Thursday, December 31, 2020


As this was the tipping point year for same-sex couples in Christmas romances, I wanted to briefly comment on two more movies that made news. In DASHING IN DECEMBER, on Paramount Network and Logo, Peter Porte is a big city financial planner who goes back to visit his widowed mom at the family ranch over Christmas. The horse ranch, which hosts holiday guided tours, has been losing money for years; Porte has been paying its bills and taxes but has decided the time has come to sell the property. Mom (Andie McDowell) is sad but understands; however, openly gay ranch hand Juan Pablo Di Pace is not only upset but fairly hostile to Porte--until he discovers that Porte is also gay, and single. The traditional ups and downs follow until they finally kiss and make up. Some critics are comparing this to Brokeback Mountain, but don't believe it--this is a TV romantic comedy/drama, not a serious and melancholy character study. I wanted to like this, but it falls a bit flat. Although Peter Porte is gay, he feels like he wasn't told he was playing a gay character, so Di Pace (pictured to the left of Porte) has to do all the heavy lifting here. There is little chemistry between them--a failing in many a Christmas romance--so the romance element falls flat, though gay male viewers will still thrill to their kiss, and to a lingering shot of Porte in boxer briefs. 

Hulu made a media splash with HAPPIEST SEASON, a Christmas film with two women (Kristin Stewart and Mackenzie Davis) in the leads, but this is not really a Christmas TV romance, as the women are already together, with a marriage proposal in the offing--it’s really a Christmas coming-out story. Davis and Stewart are already living together when Davis invites the orphaned Stewart to come to stay with her family over the holidays. Stewart assumes that Davis is out to her parents but she's not so the two have to hide their relationship, which over the week becomes harder for Stewart to do. There are laughs but also some serious moments, and other family secrets threaten to come to light. Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen, Alison Brie, Dan Levy, Jake McDorman and a criminally underused Ana Gastyer are all fine in supporting roles. Stewart is a bit too intense here--it feels like she's acting a different, more interesting movie--but overall it's likable if not as ground-breaking as Hulu would like you to think.

I'm very happy to see same-sex couples featured in these films, but I wonder it it's just a one-season novelty thing. Also, the three romance genre films (DASHING, CHRISTMAS SETUP and CHRISTMAS HOUSE) highlight the artificial and repetitive nature of the movies. Adding gay characters may have stretched the tolerance of conservative Christian viewers of Hallmark and Lifetime, but it didn't substantially stretch the genre conventions themselves. All three films could have featured male-female couples with little change in dialogue or plot, with DASHING and SETUP holding on to the big-city/small town dichotomy so prevalent in the genre. It's not a complaint, but an observation. I'll be curious to see what the next holiday season holds for same-sex romancing. One last note: my favorite Christmas movie of the season is one I reviewed back in July, the gently satirical A CHRISTMAS MOVIE CHRISTMAS (with Brant Daugherty, pictured at right) which I would recommend for any time of the year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020


Alice Chapman owns her late father's antique shop; she gets by but just barely. Her fiancé Will Mitchum, a high-powered real estate salesman, is subtly angling to get her to sell the shop to a big-time developer. He asks her to spend Christmas with his parents in his hometown, but he has to send her ahead because he needs to stick around another day or so to close a deal. At the airport when she arrives, she literally runs smack into a guy who spills coffee all over her, causing her phone to malfunction. As they exchange pleasantries, she learns that his name is Matt Mitchum and he has a brother named William, though Matt calls him Billy. They both assume that she is there to stay with his family, though Will has never mentioned having a brother. She heads off with Matt to meet the Mitchums who, though their son has never mentioned having a fiancée, welcome her with open arms. After spending a warm and cuddly day and night with this old-fashioned friendly family, Alice is shocked when Billy arrives—and he is definitely not her fiancé Will. Of course, as the title of this movie warns us, there's been a mix-up—she's with the wrong Mitchums. Soon, things get cleared up, but by the time Will arrives, Alice and Matt have fallen in love. Reluctantly, Alice leaves to meet Will's parents who are rich, brittle and unhappy. Then Will gives her a Christmas present: the lease to a new storefront as he is about to close a deal to sell her dad's shop. Clearly, Alice is with the wrong Mitchum.

It's a Hallmark movie so you know how it ends—of course the mix-up gets sorted out in the last ten minutes and Alice and Matt wind up together. But there are a few small pleasures to be had along the way. The movie begins with Alice (Alicia Witt) telling Will (Scott Gibson) the legend of a clockmaker who, in order to be with the woman he loved, made a clock that stopped time so he and his beloved, who was promised to a man she didn't love, could run off together. This story returns to play an interesting part in the finale. The scenes at Will's family home are quite amusing, with Mimi Kuzyk doing a nice job as the chakra-cleansing, stand-offish mother. And the atmosphere at Matt's family home is cozy and Christmassy. But otherwise, this is a little off from Hallmark's norm. Witt is fine, as she always is, as the Christmas heroine, and Gibson is a standout, getting more screen time than usual as the big city boyfriend we love to hate. Mark Wiebe (pictured with Witt) is only fair as Matt—he's not a natural fit for the typical Hallmark down-to-earth small town guy (who, yes, works with his hands—he makes furniture). And, to be totally shallow, he's not especially attractive. The various machinations involving cell phones and mixed messages are bit much. However, if you're looking for a nice Christmas setting, an unusual set-up, and a tiny sprinkling of fantasy, you'll enjoy this. [DVD]

Friday, December 25, 2020


The title would indicate that a snowy cityscape and a jaunty Christmas carol should open this film, but instead, we get some rather ominous music and shots of folks in togas looking anguished against a seascape. In 12th century Greece, the lovely Daphne (Jessica Morris) rejects the amorous advances of the studly Pericles (Kyle Lowder), so he goes off to war and his mother Theodora (Sheree J. Wilson) puts a curse on Daphne, turning her into a mermaid. She'll get a chance to redeem herself by periodically returning to human form to find Pericles reborn and perform a selfless act; if she succeeds, she'll remain human. If not, the touch of salt water will return her to her mermaid self. Flash forward a few centuries to Christmastime in the coast town of Cocoa Bay, Florida where the studly Travis (also Lowder), still grieving from the death of his wife Vanessa a few Christmases ago, is about to lose his dive bar, the Coral Cantina. The villainous mayor, Tiffany (Arianne Zucker), has bought all the property surrounding his in order to build new hotels and condos. Now she's offering him good money for his bar, but he refuses to sell, so she gets the bank to call in his $50,000 loan—which was used to cover Vanessa's medical bills—just days before Christmas. Travis is holding a fundraiser at his bar, but Tiffany is forcing people to stay away. Enter Daphne who, noticing Travis's resemblance to Pericles, decides to help him raise his money. Travis, his charmingly clumsy brother Beau, and his feisty bartender Roxie (on whom Beau has a secret crush) all assume that Daphne is just a nut case, but on the beach, Travis sees her legs transform temporarily back into a tail. 

To get the money Travis needs, Daphne swims out to sea and brings back a treasure chest full of gold, enough to pay his debt and then some. But this can't be the end because there's like 20 minutes left in the running time, and sure enough when salt water hits Daphne, her tail returns. What more can she do to prove her selflessness? Well, she and Travis are falling for each other, but Tiffany, whom we discover used to date Travis before he married Vanessa, tells Daphne to leave or she'll tear down all the properties around his bar to destroy his livelihood. Before it's all over, Tiffany will reveal a secret that has caused her great guilt, Beau will try to tell Roxie how he feels, Travis will commune with his dead wife's spirit to try and get her OK a relationship with Daphne, and Daphne will have to decide if she's willing to give Travis up for his own good.

First things first: this isn’t a traditional Hallmark Christmas movie. Its holiday tropes are more inspired by Dickens than by Hallmark. Also, it seems to have been done on a much lower budget than most holiday TV movies. But the first thing is a good thing, and the second thing doesn't ultimately hurt the movie, though I wish that the Coral Cantina had been a less shoddy set—it's not even up to dive bar standards. I wasn't familiar with the actors, but it turns out that most of them are soap opera stars (Lowder, Morris, Zucker, Kathleen Gati who plays Travis' mom, Nadia Bjorlin who plays Vanessa). Sheree J. Wilson, who appears only in the short prologue, was a regular on the original Dallas, and Ian Buchanan, who has appeared in soaps for some thirty years, is the narrator—though he only narrates for a couple of minutes. In terms of talent, they can generally hold their own against Hallmark regulars. Morris and Zucker are particularly good, with Zucker having fun with the bitch villain role. At one point, someone says to her, "You sound like a character on a soap opera" and later when she's asked why she's being so mean to Travis, she replies, "Because I'm the bad guy!" She also has a cute running gag where she keeps yelling, "Christmassy is not a word!!" Lowder is a little weaker, but I'm shallow enough not to care because he's pretty darn hot. Chadwick Armstrong is amusing as the hapless kid brother. There's no snow (because, Florida) and in fact, even the Christmas elements aren't played up very much. It also has a hard time keeping the balance between serious and humorous from tipping occasionally. But as a change of pace from the usual holiday fare, this was kind of refreshing. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 24, 2020


Before he leaves for the holidays, Hugo gives his boss an ultimatum: make him a partner at the law firm by New Year's or he'll be looking for a new job. Hugo and his BFF Madelyn head to Milwaukee to spend Christmas with Hugo's vivacious mother Kate and his Army soldier brother Aiden, but the first thing he does is run into Patrick, a hunky Christmas tree delivery guy. Back in high school, Hugo had a crush on Patrick, who was both popular and openly gay, and Hugo was neither. After Patrick mistakes Madelyn for Hugo's wife, things get cleared up and, while Patrick seems like he'd like to hang out more with Hugo, Hugo remains a bit stand-offish, feeling like Patrick is way out of his league, especially when he finds out that Patrick has taken a very early retirement after he sold, for several million dollars, a popular app he invented. But what Hugo doesn't know is that good old Mom has been pulling strings and is actively trying to set him up with Patrick. And if that's not enough meddling, she's also decided to get her other son Aiden interested in Madelyn. So inevitably, Hugo and Patrick begin striking sparks, leading to a very romantic kiss beneath the Northern Lights. But when Hugo gets the news that he has gotten his promotion and will be sent to London to head up a new office, their relationship seems doomed--or is it?

This is, as far as I can determine, the first holiday-themed TV-movie romance to feature a same-sex couple front and center. As such, I was quite pleased that it works so well. Surely there will be some very woke queer people who will be unhappy that the movie isn't more edgy or subversive (the homosexuality of Hugo and Patrick is a given and they seem to be accepted by everyone in town). But the real point here is that the conservative Christmas romance genre has been opened up enough to allow a gay couple to partake of the same conventions as straight couples have: high-powered big-city lawyer goes home and falls for a man who works with his hands; they have a possible kiss moment halfway through that gets (unrealistically) short-circuited; an obstacle rears its head at about the 90 minute mark; but all is resolved in the last five minutes. The straight couple, Aiden and Madelyn, become the supporting characters, and Mom is played for comic relief. There is a nice subplot involving Hugo's discovery that a late founding father of the town was in a same-sex relationship with his "traveling companion," but otherwise, this is a fairly standard Christmas romance plot. The ending [Spoiler!] is happy but oddly unsatisfying--unless I missed something, we're not sure how Hugo and Patrick will work out a long-distance thing.

The acting is standard TV-movie acting (not meant to be dismissive, just descriptive). The boyish looking Ben Lewis (William Clayton on superhero show Arrow) is as cute as a groundbreaking romance actor needs to be, though he's never able to pull off the gravitas of a high-powered attorney--a problem in many of these Christmas movies. The unthreateningly sexy Blake Lee is Patrick, and the chemistry the two have is undoubtedly helped by the fact that they are married to each other in real life. Fran Drescher is amusing as the mom--the funniest line has to do with someone jokingly referring to her thick Milwaukee accent. Ellen Wong is fine as the friend; Chad Connell seems a little too intense in the beginning as the soldier brother--I kept thinking he was going to snap from some war trauma, though he eases up a bit later. Overall, an impressive new step for the Christmas TV movie. Pictured at top are Lee and Lewis. [Lifetime]

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


On a December evening in 1903, Charles Whitley, a wealthy engineer and inventor, has bought at auction an antique Christmas clock for his fiancée Eliza, beating his business rival Harold Moran, whom he also suspects of being a rival for Eliza. In truth, Charles isn't really in love with her, but he thinks a man of his age and social standing should be married. The two have a spat about attending a party that night; he refuses to go, thinking it trivial and distracting, and she leaves in a huff. Charles' maid Rosie notices an inscription on the clock: "Wind once at Christmas moon, true love will find you soon." After she leaves, he does indeed wind the clock and he immediately passes out on the floor. When he wakes up, he is in his study, but things are very different. It’s now 2020 and the Whitley mansion has become a museum (Charles vanished mysteriously that night in 1903 and was never found) in which tours are given and actors dressed in period costumes play the parts of Charles, Eliza and Rosie. When an understandably confused Charles comes downstairs during a tour, he tries to order everyone out of the house. Megan, the woman playing Rosie, who also runs the museum, manages to make everyone think that his anger is part of the show--and later when the two figure out what has happened, Megan agrees to help him find the long-lost Christmas clock so he can reverse its actions and get back to 1903. However, there are complications. For one, after Charles disappeared, Eliza married his rival Harold and seemed to have led a happy life. Second, Megan, who is the great-granddaughter of the original Rosie, finds herself falling for the handsome and gentlemanly Charles.

This is an unusual story for a Hallmark movie: it opens with a ten-minute sepia-toned sequence set in the past, and the usual big-city/small-town conflicts aren't present--there is a small subplot about Megan applying for an academic job at a local university, but that takes up about three minutes of screen time. However, if you worry about Hallmark straying too far from their templates, the narrative settles down into the familiar plotline of one romantic lead who needs to come to the realization that he or she needs to give something up and stay with the other romantic lead. This is helped greatly by the handsome Ryan Paevey who does a nice job as a man uncomfortably out of his time. His way of indicating that he's from the past is to speak in complete sentences and to use formal, slightly stiff body language. There is some humor as he runs into things like cell phones and the Internet, but surprisingly that is kept to a minimum amount of comic relief. It also helps that Peavey has good chemistry with Erin Cahill who plays Megan as though she has some brains and common sense--not always in evidence in Hallmark heroines. A secondary romance involving two of the other actors in the museum is neither irritating nor especially involving. The device of the "Christmas moon" is explained as happening when there are two full moons in December. That doesn’t actually seem to be a "thing," but it’s clever. Overall, quite watchable. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 21, 2020


Mike Mitchell is the handsome star of the TV legal drama Handsome Justice, but he may be out of a job when, just before Christmas, the network has indicated that they might not renew the show. But Mike has little time to worry about that as he and his brother Brandon (along with his husband Jake) have been called back home by Mom and Dad. The plan is to celebrate one last splashy holiday in the house they grew up in before it's put on the market. But Mike suspects that there are unspoken tensions in the house. Brandon and Jake are trying to adopt but don't want to jinx their plan by talking about it too soon. Mom and Dad seem to be having relationship problems: Dad has retired into an easy and predictable routine, but Mom, just retiring, wants more out of life, and eventually we learn that they plan to separate after the house sells. Finally, there's Andi, once the girl next door and almost Mike's girlfriend in high school. After a divorce, she's back home as a single mom, and sparks may be reigniting between the two. Can everyone get the spectacular Christmas House in shape and still manage to work out their problems?

The plot here is nothing unusual, but the movie has gotten a lot of publicity for its inclusion of a same-sex couple in a major plotline. To give Hallmark credit, they work the two men into the Christmas romance template nicely. In fact, after an opening featuring Mike in character as Handsome Justice, the first people we meet are Brandon and Jake, holding hands and talking about adoption. They even get a full-on kiss which seems fuller than the kiss that Mike and Andi (inevitably) share at the end. But having said that, overall the movie is a bit too stuffed with supporting character incidents, and the main romance, between Mile and Andi, doesn't feel well developed. Andi is played by Ana Ayora; refreshingly, she goes against type for a Hallmark heroine--she's not blond (short and dark haired, she's Colombian-American) and not bubbly and never comes close to shedding a tear. And while I should feel good about all that, I admit I missed the fizziness of other Hallmark romantic leads. Robert Buckley is sincere and appropriately handsome as Mike--and the opening scene from Handsome Justice is fun. The other actors are fine: Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence as the parents, Jonathan Bennett as Brandon, and Brad Harder as Jake.

Though Hallmark has yet to make a gay couple the lead in a movie, this season seems to be the tipping point for same-sex Christmas romances. Lifetime, Paramount Television, and Hulu all have holiday movies with same-sex leads, and I'll be viewing some of those next. Five years ago, I would have said that Hallmark would never have gay lead characters, but now I'm not so sure. I must give credit to the director, Michael Grossman, and the writers (who include actors Buckely and Bennett) for pulling this off this small step. Pictured from left: Bennett, Buckley and Harder. [Hallmark]

Sunday, December 20, 2020


After a month of writing reviews of Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies, it has finally dawned on me that I keep saying the same thing about them all being the same movie, from the same template with the same conventions and often the same actors. Of course, this is more or less true of many genres--cozy mysteries, thrillers, romances, superhero movies, etc. and why genre lovers keep coming back for more. But those genres contain many variations whereas the Christmas TV-movie does not. It used to, back in the 90s and early 2000s, when you could find stories inspired by A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, or stories with actual magic or ghosts or Santa. But now they all seem to center around the big-city career woman grounding herself by finding the right small-town man. Or sometimes it’s a businessman and a small-town gal. Or two business people in competition for a job. There are movies with veterans and royalty, but those aren't my cup of tea. 

This one is no better or worse than any other I've seen this year. Scottie Thompson is a big-city single mom who is about to accept a job at a high-powered ad company. At Christmas she and her daughter go to the small town of Hopewell to sell her grandmother's house. The meet-cute moment: at the local bookstore, she sees handsome Ryan Paevey shoplifting some books, but when she reports him to the owner (Colleen Winton), she is told he is a schoolteacher who looks for books and settles up at the end of each month. The moment when you know Scottie will get stuck in the small town: she agrees to help Colleen, an older woman thinking of retiring, run the store over the holidays. The hero's hidden depths: in addition to being a much-loved elementary school teacher, he works at a Christmas tree farm, takes over as the town Santa, is a widower, and a published author (under a different name). Romantic sparks fly, fanned by the daughter, but also complications arise (a minor misunderstanding causes Scottie to become peevish and stubborn in the last 20 minutes of the movie). But it's hardly a spoiler to note that in the last five minutes, Scottie decides to turn down the big city job, stay to take over the bookstore, and settle in with Ryan.

As usual, it all comes down to the look (very Christmassy) and the actors. Paevey, pictured, who was a soap opera actor before Hallmark discovered him, is ridiculously handsome (in a soapy way) and has no bad angles from which to be shot. He is masculine (deep voiced) in an nonthreatening way. (This movie has no romantic rivals to threaten either of the leads.) Thompson is mature, attractive and likable (even when she's being unreasonably angry at Ryan). Winton is older, spunky and wise, and serves as co-matchmaker with the daughter (Erica Tremblay, who is fine). Race watch: Scottie's potential boss is Black, and Ryan's best buddy is Asian (Nelson Wong, who has make a career out of these sidekick roles). This is absolutely average in every way. It's pleasant viewing but you'll remember little about it the next day, which is why I wrote this review in a hurry. But coming up this week, I'll cover two movies which finally break the mold in a more important way: same-sex couples are featured prominently. Will this be a good thing? Stay tuned. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 17, 2020


Sarah (Lindy Booth) is a successful interior designer for a hotel chain, but she needs a little time away from New York because of publicity concerning her recent breakup with a big Hollywood star, so she heads off to a ranch in Colorado to spend time with her Uncle Roy (Treat Williams), who raised her, and her brother Cody (Chris McNally). Roy's wife died last year and Roy is seriously considering selling the ranch, which dismays Sarah as, to her, it's the only real home she's ever had. Cody is sympathetic, but he has dreams of getting into movies as a horse handler. To make matters even worse, who should show up at the ranch but movie star Graham (Kristoffer Polaha, pictured), who has decided to spend a couple of weeks working as a ranch hand as research for his next movie. Despite her wariness about movie stars, Sarah finds herself attracted to Graham, and vice versa. However, more complications arise: Sarah takes on the task of organizing the Christmas parade that her late aunt used to run; Graham's co-star Nicole shows up, believing the studio publicity that she and Graham are an item; and it looks as if Roy has a buyer for the ranch. Will Sarah's Christmas wishes for love and home come true?

I don’t really have much to say about this—it's an absolutely run-of-the-mill Hallmark Christmas movie (businesswoman escaping the big city, finding love in a small town with a hunky but sensitive man). In a by-the-numbers case like this, it comes down to the actors. Kristoffer Polaha is a Hallmark regular and he is a notch above the average Christmas hero, with an appealing casualness about him. Lindy Booth is not as appealing—her emoting is done mostly by ducking her head down a bit and looking up with sad and/or intimidated eyes, but also the part is underwritten. Her past, including the fling with the movie star and her growing up on the ranch, is all presented as exposition so she doesn't get a chance to express any emotions except mild frustration. Chris McNally makes the most of his supporting part as the brother, and old pro Treat Williams pretty much sleepwalks through his stereotyped part—that's not meant as a slam, it's about all he can do with the thin material and the lazy direction. Even the title is a problem; though technically set in a Colorado town in the Rockies, mountains play no part in the story or even much of the scenery. On the other hand, it's hard to work up much hate for the movie. Like I said, run of the mill. 3 Christmas trees out of 5. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 14, 2020


Phoebe is the owner of a successful small town flower shop, but she's a bit stuck in her ways and is hit hard by the fact that her old neighborhood's Christmas tradition of decorating the entire street as Candy Cane Lane won't be happening this year. Her friend and business partner Laurie tries to get her to adopt some new traditions, like helping to decorate at the local assisted living facility. Meanwhile, Eric, the town's much-loved and handsome vet, is still feeling wounded after breaking up with his fiancée last year and his co-workers are pushing him to start dating again. The obligatory meet-cute moment comes when Eric goes to Phoebe's shop to buy a poinsettia for his Aunt Maggie (a resident of the facility, though frankly she seems more vibrant and healthy than most of the other cast members). Phoebe finds him attractive but when he refers to his aunt only by the "she" pronoun, Phoebe assumes he has a girlfriend. When she goes to help decorate, she meets Maggie and Eric, and realizes her mistake, so it's gotta be clear sailing for the two to start clicking and dating and doing all things Christmas, right? Of course not, because there is still an hour of movie left.

Sad to say, the film goes downhill from here. Of course, the Christmas romance genre demands complications, but the writer isn't able to craft a compelling narrative, let alone a logical one. They kind of, sort of, start to date--they're both rather passive characters and the sidekicks (Laurie, Aunt Maggie, the vet workers, and a delivery guy named Joe, all of whom are more interesting than Phoebe and Eric) put in all the work of trying to get them together. Obstacles include minor misunderstandings about other potential dating interests, and a major misunderstanding when Phoebe overhears a conversation about Eric's ex and assumes that she's back in the picture (how original!). In one of the most ridiculous Christmas movie scenes ever, Eric manages to get Phoebe under some mistletoe, but their kiss is thwarted--by the ping of a microwave oven that was warming up some cocoa. Really? They couldn't warm up their lips and let the cocoa get cold?

I was ready to give up on this halfway through. The only reason I stuck with it was the presence of the charming Mark Ghanimé, of whom I’m a big fan, as Eric. He tries hard, but the only direction he seems to have been given was to smile a lot. Beverley Mitchell, a star of the popular family show 7th Heaven, is just dreadful as Phoebe. She's low energy, unlikeable, and drab-looking (mostly that lank hair). Virtually all the other actors, including Trudy Weiss (Maggie), Benedicte Belizaire (Laurie), and Brett Geddes (Adam, the vet's buddy), are more appealing than the leads. While I was watching, I even conjured up an alternate plotline in which Laurie and Adam became the central couple since Phoebe and Eric have no chemistry. Didn't happen. Though the Candy Cane Christmas of the title is largely set aside for most of the movie, it returns as the end when Eric and his friends (magically, it seems) manage to recreate the old tradition in less than 24 hours to provide a happy ending. Lifetime's holiday movies are usually a little more interesting than Hallmark's but not this misfire. [Lifetime]

Thursday, December 10, 2020


It's Christmas Eve and Kate has a plan. She heads to a department store to pick up a gift for her ex-boyfriend Jack to give him when they meet later when she hopes she can rekindle their relationship. Her stepmother has set her up on a blind date with a nice boy named Miles and the two of them are supposed to head over to the family home for dinner, but she's fully prepared to blow that off when Jack sees the error of his ways. However, at the department store, she gets perfume spritzed in her face and passes out. She comes to with a concerned older guy standing over her but seems to have no ill effects so goes on her way. Stopping at her apartment, she is brusque to her friendly neighbor who has baked her some bread. At a bar, she mistakes a nerd named Toby for her date and is rude to him. She meets Miles, who is handsome and pleasant enough, but disses him to meet Jack. Unfortunately, Jack has brought along his new girlfriend whom he is taking off to a cabin for a romantic Christmas Eve. She agrees to take Jack's dog for the weekend (the one nice thing she does) and falls asleep alone, but at the stroke of midnight, a spark shoots out of her TV set, turned to a shopping channel selling an Christmas partridge ornament, and she is whooshed back in time to earlier in the day when she wakes to find herself on the department store floor, and is soon reliving her disappointing Christmas Eve--and she'll have to go through it twelve times, as we know from the title. 

Yes, it's Groundhog Day set at Christmas, which means that slowly, the selfish Kate will learn lessons in relationships, humility, friendship, and generally being a nice human being. But Groundhog Day itself was clearly inspired in part by Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in which someone is forced to relive the past to become a better person. Also in the mix is a classic short story called "Christmas Every Day" in which a boy's wish that everyday could be Christmas is granted--bad things happen and lessons are learned (and that story was made into an ABC Family Christmas movie back in the 90s). So I didn't hold the rip-off against this film too much. At first, Kate focuses on winning back Jack, but she also begins paying attention to the people around her--her neighbor, the loser Toby, the helpful man in the department store--and each relived day, she becomes nicer. But there's still the matter of accepting that Jack is out of the picture, and that maybe Miles is a nicer guy than she gives him credit for. 

The acting is fine, with Amy Smart as Kate and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Miles. I like that the ex (played by Benjamin Ayres) is presented as a nice guy, not a jerk as in so many Christmas romances. And I really like the final Christmas Eve which involves a gathering that would have been unthinkable on the first of Kate's Christmas Eves. But twelve eves are too many. I know twelve goes with the Christmas carol, but things would have played out more compactly and smoothly with just maybe six relivings. Still, the movie's heart is in the right place, and while I might not want to rewatch this twelve times, I could stand to see it again sometime. [Amazon Prime]

Tuesday, December 08, 2020


Rachel (Natalie Knepp) is a motivational speaker and author whose books are all about putting yourself first. Her first book was a bestseller, but her second one wasn't as successful, so her publisher is giving her new book a big push, culminating in a 12-day Inspiration Celebration seminar event held at Christmastime in her New England hometown. Rachel is not a big fan of Christmas, and she's wary of getting back into contact with her brother David, whom she hasn't seen in years, but this is a big deal for her career, so she cooperates with her high-powered manager Stuart (Steve Bacic), even approving the hiring of a PR consultant named Jack (Michael Rady), who left the big city life of Boston for a slower pace. Jack suggests a softening of her image, and even re-brands the event as a Christmas Inspiration Celebration. While distractedly crossing the street one day, Rachel almost steps out in front of a car and she is pushed to safety by a woman named Joy (Bonnie Bedelia), a kind if somewhat withdraw soul who helps run a community center for disadvantaged families and teaches music to the kids. Rachel hires Joy to be a consultant for the seminar, but some of her ideas, which seem to be taking Rachel away from her self-oriented philosophy, don't sit well with Stuart. Meanwhile, Rachel and Jack become closer and closer, and Rachel must make a decision about her future priorities. 

If I ever see a Hallmark Christmas movie that doesn't open with a swooping high shot of a snow-covered small town or big city, I would probably freak out and think I'd woken up in an alternate reality. This opens with such a shot, and pretty much sticks to one of the old templates: high-powered businesswoman is sent to a small town, falls in love with a salt-of-the-earth guy and changes her life for the better. The first hour of this was something of a chore to sit through; Knepp and Rady are OK but no real chemistry builds between them. But Bonnie Bedelia saves the day giving a nicely low-key performance as the somewhat mysterious Joy. Based on Christmas movie conventions, we might assume that Joy will turn out to be a literal guardian angel, but that's not the case here. However, she is involved in a secondary plot line that I won't spoil—but as soon as you get to the scene where she causally notes that she's allergic to chocolate, you'll know what's going to happen. I liked Steve Bacic as what passes for a bad guy here—you can feel Bacic chomping at the bit for a better-developed character. This is a run-of-the-mill Christmas romance that you could take or leave. [Hallmark Channel]

Monday, December 07, 2020


At her San Francisco advertising agency, Jen is in the running for a big promotion; her only real competition is a brittle, unlikeable co-worker. After Jen impresses her boss with another great ad campaign, she takes some time off to head to Chestnut Hill, a small town in Alaska, to see about selling some property her great-aunt left her. It turns out to be a lovely little inn that was always nicely decorated for Christmas. And, of course, her great-aunt was also instrumental in holding the traditional Christmas festival. And, of course, some of the locals are hoping that she’ll decorate the inn and participate in the town festivities. She gets some help from her aunt’s lawyer, Brian, who is, of course, handsome and, though a little snarky at first, quite charming when she gets to know him. Sparks fly, but she soon gets a nibble from a big corporation about buying the inn, and then is called back to town to attend the company’s holiday party and get her promotion. The big city is calling her and the small town has its hold on Brian--can they find a way forward or was this just a Christmas almost-fling?

This Lifetime movie is a good example of how the lay of the land of the Christmas TV romance has changed. The plot is the same rehashing of genre elements (businesswoman under pressure, small-town guy who works with his hands--in addition to being the town lawyer, Brian also builds sleighs!) but the central couple is interracial and it’s not problematic for anyone. Also, perhaps because this is a Lifetime movie, the two leads are a little off-center from the norm. Tia Mowry (with whom I was unfamiliar but who became a teen star in the TV show Sister, Sister) carries a little more weight and age than her Hallmark sisters; Rob Mayes as Brian is a little scruffier and a little less hunky than his Hallmark brethren. But both are quite appealing and do generate enough chemistry for their budding relationship to feel real--stronger writing to develop the characters would have been nice. You know they are destined to wind up together, but I liked the fact that in the end, both are willing to give something up to be with each other (Spoiler: Brian flies to San Francisco to tell her he’ll give up Chestnut Hill to be with her, unaware that she has already turned down her promotion to go back and run the inn.) It was a pleasant surprise to see Jackée Harry and Tim Reid as Jen’s parents, though they only have two short scenes. There is the now obligatory romantic subplot with two supporting characters who unfortunately have no chemistry at all, and I was a little disappointed that the Christmas Inn itself is basically ignored for most of the movie, but overall I enjoyed this as a kicking-off point for my 2020 excursion into Christmas movies. [Lifetime]

Friday, December 04, 2020


After we see some quotations about evil spirits from various scriptures, we learn that convicted strangler Ruth Rogen has been sentenced to death, but Dr. Houston (H.B. Warner), convinced that Rogen's evil spirit could possess someone after her death, gets permission to take delivery of her to try and stop it. Meanwhile, another plotline develops involving Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard) trying to contact the spirit of her murdered brother John through medium Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart). We know Bavian is a fake because we've seen him sneak into a funeral parlor and take a plaster cast of John's face to use in his phony séance. He hopes to weasel his way into getting a chunk of the Courtney fortune, and when his landlady tries to blackmail Bavian, he kills her by stabbing her with a poison ring. At the séance, Roma is convinced by Bavian's trickery, but her boyfriend Grant (Randolph Scott) is skeptical. When they go visit Dr. Houston to see what he thinks, he's in the middle of trying to trap Rogen's soul, but the evil spirit actually does inhabit Roma and then tries to drive Roma to kill Bavian. This seems like one of the earliest talkies to assume that the supernatural is, in fact, real. Where most other movies of the time would ultimately explain everything as fakery, this one takes the presence of undead spirits as a given. Director Victor Halperin was fresh off of WHITE ZOMBIE, a low-budget but very effective horror film with Bela Lugosi which has gone on to develop a cult following. This one does have some stylish effects now and then, but its big city setting doesn't lend itself as much to atmosphere. For a movie that's roughly an hour long, it zips quickly through a lot of plot. It's got an unusual feel—part horror, part sci-fi, with some dry comic relief humor and even romance thrown in. I've never found Carole Lombard appealing, and she's no different here, though she does do a nice job of acting evil after she's possessed. Vivienne Osborne is fine as Rogen. Interesting mostly as a novelty. Pictured is Lombard getting possessed by Osborne. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 01, 2020


This is another movie serial fans consider one of the best, and it is indeed quite entertaining, with good special effects and some decent gimmicks which would have kept the kids coming back week after week to see each new chapter—there are 12 in all here, totaling over three and a half hours, and while I can't imagine watching all the chapters in one sitting, I had fun watching two at a time over a week or so, as preludes to my evenings’ lengthier entertainments. An archaeological expedition in Siam comes across an undesecrated tomb which contains a scorpion statue outfitted with lenses that, when aligned correctly, can change metal to gold and/or emit a powerful destructive ray. Young Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr.), who seems to be along as a kind of mascot, decides to follow the warnings engraved on the wall of the tomb and refuses to enter. For this, he is rewarded when a strange ancient man appears and bestows the magical power of transformation on him; when Billy says the word "Shazam," he turns from a skinny teenager to a grown-up superhero (played by Tom Tyler). Batson keeps this power secret, but is forced to use it frequently when, back in the States, the expedition members each take one scorpion lens for safekeeping and are targeted by a costumed villain called the Scorpion. Most of the chapters involve the Scorpion and his henchmen staking out the house of one of the expedition members and making a stab at stealing the lens, with Captain Marvel falling into a trap at the end of the chapter and escaping at the beginning of the next chapter. As in most serials, there is virtually no character development, and no real narrative thrust aside from the cliffhanger structure. The only continuing suspense is in figuring out who the Scorpion is, and my husband, who had never watched an entire serial before, figured it out early on. Tyler is very wooden as Marvel, though Coghlan has an appropriate gee-whiz tone. The special effects are fairly good, especially the flying sequences, which use a life-sized dummy double of Marvel which is zipped through the air quite effectively—it's basically the same sequence used once or twice an episode.  Some serial regulars, such as Reed Hadley and Robert Strange, appear, but the only supporting player who really registers is John Davidson, another serial regular, as the turbaned exotic Tal Chotali who is so mysterious, you know he can't be the villain.  The best cliffhangers involve an electrified hallway with a guillotine at its end, and a ship sinking during a storm, and one of the most memorable moments involves Captain Marvel casually tossing one the villainous goons to his death, a callous act that you won't see in most superhero movies. The image quality of the DVD is good if not quite what I would call restored.  If you've never seen a serial, this would be a good one to start with. [DVD]