Friday, December 31, 2021


Or, what exactly is a Christmas movie?

I'm sure I've mentioned in the past my obsessive concern with what makes something a Christmas movie. Years ago, I read an article that said it wasn't enough for a movie to be primarily set at Christmas; it should also have some element of magic. Think of movies like Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, or any version of A Christmas Carol. I like this criterion, though it’s not a foolproof test; A Christmas Story, The Holly and the Ivy, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and its ilk (stories of suburban holiday antics) may not have any magic or fantasy, but they are laser-focused on Christmas. For some viewers, any movie which features a Christmas scene or setting is a Christmas movie (see Die Hard fans); for me, defining a Christmas movie is like defining pornography: I know it when I see it. When I wrote my review of BEYOND TOMORROW, I realized that there are, more or less, two kinds of Christmas movies: those that are clearly striving for Christmas movie status, and those that have that status thrust upon them. This, like BEYOND, has become a Christmas movie by default for two reasons: the climax takes place in Gimbels department store on Christmas Eve, and the film is currently in the Turner Classic Movies library so they show it every December as a holiday classic. However, there really is little else about this that deserves the Christmas movie label.

Fitzwilly (Dick Van Dyke) is butler and head of household to the rich, elderly and philanthropic Victoria Woodworth (Edith Evans), but as we discover, she is no longer rich. Fitzwilly and his staff have been acting as Robin Hood and his merry men, engaging in theft and con games in order to support Woodworth in her charitable ways. Their well-intentioned larceny goes off smoothly until Victoria hires Juliet (Barbara Feldon) as a secretary to help her with a dictionary of misspelled words that she hopes to get published. After a prickly initial encounter, Juliet and Fitzwilly slowly warm up to each other. Juliet, without realizing it, begins throwing monkey wrenches into the plans for the staff's criminal behavior. When she discovers what they've been doing, Fitzwilly agrees to stop, but he has to pull one last big heist: steal all the cash in Gimbels department store at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Parts of this are fun, but overall it should be fizzier and looser than it is. One problem is Van Dyke; much as I love him on TV, he just doesn't have what it takes to come alive on the big screen (Bye Bye Birdie excepted). He feels pent up, like he wants to let loose with some slapstick but can't. He has more chemistry with the staff (including John McGiver, Noam Pitlik and a young Sam Waterston) than he does with Feldon, who herself comes off as absolutely charming. I'm not sure why Feldon didn’t have a bigger movie career–maybe because it seemed like she was always playing variations on her Agent 99 character on the 60s TV comedy Get Smart. The big Gimbels climax is lots of fun, but getting there is sometimes a bit trying. As for whether or not it's a Christmas movie, I don't think so, but I guess that really depends on the viewer. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


The week before Christmas, Noelle (Beverley Mitchell) moves from Chicago back to her small hometown in Louisiana to work at a medical clinic with her widowed father Pete. She is happy to be back with her brother Will (and his fiancée Jen) and pleased to meet up with old friends, but less happy to run into her high school boyfriend Nick (Stephen Colletti, pictured); they broke up ten years ago when he went off to a career in professional baseball and old wounds still fester. Before she starts working in the new year, she decides to restage the beloved nativity that her late mother used to hold every Christmas. Noelle slowly warms to Nick's presence, especially when she finds out that Nick's baseball career is on hold until he recovers from a serious shoulder injury and he's donating his time to running an after-school baseball camp for some adorable children. Just as it seems like Noelle and Nick are getting back in their old groove, she finds out that he plans on leaving town and going back to his career as soon as he's recovered, despite the fact that the local high school has offered him a coaching job. This Lifetime Christmas romance is pretty much par for the course: attractive leads, moderately interesting side characters, and lots and lots of Christmas visuals, despite being set in Louisiana which doesn't get much snow. Mitchell and Colletti have good chemistry, but so do Erin Cahill (Jen) and Donny Boaz (Will), so it's a little disappointing that their story is handled rather sloppily. Somewhat surprisingly, the plot conflicts never get too melodramatic. The word "pleasant" describes it well, and if you're looking for something edgier or more dramatic, look elsewhere. 3 Christmas trees out of 5 [Lifetime]

Addie and her best friend Drea work at a high-powered party-planning company. They have one week to plan a holiday party for a demanding client, the Donner Legacy Foundation--the one thing that works in this movie is the running gag of people calling it "the Donner party." Addie has been nursing a crush on Sam, the guy in the next apartment. We see her literally run into him in the hallway, and though he seems approachable, Addie gets tongue tied in his presence. Her chummy neighbor Mrs. Motley notices Addie's predicament and gets Addie to wish on a falling star, telling her all Christmas wishes come true. Addie wishes that her neighbor would fall in love with her. But she's not quite precise enough with the wish. The next day, just as Addie is starting to make some headway with Sam, she discovers that a high school friend, Pete, has moved in across the hall from her, and Pete is the one who falls head over heels in love with her. He's a sweet-natured goof but he proves to be an obsessed nuisance, messing up a date with Sam and even threatening the smoothness of her party-planning activities. Drea and Mrs. Motley try to help her, but she's convinced that only another Christmas wish can right this wrong. I appreciate the attempt at an element of magic here (the falling star wish), but that’s about all I appreciate. Cindy Sampson is fine as Addie, though her performance is part of the problem with the story--she seems way too well-adjusted not to be able to fix this problem in a hurry: tell off Pete without mincing words and be honest with Sam about her feelings. Of course, then the movie would be about 45 minutes long. Robin Dunne (Sam), normally a charming Christmas movie lead, comes off as drab and unappealing, In a different Christmas romance, Sam would be the loser boyfriend. Chris Violette (Pete) has the quirky frat boy thing down, but his performance is pretty one-note, again due as much to the writing (and direction) as to his acting. 2 Christmas trees out of 5. [Ion TV]

Maya grew up in a small town in Colorado, had a high-school crush on Alex, and, unable to tell him about her feelings, wrote him a long letter, stuck it in his jacket pocket, and then left for a lengthy European vacation. He doesn't respond so when she gets back, in order to make him jealous, she exaggerates a relationship she had with a French boy. The stunt doesn't work and the two go off to separate colleges, both becoming lawyers. Now, some ten years later, Maya has gotten burned out on the fast pace of a big law firm and is in her hometown living with her parents and freelancing via Zoom. Meanwhile, Alex, with a law firm in New York City, is home for the holidays (and also working remotely) to be with Luis, the uncle who raised him, as he goes through the process of selling his Mexican bakery. Alex is a bit miffed when he finds out that Luis has hired Maya to help him with the sale, but that's because Alex is always insanely busy in New York. Of course, she warms up to him and he to her, but their unresolved past still stands between them (it turns out the letter she left in the jacket got lost for a while, but he did eventually read it). There’s a legend that the gingerbread cookies Luis bakes can cause wishes to come true--that could happen here, if these two mixed-up kids ever discover what it is they really wish for. This Hallmark Christmas movie hits all the usual beats at the usual times, including the complicating factor in the romance at the 90-minute mark and the long-delayed kiss in the fadeout (and, as in the above movie, a magical power of a wish). What puts it a slight notch above the norm is the main setting, the Mexican bakery, and the legit Latino actors--Jon Ecker as Alex and Jorge Montesi as Luis. Honestly, those two have as good if not better chemistry as nephew and uncle than Ecker and Merritt Patterson (Maya) have as romantic leads. Ecker is kinda smolderingly handsome but also a little too broody throughout. Patterson is fine as are Patch May as Jacques, the French baker who wants to buy Luis's bakery (and maybe play kissy-face with Maya), and Preston Vanderslice as a subplot boyfriend of a subplot character. Likeable and harmless. 4 Christmas trees out of 5. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 27, 2021


Carly Hughes is a newspaper journalist jonesing for a promotion to head of the newsroom, but when a digital media conglomerate (represented by the brittle Marie Osmond) buys the paper with plans for it to go online only, Hughes decides to leave her job and take on the responsibility of getting a small town Alaska paper back on its feet after its owner passed away and his son (Rob Mayes, pictured at right), who works as a glassblower, has been unable to stop it from turning into a once-a-month shadow of its former self. She turns it into a town sensation by focusing on Christmas doings and local businesses, and she becomes a beloved local figure. Having struck some sparks with Mayes, Hughes plans to stick with the job and the challenges of post-Christmas existence, but when Osmond gets wind of the paper's success, she heads up to Alaska with an offer to buy the paper–and make it online only. She also offers Hughes her newsroom job at her old paper. Will Mayes sell? Will Hughes leave? Will Osmond, who seems to have had lots of face work, be able to express any emotion beyond dismissive haughtiness? My mini-crush on Mayes, good at playing unpolished average guys, kept me watching this painfully predictable movie. Mayes and Hughes are both fine, though their chemistry is lacking–a scene at an observatory, which should be the romantic highpoint, fizzles. Osmond seems uncomfortable, though she loosens up a bit near the end. 3 Christmas trees out of 5. [Lifetime/Amazon Prime]

Erin Krakow and Kimberly Sustad are sisters (the Dashwoods, as in Jane Austen's novel from which this takes its inspiration) who run a Chicago party-planning business. There is tension between the two: Sustad, the more serious sister, thinks that Krakow isn’t carrying her weight. Luke Macfarlane is the new head of a toy company built by his father, but Dad is unwilling to fade into retirement and still bosses Macfarlane around. When Krakow meets Macfarlane, they don’t hit it off, but they agree to work together when he hires her to throw a big toy company holiday party. She sees this as her chance to impress her sister with her skills, and he sees this as a chance to show dad that he can stand alone. Meanwhile, Sustad hits it off with Jason McKinnon, Macfarlane's cousin. In the end, the party goes off perfectly, Dad decides his son is OK on his own, and the couples couple up. Fairly bland overall. Krakow has a nice loosey-goosey approach to her role, unlike the predictable approaches of most Hallmark leads, but I sort of wished that Sustad, the more interesting actor, had Krakow's role. Macfarlane is handsome but seems to be (almost literally) gritting his teeth to get through the role–to be fair, his character is supposed to be uptight so maybe this was an acting choice but I found it distracting. The supporting cast is practically invisible and not given much to do. 2 Christmas trees out of 5. [Hallmark]

Eliza Taylor is about to inherit her father's business but she has a reputation in the tabloids as the "playgirl heiress" so her dad wants her to prove her mettle by carrying out the relatively simple task of heading to the small New England town of Snow Falls a few days before Christmas to deliver some letters to her dad's former business partner Zeke. But as in a fairytale, there are requirements: she can't take her credit cards, she can only have $100 in cash, she has to go by bus, and she can’t tell anyone who she is. Her high-powered fiancé is not happy as he wants her on his arm at a big Christmas Eve party, but she assures him she'll be back in plenty of time. In town, she meets the handsome Jake Lacy (pictured at left), taxi driver and manager of the inn she is booked into for the night. Of course, there is friction between them at first, but as she sees what an all-around nice guy he is, and he sees a more humble side of her, they soften toward each other. Will Eliza fulfill her duty? Will she and Jake be more than friends? This one has a few strikes against it. The delivery of the Christmas letters is a strange plot device that is never fully explored. The fiancé is no more than the usual stock bad-guy boyfriend with zero personality. Snowstorms (with barely a covering of snow on the streets) and spotty cell phone reception play roles in the intrigue. Andie McDowell is a local who becomes a friend and confidante to Eliza, but she remains just a convenient plot device. The saving grace here is the chemistry of the lead actors. Australian actor Eliza Taylor does a nice job as Ellen--her playgirl behavior is absolutely vanilla--and Jake Lacy (the rich and hateful husband in HBO's The White Lotus) is frat-boy handsome and generally charming. The plot's one interesting quirk is his negative reaction to hearing "Silent Night" because a former girlfriend broke up with him years ago with that song playing in the background. Overall, pleasant but a bit lame. 2.5 Christmas trees out of 5. [Netflix]

Saturday, December 25, 2021


As the song "Silver Bells" says (and a brief opening montage makes clear) it's Christmastime in the city and three wealthy older men, partners in an engineering firm who live together in a big house, are waiting for their invited guests for Christmas Eve dinner. The household consists of Harry Carey (cantankerous and cynical), C. Aubrey Smith (pleasant but still haunted by the death of his young son in the war) and Charles Winninger (always jolly and optimistic), and their maid (Maria Ouspenskaya), a former Russian countess. When their guests have to cancel, they become gloomy until Winninger suggests a way to share their dinner: they each toss a wallet with $10 and a business card out on the sidewalk and wait to see if any honest people turn up to return the money. Despite Carey's insistence that no one will show up, two people do: Richard Carlson, a Texas rodeo rider stranded in New York City and Jean Parker, a young woman who works as a children's health clinic. They all hit off that evening and soon the three men are spending time socializing with Carlson and Parker, as the two become romantically involved. Sadly, a plane crash takes the lives of the three older men who, in their will, leave the house and some money to Carlson. When Carlson is interviewed on the radio, he gets a shot at singing on the air and becomes a success, but his relationship with Parker is strained when radio star Helen Vinson puts the moves on him. However, the three dead men return to earth as ghosts (only Ouspenskaya can sense their presence) and take it upon themselves to try and bring Carlson and Parker back together before they get called back to the hereafter.

The first half-hour or so of this movie is set on Christmas Eve and has a strong holiday atmosphere, but by the time the fantasy element sets in, Christmas has been long forgotten. But television's appetite for movies that can be run every year, and even better, movies which have fallen into the public domain and can be run free of charge, has turned this into a minor Christmas "classic." (A colorized version has been released under the title Beyond Christmas.) The prints I have seen of this are dark and murky, and give it a film noir look. It's got a B-movie feel to it that is accentuated by the split in the acting. Winninger, Smith and Ouspenskaya are very good; Carlson are Vinson are OK; Carey and Parker are a little weak. The ghost "rules" are not well explained. The three seem to have been sent back to Earth in a kind of purgatory state, perhaps specifically to help Carlson and Parker, though that is never made plain. They are called back to the afterworld one by one: Carey by thunder and lightning, perhaps being sent to Hell; Smith by his dead soldier son; Winninger chooses to stay to finish up his matchmaking, though he is told by a booming supernatural voice that if he stays, he will "linger in the shadows of earth for all time." Despite this, Winninger and Carey are reunited and taken to Heaven in the end. A better screenplay would have helped. This is interesting and watchable, but whether it deserves the label "classic," I'm not sure. Pictured: Winninger, Smith and Carey as ghosts with Ouspenskaya in the middle. [DVD]

Thursday, December 23, 2021


The small town of Dickens, Ohio is about to stage their 100th anniversary production of A Christmas Carol, but the older actor who usually plays Scrooge has a problem with vocal nodules and can't speak for an entire month. Brooke D'Orsay, who is directing the show, is encouraged by the mayor to contact Hollywood actor Kristoffer Polaha, the star of an action movie franchise; his catchphrase is "Do the right thing--or it's the last thing you'll do!" Polaha grew up in Dickens, still has a brother there from whom he is estranged, and more importantly, he and D'Orsay had a brief attachment in high school. Desperate to get hired for a serious dramatic role (in a movie based on his late mother's favorite book), Polaha turns her down, but when he discovers that he's not up for the role, he decides to head to Dickens and take the role of Scrooge. While he's at it, he manages to patch things up with his brother, become a doting uncle to his young nephew (who's playing Tiny Tim in the play), and get close to D'Orsay. Suddenly a complication rears its ugly head: he might be up for the film role after all, but he has to attend a Christmas Eve party at the director's house back in Hollywood and will have to skip out on the show. In addition to jeopardizing the play, and his relationship with D'Orsay, will this also jeopardize Polaha's personal growth? 

This one is a delight, due largely to the performance of the charming Polaha. There's a fun scene in the beginning showing Polaha filming an action scene against a green screen that portends more unpredictable fun scenes. Unfortunately, this is not to be–except for Polaha's entrance in the small town theater as he booms out "Bah, humbug!," there are few other deviations from the Hallmark norm. Still, the lightness of touch that Polaha has and the committed performance of D'Orsay combine to set this at the top of the recent Hallmark film stack. The problematic relationship with the brother (Chad Willett) is fleshed out just enough to make us care about its outcome. Nerdy-cute Nathan Lynn is good as Polaha's personal assistant who genuinely wants good things for his boss, and their relationship is also delved into a bit. It's fun to see Polaha overact in his first rehearsal scenes, and fun to see D'Orsay try to steer him in a different direction. This is one of the few Hallmark films I would feel comfortable recommending to friends who aren't Hallmark fans. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 21, 2021


In this year's gay Hallmark Christmas movie that isn't actually on Hallmark, Peter (Michael Urie) is ready to fly from Los Angeles to small-town New Hampshire to spend Christmas with his family and introduce them to his new boyfriend Tim. But when Nick, Peter's roommate and best friend of eight years (Philemon Chambers), discovers that Tim is married with kids, Peter is devastated. He begs Nick to accompany him to New Hampshire with the story that the two have finally become romantically involved, something Peter's family has been hoping would happen. But in New Hampshire, Peter's mom Carole (Kathy Najimy) has already set up a blind date for Peter, with the handsome and hunky James (Luke Macfarlane), a trainer at the gym, so the charade collapses immediately. Peter and James hit it off, but his family begins actively pushing for Peter and Nick to get together. Eventually, we learn that both have had feelings for the other in the past but they were never acted on. Now, Peter worries that if they become a couple and things don't work out, he'll lose his best friend. Peter decides to stay in New Hampshire, which Nick takes as a sign that he's staying for James, so Nick decides to head back to L.A before Christmas Day. Can Peter's family meddle enough to get Peter and Nick to realize they love each other?

Being that this is in every way except the genders of the main couple a Hallmark romance, that answer is not in doubt. I am happy that the Christmas romance movie genre has expanded a bit to let in sexual and racial minorities, but I also wish that the types of plotlines and tropes and characters could be more creatively expanded. Having said that, this is a cute and frothy rom-com which benefits from a good cast. Urie is delightful and Chambers has good chemistry with him. Macfarlane, who regularly plays leads in Hallmark romances, is fine as the blind date, though he and Urie never work up much chemistry, so even though in the beginning I wanted them to get together, there's never really any danger of that happening. The great supporting cast includes Kathy Najimy as the mom and Barry Bostwick as the dad. The two nieces who become the biggest meddlers are nicely played by Madison Brydges and Alexandra Beaton. Jennifer Coolidge steals every scene she's in as the eccentric aunt who is putting on a kids' Christmas pageant, the title of which I can't mention as it would give away the single funniest moment in the movie. Harmless fun I sort of wish was a little less harmless. Pictured are Chambers and Urie. [Netflix]

Monday, December 20, 2021


Carlton is a director and choreographer who has come to Palo Alto at Christmas to stage The Nutcracker. Secondarily, he is also throwing a big party celebrating his engagement to his business manager Kayla, who grew up in Palo Alto. But two seconds into their first scene together, we know this relationship won't last. Carlton is driven and obnoxious, and the only reason for the party is for the press it will get him. Kayla loved him once, but now realizes that his career will always be his first priority. Meanwhile, her hometown friend Jana is planning the party and working with her friend Dustin, a caterer and baker. The meet-cute is elaborately presented: Dustin needs a nutcracker as a model for the nutcracker cookies he is making and sees one in the window of a knick-knacks shop; Kayla, looking for a nutcracker herself, sees the same one. Dustin gets it first, and as he carts it home, Kayla is being chased down by the shop owner, a fan of Carlton's. In escaping, she winds up in an elevator with Dustin and to get rid of the woman, she gives Dustin a passionate kiss. The ruse works, Dustin is amused, and Kayla looks a little dazed. One thing leads to another and soon, egged on by their friends (Jana and Dustin's cousin Kim), Dustin and Kayla are falling in love. However, the jealous Carlton begs for another chance and Kayla says OK. Right away, we see Carlton flirting with one of his dancers but it takes another forty minutes or so of movie time for Kayla to finally come to her senses, break things off with the wrong man, and start kissing, for real, the right man.

I don't quite understand the hate for this movie on IMDb. It generally has most of the pluses and minuses of the average Christmas TV-movie. It may not quite have the glossy Hallmark sheen--it originally aired on Ion TV--but that alone is not necessarily a minus. I admit to one big prejudice in favor of this film: Brant Daugherty (Dustin) is handsome and charming and can do no wrong in my eyes. He's an expert at what I call 'whimsical masculinity,' the ability to balance, well, being whimsical and masculine, a good talent for Christmas romances. He has nice chemistry with his leading lady Karissa Lee Staples (Kayla) who is quite good in her own right. Ion Overman (Jana) and Brittany Underwood (Kim) are fine in support, and I liked the fact that Dustin has two female buddies instead of the traditional male buddy or parental figure. There are some weak points. I agree with the critics who point out that the movie basically wraps up at the halfway mark when Kayla breaks it off with Carlton (David O'Donnell, who hams it up a bit too much as the bad boyfriend), and then it’s a case of 'wash, rinse, repeat' as we go through the same story again with little variation, except for the addition of a scene at a dog shelter in which cute puppies climb all over our cute leads. (Dustin winds up with one of the puppies, mostly in support of a cute joke in which Kim, frustrated that Dustin isn’t doing enough to fight for Kayla, tells him that she’s going to get him some cats because he’s on his way to being the male version of a crazy cat lady.) Carlton’s production of the Nutcracker looks awfully low-rent from the little glimpses we see of rehearsal. Doris Roberts, the year before she passed away, has a tiny throwaway cameo as an irritating old lady who keeps trying to catch Dustin in the elevator under some mistletoe--I guess it was daring to make the sweet loveable Roberts unlikeable. Don’t trust the negative viewer comments on IMDb; I’d recommend it, especially if you’ve never seen Brant Daugherty--pictured above left with Staples and alone at right.[Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 16, 2021


Olivia (Danica McKellar) is the University of Connecticut's star arborist (didn't know Star Arborist was a thing), known by some as the Christmas Tree Whisperer for her ability to tend to sickly pine trees. She's about to take off to spend Christmas with her mom, though she's never comfortable with her mother's focus on socializing, especially this year when Olivia has called off what was supposed to be a Christmas wedding to her longtime boyfriend Justin. But an emergency call from Jack Connor (Benjamin Ayres), of Connor's Christmas Tree farm in the nearby small town of Avon, gives her an out: his cut trees are turning brown and losing needles at an alarming rate, and this is hurting his business, not to mention putting in jeopardy his ability to supply a giant tree for the Christmas Eve tree lighting in the town square, a hundred-year tradition which his grandfather started. She heads to Avon for what she expects to be an overnight visit, and the two meet cute when they have a fender bender in a roundabout. Eventually, Olivia sees what a warm and good-hearted person Jack is--he's always willing to help families in need. She runs some tests that are inconclusive and winds up staying in town for several days; romantic feelings develop, egged on by Jack's best friend Elliott and Jack's gal pal Lisa. But when Olivia suggests that Jack diversify his crops (better for the soil and would avoid having all his business hurt in the situation he is in now), he responds with negativity, insisting he would be betraying his late father by doing so. At almost the last minute, Olivia has a breakthrough on how to save the trees, but 1) will it work? and 2) will the two overcome their growing animosity over Jack's stubbornness?

A slightly above-average Hallmark Christmas movie, mostly due to the unusual circumstance of having a woman with a degree in forestry be the heroine. (The title is cute, but The Christmas Tree Whisperer would have been better.) McKellar comes off as intelligent and charming; Ayres is nice-looking but sometimes there seems to be some menace hiding behind his eyes--he has a squint that is just a degree away from being an evil leer. The supporting cast, except for Linda Darlow as Jack's mom, is underdeveloped and lackluster. The friends--Lisa, Elliot, and his girlfriend (or wife, it’s never made clear) Kelly--never become important to the story. Jason Hervey (the older brother in the original Wonder Years) has a couple of scenes as Jack's rather shady competitor. I appreciate that the usual romantic complications involving previous loves are absent--we never meet Justin or even know why Olivia left him. Some odd cutaway shots indicate rushed post-production; apparently this was shot in Canada in August during a 100 degree heatwave, though the snow settings generally look convincing. Reference is made to a glass ornament containing sand from Normandy that a relative brought back from D-Day, but nothing comes of this, and that adds to the somewhat unfinished feel the movie has. But it's certainly watchable, mostly due to good chemistry between the leads (pictured above). [Hallmark]

Monday, December 13, 2021


Sarah is an optometrist who is having her office renovated by her childhood best friend Daniel, with whom she has remained friends. Four months after a breakup, she is getting into the online dating scene, and amid the losers, including a guy in a Santa suit who tugs down his beard and gives her a sexy "Ho, ho ho" leer, she finds a couple of possibilities including Adam, a shy but rich tech genius, and Nigel, a local celebrity chef with a charming English accent. Even her ex-boyfriend Paul is making noises about getting back together. On the first night of Hanukkah, as she gathers with her family and friends (including Daniel), someone leaves an anonymous gift for her on the front porch. Over the next few nights, a new gift appears, always anonymous and always a perfect gift from someone who obviously knows quite a bit about her. Observant viewers, or anyone above the age of 10, will realize immediately that Daniel is the mysterious gift giver; there was a moment in high school when the two could have hooked up romantically, but the moment passed. Now Daniel, still smitten with Sarah, wants her to figure out that the giver, who knows so much about her, is him. He admits to his buddy Jimmy that it's kind of a test and she's failing–even after she gets a pair of glasses she's wanted that reminded her of her beloved grandmother's glasses, she can’t quite figure out that Daniel, one of the only people she told about the glasses, is her secret admirer. As Sarah works hard on holding the annual Matzah Ball for the community (and gets all her would-be suitors to help out), will she finally realize that her true love is right there working away in her office?

Though this is set at Hanukkah and features Jewish leads (and an optometrist heroine!), this Hallmark holiday romance still follows the template of their Christmas romances. So yes, there will be conflicts and misunderstandings and jealousies, but Sarah and Daniel will finally kiss in the last two minutes. Sarah's inability to even come close to guessing that Daniel is the gift giver is frustrating, but the two lead actors carry the show here. Israeli actor Inbar Lavi is appealing as Sarah, and Jake Epstein is quite charming (and quirkily handsome) as Daniel. I especially liked the fact that he never acts snarky or petty toward the other men Sarah is dating. His passivity may go a bit too far–finally, on the seventh evening, he has to break down and tell her his secret, something that should have happened long before. But the final scene is satisfying. Notable in supporting roles are Andrew Zacher (Adam), Oliver Rice (Nigel), and Doron Bell (Jimmy). Despite the Hanukkah trappings, you will never forget that you're really watching a Christmas romance. [Hallmark]

Friday, December 10, 2021


London, 1918, at the end of the First World War. Mrs. Gibbins (Beryl Mercer) regularly holds séances to communicate with Jimmie, her son who was declared dead in the war. An American detective named Bolton visits, looking for information about Bill, a buddy of Jimmy's who is also presumed dead, and tells her there is a thousand dollar reward for verifiable information on Bill. Soon, who should come strolling down the street than Jimmie (Charles MacNaughten) and Bill (Richard Arlen), alive as can be, with their shell-shocked buddy Spoofy (Claude Allister) whose primary activity is stealing things--mostly grabbing hats off of people's heads and putting them on. Ma is happy to see her son, but even happier to see Bill since she can now contact the detective for a big payoff, but when she realizes she has lost his phone number (Spoofy innocently stole the newspaper it was written on), she becomes frantic. Meanwhile, Peg, Jimmie's girl, and Ann, Bill's girl, are living in the same building and happy to see their men alive, but Bill, uncertain of why he is being tracked down and hence unsure about his future, acts like he's no longer interested in her. When he finds out she is about to be kicked out the building due to late rent, he allows Mrs. Gibbins to turn him in if she gives half the reward money to Ann. One night, Spoofy leaves the building, enters a strange house, and steals some jewels--and a baby. The presence of police is not so welcome now, but eventually everything gets cleared up, with happy endings all around. This mild comedy is the third film version of a successful Broadway comedy from 1920. It can't quite escape its stage origins, as most of the film takes place in one setting, the Gibbins' apartment, with an occasional street scene and the memorable nighttime walk taken by Spoofy. It's competently made and acted, with the standouts being Mercer as the conniving mother and Allister as the goofy Spoofy--because his shellshock is played for laughs, we know he's going to get a happy ending like all the others. Harmless fun. Pictured from left: Arlen, McNaughten and Allister. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 07, 2021


At an unnamed university in San Francisco, we see the crew team rowing through a river in the early dawn. Crew seems to be the first priority of Simon (Bruce Davison), a young, preppyish student who is ignoring the current campus unrest. A large group of politicized students has occupied the administration building protesting the university's purchase of an inner-city playground as a place to house the ROTC (a military training program which became controversial during the Vietnam era). Soon, however, as classes are shut down and police become omnipresent, Simon sneaks his way into the occupied building and seems to become radicalized; he remains a sit-in occupant and volunteers to make secret grocery store runs to keep the students fed. But his motives are not ideologically pure--he stays largely because he has become smitten with fellow occupier Linda (Kim Darby), who is truly devoted to the student cause. He also manages to make time most mornings to get to crew practice where he deals with two friends: Elliot (Bud Cort), a gentle but non-political sort, and George (Murray MacLeod), a tough-guy conservative who punches Simon in the face for his politics but who eventually, along with Elliot, joins the occupation, for reasons not made clear. When George takes his activist turn, he is beaten up as nearby cops ignore him, and he winds up in the hospital with a broken leg. This more than anything else seems to cement Simon's commitment to the protest, and the film climaxes with a confrontation between a mob of students occupying a gym while chanting "Give Peace a Chance" and armed police and National Guard called in by the university president.

This is one of the last of the Hollywood movies that tried to be socially conscious, when Hollywood thought that being relevant would lead to big box office like Easy Rider did and so many others after that didn't. This had the bad luck to be released just weeks after the Kent State shootings; audiences weren't interested in reliving that as entertainment and the film was not a hit, critically or commercially, despite having a soundtrack that includes Buffy St. Marie's version of Joni Mitchell’s "The Circle Game," Neil Young's "Helpless," Graham Nash's "Our House," and Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" which became a top 40 hit after exposure in the movie. (Because this was made by MGM, the only album covers we see in the movie are the soundtrack LPs for Dr. Zhivago and 2001.) One problem is that the characters are undeveloped--despite the fact that Simon is in every scene in the movie, we never get a handle on his background or his personality. Even when he seems committed to the protest, we get the sense that he's still just living out a fantasy of being popular. When George punches him out, leading to a bloody lip, he tells the occupiers that he was a victim of police brutality. He imagines himself in front of the crowds, giving heartfelt and inspiring speeches, but when he does finally express himself, it's in an incoherent rant calling everything "bullshit!" Davison holds the center well enough, though his character is so passive, it's difficult to identify with him too strongly. Darby is fine but she is given little to do--a problem with many female characters in counterculture films of the era. I particularly like MacLeod as George; he's charming enough to pull off the unmotivated switch in the character's politics. Bob Balaban and James Coco have small roles, and Jeannie Berlin, the daughter of Elaine May, has one scene early on as "Girl with Clipboard"; she looks and sounds just like her mother. 

The visual style dates the movie almost as much as the material, with lots of fast, choppy edits and unusual camera angles. It's OK in the beginning but gets overworked. An initial student protest at the playground is played for slapstick laughs--when they are all hauled down to the police station and put against the wall, Simon tries to fight back, only to be told by a weary cop, "Please, we've got a busy day. Up against the wall." But the climactic demonstration is shot realistically, to the point where it feels like it must have been filmed at a real confrontation (though it was not), and gives the movie a satisfying, if ambiguous, ending. This was based on a nonfiction book about a real campus uprising at Columbia, and the title comes from a statement by a Columbia dean, dismissing student concerns about university issues by saying, "Whether students vote 'yes''or 'no' on an issue is like telling me they like strawberries." Pictured are Cort, Davison and Darby. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 01, 2021


This film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Thornton Wilder. I've never read it, but every description I've run across implies that the central event of the narrative is the tragic collapse of a rope bridge high up in the Peruvian Andes in 1700s, after which a friar named Brother Juniper spends years digging into the lives of the five people who died in the collapse. This film begins with this incident which occurs just after Brother Juniper has told a native that, despite human suffering, God is everywhere. Unfortunately, after this interesting opening, the film is not particularly effective in following individual characters to a point of destiny. In fact, it's not clear who among the characters introduced will be the five on the bridge; that may be the intent of the filmmakers as a way to keep us in suspense, but it leads to a turgid, run-of-the-mill melodrama. Set in Lima, the main character is Michaela Villegas (Lynn Bari), a singer and aspiring actress who is discovered by the kindly Uncle Pio (Akim Tamiroff) who becomes a mentor and father-figure to her. She is in love with a sailor named Manuel (Francis Lederer) who is frequently gone for months. His twin brother Esteban (also Lederer) seems to have a supernatural connection to Manuel, able to sense when he will show up in town; thinking that Michaela is no good for Manuel, Esteban interferes in their romance to the point where he feels morbidly guilty about it and tries to kill himself, though his brother intercedes just in time. 

In the meantime, Michaela has come to the attention of the local Viceroy (Louis Calhern) and soon becomes a regular visitor at court. She is mocked by many, but the Marquesa (Alla Nazimova) seems to be her friend; little does Michaela know that the Marquesa is actually scheming to make her own young companion a court favorite. (Clearly, these women are in the running to be the Viceroy's mistress, but that point is blurred over the movie.) The thickly-plotted story continues until everyone is on the road to San Luis Rey and the bridge collapse claims the lives of four of them--the fifth is a lowly local peasant. At nearly two hours, this is far too long and boring to hold much interest. None of the characters are especially interesting or likable except perhaps for Brother Juniper and Uncle Pio. In the book, the theological trappings may be more obvious, but here they are buried beneath the romances and squabbles between the characters. Lynn Bari is not up to the task of playing a multi-dimensional character--based on a real person, apparently; Lederer is OK in a dual role, though I never saw Manuel's charm. Calhern is fine as the Viceroy, Donald Woods as Brother Juniper (pictured) is quite good in what amounts to a limited role, and it's fun to see the legendary silent star Nazimova chew a little scenery now and then. I really had to struggle to stick with this, but it did whet my appetite to read the novel. [DVD]