Christmas in Toyland

Evil Wins

This one was kinda depressing. Charlie is a Data Analyst for a failing toy company, Big Teddy Toy Company. First off, no wonder they are failing. Their name makes it seem like they only sell Teddy Bears. And their stores don’t have any toys in them, just gaily wrapped boxes piled all over the place and a ton of Christmas decorations. In a big meeting, she learns that they will be closing all of their locations and selling their toys online only. Charlie is horrified and saddened over all of the people who will be losing their jobs right before Christmas. Also, as we learn later,  she had a very tough childhood with her single mother having to work 3 jobs and her spending a lot of time being babysat in a toy store which provided her with a safe, wholesome, and fun atmosphere in her depressing life. But hold on. Being the ace data analyst that she is, she points out that there is one small town location a short trip from New York City that is logging steady sales increases month after month, year after year. What is their secret? Charlie will go to that location, learn their mysterious ways, and hopefully replicate what they are doing and save their brick-and-mortar stores. She is promised that she will have until Christmas Eve to present a plan of action to save the stores, much to the displeasure of her rival, the rat fink evil Dave.

There is a heavy doom and gloom feel to this one despite its relentless surface cheeriness, We know in our hearts that despite what she learns from the little store that could, The already in motion plans of the corporate bureaucratic suits will not be stopped. Winter is Coming. Especially when we find out that despite their promise to Charlie, all of the west coast stores are closed a week before Christmas. But Charlie forges on despite the betrayal. She becomes close to the little store’s employees and especially its unconventional manager, Grant. She proposes that corporate make the shop its flagship store and save the east coast stores by using Grant’s successful methods as their model. To that end, she throws a Christmas Eve party there and invites all of the bigwigs. The whole town pitches in, and all of the big city businessmen have a great time. They are wowed by Charlie’s idea of the flagship store, but they ignore her advice and go with Evil Dave’s proposal of building it in Las Vegas! Sin City! And close all of the remaining locations throwing everyone out of work! I told you this was depressing! And apparently, the suits don’t understand you can’t have a “flagship store” unless you have other stores to go with it! Idiots.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the bad guys winning and hundreds of nice people losing their jobs at Christmas time, it turns out that Charlie didn’t want to be a data analyst anyway, she wanted to be a toy designer. And Grant did not want to be a store manager, he wanted to re-open his Grandfather’s old toy store, Tinker Town. So they decide to do that and they kiss.

This show sorely needed an epilogue. We hope that Charlie and Grant will be successful in realizing their dreams but don’t know that and we don’t see it. We hope that Grant’s own store will actually have toys in it instead of just a ton of red and green boxes and Christmas decorations. We also needed Dave and the other corporate bureaucrats to get what was coming to them for their bad behavior and stupidity. We needed some Gosh Darn good triumphing over evil! Especially at Christmas in July time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

July 31, 2022

Campfire Christmas

Too Campy.

This one was just silly despite the rapport and charm of the two leads, Tori Anderson and Corbin Bleu. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the hammy performances of approximately half of the secondary actors. Since they all over-act in the same way, I blame the director. Tori is an aspiring writer who has been working as an assistant in a publishing firm. Unfortunately, every attempt to have any of her manuscripts published by her firm is shut down by her heinous boss. She grew up with a group of friends that attended her parents’ Christmas-themed summer camp. Her parents tell her that they are selling the camp and are going to throw a week-long farewell celebration for all of the two generations of former campers who strangely all seem to be the same age. Weird.  She has kept in touch and sees all of her good buddies except one, her camp romance, Corbin Bleu. When they tried to make their long-distance relationship work outside of camp, it didn’t and Corbin dumped her, breaking her heart. Besides Corbin and Tori the friends include a married couple that met at camp and two contentious gay actors who got the show-biz bug there while competing for the same roles in  “the pageant.” The 3 couples all have misunderstandings and issues to iron out before their Christmas dreams come true and love wins. So there’s nothing new here, including the “big misunderstanding” 20 minutes before the end of the movie. This one is of the “only half the conversation is heard” variety and is particularly dumb.

What makes this one below average is the sheer boredom of watching all of the campers running around like maniacs doing fun activities like they are 10 years old and on sugar highs cheered on like their lives depended on it by Tori’s grinning parents. The one scene that got my attention was provided by Tori’s boss. Besides Corbin and Tori mending fences and discovering the old spark is still there, we have her still trying to get published, this time by writing a history of her family’s beloved camp. Her boss had rejected her latest manuscript because it needed more passion and a more personal connection.  Her boss loves her pitch but then to her horror, asks her, “who are you going to get to write it?” What???!!! I mean, I was floored. Imagine how Tori felt. When her boss goes so far as to hire a writer and asks for Tori’s notes and personal diaries, Tori quits on the spot. She learns later that her boss kept rejecting her manuscripts because she didn’t want to lose Tori as an assistant. This somehow makes her feel better, and in the 6 months later epilogue, we learn that she wrote a children’s book out of the story illustrated by her soon-to-be fiance, Corbin, who is an art teacher.  The married couple are now pregnant and the gay rivals are now a happy couple. Situation normal in Hallmark-Land. It has gotten a pretty harsh reception on IMDb and not just because of all of the diversity.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

July 29,2022

Christmas With the Darlings

A Darling Family Story

I really liked this Hallmark movie when it first came out in 2020 but never reviewed it. With the Hallmark assembly line of new movies slowing to a crawl, I’m reaching back to some past favorites that I can re-watch without pain or boredom and review. Christmas with the Darlings focuses on family dynamics and the struggle of a younger son to escape from his irresponsible past and become a full-fledged contributor to his family and the family business.

An excellent script is bolstered by a great cast led by Katrina Law, Carlo Marks, and a personal favorite Steve Bacic. Steve (Charles) learns that his late middle brother’s three orphaned children can no longer stay with their relatives in Australia and their guardianship has fallen to him and his irresponsible youngest brother, Max. Unfortunately, he is leaving on a lengthy trip abroad for business so he sees no other alternative, given the flighty partying nature of little brother Max, to put them in a boarding school over Christmas. Fortunately, he has a long-time personal assistant in Katrina Law (Jess) who is not having it. She will soon be leaving her current role to be a lawyer in the corporation and convinces Charles to let her devote her last vacation to taking care of the kids for the Christmas season and showing the 3 orphans a good time. As Steve leaves the country, I reluctantly had to swallow that he was not the love interest. Boo Hoo. Oh well. Max steps up to the plate and Jess soon learns that there is more to Max the goofball than meets the eye. He has done a lot of maturing when no one was paying attention. The kids love both him and Jess. Max has always had a crush on Jess but thought he wasn’t good enough for her. (And he would have been right.) Now Jess is returning his feelings. When Charles comes home he has the opportunity to see Max’s hidden depths, especially since both he and Jess are responsible for wowing a potential client with their family-centric old-fashioned Christmas party instead of the sophisticated affair that he had originally planned. Unfortunately, Max has done too good a job at proving himself because Charles makes him the liaison of the Taiwan division which means he will be separated from Jess and the Children. (Don’t worry, (as if) he doesn’t get on the plane but still has a good future with the company and with Jess) This one could really use a sequel, unlike so many Hallmark sequels that should never have been.

I was initially disappointed that Steve Bacic was not the main man, but he really made the most of his role as the tough brother and boss, but who really wanted to do the right thing for the children. He was a good man as well as a great and successful businessman. His priorities were just temporarily out of whack. Carlo really won me over as the love interest. He conveyed his yearning for Jess, his love for the children, his regret at disappointing his family in the past, and the conflict of wanting to make his brother proud, but sadness of having to leave Jess and the kids. And the kids were great too. They each had their own personality(!).

It is worth noting That this was one of the first of the Hallmark Christmas offerings to include a gay romance, however secondary it was. Jess’s best friend Zoe, a shy surgeon, has a crush on a bartender, Kate, that we see is definitely returned. Not a lot is made of it but it is unapologetically there and very sweet. Later in this 2020 season, a gay couple is featured prominently as a main couple.  That movie incurred all kinds of wrath and bitterness (and happy support and praise.) This one was like, “Let’s put this one in there and get people used to it one step at a time. By the end of the season, they won’t even know what hit em’.” Well, people did notice and many were not amused. Reviewing this halfway through 2022, I am proud of Hallmark. They deserve a lot of credit for doubling down on all kinds of diversity despite boycotts and even a rival “family-friendly” network starting up and wooing away some of their top stars. They have not backed down, and I even see by the previews that they are premiering a black-centric (is that a word?) series of movies called “Mahogany” this August on their Murders and Mysteries. So, “Yay,” Hallmark and “yay” Christmas in July.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

July 6, 2022

A Christmas Melody

Coffee, Close-Ups, and Costumes

This Mariah Carey-directed vehicle is semi-notorious for its unintentionally funny softly filtered close-ups of Carey’s face and the jaw-dropping product placements of Folgers Classic Roast Coffee. But beyond that, it is an above-average Hallmark Christmas romance.

Dress designer and single mother Kristin Parson returns to her Ohio hometown right before Christmas after her boutique in Los Angeles fails. On her way out the door for the final time, she gives her framed first 5 dollars she ever made to a white-bearded beggar on the street. Ahem. Welcomed back to Silver Falls by her Aunt, played by the lovable Kathy Najimy, Lacey settles right in with her whiny and sulky-about-moving daughter, ably played by young Fina Strazza. Determined to win her daughter over to small-town life, Lacey sets about getting her talented daughter a place in the Christmas pageant. This is where Mariah Carey rears her almost always disembodied head to provide some conflict and trouble for Lacey to triumph over. Mariah is head of the PTA, in charge of the show, and hates Lacey for an undisclosed reason. And nope, auditions are closed. This is where the other lead, Brennan Elliot comes in. He is the music teacher who had a high school teenage crush on Lacey and gets her singer/dancer/ poet/ songwriter daughter into the show. Lacey and Brendan have great rapport and always work well together.

Everything is going along fine with Lacey saving the show with her talented costume making, her daughter settling into school and making friends with the help of a mysterious white-bearded janitor, ahem, and romance blossoming with the lovestruck Brennan. And then, one night, her former assistant shows up with the news that Lacey has been offered a job in L.A. designing her own line of clothes for a department store chain. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how this all ends. Spoiler alert: Lacey vanquishes Mariah by killing her with kindness and her daughter steals the show with a surprisingly entertaining solo performance complete with backup singers a la Love Actually. Song by Mariah Carey. Oh weird. Love Actually’s tour de force climatic singing performance at the school pageant was a rendition of a song by Mariah Carey. Hmmm.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A Gift to Remember

Nice!

I really enjoyed this one back in 2017, but I never reviewed it. It came up again during Christmas in July or Merry Movie Week or whatever so I decided to re-watch it. I am pleased to say it really held up.

 First off, it was based on an amnesia scenario and thus was able to avoid the city bad/country good rescue the whatever from the evil corporation,” Let’s go to or save the festival!” Hallmark tent poles. It was actually set in Philadelphia although it is debatable whether it was filmed there. Another point in its favor was that this featured an interracial secondary romance, fairly unusual in 2017 for Hallmark. Third and most important were the talents and charm of the two stars Ali Liebert and Peter Porte. Ali has been up and down with me depending on the state of her botox treatments. One of her main appeals is her unusually expressive eyebrows. So when her eyebrows are working, all is well. I know that sounds funny, but it’s true! This is early-ish in her Hallmark career and her first lead role in a Hallmark after languishing in the friend zone for a couple of years. Peter Porte’s acting chops are not up to Ali’s but he is too gorgeous to be real and he seems like a nice guy. They worked well together.

Ali plays Darcy, a shy and reticent bookstore employee who does not like to take chances or rock the boat. She accidentally runs over Peter Porte on her bike sending him into retrograde amnesia. She feels responsible because she is so nice and in her desire to help him regain his memory she starts uncovering clues to his background and identity. By doing this, she discovers she is persistent, a problem solver, and is willing to conquer the fears which are holding her back from going for the job as manager of the bookstore. She figures out that he is rich, has an important job in the literary world, doesn’t like Christmas, and is about to become engaged to his girlfriend. These conclusions make sense given the clues, but don’t make sense as she comes to know Aiden and don’t jive with his gradually returning memory either. So we have a little mystery going on as well as a roadblock to their growing attraction to each other.  When the truth comes out, it all makes perfect sense and all of the details are tied up. (He is single for one thing) Aiden’s real story results in a very nice ending with Darcy meeting his real family, and her little local bookstore triumphing over Mega-book’s ruthless machinations. And she gets promoted to manager. Ali Liebert just has a special spark in this, and she was just charming.

This part is really silly, but I really liked her make-up. It was pretty rather than glamorous until she had a fancy event to attend, and only then did she have the false eyelashes and the red lipstick. It seems like these days Hallmark actresses put on the Glamour Shots treatment just to walk the dog. Oh, the good old days of 2017.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

June 26, 2022

A Castle for Christmas

Hallmark or Netflix? Hallflix? Netmark?

I was pretty much done with Christmas movies until next Christmas or maybe Christmas in July, but I ran across this by accident on Netflix looking for some mindless entertainment before retiring for the evening. And I am a big Scotland fan. A Castle for Christmas is as pleasant as a romance between two 60-year-olds can be. It is a Netflix original and it’s obviously targeted at those for whom Hallmark, UPtv, GAC, or Lifetime cant churn out enough Christmas. Hard to believe, no? Yet here I am. I’m for more diversity in TV romances as far as age is concerned. I certainly prefer a 60-year-old couple pretending to be in their 40s to Hallmark’s old habit of using actors closing in on 40 in scripts written for actors in their 20s and acting like they are in their teens. A great example of the former is the delightful A Kiss Before Christmas. Brooke Shields is pushing 60, and she looks it. I mean that as a compliment. She has aged naturally and is beautiful.  She would look even better if she would lose the long brown hair and the bronzer. Cary Elwes is 3 years older and doesn’t look it. If possible he is even more attractive now than he was in his youth.

Brooke plays a romantic novelist who is facing a lot of fan hostility due to her killing off a beloved character in her best-selling romance series. She escapes to Scotland to visit a castle that her grandfather was a servant in. She meets the financially struggling lord of the manor and sparks fly as they must and do. Brooke wants to buy the castle and Cary, the grumpy Lord, is torn between giving up his heritage and taking care of his tenants and the community who rely on him. Brooke divides her time between living there at the Castle on the flimsiest of pretexts and hanging out at the local pub/inn with a charming club of Scottish knitters.

The plot is as uninspired and dull as the scenery and townspeople are charming. Netflix went all out on the casting as well, with Drew Barrymore making a rather hefty cameo, Hamish the dog, and Andi Osho playing the warm and friendly innkeeper. Despite the cast and setting, the acting (except for Hamish) and the production as a whole were no better or worse than a slightly above average Hallmark Christmas movie. There was one strange thing. Smack dab in the middle of the goings-on a couple shows up at the Inn and seems to be poised to be game-changers or flies in the ointment or deus ex machinas. They check in and we never see them again. It was very weird.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

February 11, 2022

Sugar Plum Twist

Or… The Redemption of Ms Kat

The romance was as lame as can be but I loved the message and the character arcs. From the beginning, Ms Kat the head of the ballet company was a very unsympathetic character. Cold, Rigid, harsh, and snooty. Maybe a little bit bigoted. I loved the way she turned around. The actress, Rachel DeBenedet, did a superb job. We hear a little back story of why she blew up at our heroine Natalia. And when she sees that Natalia was not being disloyal with all of the hard work and professionalism, she apologizes sincerely and promotes her. And then she makes the finale perfect on her own initiative reflecting Natalia’s vision and dreams. The good ending, interesting plot, beautiful dance, seldom seen Latino culture well presented rescued this one which did get a little draggy at times.

“Is Miss Kat actually smiling? It’s a Christmas Miracle!”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

January 9, 2022

The Holiday Fix Up

All Fixed Up

Jana Kramer plays an HGTV type star who is being pushed aside by an up-and-comer whose social media presence is better. She is out of work until the new year and is at loose ends until she is asked by an old friend, Jack, to renovate and rebuild his Inn which was demolished by a tree. He asks her ex, Coop, to work with her to restore the building and save Harbor Fest.

I liked the chemistry between Ryan McPartin, Coop, and Jana Kramer. The conflict in their two styles pushed this along. Jana, used to taking shortcuts and getting the job done as fast as possible for television and not always using the best materials versus Ryan, who was all in for a quality product. His career was based on reclaiming wood and reusing it. He was all about the craft. He wins her over to his way of thinking.

She films the renovation project for social media, and people love the more personal input and especially like Coop and her together. They seem like a good team. Why did Coop dump her to begin with? When the truth comes out Jana gets even angrier with Coop and I can’t say I blame her. Eventually, Jana’s popularity wins over her bosses and they offer her a big opportunity. Coop thinks she was just helping with the renovation to boost her career. Yikes.

Will they ever get this mess straightened out? Not sure I liked the resolution but they seemed happy with it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

December 13, 2021

A Wedding for Christmas

A Character You Love to Hate-And That’s a Good Thing

Haley is a Wedding Planner extraordinaire in Los Angeles working for an ambitious boss at one of the premier event planners in the city. She works hard and constantly. She has a boyfriend but on their dates, they both spend most of their time on their phones handling business. When her sister decides she wants to get married at their Grandpa’s Christmas Tree farm out in the boonies instead of Fiji, she asks her sister to be her wedding planner.

Haley goes to the small town to secure the venue of the farm which has since been sold to her childhood friend. Despite insulting him and his way of life, he agrees because her sister used to be his best friend. She turns her nose up at using the local caterer, baker, and florist in favor of her hoity-toity vendors who will come running at the snap of her fingers. Nope. They all turn her down due to the short notice and the holiday and it’s out in the sticks. She is forced to go back to the local hicks all of whom she has managed to insult and alienate with her snooty ways.

This girl is a real snot.

But Hey, this is all about Haley’s mellowing from snobby city-girl to being nice and appreciating the charm of small-town life. The character is well written and her character arc seems authentic and believable. It was a pleasure to see her learn her lessons and turn into a decent human being. Unfortunately, the actress was not very good and didn’t do her character justice. And the actor who played her city boyfriend was worse. It was a thankless role, but he was no better than a cardboard cut-out. Her boss was ably played by Vivica A. Fox, the hardest working actress on TV, who was demanding and unreasonable as most Hallmark-type bosses are. Why do Hallmarkian bosses treat their best most valuable employees so mean? Everyone, including the love interest, was excellent as well, especially the sister, who was a darling.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

January 2, 2022

Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses

Promising Start and Some Good Scenes but Didn’t Like the Romance.

Jill Wagner plays a hardworking single Mom who wants to get back to Interior Designing but is afraid to leave her stable job as a programming director at an assisted living facility. Donna Mills encourages her to apply for a primo job with her big-shot son redecorating and re-purposing their old unused mansion for office space and a Christmas gala. Donna who was pushing 80 when this was filmed in 2019 looks absolutely gorgeous.

The setup for this is good as Donna’s son is cold, “imperious,” and has no sense of humor, and his V.P. and trusted advisor, Kate, is a cold bitch. They both make it crispy clear they are not impressed by her qualifications or demeanor. And I can’t say that I blame them. For while we like Abby who is warm, enthusiastic, and charming, her qualifications were not the best, and she misspoke during the interview. When they haughtily dismiss her, she has a meltdown and acted like the “interview” was just a formality and she was guaranteed the job. She yells at them and storms out of the room. Very entitled and unprofessional. She’s hired because she has “spunk”.

Jill remains as charming and likable as ever while trying and succeeding in jollying up the Scroogey Nick. He slowly but surely warms up to her, her son, and her ideas (which are diametrically opposed to Kate’s who keeps getting meaner and meaner). His character arc takes up a large chunk of the movie and they start to give each other smoldering looks. Meanwhile, Abby meets a nice doctor who loves kids and whom we like as well. It is a measure of Jill Wagner’s appeal that she remains likable while stringing the nice doctor along while being attracted to Nick and behaving very unprofessionally at times.  Nick keeps following her around like a puppy dog and even at one point stalks her while she is on a date with the doctor and actually horning in on it with scary Kate at his side. It is very awkward and painful to watch.

He loses an important client because he is neglecting his business and I actually started sympathizing with Kate and her frustration. He gives a nice speech to Abby about why his business needs his full attention. Abby’s work on the mansion is a triumph and the writers now decide to rehabilitate Kate instead of punishing her for being so mean to Abby. She acknowledges Abby’s good work and admits she was wrong. A.) They need her to give the good doctor some romantic closure as he is left twisting in the wind by our heroine which is not a good look. B.) They need her to take on the bulk of Nick’s business responsibilities so he can have more of a work/life balance with Abby. So she gets a promotion.

This one ultimately did not fly for me despite Jill Wagner’s appeal. I could never warm up to Nick, especially due to the worthy competition of the sexy and nice doctor. She had more in common with him and it seemed like it was just physical attraction between Abby and Nick. Also, I just couldn’t get quite forget that the actor who played him was that blockhead Warner from Legally Blonde.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

December 21, 2021