Saturday, December 31, 2022


Despite the Hallmarkian title, this is a very adult six hour Norwegian miniseries that has little to do with Christmas. Some viewers have compared it to LOVE ACTUALLY, but it more resembles a little-remembered 60s ensemble film called THE V.I.P.s. When a major storm shuts down all flights out of an airport in Oslo the day before Christmas Eve, we follow, in almost real time, the concerns of a bunch of unconnected people, some of whom become connected in unexpected ways. Pop star Ida, who has a new album out, feels her creative drive has run down. Her personal assistant Ingvild feels a bit abused by Ida and is looking for a creative outlet of her own. A young girl named Kaja gets tired of her parents' constant bickering (which is threatening to blow up into a divorce) and runs away, hiding from her parents and from the security people trying to find her. Berg, a concert pianist, is experiencing a career low point after a bad review goes viral. Ronja, the airport priest, is trying to help an old man who won’t talk and may be suffering from dementia. There's also an insufferable rich bitch who abuses everyone she runs across, a young woman whose naïve romanticism irritates a pilot whom she fixates on, a friendly bartender who learns he has terminal cancer, and a lonely dog stranded in a carrier. Over the six hours of the series, these characters (and a few others) cross paths, interact, and influence each other. Despite the melodramatic narratives, there are moments of humor, many involving an easily irritated Santa Claus figure, and all the characters, even the worst assholes (the pianist, the rich bitch), get some sort of redemption.

The first hour or so is hard to get through, partly because of the sheer unlikability of many of the characters, and also because you know exactly how some of these plotlines are going to turn out. But there are some surprises in store, and a couple of the characters who are ciphers for most of the running time—a young woman all alone and seemingly at odds who is looking for a present for her father, a man dressed in shorts heading for a vacation in Majorca—have unexpected twists in their stories in the last half-hour. This was filmed in a real, and quite grand, airport in Oslo, and that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the series. All the acting is good, with standouts including Jon Oigarden (pictured) as the bartender, Maibritt Saerens as the priest, Ibrahim Fall as the Santa, and Ravdeep Singh Bajwa as the pilot. Alexandra Rapaport deserves special mention; she makes the awful rich woman truly hateful but then executes her personality change in the end quite well. Near the end, a cathartic moment for many of the characters occurs as the pianist plays "Over the Rainbow" on the airport piano—at first I fought the scene but I wound up in tears. Overall, it's not exactly what I would call heartwarming, but if you can get past the first hour, and don’t mind some bald-faced emotional manipulation here and there, it does eventually pay off. [Netflix]

Friday, December 30, 2022


Britta is living with her grandmother in Hollywood after the death of her acrobat parents in a tragic accident. Between her grandma's house and the high school she attends is a lovely park called Holly Woods, in the middle of which is a statue of a mythical figure called Holly Boy. In the distant past, Holly Boy, a Spirit of Christmas, saved the Pine Tree Queen, another Spirit of Christmas, from destruction by the evil King Otto. In the present, the reincarnated Otto possesses the real estate developer Ridgewell and engineers a plan to buy the Holly Woods and destroy them. The plan: rig the high school holiday talent show so Ridgewell's son Blair, a talented gymnast, wins the huge cash prize (in theory, a full college scholarship), then use that money to buy the woods. Britta and her teacher, Ms. Audrey, are trying to save the woods from development and soon, Holly Boy comes alive to help them, as other spirit possessions occur: Ms. Audrey by the Pine Tree Queen and Principal Kimmel (who had been neutral on the issue of the woods) by one of Otto's underlings. But with the talent show fix seemingly on, can anything, magical or otherwise, stop the bad guys? Did I mention that Britta, who enters the talent show with her maybe-boyfriend Gabriel, is a pretty good acrobat but won’t indulge anymore since her parents' death?

I watched this because a description I read sounded interesting, but this is scraping the bottom of the barrel of Christmas films, even considering it's aimed at kids. The director, John Carl Buechler, was apparently a talented special effects man but his efforts here come off as strictly amateurish. It was made-for-video with cheap-looking magical effects and washed out visuals throughout. A handful of B-level actors star but mostly seem to be just going through the motions. Carol Lynley (Return to Peyton Place, Bunny Lake is Missing, The Poseidon Adventure) is OK as the grandma but she winds up with little to do. Lindsay Wagner (pictured)  seems to be truly sleepwalking through her roles as teacher and pine tree spirit. Edward Albert is good as Otto (he gets to spout the deathless call, "Decline of joy, rise of commercialism!"), not so good as Ridgewell. The best performance comes from Frank Bonner (Herb on WKRP in Cincinnati) as the principal; he finds the right tone for this bland fantasy and runs with it. Among the kids, Danielle Nicolet saves the day as Britta; she was almost 30 when she filmed this but she makes for a very credible teenager. Christian Oliver (Gabriel) and Oliver Macready (Blair) are passable, but Christopher Khayman Lee is uninspiring as Holly Boy. The mythic Holly Boy plot had some promise in a Robin Hood/Peter Pan way, but there is zilch development beyond a brief sequence at the beginning. The scenes in the woods were all shot in bright daylight, robbing them of any magical atmosphere they might have had, and the Christmas atmosphere is equally disappointing—it might as well have been set in July. Why did I bother to stick this one out to the end? Well, I thought it might be a nice alternative to Hallmark Christmas movies. Though I'm not an expert on what kids like, I suspect that, though it seems pitched at teenagers, only elementary grade students will enjoy this. [DVD]

Thursday, December 29, 2022


With her sister due to give birth around Christmas, high powered business consultant Emily (Paniz Zade) wants to get back to her hometown quickly, but things aren't going well. When her Uber driver misses her, cute all-round nice guy Simon (Adrian Spencer) comes to her aid. At the airport, his chattiness drives her crazy, but she loses her seat until Simon again comes to her aid. A storm causes the plane to be diverted and she is stuck overnight in a strange city. At a hotel, she realizes she has left her wallet at the TSA checkpoint and Simon once again helps her out. They platonically share a honeymoon suite and soon the two are warming to each other. More hotels, cars, and a train are in their future, and in the usual TV-movie way, an initial kiss gets thwarted. But just as she's planning to bring Simon with her to her family Christmas, he finds out that in the course of her job, she winds up suggesting mass layoffs to companies, and decides to cut things off before they get started. Will a Christmas miracle keep them together?  The best word for this movie, produced for UpTV, is lame, mostly due to poor writing. The character of Emily is poorly written, there are plotholes galore mostly in terms of details about how airports and hotels are actually run, the only supporting player to speak of is Emily's uninteresting sister, Simon’s objection to her livelihood comes out of nowhere and doesn't feel real, and the low budget hurts the sets and visuals. But I lost my Christmas romance heart to Adrian Spencer (pictured) who plays angelic and innocent very well. His glasses give him a sexy Clark Kent look (he is less fetching without his glasses) and he manages to work up some chemistry with Zade who is so-so at best. Fans of handsome, wholesome blond boys should watch; others can skip it. [Amazon Prime]

The much beloved Mrs. Marley has died. Everett (Kyle Dean Massey), who took care of her for the last year of her life, wants to save the house from the clutches of developers. As Christmas nears, Everett and five of his childhood friends get letters from the late Mrs. Marley asking them to meet up at her property for a treasure hunt. One of the friends is Riley (Taylor Frey), a social media maven, whom Everett had a crush on back in high school. Riley still feels hurt after thinking that Everett had unceremoniously ditched him back then—the truth is that Everett was conflicted about being gay—but he shows up with Tipper, another one of the friends who is in business with Riley. Also along are town official Ricky, famous basketball star Clay, and his wife Jeannie. The treasure hunt begins but the six soon find out that Mrs. Marley had an ulterior motive: she wants Everett and Riley to get together. As this is another new addition to the small list of gay Christmas romances, I'd like to say how good it is. It's not terrible, but the ludicrously stupid plot set-up mostly sinks this effort and the hard work of the actors. Massey and Frye, married in real life, are fine in the leads. Even better are Roberto Aguire and Katie Walder as Ricky and Tipper, who slowly become a likable secondary couple—I wanted more screen time for them. [Lifetime]

Wednesday, December 28, 2022


Nicky (Alison Sweeney) goes to her hometown to spend Thanksgiving with her parents who are downsizing and selling their house, and while sorting through some of her high school stuff, she finds an unopened and unsigned Christmas card expressing admiration and, via a quote from Romeo and Juliet, love. Her best friend Simone urges her to do some detective work to find out who sent it. Meanwhile, local real estate agent Derrick (Brennan Elliott) is helping Nicky's folks prepare their house for showing to prospective buyers. Guess who sent the card? This central romance is less interesting than the secondary plot involving Simone and her fiancé Jeremy—she's upset that her teenage son is spending more time with Jeremy than in indulging her nostalgic Christmas activity wishes. I love Sweeney but I think Elliott has not aged well; Emily Durance and Michael Karl Richards are fine in the supporting roles. The unusual but charming final shot shows both couples celebrating their Christmas love. Worth watching for being a little offbeat. [Hallmark]

Big Teddy Toy Company has decided to shut down their brick-and-mortar stores but data analyst Charlie (Vanessa Lengies), whose dream is to be a toy designer, is allowed to visit the one store that actually still shows a profit to see if she can figure out what they're doing right. At first she is mistaken by  Grant, the hunky and adorable manager (Jesse Hutch), for seasonal help, but when that gets straightened out, he reluctantly agrees to let her shadow him. Grant's hunkiness is obvious but his adorability comes out in several ways: in his concern for his staff who are like like family (in some cases, actual family members spend time in the store); in his hope to be able to reopen his beloved late grandfather's small toy store; in the way he treats the kids and their parents in the store, particularly when he dresses up like a hunky Christmas elf (pictured at right). Grant and Charlie grow close over the week, with Charlie remembering that she'd actually been to the grandfather's store when she was a kid, and Grant turning two of Charlie's preliminary designs into real toy figures. But will their bond survive the possibility that Big Teddy's may not survive? It's odd to have to include a SPOILER warning for a Hallmark movie since they always have happy endings, and indeed, the romance plot does. But oddly, the store itself does not get saved. Like many Hallmark movies, the wrap-up is rushed, and some plotpoints are left in limbo—Will Grant continue to make Charlie's toys? Will she leave New York City for rural-ish New Jersey? And most importantly, what will happen to Grant's beloved staff? There's a rushed scene in which he promises everyone that he'll take care of them, but he delivers his speech a bit uncertainly. Maybe the filmmakers thought they were being edgy or defiant with their ending, but I must admit in the context of a Hallmark holiday movie, it left a slightly bitter taste afterward. Hutch and Lengies are adequate, and despite its flaws it was worth watching to see Jesse Hutch dressed up as the beefiest elf you’ve ever seen. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 27, 2022


Actor Madison Rush is trying to escape her past fame (she seems to have been known as a child actor whose catchphrase was "Great googly!”" and stretch her talents by directing a play she has co-written to be staged for one night only in the town of Troy, New York during their Victorian Christmas recreation festival (the Troy Victorian Stroll is a real thing). The play, called The Trial Before Christmas (again, based on a real play that has been staged in Troy), is a mock trial in which two lawyers attempt to establish authorship of the poem famously known as The Night Before Christmas—was it Clement C. Moore, as is usually credited, or Henry Livingston Jr. as others have claimed? At the end of the play, the audience votes on which man is the real author. Madison gets Connor Avery, an actor friend of hers who is entertaining ideas about switching from acting to law, to play one of the lawyers. Lena, the producer's girlfriend, is the other lawyer. Lena can't really act, but with expert tutelage from Madison, she eventually nails the part. In fact, she's so good that a Hollywood producer signs her for a big supporting role for a movie to be filmed in New Zealand so Lena has to leave the play. Who will take the role? Why, Madison, of course, who is striking romantic sparks with Connor. During rehearsals, two men in Victorian garb calling themselves Moore and Livingston show up arguing about the poem's authorship. Assuming them to be players in the Victorian Stroll, Madison rewrites the play and hires them as the ghosts of the authors who appear at the trial. Might they actually be ghosts?

I appreciate it when Hallmark tries to stretch a bit (just like Madison Rush) beyond its formulas, and there are definitely pleasures here. Torrey DeVito (Madison) and Zane Holtz (Connor) are very good and have great chemistry. The romance plot is actually underplayed here to give more time to the play and the characters. The supernatural twist, unusual for recent Hallmark films, plays out nicely. I loved the handful of cute 1960's pop culture references (My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, and the spy show The Avengers). I even suspect that the bad actress is named Lena in tribute to Lina Lamont of Singin' in the Rain. But man, did that script need a rewrite. When the producer wants the play to actively push a solution, Connor suggests some research; wouldn't Madison and her co-author already have done plenty of research? Lena, a strictly amateur actor, gets a major part in a movie and has to leave the night before Christmas Eve? (Hallmark's time-pressure gimmicks are always glaring weak spots.) No one involved in the production would be bothered by the fact that the "ghosts" pop in and out unreliably and sometimes appear in puffs of animated smoke and glitter? The ghosts basically improvise their speeches, apparently derailing the play as written? A legendary Broadway producer shows up to watch the first full run-through of the play? Don't even get me started on their definition of what an intermission is—Madison refers to the audience coming back after voting at intermission, but when they come back in, the verdict is announced and the play is over. That is not an intermission. My brain kept hurting over sloppy plot points, most of which could have been easily cleaned up. But, tis the season and all. I watched this on a below-zero snow day and mostly enjoyed it. More DeVitto and Holtz (pictured), please. [Hallmark]

Monday, December 26, 2022


Darcy Gale works for Gumm Public Relations in Kansas City and discovers at an office Christmas party that has lost out on a big award she was sure was hers. When she hears that Austin Inc., a big Manhattan firm, is in PR trouble, she has a plan. The late founder's son, William Austin, has spent years out of the public eye and the company seems to be foundering under him and Winona West, the public face of Austin. Darcy thinks she can help straighten things out by either getting Austin to come out of hiding or by making news of the company's massive charitable contributions to the Emerald Educational Trust. Her first meeting with Austin high-level exec guy Glen Goodman is a mistaken identity meet-cute, but they do hit it off nicely and when she proposes to make her campaign pro bono work to help win her agency Austin as a client, he agrees to let her. Her plan to highlight the children's charity at Christmastime is almost derailed by Bridget Tinsley, who is concerned that the trust will be seen as being exploitative of the children. Darcy's two other contacts at Emerald are Jackie Crow (who has lots of ideas but comes off as a little ditzy) and Riley Lyons (a young man who loves dancing but a fear of public performance). Slowly, it looks like everything will come together, but will West and Austin himself derail the PR campaign? 

It took me a little while to figure things out, but what makes this stand out from other Hallmark Christmas movies is that it’s inspired by The Wizard of Oz, the MGM movie more so than the novel. Once you start looking, the references are plentiful. Darcy Gale from Kansas City = Dorothy Gale from Kansas; Gumm was Judy Garland's real last name; Winona West is, of course, the Wicked Witch of the West (though she's not really wicked); Tinsley is the Tin Man (too much heart to want to exploit the kids), Lyons is cowardly (of course he finds his courage eventually), and Crow is the Scarecrow (seems to have no brain but is really the smartest of all). It isn't a spoiler to note that Goodman is the Wizard of Oz (a very good man but a very bad wizard); he's actually William Austin (the Wizard of Austin) who has been hiding all these years. I had that figured out even before I caught on to the Oz details. Also, Darcy's brothers back home are Zack and Huck (Zeke and Hunk in the movie); her dad is Henry and her stepmom is Emma. Once you start playing the game, it's hard to stop, but I’ll refrain from listing more similarities and even direct quotations involving curtains and lions and tigers and flying monkeys. However, my favorite reference occurs when Darcy arrives at the Emerald Trust and wonders out loud which way she should go to find Goodman. Jackie Crow, her head hidden momentarily behind a computer monitor, says something along the lines of, "Some people go this way and some go that way"—I laughed out loud at that Scarecrow reference. And of course, the title refers to the song Dorothy and her pals sing along the Yellow Brick Road.

On a strictly "Hallmark Christmas movie" level, this is about par for the course. We're in good hands with the two leads, Candace Cameron Bure and Warren Christie (pictured) who are old pros. Of the other actors, no one really stands out except maybe Jordana Largy who is quite personable as Crow, but they're all OK. The usual predictable plot turns and plot holes are in place but there's nothing egregiously off about the narrative. As a novelty, this is quite enjoyable. I can imagine a drinking game—take a drink every time you recognize an Oz reference—that would leave you with quite a hangover the next morning. I can't resist pointing out one more scene that made me chuckle: when Darcy and the three Emerald Trust workers go hoping to meet Mr. Austin, we get a shot of them from behind, walking down a long, intimidating corridor, and Riley decides he should just stay behind. I feel like a lot of Oz love went into this and I can respect that, even if it has little to do with the actual story. [Hallmark]

Sunday, December 25, 2022


In 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States. After that, it seemed like the next big gay rights battle was for representation on made-for-TV Christmas romance movies. I'm not sure why this, over the next few years, became such an issue, but as a gay man who enjoys Hallmark Christmas movies, I was happy to see how this pop culture battle would play out. In 2018, Hallmark aired ROAD TO CHRISTMAS which featured a very subtly-portrayed gay couple as secondary characters—the relationship was presented in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments, but still it seemed like a line had been crossed. In 2019, Lifetime presented TWINKLE ALL THE WAY in which a married gay male couple featured prominently. 2020 brought the first Christmas romance movies centered on gay couples: Lifetime’s THE CHRISTMAS SETUP and Paramount's DASHING INTO DECEMBER. That same year, Hallmark featured a gay couple as the secondary leads in THE CHRISTMAS HOUSE (a sequel came the next year). Netflix’s SINGLE ALL THE WAY and Hulu’s HAPPIEST SEASON (which featured a lesbian couple) were presented in 2021. Now, in 2022 Hallmark, the gold standard broadcaster of Christmas TV-movies, goes all in with their own movie starring a gay male couple.

In THE HOLIDAY SITTER, we first meet Sam (Jonathan Bennett, pictured) on a first date with a handsome doctor, but things go south quickly when we learn the doctor loves kids and wants a traditional family and Sam doesn't—when these facts are revealed, they both quickly ask for their checks. As Sam prepares for a solo holiday trip to Hawaii, his sister Kathleen and her husband ask him to watch their two children for a couple of days so they can go pick up the newborn baby they're adopting. The last time he was left in charge, Sam started a small kitchen fire trying to cook breakfast, so he's reluctant, but his sister guilt-trips him into it. Sam arrives to find Kathleen's neighbor Jason (George Krissa) watching the kids until he gets there. Jason is handsome, kind, and also happens to live next door so he already has a good relationship with the kids. Worried about his babysitting abilities, Sam asks Jason to be a "uncle-ing consultant" and even offers him a generous check for his time. Jason also happens to be gay and the two begin to warm up to each other, but it turns out that Jason wants all the things Sam doesn't (settling down in the suburbs, having kids, etc.) and is even in the process of adopting a child to be a single parent. Sam gets pretty good at being an uncle, and even manages to successfully cook a meal, but will he ever change his tune about marriage and family so he and Jason could get together?

This movie's secret weapon is Jonathan Bennett (who was in THE CHRISTMAS HOUSE). He is handsome, charming, and genuinely funny—he also gets to give his character some personality above and beyond what the typical Hallmark male lead allows (usually, only Kristoffer Polaha and Ryan Paevy get to do that). He makes Sam's development from commitment-phobic to romantic believable, and the Hallmark happy ending feels earned. Kirssa, stuck with playing the perfect guy, isn't as effective (and, though he's nice looking, what is with his hair?). The teleplay could just as easily have had a heterosexual couple at its center, and that may be a problem for some gay viewers who criticize the "heteronormativity" of the gay Christmas movie, i.e., presenting gay male couples as more or less interchangeable with straight couples. However, Bennett gets a very nice scene in which he traces his problem with settling down to the fact that, for so many years, he was used to being told "no" by society, so it takes some getting used to having a "yes" mindset. I identified with that—after living with my partner since 1990, we got married in 2015 and it took me a long time to refer to him as my husband without feeling self conscious or like I was picking a political fight. I applaud Hallmark for this film, and I think Bennett's performance makes it worth watching whatever your political worldview is. [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 22, 2022


Hillary (Bonnie Somerville) is a reporter for a small newspaper tracking down a neighborhood story when she briefly crosses paths with a cute guy in a human billboard costume who gives her some info for her article. Sadly, that afternoon, Hillary gets some unwanted news: the paper is closing. Being as it's close to Thanksgiving, her mind is more on her current boyfriend Jason, an ambitious lawyer. She's happy that she finally has someone to show off to her family at the holiday gathering, and has told her mom (Shelly Long), who meddles too much in her daughters' lives, to expect him. But Jason has decided that she may be a liability in his new career, so he breaks up with her. Not wanting to seem to be a failure, she takes her roommate Sophie's advice and posts an ad on a web site devoted to finding fake escorts for social occasions. The guy she picks is an out-of-work actor named David (Jordan Bridges), who happens to be the human billboard guy. The deal: David comes with her for Thanksgiving weekend and pretends to be Jason, and she'll give him two resort vacation tickets she won in a radio contest. Of course, complications pile up right away. Mom puts the two in the same bedroom, so David volunteers to take a cot and let Hillary have the bed. Dad (Sam McMurray), a city council member, wants legal advice from Jason about some possible charges of wrongdoing. David keeps forgetting little details about Jason (Jason likes yams, David hates them). Worst of all, with Mom pining to be involved in their assumed upcoming wedding, Hillary blurts out that the date is set for December 21st which sends Mom into a tizzy of planning, and creates a quandary for the local priest because David is Jewish. What more can happen? Well, just as sparks of romance begin flying between Hillary and David, the real Jason shows up because he didn't get the promotion he wanted at work. And someone else comes into play: David’s ex, who wants the resort tickets.

Despite the labored and predictable plot, and some big problems with narrative logic (like how does unemployed Hillary afford her apartment, and why on earth would she blurt out a wedding date, and what exactly is Dad guilty of?), this is enjoyable because of the two leads. Somerville, Ross's girlfriend Mona on season 8 of Friends, makes a potentially unlikable character charming. Bridges, a real cutie pie, manages to come off as both real and as too good to be true. Long and McMurray are fine doing their clueless parent shtick. There is a somewhat complicated backstory involving Hillary's sisters (Haylie Duff and Carrie Wiita) who are both keeping secrets from Mom, and these scenes are dropped in here and there without much development, though there is a very amusing moment when a milquetoast podiatrist boyfriend spends some time cuddling up to David's feet. I also enjoyed a brief scene of Sophie's flirtation with an over-the-top surfer dude whom Hillary rejected as an escort. Though set at Thanksgiving, the house gets decorated for Christmas over the weekend, and there is a very sweet scene in which David and Hillary sing "Angels We Have Heard on High" at a piano. So yeah, it might as well be a Christmas movie. Pictured are Bridges and Somerville. [Hallmark Channel]

Wednesday, December 21, 2022


We first see Molly and her friend Lucas as kids on Molly's family's Christmas tree ranch in Vermont. She loves to write stories and Lucas wants to become a photographer. She has a favorite small tree that she names after herself, and when Dad is about to clear that land, she talks him into saving the tree, and even though an axe blow has already been delivered, she dresses the "wound" and saves the tree so it can continue growing. Twenty years later, Molly is still working on her writing but has a job as assistant to Walter, head of a big publishing house. Walter, a widower, feels free to use her as a personal assistant; she often babysits for his two charming daughters and he sends her on Christmas shopping chores. When she runs across the very tree that she saved years ago, now ready for use as a Christmas tree, she decides to drop everything and take the tree to Vermont to spend one more holiday there before her folks have to move because the bank is about to foreclose on the farm in order to build a fancy golf resort. Her brother Ryan, a successful architect, joins her. At the farm, she can't even decorate her tree because Mom and Dan have already packed everything up. She's upset to discover that Lucas is still in town. He gave up on his photography dreams and works for his father, the town banker (think Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life), so she blames him for her family's predicament. Molly and Ryan come up with a scheme to get their house labeled a historic landmark, and when she makes the national news, Walter and his two kids show up to lend support. But the banker and the mayor try to stand firm against them, and Lucas, who still has feelings for Molly, is caught in the middle.

The interesting thing about this Christmas TV-movie is the way, deliberately or not, it scrambles some of the traditional plotlines. Sometimes this is due to writing problems: Walter is set up as a somewhat cold boss, not evil, just oblivious. But his sudden change to being interested in the welfare of her family comes out the blue. In fact, he rather usurps Lucas' role as love interest. This doesn't happen on the surface—the two never develop romantic feelings—but we care a lot more about Molly's relationship with Walter and his kids than we do about her and the drab, passive Lucas. In another surprise, the emotional climax of the movie is not about Molly and Lucas, but about Ryan and his father. Ryan has been blaming himself for not staying on the ranch and taking the business over in the usual family tradition. The scene in which the two clear the air is beautifully written and well-acted, and came the closest to jerking tears out of me. Finally, at the end, it's Walter who steps in to save the ranch. Molly and Lucas do get a romantic kiss, but the final scene, set a year later with all the characters together, doesn't clarify the status of Molly and Lucas. Many of these elements might be seen as faults, but I found them interesting.

Lacey Chabert (Molly), an old hand at Christmas movies, anchors the movie well. Corey Sevier (Lucas) is colorless and never shows us why we should want him to end up with Molly. Matthew Kevin Anderson (Ryan) is likable and has loads of personality. Jim Thorburn (Walter, pictured above with Chabert) is kind of a wild card. In the beginning, he felt disengaged and artificial, but later that tone felt appropriate for the character who we find out walled off his emotions when his wife died. He's also not as conventionally handsome as Sevier, though he is appealing. Ultimately, I really wanted Walter to end up with Molly, though it was clear that the filmmakers weren't going to subvert the narrative rules that much. Eric Keenlyside and Lini Evans are convincing as the parents. Lastly, the title "character": I'm not sure how it saves Christmas since it's forgotten once it winds up back at the farm until the very end. I guess since it's the main reason Molly comes home, it can be said to have saved Christmas, but my preference for a title is something like It Happened at the Christmas Tree Ranch. Overall, recommended. [Amazon Prime, first shown on UpTV]

Monday, December 19, 2022


Joseph is the playboy son of a wealthy woman who is about to give up on him ever amounting to anything. She gives him one last chance: go to California and meet with a stubborn landowner who won't sell her family farmland. Joseph and Leo (his assistant—or valet or butler or bosom buddy, as it's never quite clear what his official function is) head out to the small desert town to meet with Wendy, the landowner, and her daughter Callie. On the way, Joseph spills coffee on his clothes and changes into a casual t-shirt and jeans (that are too tight for him, but who cares because he wears them well), and Callie mistakes him for a new farmhand named Manny. Joseph decides not to correct her, thinking that he can soften her up for the big sales pitch later. The dairy farm work is hard but he manages to keep up. He discovers that Callie's father and her boyfriend both died in a car accident that she survived, and her mom Wendy is dying of cancer, so Callie is unrealistically desperate to hang on the farm, which her father was hoping to turn into a winery, despite the fact that the bank is going to foreclose in a month. Of course, hard work and a growing respect for Callie make Joseph a better person, but everything might come crashing down when Mom comes calling, threatening to expose his charade.

I sometimes wish that Hallmark's Christmas movies would shake their formulas up a little, and this movie, made for Netflix, does exactly that. It takes the Hallmark/Lifetime template (big city person made better by small-town person) and makes it a little more serious, throws in a few vulgarities, and gets its hero to take off his shirt a couple of times. This leads to some tone clashes, with scenes involving the mom's cancer diagnosis followed by jokey scenes with secondary characters. It's interesting but a bit jarring. Joseph is portrayed explicitly as promiscuous—the opening scene has him bidding "good morning, goodbye" to his latest one-night stand—though still charming and fairly squeaky-clean. There's a sullen ex-boyfriend who comes off as far more threatening than any Hallmark ex—he gets into a bar fight with Joseph, and seems like he could go further off the deep end, though he doesn't.

My favorite departure here involves Leo, the assistant (Ali Afshar) who, though not explicitly played as gay, winds up in a sort of bromance with Manny, the actual farmhand (David Del Rio). In the beginning, Manny comes off as a threat to Joseph's plans, but soon, Leo and Manny are best buds, playing video games and comparing their wine palates. Honestly, I was more interested in these two than in the main couple because it was a relationship we don't see in these romance movies. At 100 minutes, this is too long and, despite its edgier elements, just as predictable as any TV romance movie. But I kept watching partly because the male lead, Josh Swickard, is ridiculously handsome (see above right). His real-life wife, Lauren Swickard, is very good as Callie (and she also wrote the movie). In general, the acting is a notch above average. You may notice I never mentioned Christmas in the plot summary. That's because the Christmas setting is barely there, seeming like an afterthought. There is a sequel though I'm not sure I need to see it. Different from but not necessarily better than the norm. [Netflix]

Saturday, December 17, 2022


Raul works as an accountant in Madrid. We learn through a series of flashbacks to his childhood that he has many reasons for hating Christmas so every year, he flies off on a tropical vacation to avoid the holidays, But this year his boss sends him to a small town in the mountains to conduct an audit on a sweets factory that needs to be done by the new year. His boss assures him his job won’t conflict with his holiday plans, but us Christmas movie viewers know better. Little does he know that the town is famous not only for its candy but also for its nativity play, and this year the people from the Guinness Book will be present to see if the play qualifies for world's biggest. He drives into town and immediately runs into and destroy the manger set, which also serves as the meet-cute moment with Paula, a perky woman who seems to have a hand in every town activity (most importantly, she runs the nativity play). Soon, Raul's Christmas-hating reputation is well known, with the townspeople calling him The Grinch, though it's done affectionately as they have come to like him, and soon romantic sparks are flying between he and Paula. But in addition to a Grinch, a Scrooge pops up: Pablo, son of the factory owner, who harbors an unrequited crush on Paula. Raul finds inconsistencies in the company's books and agrees to stay on a couple extra days while Pablo, who blames the problems on his aging father, tries to figure out what's wrong. But Pablo has actually cooked the books because he wants to sell the factory to Japanese investors who will probably close it down. To the townsfolk, it looks like Raul is the villain whose audit will be responsible for a shutdown, and they all turn against him. Will Raul figure out what's going and at the same time, regain his Christmas spirit and win the love of Paula?

The plot summary makes this sound like a fairly typical Hallmark-style Christmas romance, but it's actually from Netflix, and it was made in Spain (and in Spanish). And though the main plot elements are familiar (big city vs. small town, traumas of Christmas past, a community holiday event which must go on), the movie takes a disturbing turn in its last half-hour. Things get rather dark as the townsfolk turn against Raul in some rather nasty ways, and Pablo winds up throwing Raul out of a car to tumble down into a valley where he winds up bloody and unconscious. There's also a pregnant woman who, of course, goes into labor during the nativity play, threatening the Guinness certification. Luckily, some Santa magic (or, interchangeably, Hallmark-style magic) rights everything by the end. Tamar Novas (pictured) and Andrea Ros are charming and attractive in the lead roles (Novas does an effective girlish scream); Peter Vives makes a hissable bad guy, and the supporting roles of parents and friends and factory workers are filled nicely. IMDb says this is rated TV-PG, but that must be for the English dub as the Spanish version contains some coarse language, including an f-bomb, in its subtitles. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, December 15, 2022


Natalie (Melissa Joan Hart) has a popular podcast called Holiday Love, and in December, she's doing a multi-part arc called "Dear Christmas," sharing stories from listeners about their Christmas romances. After a chat with her boss Penny (Robin Givens) about Natalie's distinct lack of a love life, Natalie heads to her hometown of Lake Tahoe to spend the holidays. Upon arrival, she gets a flat tire and the AAA repair guy who shows up is grizzled but hunky Chris (Jason Priestly) who remembers her from eighth grade. She doesn't remember him, but nevertheless, as Chris is omnipresent in town (handyman, fireman, but at heart a glassblowing artist), they run into each other frequently and sparks start to fly. Despite some encouragement from Natalie's bookstore-owning parents and her enthusiastic sister Emma, Natalie resists falling for Chris's charms, certain that fate and/or destiny will lead her to a grand love, but then something she finds in a high school diary makes her think that fate may be taking a hand after all. This Lifetime Christmas movie follows all the rules of the Hallmark template without finding anything new or interesting to build on, but its intended audience will like it just fine. Priestly was unrecognizable to me, as he is now a bearded daddy figure, but he and Hart (both pictured at right) are pros and fill their roles well. Robin Givens is amusing, and the movie could have used a little more of her energy. The parents are Faith Prince and Ed Begley, Jr., both fine, especially Begley giving a surprisingly naturalistic performance. The presence of little glass heart ornaments is a call-out to nurses and first responders (though the Covid pandemic is not actually mentioned), and I liked that Chris's name is Chris Massey (say it out loud). [Amazon Prime]

Tuesday, December 13, 2022


Dublin, 1921. What I've gleaned from Wikipedia about this time in Irish history, as it applies to this movie: it was near the end of the War of Irish Independence between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British who were aided by a band of hired enforcers called the Black & Tans, who were apparently particularly brutal in putting down protest and going after IRA members. Young medical student Kerry O'Shea (Don Murray) is our way into this situation. An American, he came to Ireland after the death of his father (who had been an IRA foot soldier) and decided to stay. He is opposed to violence, but he helps out a woman who was almost caught smuggling illegal arms to the IRA. Later, in the aftermath of a car bombing, his friend Paddy, an innocent bystander, is wounded by the Black & Tans. Kerry gets him to safety and, to his surprise, his professor, Sean Lenihan (James Cagney) is a commandant in the IRA. Because Kerry accidentally left a notebook with his name on it in the street, the IRA guys figure he's a marked man so they give him two choices: he can join up (which means for life, and it means death if he ever tries to back out) or they can send him back to America. He opts for America, but while he stays at an IRA hideout waiting for the next ship out, he bonds with some of the guys, and also meets the General (Michael Redgrave) who was with Kerry's dad when he died. After Kerry takes the rap for an illegal gun that belonged to another IRA member, he is arrested and beaten up by the Black & Tans but doesn't give them any information. Lenihan leads a squad on a rescue mission and when they free Kerry, he decides to stay with the IRA. As it happens, the General is about to sign a treaty with the British that will give Ireland dominion status with its own Parliament. Lenihan considers that a betrayal of the cause, and soon Kerry thinks that Lenihan has become what we might call "blood simple," loyal not so much to the cause as to bloodshed, and eventually the two wind up in a standoff that can only leave one of them alive.

I'm not a student of Irish history, and this film simplifies the issues, probably too much. Still, it's an engrossing film with good performances all around. Cagney is just right as a character we admire in the beginning and change our mind about later. Orson Welles said that Cagney was one of our greatest actors because he always went full tilt without going over the top, and that's the case here; even in the climax, Cagney keeps Lenihan human and somewhat sympathetic, until he kills a very likable character in cold blood. Some viewers think Murray is too passive, but I think he's just right as an audience surrogate: a little confused, a little suspicious, but ultimately able to take a moral stand that we appreciate. (He's also darned handsome.) The supporting cast is strong: Cyril Cusack as a poet turned freedom fighter, Glynis Johns as a young prostitute, Sybil Thorndike as a titled lady who is sympathetic to the IRA, Richard Harris in an early role as an unlikable IRA member who clashes with Murray, and Donal Donnelly as a slow-witted kid. Dana Wynter is lovely but fairly bland as the necessary (but not really) love interest. Pictured are Murray and Cagney. [DVD]

Saturday, December 10, 2022


Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn) from Akron, Ohio is what would have been called a spinster back in the 50s, middle-aged and unmarried. She is on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Venice, constantly taking home movies with her ever-present hand-cranked camera (how quaint!). A bit awed by the city, she's also clearly looking for some special experience; as she says to Signora Fiorini, the woman running the pensione where she's staying, she wants a "magical miracle" to happen. The pensione is lovely, the view from her room gorgeous, and Fiorini is charming, but the only other people staying there are a typically touristy retired couple, and a scruffy American artist and his sexy young wife who seem to still be in the stage of their relationship where they can't keep their hands off each other. The only person who pays much attention to Jane is a scruffy street kid named Mauro who acts as her informal guide around town. One evening, we see a local man admiring her at an outdoor bistro, and when she notices him noticing her, she panics and leaves. But the next day, she sees a lovely red glass goblet in a shop window, and the owner of the shop, Renato (Rossano Brazzi, pictured with Hepburn), turns out to be the man from the restaurant. He's handsome and kind and seems genuinely interested in drawing her out; she remains resistant but slowly starts to melt and soon they're actively dating. One night after an outdoor concert, he kisses her in a dark alleyway and she kisses him back before muttering "I love you," and going back to her hotel. The next day, she learns that the American artist is having a fling behind his wife's back with Signora Fiorini, which upsets her. That night, as she is to meet Renato for dinner, Jane learns that Renato is married and has three children. When she meets him, he explains that he and his wife are separated, but Jane remains a bundle of nerves—the magic of Venice feels more threatening than miraculous, and her instinct is to dismiss him. But when Renato scolds her for being unrealistic and unwilling to accept the situation she's in, she begins to change her mind.

Based on a play (The Time of the Cuckoos) by Arthur Laurents, this was the last relatively small-scale movie David Lean made before turning to epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. It's beautifully photographed by Jack Hildyard and contains some good performances, and in some ways it feels like a version of Lean's earlier BRIEF ENCOUNTER, but ultimately it winds up an average 'spinster' story. Part of the problem is Hepburn; she has a spirit and fire she can't quite hide, so her character doesn't really ring true. She had the same problem playing a similar character in The Rainmaker two years later. Rosanno Brazzi is quite good as the sweet-natured scoundrel—we have to take his word for his marital situation and we don't get much other background about him, but Brazzi makes him handsome, charming and sympathetic. A young Darren McGavin is the adulterous artist and Italian actress Isa Miranda is quite good as Fiorini, and I was sorry we didn't see more of her character. It's all pretty to look at but finally insubstantial. [DVD]

Thursday, December 08, 2022


It's Friday afternoon in the small Arizona town of Bradenville. We see a traveling salesman (Stephen McNally) arrive at the hotel. Two associates (Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish) arrive soon after by train. But the trio aren't businessmen, they're bank robbers, casing the downtown area in preparation for a Saturday noon holdup. In the bank, we meet a nerdy bank manager (Tommy Noonan) who, though married, ogles women and occasionally peeps in windows. In the library, we see a librarian (Sylvia Sidney) who, when she receives a past due notice from the bank threatening to put a lien on her wages, steals an unattended purse from a table. Elsewhere, a copper mine worker (Victor Mature) has to deal with breaking up a fight that his young son instigated when another kid called his dad a coward for not serving in WWII—he was kept home by the government for his important war work. Meanwhile, the copper mine manager (Richard Egan) is drinking too much because his wife has been having affairs, and that night, he drunkenly comes on to bar patron Virginia Leith, who has to help him get home, which sparks a confrontation between her and Egan's wife. Finally, we meet an Amish farmer (Ernest Borgnine) and his family who have strict non-violence beliefs. The next day, the "violent Saturday" of the title, most of the townspeople will have their lives changed by the bank robbery.

If this had been made a few years earlier, in black & white, in a square TV screen ratio, by B-film filmmakers, it might have been an interesting and moody film noir. But in widescreen and color and by a big studio (Fox), it's at best a quirky novelty. The first half of the movie plays out like the set-up for a small town melodrama TV series; the second half gets all the characters in place for their various involvements in the robbery, then the robbery and its aftermath occur in almost real time. Most of the soap opera situations get resolved, some for the good, some not. I don't want to give too many spoilers, but the most predictable resolution involves Victor Mature who gets to act heroically and make his son proud—though honestly, ten years seems like a long time for people, especially kids, to hold a wartime grudge. The Amish farmer's story has a particularly satisfying ending, though again predictable. Not all the resolutions are happy, and the story of the librarian doesn't really get one, unless I just missed it. The actors are all fine, with Noonan making the peeper relatively sympathetic. In the beginning, I had a hard time identifying the leads because Mature, McNally and Egan all have big, beefy faces, and it took me a few minutes to get McNally and Egan separated and settled. I can't recommended this without reservations about its pace, but the climactic battle almost made it worth sitting through. Pictured are Borgnine and Mature. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 06, 2022


In the office of the Morning Post, the managing editor, Gustav, and the news editor, Fredrik, are arguing about how the paper should take on the issue of Sweden's plunging birth rate. Gustav says the problems are rich bachelors and a housing shortage; Fredrik thinks it's a general lack of love. Fredrik's daughter Lena (Ingrid Bergman) is suffering in silence over her love for her married boss Johan (Lars Hansen), while Johan is suffering over the state of his marriage. He thinks having a child would help keep him and his wife Clary together, but she still feels too young and carefree to be burdened with children. Walpurgis Night rolls around, a time of spring celebrations. Lena, who has said nothing to Johan about her feelings, decides to quit her job, and when Clary tells Johan she doesn't want to spend the evening on the town with him, he asks Lena to join him and the two fall in love. Meanwhile, Clary discovers she is pregnant and goes to her doctor for an abortion, but instead he lectures her on the dignity that motherhood would bring to her, so she has it done illegally. This leads to a melodramatic turn of events: the abortionist is arrested, but the only record that Clary has of the abortion goes missing, and the small-time crook who stole it tries to blackmail Clary. As the story makes headlines in the Morning Post, Fredrik comes to believe that it was his daughter who had the abortion, and when the blackmailer is shot dead, Johan is the chief suspect. Can happiness possibly be in the cards for Lena and Johan?

This Swedish love triangle melodrama is notable for two things: the presence of the young Ingrid Bergman and the anti-abortion slant. Despite the overall serious tone of the narrative, the newspaper scenes, especially the discussions of birth rate, play out humorously. However, the first doctor's proclamation of the dignity of childbirth is clearly meant to be taken as the philosophy of the filmmakers. Though the proceedings are rather soapy (as in soap opera), the acting is solid. Bergman is actually the weakest of the leads, largely because her role is underwritten. Lars Hanson, who had a solid career in Hollywood silent movies but returned to Sweden with the advent of talkies, is quite good as Johan, and Victor Sjostrom is equally good as the father. Sjostrom is better known as the director of the silent classic THE WIND and as the lead in Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES. Sture Lagerwell is also good in the small but important role of a newspaper tipster. Pictured are Bergman and Hansen. [TCM; Criterion Channel]

Friday, December 02, 2022


On stage 5 at Gaumont film studios, actor Neil Blair (Dennis Price), an extra in historical garb, is recognized by director Derek Engles (Robert Newton) who was Blair's commanding officer in the war. Engles pulls Blair aside and asks him to take on what seems to be relatively safe espionage activity: in the guise of a screenwriter (and accompanied by Wesson, a cameraman), he's to head off to a small ski resort cottage in the Italian Alps and watch the comings and goings of the small number of guests. Blair is not told what he's looking for, only that Engles will eventually show up and ask for a report. When Blair and Wesson arrive, they are told adamantly by the proprietor Aldo that there are no rooms for them, but one of the other guests, Valdini, who seems to have some clout with Aldo, manages to get the situation cleared up though Aldo remains antagonistic. Soon, Blair meets the other guests, all of whom seem to know each other but are reluctant to admit it. In addition to Valdini, there's a contessa whom Blair thinks he recognizes from his past; Mayne, an ex-army officer; and the German Keramikos (Herbert Lom) who, we eventually discover, was in the Gestapo. There are mysterious meetings by moonlight, an arranged injury on a ski slope, and plots of betrayal before we discover what's at stake: a treasure in Italian gold stolen by Nazis that is supposedly buried near the cottage.

Despite its inclusion in a DVD set called British Noir, this is in no way a film noir. Enjoy it for what it is: a mid-budget British post-war spy thriller with an interesting setting and some fun characters who are not quite what they seem at first. As one might expect, Herbert Lom (pictured) takes top acting honors as a man whom we like, then dislike, then we're not sure about—he keeps us on our toes. Price is OK if a little low-energy for a spy movie lead. French actress Mila Parely is better known for her work in French films (Beauty and the Beast, Rules of the Game) but she's fine here as a character who keeps her secrets close to her chest (though her final secret, revealed, sort of, in the last scene, is disappointing). Stanley Holloway (Eliza's father in My Fair Lady) is fun as the cameraman, and I also liked Guy Middleton as Mayne and Marcel Dalio as Valdini. The first half is a little slow-going as it sets its characters up, but the last half picks up considerably on the ski slopes and with the arrival of a blizzard that leaves them all, yes, snowbound. The tense ending is a little reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. [DVD]