ron (David Koester) visit the Dinner Belle for a cup of coffee, they run into the diner's owner, Belle (Shannon Moore), who remembers Tim from high school. Their reunion is not a happy one. Tim's company is in the middle of a neighborhood renewal project and she is behind on her mortgage payments; he is there to let her know that he will boot her out if she can't pay up by the end of the year. Scrooge, out of his element, stumbles into the diner and Belle takes pity on him, giving him coffee and helping him to get current with customs and lingo (ordering elaborate drinks at the coffeehouse and saying things like, "I’m stoked!"). When he produces a partnership document from 1844, he takes it to Tim's office and claims half-interest in the company. Scrooge immediately begins making friends of the employees and changing the mood in the office from unpleasant to fun, much to the chagrin of Tim (though Ron actually warms to Scrooge and his influence). As it gets closer to Christmas, will Scrooge eventually figure out why Tim is so cold and thaw him out by Christmas Eve?

Like JOURNEY TO PARADISE, this is another problematic production from the sincere but overly ambitious Christian entertainment company Salty Earth Productions and director Steven F. Zambo. There are so many things wrong with this film that pointing them all out could easily take three more paragraphs. The low-budget sets look terrible (which the sets in PARADISE did not); the acting is generally poor—again, as in the previous movie, the Koester brothers (at right, David and Matt) excepted; the story is filled with so many plot holes that you pretty much just sigh and accept it as an almost hallucinatory avant-garde narrative: Why does Marley send Scrooge to 2013 without explaining what he's supposed to do? How has Belle stayed in business at all when she seems to be a terrible manager? There's a plotline involving a pastor and his homeless buddies who Belle feeds for free that really has no payoff and serves little purpose except to show that Belle's heart is in the right place. The biggest problem is a spoiler that involves the ending which I'll save for my last paragraph. The score is bland and the featured song by Michael Schroeder is awful (as it was in PARADISE). And once again, the Christian elements, mostly absent from the Dickens' original, feel uncomfortably added to the mix. In only one scene does Scrooge spout religion, and the actor's voice bizarrely drops to an artificially serious tone, which made me laugh out loud.

So you might ask, why go on at length about this shoddy film? Well, 1) the plot does have promise; as I've noted before, updatings of A Christmas Carol are always fun; 2) Matt Koester is a better actor than his material calls for; 3) the humor as Scrooge adjusts himself to the 21st century is cute; 4) I appreciate their attempt at multiculturalism by including a Latina character as Belle's friend and employee. As a fan of Christmas movies, I find this (and PARADISE) interesting for going against the Hallmark grain of vanilla romance stories, which leads me to the SPOILER: Belle and Tim were friends in high school but Belle keeps insisting that she didn't feel romantic about him. The reason, which comes out of absolutely nowhere in the last few minutes, is that Tim is Belle's brother! Better than that, they're twins! He grew up as an adopted orphan, but we are given no reason for why he would have been given up and Belle kept. In this case, a Hallmark romance ending would have been preferable. I hope if Salty Earth does any more Christmas movies, they give the screenplay a more thorough going-over for plausibility and coherence. [Amazon Prime]

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


During the Depression, single dad William Kamp (Brian Krause) is just barely getting by—at Christmas time, he has survived the latest round of layoffs, but it's still a challenge to raise five kids, the youngest of whom, Norman, has polio and walks with a leg brace. There's also his oldest, Verna, a senior in the town's one-room schoolhouse; handsome teenager Warren; young Ruthie who dotes on the family dog (the last child, Russell, is given no personality or quirks and might as well be invisible). The good news at Christmas is that dad has saved up a dollar in change so that all the kids can dip into it in order to get presents for each other. The bad news constitutes the bulk of the storyline: 1) Warren has been offered a part-time job as an auto mechanic but even though his income would help the family, William won't let him consider it, mostly out of pride that he alone should be the family breadwinner. Warren is also sweet on a friend of Verna's but is too shy to even talk to her; 2) Ruthie clashes with the new teacher, young Miss Mayfield, who won't let her bring her dog to school. She is also desperate to win a school contest for performing the most kind and thoughtful acts for others during the holiday season, but snotty brat Lenny cheats to stay ahead of her in the tally; 3) Verna would like to become a nurse but the family's financial insecurity won't allow her to apply to colleges, even though Miss Mayfield thinks she has promise; 4) Norman is entranced with a horse belonging to cranky neighbor Mrs. Rathbone, but when he sneaks onto her property to spend time with the horse, he winds up in quite a bit of trouble, exacerbated by villainous bully Lenny.

As this is a Christmas movie, there is little doubt that most of their problems will work out in the end. What is a bit surprising, however, is despite the fact this was made by two religious film companies (one Catholic, one Mormon), the religious elements are kept to a minimum, pretty much confined to the conclusion, at church on Christmas morning. The tone is well-balanced; there is sadness (they're still mourning their mother) and a little humor (Lenny's comeuppance, Warren's shyness), and the children's problems are treated seriously but an upbeat Waltons-like atmosphere prevails. The acting is mostly fine. Old pro Brian Krause is a solid anchor, as is Nancy Stafford, best known for continuing roles on St. Elsewhere and Matlock, as Mrs. Rathbone who thaws very slowly toward the family. Heather Beers is the weak link as the schoolteacher, who seems altogether too modern for the 1930s heartland. James Gaisford is fine as Warren, as is Ruby Jones as Ruthie. Best of all is 10-year-old Jacob Buster as Norman; he is vulnerable but strong, and he doesn't overuse either a smile or a scowl, coming off as a kid weighed down by his circumstances but not ready to give up. The movie is bookended with cute scenes showing Norman daydreaming riding the horse and facing bad guys just like his hero Hopalong Cassidy does. One could quibble with the low-budget sets and costumes, but if you’re looking for a slightly sentimental Christmas story that will leave you just a tad teary, this will work. [DVD]

Monday, December 17, 2018


Channel 7 in the small town of Paradise, Wisconsin is known as Paradise 7 and has been in business for years, run by the Collins family. But as Christmas approaches, trouble is brewing. A larger Wisconsin media company apparently wants to muscle in and Lucy Collins (Hannah Fager) wants to bring in a new associate producer to pump up their ratings. During a holiday station party, a handsome guy from Chicago arrives at the studio. Lucy assumes he's there about the position, though we can tell from his behavior that he's there for some other reason. Still, Joe McNamara (Matt Koester) goes through an informal interview and Lucy decides impulsively to hire him on the spot. The family even offers him temporary use of a small apartment above the studio. The family and staff all love Joe, except for Lucy's obnoxiously protective brother Mike who doesn't trust him and has frequent altercations with him. Mike may be onto something; we see Joe clandestinely watching videos that Lucy had made and sent to her fiancĂ© while he was in the military—we know that she is no longer engaged and that it's a topic that has made her less interested in celebrating Christmas. Soon, we discover that Joe has his own unresolved pain; when he interviews a pastor on TV about a Christmas event, Joe goes off on a tangent, questioning the idea that God is truth and has all the answers, and making the interview go off the rails. Despite all this, sparks fly between Lucy and Joe, but they're both going to have to reveal their past secrets to each other if they want to build a relationship.

There are a lot of problems with this low-budget, almost amateur movie, but I slowly warmed to the film almost despite itself. As a Christmas romance, it's more religious and dramatic than the kind that Hallmark shows. It was produced by Salty Earth Productions, whose mission statement is to provide "entertainment […] to share Christ, Jesus with the world." Oddly, however, the explicitly religious material feels shoehorned into the story—there are only really two or three scenes in which God or Jesus are even brought up. The one scene that doesn't work at all involves Joe walking through the small town, thinking about his conflict while an awful country song about Jesus being the reason for the season plays and images of the Bible and of nativity sets are superimposed over the visuals. I don't object to the content (duh, it’s a Christmas movie!) but the sledgehammer style feels so out of place in what is otherwise a relatively thoughtful narrative about dealing with loss and building a new life. I like the fact that at the end, Joe's spiritual quandary is still not completely resolved.

Other good and bad things here: the two leads are both fine, though they have not gone on to work in many other films. Matt Koester has done stage work and has appeared in couple of other Salty Earth productions, but I'm surprised that Hannah Fager, who looks and acts the part of the TV-movie Christmas heroine to a tee, has no other acting credits on IMDb. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is almost uniformly amateurish (though Daniel Koester, Matt's real-life brother, shows promise as the aggressive Mike). The story idea, which I don’t want to spill too much about, is original and interesting, but important plot points are ignored or brought up so late in the proceedings that they feel plopped in at the last minute. One more draft of the screenplay would have been beneficial. Worst of all is the dog puppet that the weatherman insists on carrying and using all the time. Though fairly serious in tone (what with its themes of spiritual searching and dealing with guilt from the past), there are many moments of humor, not all of which come off. At 2 hours, it's way too long, but for reasons I can't quite articulate, I have a soft spot for this local Wisconsin production, and I'd watch it again. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Molly (Nicky Whelan) is essentially married to her big-city job at a software company, and she’s not a fan of Christmas [diehard Hallmark movie fans already know where this is going, so they can skip to paragraph 2], so she's planned on working at the office through the holidays. When the boss decides to close the offices for two weeks as a reward for everyone's hard work, Molly is not happy. On a whim, she enters a radio contest for a holiday trip to Jamaica and she wins. However, once she gets on the plane, she realizes she's headed for Jamaica, Vermont, to an old-fashioned inn called Reindeer Lodge, known for the reindeer who visit during Christmas week. Thinking she got on the flight in error, she tries to make the plane go back, but the contest really was for Jamaica, Vermont. Jared, a handsome stranger (Josh Kelly), watches in amusement as all this plays out. He is headed for the lodge for some mysterious purpose, and the only other lodgers are Greg, an aspiring photographer who is planning to put together a book of photos of the lodge, the town, and the reindeer, and his wife Kayla. Once there, the visitors eventually learn the sad truth: the lodge has fallen on hard times, partly because the reindeer's migration patterns seem to have changed and they no longer visit.  Despite the general gloom, Molly and Jared begin a tentative flirtation, and Molly comes up with an idea for a silent auction of Greg's photographs to help save the lodge. But what will happen when she discovers that Jared is there as a representative of this father's firm to foreclose on the property?

There is absolutely nothing original about this movie—it could serve as a template for the average Hallmark Christmas romance. Even the Christmas atmosphere feels a bit forced. But I stuck with it because of the charm of the leading man, Josh Kelly. He's handsome and hunky like most Hallmark men, but he also has a sly look that plays about his face on occasion which suggests that there might be more to the character than we see on the surface. Everyone else is average, never rising above adequate, even Beth Broderick as co-owner of the inn. Nicky Whelan is amusing in the opening scenes as she expresses frustration with her situation, but soon she is as vanilla as everyone else. Little in the script rings true, partly because the backstory of the inn isn't fleshed out very well, and the return of the reindeer at the last minute (c'mon, not a spoiler—you knew darn well it would happen) doesn't feel as climactic as it should, maybe because they look like CGI reindeer. Still, Josh Kelly. I'll recommend this one just for him. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Charlotte (Maggie Lawson) is about at the end of her rope—she's been trying for years for her big break in acting, but all she gets is TV ads so she lives with a roommate and relies on her job as a waitress in a coffeehouse to get by. When her friend Rachel visits from Chicago and encourages her to apply for a job at her event-planning company, she hems and haws a bit but finally gives in, realizing this means the end of her dreams. Meanwhile, over at the Grand Theater, a small off-Broadway company is preparing their annual production of A Christmas Carol. The head of the troupe, and the director, is TV action star Julian Walker (Brennan Elliott), who would like to leave Hollywood behind and stay in New York—his late father founded the company. When Charlotte waits on Julian at the coffeehouse, she is mortified—years ago, she auditioned for a part in the TV show that shot Julian to fame, but his improvisation during her audition threw her off and she didn't get the part. Despite some chemistry between them, she has always blamed Julian for her failure. Julian gets her agent to send her to tryouts, but when she discovers Julian is directing, she leaves in a huff. But later, sensing this could be her last shot, she goes back, auditions, and wins the lead of a modern-day female Scrooge. Just as things seem to looking up for Charlotte, however, two complications arise: 1) Julian's old celebrity girlfriend shows up; 2) the owner of the theater building threatens foreclosure.

Despite being centered on a production of Dickens' famous Christmas story, this Hallmark Christmas movie seemed to be a bit lacking in holiday atmosphere—it could have just as easily been set at Easter or Halloween. Even the element of the Scrooge-like property owner feels thrown in and is dealt with almost too easily. Lawson is fine as the romance heroine, but when she is playing Charlotte "acting," she’s not at all believable as someone who could come swooping in and win a role just like that. In her few short scenes as the female Scrooge, she's terrible. Elliott is more consistent as Julian, but I'm shallow enough to be disappointed that he's not more attractive than he is. Nice-looking, yes, but not a vanilla Hallmark hunk. In the supporting cast, the only real standouts are David Tompa as Gary, Charlotte's friendly boss, and stalwart character player Art Hindle (with over 150 acting credits on IMDb) as Sid, a member of the theater group who becomes the first connection between Charlotte and the Grand Theater folks, though by the last half of the movie, he's just a background face despite getting first billing after the romantic leads. Mercedes de la Zerda has been directed to have not an ounce of nuance as the villainous ex-girlfriend. Finally, this has absolutely zero feel for New York or off-Broadway. They should have just set it in Toronto (where it was probably filmed). I'd have to say overall that this one, though perhaps not awful, is thoroughly run-of-the-mill, uninspiring, lackluster, and any other synonyms for "mediocre." [Hallmark]

Monday, December 10, 2018


Stop me if you've heard this before—on the other hand, don't, because then this would be a very short review. Sophie (Allison Sweeney) runs a Colorado ski lodge that has been in her family for years. But now, thanks to a couple years of no snow, she's gotten behind in her mortgage payments and may lose the property by the first of the year, even though this year, the lodge is snowy and busy. Meanwhile, Evan (Jordan Bridges) arrives for a quick visit at the height of the Christmas season; Sophie and he click right away and she talks him into staying the whole week of Christmas, but what she doesn't know is that he is there as an emissary for a real estate company looking to buy the lodge cheap and replace it with a prefab chain lodge. But the longer Evan stays, the more he comes to appreciate the extended family experience of the people who have been coming to Holly Lodge every year, and he secretly tries to find a way to help Sophie hang on to her property. Of course, when she finds out who he really is, she is angry and upset, and certain she'll lose the lodge.

Hallmark needs a few new plot templates for their Christmas movies—this story is so well-worn and predictable (and its "twists" telegraphed so far in advance) that I almost switched it off in the first half-hour. But I stuck with it because of the two leads. Sweeney and Bridges have great chemistry and both are quite attractive (in a very vanilla way, which is not meant as an insult—Bridges in particular makes vanilla look sexy). Oddly, their chemistry falters near the end, when they actually are allowed to kiss—Hallmark doesn't let their leads kiss until the final moment. But generally, the two are among the better Hallmark players. Sheryl Lee Ralph (a Tony nominee for the original production of Dreamgirls) is fine as the chief supporting player; Toby Levins is a scruffy standout as a handyman pal of Sophie's. Both characters get their own (brief) storylines, and either one could probably carry their own TV-movie. I liked it OK, and less demanding Hallmark movies fans will love this one. Pictured are Bridges, Sweeney and Ralph. [Hallmark]

Friday, December 07, 2018


It wouldn't seem like we need any more film or TV versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"—Wikipedia lists almost 100 from the silent era to now, including sitcom, animated and drama show versions (Bewitched, Family Guy, Mr. Magoo) and loose adaptations (Ebbie, An American Christmas Carol). But there are least three reasons why we'll keep getting them: 1) people watch them; 2) writers and actors of each generation want a shot at doing their own versions; 3) it's interesting to see the variations that get worked on the basic outline and details of the original story. There are certain characters and story beats that always remain: Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, three ghosts, a movement toward empathy and charity. It's what changes that can make a new version fun or relevant.

In this version, made for British TV, Eddie Scrooge is a low-life loan shark who, with his assistant Bob Cratchit, goes about on Christmas Eve making life miserable for some of his clients. At the apartment of a single mom with three kids who is behind in her payments, Eddie takes her TV set and gleefully throws it off a balcony. He pesters an elderly couple, brushes aside charity requests, and ignores the mother of his former partner Jacob Marley who was murdered a year ago under mysterious circumstances that Eddie may know something about. As usual, Eddie rebuffs his nephew Dave's yearly request for Eddie to join him and his wife for Christmas dinner. The only somewhat tender side we see of Eddie is the regret he feels for letting his girlfriend Bella get away; when he refused to leave his thuggish life behind, she turned down his marriage proposal. That night, in his high security apartment in a rough inner-city neighborhood, the late Jacob Marley shows up on his mission of reform, with the promise of three ghosts who will help. The first major difference in the structure of Dickens' story is that Marley himself becomes the Ghost of Christmas Present; Past is Eddie's dad, and Future is a child who is... well, that would be a spoiler. The second major difference is that after the visits of each ghost, Eddie wakes up on Christmas Eve all over again, and ventures out in mostly half-hearted attempts to change his behavior. It isn't until Future's visit that Eddie has a sincere desire to change.

The cast is composed almost completely of actors I'm not familiar with. The shaved-headed Eddie is Ross Kemp, known in England for his iconic tough-guy role in the soap opera East Enders (pictured with the three ghosts at top right). He was generally good, though his final transformation scenes aren't as fizzy or giddy as tradition would dictate. The only actor I knew was Liz Smith (the dotty old lady in The Vicar of Dibley) who played the elderly woman, but I was impressed by Ray Fearon as Marley and Daniel Ainsleigh as Dave (pictured above). The best metamorphosis was turning the symbolic children of Want and Ignorance into real teens who are homeless and near death from pneumonia. I was a little confused by some of the details of the Bob Cratchit/Tiny Tom storyline, and there's one character (Eric, maybe) who pops up quite a bit but didn't have a Dickens parallel that I could discern. The look of the movie is drab and colorless, but it's worth checking out if you can find it—I saw it on This TV, one of those free cable channels that mostly shows reruns and movies. My only warning: the British accents can get a bit heavy, and subtitles were not an option.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018


Capt. Webb (Lewis Stone) may seem kindly and avuncular, but he runs the Bureau of Missing Persons which he considers one of the toughest assignments within the police department. Homicide cop Butch Saunders (Pat O'Brien) has let his temper get the best of him one too many times and is transferred to the bureau, which he dismissively refers to as "kindergarten" and a "school for pansies." Webb tries to set him straight: they look for people who might be dead (even, as we find out later, chopped up into pieces), missing on purpose, or victims of amnesia and it can take a subtle touch to work with both the found people and the people looking for them. Butch gets an education as we see several cases play out: an actress pulls a missing persons publicity stunt at the behest of her agent; a married man who has gone missing may be in hiding with his mistress; a lonely old man becomes the victim of a "serial vanisher" who works her way into a household and gets some money before she leaves. After a rough start, Butch gets the hang of it and successfully reunites a 12-year-old violin prodigy who ran away from his rich parents because he wanted to live the life of an everyday boy. Soon a woman named Norma Roberts (Bette Davis) needs help finding her husband who left their hotel room after a spat and hasn't returned. Butch takes a personal interest in the case as he finds himself falling for Norma, but when cracks appear in her story, he discovers that she's not quite who she seems to be.

When Bette Davis made this film, she wasn't yet the star she would become just a couple of years later, and her role, though sizeable, wasn't really worthy of top billing—she doesn't even appear until about halfway through the 75 minute movie. But when it was re-released in 1936, her name was moved to the top of the cast list. Davis is fine, and her fans won't be disappointed, but the real stars are O'Brien and Stone who both do good work. The supporting cast includes Glenda Farrell as Butch's estranged wife (who shrieks "Butchy-wootchy!" at him to make his life miserable), Ruth Donnelly as a secretary who has a secret, and the always welcome Allen Jenkins as a case worker. It's interesting to see Hugh Herbert, who usually plays stammering comic-relief doofuses playing against type as a relatively subdued and serious case worker. Favorite line: O'Brien yelling at Farrell, "Why don’t you break out in hives and scratch yourself to death?" A solid classic-era Warners comedy-drama. Pictured are Jenkins and O'Brien. [TCM]

Monday, December 03, 2018

NAVY BORN (1936)


On a ship in the Pacific Ocean, Navy pilot Red Furness (William Gargan) reads a telegram to his nervous buddy Tex Jones: Tex is now the father of a baby boy, whom the other pilots all start referring to as the Admiral. The happy Tex can't wait to get home to San Diego, but by the time he gets home, there is sad news: his wife has died from complications and his wealthy sister-in-law Bernice (Claire Dodd) is determined to take custody of the baby. To send this story completely into soap opera territory, Tex himself, dazed and confused over the idea that his son might be taken away from him, stumbles into traffic and is hit by a car. In his dying words to Red, he asks that Red take care of the baby. Before Tex's in-laws can act, Red and his navy pilot buddies (Steve, a womanizer, and Bill, who has no defining character traits other than completing the trio) have spirited the baby away to their bachelor rooms, hiding him from both the in-laws and Navy brass. They eventually get Red's Aunt Minnie to take care of the baby and the rest of the plot consists of playing keepaway with the kid while Red does his best to woo Bernice over to the idea of his guardianship—and maybe to the idea of a romance. I saw this B-movie under the title MARINERS OF THE SKY and was very disappointed as there is not much "sky mariner" action here, and what there is isn’t terribly well done. But as a domestic comedy-drama, it’s serviceable. I usually like Gargan and he's the movie’s chief asset, remaining charming throughout. Dodd is fine and Douglas Fowley is a standout as the horndog Steve. Addison Randall makes a good impression in his brief scenes as Tex—the actor would, under the name Jack Randall, make a string of B-westerns before his untimely death in 1945. In order to pad it out to 70 minutes, a strange plot twist involving the baby being kidnapped is thrown in, but it doesn’t really add much. Pictured are Randall and Gargan.[YouTube]