Monday, December 30, 2019


The calendar tells me I can write one more Christmas blog post, so I'll sneak in two movies here. In Hallmark's Double Holiday, business rivals Rebecca and Chris, both of whom are under consideration for a big promotion, are assigned to work together to plan a large-scale holiday party that their boss hopes will cinch a development deal with a foundation that will be building a number of community centers. The two have shared a cubicle for a year, rather uneasily, as Rebecca (Carly Pope) thinks that Chris (Kristoffer Polaha, at right) is a bit too laidback and whimsical. But, as this is a Hallmark movie, we know by about three minutes in that the two will soon be romantically entwined and a kiss will occur in the final minute of the film. One of the things that melts her heart is that Chris, who grew up in a single-parent household, mentors kids at one of the pre-existing community centers. An added element here is that Rebecca is Jewish, and Chris works his way into the good graces of her extended family by showing up for various Hanukkah functions and inviting the family to give a Hanukkah prayer at the climactic holiday party. Hallmark was touting this inclusion of Hanukkah as a big departure for their Christmas movies, but the Hanukkah elements are minimal and in all other aspects, this is an average Hallmark Channel movie. Kristoffer Polaha is cute and charming and carries the movie (Rebecca’s family members are sweet people but not well developed as characters). Carly Pope is a bit too brittle to be appealing, so I stuck with this solely because of Polaha.

In Lifetime's Always and Forever Christmas, Lucy (Lexi Lawson) is a Los Angeles-based social media marketing executive who is spending December in her hometown of Stowe, Vermont, helping her retiring parents prepare to empty out and sell their Christmas shop (called Forever Christmas) which her late grandfather started almost fifty years ago. After her folks leave for a Hawaiian vacation, Lucy meets Carol (Beth Broderick), a seasonal employee who talks vaguely about a husband who lives up north and deals in imports and exports (hint, hint). She seems to know a lot about the shop, and helps Lucy develop a sort of sixth sense she calls "Christmas magic" about how to match up customers with the perfect gift. Lucy begins to get caught up in the small town's holiday spirit, helped along by Scott (Mark Ghanimé), the handsome owner of the diner across the street, and she even helps encourage a romance between her shy employee Randall and Rose the mail carrier. But she fights her feelings for Scott, who seems to be angling to get her to stop the sale of the store and keep it open as it is. Despite Scott and Carol, Lucy finalizes the sale to a businessman who wants to turn the building into a store for trendy athletic gear, but on Christmas Eve she has a change of heart. Can she use her new gift for Christmas magic to conjure up a happy ending for all?

As with Double Holiday, it was the charming male lead who kept me interested, but there is a lot of weak writing to contend with. Carol (the Mrs. Santa Claus figure) is downright drab, though Broderick tries hard to make her magical. Scott, Randall and Rose are sadly under-developed. And the plot twist with the new owner that makes everything work out (sorry, spoiler!) is downright ridiculous. But its overall tone is sweet, Lexi Lawson is OK, and Mark Ghanimé (pictured with Broderick) is, have I already said, handsome and charming. Both of these underachieving movies are good examples of why the Christmas TV-movie industry needs to stop churning out so daggone many movies each year and concentrate on making better ones. These movies can be both comforting and original if the filmmakers were allowed a bit more time for writing and more leeway in presenting interesting and diverse characters and storylines.

Friday, December 27, 2019


Jessica (Elizabeth Henstridge) is a historian and archivist with some kind of nebulous academic job who is assigned to work on a project at the famous Plaza Hotel in New York. She is supposed to do research in the Plaza historical archives and come up with a public display about Christmases over the years at the hotel. When she settles on using the theme of tree toppers, as a different one was made every year, she discovers that in 1969, there apparently was no tree topper made, and makes it her mission to figure out why. She ends up working with Nick (Ryan Paevey), another nebulously employed guy (it's mentioned in passing that he has a Christmas decorating business, but what does he do the rest of the year?) who is in charge of putting up the Christmas décor at the Plaza. At first, she resists his obvious charms (handsome, friendly, works with his hands) but soon an attraction grows between them. However, being a Hallmark movie, there are silly romantic complications: Jessica's slimy career-driven boyfriend wants to take her home to meet his parents for Christmas, and Nick's long-ago-dumped obnoxious girlfriend shows up at an awkward moment. Of course, it all comes out fine in the end: the tree topper mystery is solved, and Jessica and Nick finally kiss.

I enjoyed this Hallmark Christmas movie for its setting at the Plaza hotel and for the performances of the two leads, especially the hunky Paevey (pictured) who is the most perfectly scruffy/smooth soap opera actor ever. Bruce Davison is fine as the head bellman who is keeping a Christmas secret, but Julia Duffy (well-remembered as the scatterbrained Stephanie on the Vermont Bob Newhart show) is given nothing to do as Ms. Clark, Jessica's supervisor at the hotel, except be involved in a running joke about her name with Kenny the desk clerk (Nelson Wong). Otherwise, this film could stand as an example to Hallmark for showing just how tired their formula has gotten. Work-challenged woman stuck with blah boyfriend? Check. Hunky down-to-earth guy who works with his hands? Check. One seeing the other in what appears to be an intimate moment with an ex and misinterpreting things? Check. Opening sweeping shot of a snowy cityscape? Check. Minority actors in bland supporting roles? Check. Painfully underdeveloped characters?  Check. The twist with the Plaza archives has potential, but it turns into just another predictable plotline involving a character with a secret (Hint: Bruce Davison). Their writers need some new templates, and maybe Hallmark could stand to make a dozen or so fewer movies each year. But this one did introduce me to Ryan Paevey, so yeah for that. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 23, 2019


Single mom Cadence (Sarah Drew) has her own business as an event planner and as the holidays approach, she has a big event on deck: staging a Christmas Eve wedding for a friend's family. Meanwhile, single dad Henry (Ryan McPartlin), normally a house painter, has his own seasonal decorating business with his mother Twinkle and his brother Lex and as the holidays approach, they have a big event on deck: a Christmas Eve party for the town's richest lady. But back at the elementary school where both Cadence and Henry have their adorable kids enrolled, the two are thrown together by chance to design the sets for the upcoming Christmas pageant. She's all about planning and scheduling every little detail, but Henry takes a much looser improvisational approach to his work, leading to some friction in the beginning, but after sparks of irritation fly, sparks of attraction fly, and it looks like the two might couple up. But the various traumas in their pasts lead to hesitation. On Christmas Eve, a blizzard threatens to put the kibosh on both of their outside projects, potentially cancelling both the wedding and the party, but when most of the town loses power and everyone winds up sheltering at the elementary school, a little scheduling and a little improvisation might save the day—and their budding relationship.

This is a Lifetime Christmas movie rather than a Hallmark movie. As you can see by the plot description, it seems like it could have as easily been at home on Hallmark with its vanilla lead characters (pictured above) stumbling into a holiday romance, and no kissing until the last minute of the movie. But there are some differences. First, no one here has to give up a big-city career—they both already live in the same small town. Second, there are two small children rather than just one. The customers of both the lead characters are African-American, which is slightly more representation than at Hallmark. But most importantly for moving these romances into the 21st century, there is an out gay couple: Henry's brother Lex (Brian Sills) and his husband Danny (Mark Ghanimé), and they (pictured at right) even get the final fadeout kiss rather than Cadence and Henry. There is no big deal made about the secondary roles being black or gay (nothing about the roles would necessarily indicate minority actors), but that itself is part of the point. Otherwise, however, this is about par for the course for TV Christmas movies. Drew and McPartlin are fine, the kid actors are fine. Lesley Ann Warren plays Henry's mom Twinkle and though she is also fine, she is mostly wasted in a role that any older actress could have played—she doesn't get to shine in a Lesley Ann Warren way. A minor quibble: the blizzard that shuts down the town looks like about 2 inches of snow and a moderately stiff breeze which never comes off as dangerous. But this film gets extra points for representation bravery. [Lifetime]

Thursday, December 19, 2019


Martha Stewart, oops, I mean Julia Wise is a lifestyle maven who runs her empire from Los Angeles but returns home to Vermont every December to make a Christmas TV special. Her trusted assistant Maggie has a big idea: do the Christmas Eve show live. Julia's nervous about it; Maggie assures her she'll have a teleprompter so she won't have to memorize anything, but Julia still insists on getting some extra help from her son Danny who has produced shows for her in the past. Maggie steels herself to resent the help, but Danny turns out to be handsome and charming, and actually has a pretty good idea for the show: the two of them will travel from L.A to Vermont and film short human interest stories to insert into the live show. Along the way, Maggie gets the idea to reunite Danny with his two brothers as a surprise for Julia. But this proves tricky as there is some simmering resentment in both Derek, worker at a ski resort, and David, owner of a small but thriving pet shop, at the fact that Danny's job producing seemed to anoint him as Mom's favorite, or something like that. This resentment, other obligations, and an approaching blizzard all threaten to derail Maggie's plan, but since this is a Hallmark Christmas movie, we know that all these obstacles will be overcome on the way to a happy ending.

Or will they? I actually had my doubts for a while because, while the basic Hallmark template is intact (busy businesswoman meets cute with down-to-earth guy—Danny is now a nature documentary maker—who helps her solve all her problems with a kiss on Christmas Eve), there are a couple of interesting differences in this one. For one, Derek (Cardi Wong) is Asian—it turns out that all three brothers are adopted. It's not unusual in a Hallmark Christmas movie for the heroine to have a non-white sidekick, but Derek's role is a little more substantive than usual. Even more interesting, David (Jeff Gonek, at right) is gay; it doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that his relationship with pet shop co-owner Bradley is more than just a business one. Plus, Bradley has a theater degree (!) and near the end, David breaks out in a theatrical impression of James Stewart as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Though some viewers might miss these cues, for those of us who catch them, there is a added degree of fun. I found Jessy Schram to be rather ho-hum as Maggie, but Chad Michael Murray (above left), slightly higher in star power than usual for a Hallmark non-Hall of Fame movie, is delightful as the sly and patient Danny. Though the set-up with the brothers is nicely done—I could see them starring in their own Hallmark series called The Three Wise Men—the writing is generally weak with lots of plotholes and awkwardly delivered exposition. There's a mini-meltdown scene when Maggie finds out that Danny isn't planning to stay on with Mom's production company, but we were never clued in by anyone or anything that he might stay on. Still, the brothers made this one worth sticking with. (Hallmark)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Jessica, owner of a music shop and something of a frustrated musician herself, buys five different Christmas cards to give on five different days to her boyfriend Wes. When he makes a dinner date with her at a restaurant known informally as the "proposal palace," she assumes that marriage is in the offing. But instead, he breaks up with her—and as it happens, she admits to her best friend Mimi that she really didn't feel all that passionately about him. So she takes the cards meant for Wes and sends them to five important people in her life: her aunt Lila who raised her, her brother Carter who is spending his first Christmas away from home in the military, her favorite boy band singer Jax whose career has sputtered out after he left his band, her friend Mimi, and Mrs. Smith, her first music teacher who inspired her as a child. Each of the cards has an impact on the recipients. For example, Jax is inspired to regroup with his band and record a new Christmas song. Carter gets the courage to pursue a relationship with Angie, a fellow soldier. Mrs. Smith, however, has passed on but her son, a handsome photographer named Luke, finds Jessica and gives her his mom's cello as a gift, which inspires her to audition for a small orchestra. But all is not Santa and mistletoe for everyone: Luke and Jessica feel an attraction but her ex-boyfriend shows up to put a kink in their relationship. Aunt Lila has a bit of a crush on a man who walks his dog down her street every day, but how will she contrive to meet him?

Well, it's a Hallmark movie so you know that everything will be Santa and mistletoe by the end. I give this Christmas romance a couple of extra points for a plot that is a bit more original than most. The five cards mean that there are three or four more plotlines than usual, though all of them are equally vanilla and predictable. I was kinda hoping that maybe Aunt Lila's dog-walking boyfriend might be a serial killer, or that Jax had a hidden fentanyl addiction, but no luck—the dog walker is just another lonely middle-aged widower and Jax is the squeakiest-cleanest pop star ever, though I have to say that his brother/manager had a slightly dissolute look about him. The two leads are a notch above the norm as well; Torrey DeVitto is wholesome without being bland as Jessica (and the actress can actually play the cello—her dad is Liberty DeVitto who was Billy Joel's regular drummer for years); Chad Michael Murray does his cocky-but-sweet bit to a tee. Grant Show (Melrose Place) is fine the dog-walker, but Lolita Davidovitch outshines them all as the aunt—she can cry on cue and not come off as phony. A cute dog, always a plus, plays an important role in the proceedings. And as usual, the sets look great, overflowing with Christmas cheer. Better than average, which in my estimation of the Hallmark canon, is a pretty strong compliment. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 12, 2019


Finn Conrad (who is a famous children's book illustrator under the name Finn Knightly) and his sister Molly are understandably upset when their long-estranged father dies—he walked out on his family when they were children—and leaves most of his estate ($100,000) to his caretaker Willa. He's also left her an all-expenses-paid Christmas vacation to a bed and breakfast in Oregon called Bramble House, where he spent several happy Christmases. The siblings suspect that Willa is a gold-digger who somehow conned their father out of his money, so they get an injunction stopping Willa from collecting the money and they have until Dec. 31 to serve it. Finn decides to go to Bramble House, meet Willa—not telling her that he is Conrad's son—and get her to admit to her scheme. But we know what Finn doesn't: Willa took care of Mr. Conrad for two years while she was caring for own son, Scout, who had a dangerous heart condition. Scout is OK now, but Willa still has huge medical bills to pay, and Conrad left the money to her for that purpose. When Finn arrives, he immediately hits it off with Scout, who happens to be reading one of Finn's books, and slowly, he and Willa strike sparks. When Finn gets the whole story, he decides to call off the injunction, and even makes plans for a possible future with Willa, but Finn's sister decides that Finn is being taken advantage of, and she arrives at Bramble House—on Christmas Eve, no less—determined to serve the injunction.

Because this was broadcast on Hallmark Mysteries & Movies rather than the Hallmark Channel, it's a slightly less whimsical, more serious Christmas romance than usual. Instead of a harried businesswoman escaping the big city to find a down-to-earth, small-town man who works with his hands, we have a woman escaping two years of caring for the health of others finding a sensitive man who works with his hands (albeit through art rather than carpentry). The usual misconceptions and miscommunications occur, but with less humor. The complicating wrinkle here is not a romantic rival but the hero's sister. Still, of course, the happy ending is preordained, and the kiss still has to wait until practically the fadeout. The two leads manage to be likable and sympathetic without getting sentimental. David Haydn-Jones, though handsome, has an appealing lived-in look to him and Autumn Reeser similarly seems mature but not too blandly motherly. There is a subplot involving the keeper of Bramble House (Teryl Rothery) who has to accept that she can no longer run everything by herself which actually might make a fine central narrative to a Christmas movie someday though it doesn’t really fit the Hallmark template. Young Liam Hughes is fine as Scout. Perhaps nothing special, but still a comfortable holiday movie.

Monday, December 09, 2019


It's Christmas time, and if you read this blog, you know the Hallmark Christmas movie drill: driven big-city gal meets small-town, down-to-earth guy who works with his hands; sparks fly, complications ensue; she comes to appreciate the slower life; they kiss; the end. In the first of our holiday movies up for review, we have Anne (Brooke D'Orsay), a big-city toy buyer for a department store chain. After she wraps up a presentation of the latest snazzy, gimmicky toy of the season, she heads off to her hometown in Maine to help her father Bill who is retiring and closing up his toy shop where he sells old-fashioned wooden toys that he makes. When she was young, she made toys as well, and Bill has found a bunch of them and is giving them away with purchases. Once in town she is corralled by an old friend into helping plan the town's Christmas displays and activities, and finds herself working with (as the Hallmark web site puts it) 'handsome local widower' Keith (Trevor Donovan). He is also dealing with a retirement problem: the woman who runs the town mill, where he is a foreman (you didn't think he wouldn’t work with his hands, did you?), is retiring and trying to sell the land, which would throw much of the town out of work. Will Anne decide she wants to stay and run the toy store? Will Keith be able to keep the mill open and thereby avoid having to leave town? But more importantly, will Anne and Keith kiss by Christmas Day?

I mock these movies because it's so easy (predictability and generically vanilla characters), but the difference between me turning a movie off at the 20 minute mark (when the first ad comes) and sticking with it to the end is usually a matter of two things: an attractive male lead and good chemistry between the male and female leads. This one has both. I liked Brooke D'Orsay in Miss Christmas last year, and I remember Trevor Donovan as country singer Eddie Arnold in the underrated TV series Sun Records—which sadly was not renewed before it could finish its story. One minus: no one in the supporting cast really gets to shine. Another minus: weak writing—with particular reference to the last-minute machinations to save the mill. And there's that terrible generic title. But it's snowy and Christmassy and there's Trevor Donovan (pictured) as the manly but sensitive guy, so I didn't feel too guilty about finishing this one. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 05, 2019


Former soldier Perry Liston (Patrick O'Neal, at right) is now a reporter for a New York paper who writes a column under the name "Matchless"—a nickname he was given in the service. We meet him in China as he is mistaken for a spy and tortured. Since he has no information to give, he is tossed into a cell to await execution along with Hank, a real spy (Henry Silva), and an old Chinese man on the verge of death. When Liston tries to comfort him, the old man, with his dying breath, gives Liston a ring which can make the wearer invisible for 20 minutes and which cannot be used again for 10 hours. Liston uses it and makes his escape, naked, as it were, since his clothes would still be visible. He materializes in the home of the lovely O-Lan, mistress to one of the torturers but actually an American spy. She helps him get back to the States where he is tortured again because the Americans think he must be a spy. When that all gets straightened out, he is recruited by the Americans and paired with the beautiful spy Arabella (Ira von Furstenberg) to steal some dangerous chemicals from British millionaire bad guy Gregori Andreanu (Donald Pleasance) who lives in a castle with robot servants. But on their trail is the escaped Hank and the lovely but evil Tipsey (Nicoletta Machiavelli), who don't seem to be working for anyone but themselves. Shenanigans follow—subway chase, fixed boxing match—climaxing with a long car and motorcycle chase in which the cars wind up on the top of a moving train.

The 1960s spy spoofs are odd ducks, partly because the movies that they are spoofing, the early James Bond films, already had a sense of humor about their material, and later, especially in the Roger Moore years, largely became exercises in campy style. This movie stands out a bit from the Flint (James Coburn) and Matt Helm (Dean Martin) movies because it substitutes magic for science –instead of a nifty electronic gadget, Liston gets a magic invisibility ring. This leads to several scenes playing on the fact that when Liston reappears, he's naked. Aside from the comic tone present throughout, we also get Donald Pleasance as a villain who I can only describe as restrainedly campy. When he gets angry, he snaps on a pair of ostentatious sunglasses, a gesture that never failed to get a chuckle from me. O'Neal is no better than average in the lead, more or less sleepwalking through the one-dimensional character he plays. (Yes, I wish someone younger and handsomer and with a better body had played the occasionally naked hero.) The two lead women outshine him, and Henry Silva seems to be having fun playing the snarling Hank whose motivation was never clear to me. The 60s look of the movie is just right, and I loved the credit sequence featuring close-ups of beakers filled with bubbling, colorful fluids. This might have worked better as a campy superhero movie, but it was generally fun and undemanding, though the dubbing of this Italian film is bad, even though it looks like all the actors were speaking English. [TCM]

Monday, December 02, 2019


Young Polly Cameron is taken to the hospital suffering from seizures, yelling "Don't touch my feet!" Her stepmother Lynn (Jean Peters) and her visiting uncle Cam (Joseph Cotten) sit with her overnight and she seems to be on the road to recovery, but the next night, the seizures return and she dies in the hospital. The apparent cause is encephalitis, but Cam's lawyer’s wife, Maggie says the symptoms sound like strychnine poisoning. Then Cam discovers from Lynn's younger stepson Doug that his father (Cam's brother) died in similar circumstances. Maggie’s husband Fred notes that Lynn is in line for an inheritance from her dead husband, but the two stepchildren were ahead of her; now, only young Doug is in her way. Cam comes to the conclusion that Lynn has done in both her husband and Polly, and fears that Doug may be next on her list. When an autopsy is performed, strychnine is indeed found in her system and the police officially question her, but despite the fact that the last medicine given to Polly was obtained by Lynn—and therefore could have been tampered with—the police determine there is not enough solid evidence to charge her. Cam has conflicting feelings; he has come to care for her, but also believes that she may well have committed murder. When Lynn announces that she is taking young Doug off to Europe for a trip, Cam worries that Doug will be the next victim of poisoning and he books passage on Lynn's ship, hoping to protect the boy and possibly to entrap Lynn at the same time. This mystery is stymied by drab production and direction. It feels more like a TV movie than a theatrical one, even in its length of only 75 minutes. There is little suspense, since the case against Lynn is awfully airtight and no other suspects are presented. Some nice tension is worked up in the last 20 minutes when Cam plots to poison Lynn on the ocean liner with a suspicious tablet he finds in her possession, but the conclusion is fumbled (not story-wise but in presentation) and disappointingly anti-climactic. Joseph Cotten, Gary Merrill (as Fred) and Catherine McLeod (as Maggie) do what they can with underwritten roles, but Jean Peters is very good as the possible cold-blooded poisoner. If all you expect is a TV movie of the week, you may be satisfied with this. It's watchable but so much more could have been done to make this a real nail-biter. Pictured are Peters and Cotten. [TCM]