Big Sky River

A Parable for Step-Parents.

This was a low-key pleasant way to pass the time while also serving as a cautionary tale for loving step-parents. There’s not a whole lot of action, but then again it also avoided a lot of tired tent pole scenes and tropes that Hallmark is famous for. This was on Hallmark Murders & Mysteries, and those usually have something a little more to offer than the usual stuff that Hallmark churns out like an assembly line.

Tara is a recent divorcee whose ex-husband wants to distance her from his daughter, her step-daughter, Erin, so she can bond with his new girlfriend without Tara in the way. Tara and Erin love each other dearly. Of course they do. Tara is the only mother Erin has ever known, and Erin has been Tara’s daughter for 10 of her 13 years. But Tara has no rights now that she is divorced from Erin’s father. This is a sad and scary situation for both of them, but being a mature, reasonable woman Tara respects James’ wishes (not that she has much of a choice) and is leaving for the summer. As a young girl, she spent a vacation at a dude ranch in Parable, Montana with her parents and she has always thought back on that time fondly. No, surprisingly, this is not a Dude ranch story. The dude ranch is now defunct but she is renting a house nearby.  

While in her summer home she takes care of the resident chickens, rides horses, makes friends, and dances, but more importantly meets a handsome next-door neighbor who is also the local sheriff, and his two boys. They form a connection right away, but being parents they are cautious and careful. And, as they both know, Tara will be leaving at the end of the summer. Meanwhile, the ex-husband, Hallmark’s longstanding never-the-romantic-lead-and-also-director Peter Benson, is not having a smooth time with his daughter. She has chased off 4 nannies and the agency won’t send anymore. He basically wants to just get rid of her and she won’t go to camp. He calls Tara and asks her to take Erin for the rest of the summer. Both Tara and Erin are thrilled and Erin happily joins her mom and makes herself at home in Parable.

And that’s about it until the big crisis. I won’t go any further, but it results in Tara finally putting her foot down with James and James caving in immediately. It was the highlight of the movie.  By the end, Tara and Erin will be together in Parable with Tara and Boone pursuing their promising relationship and hopefully forming one big happy family.

I appreciated late 30 and 40-somethings dealing with age-appropriate situations. Too often, Hallmark has their 40-year-old actors dealing with life situations more common to twenty-somethings. The moral, or parable, if you will, of this story is, that if you’re the loving parent of a stepchild, better go ahead and adopt them. Marriages are not always forever but parenthood is. Don’t lose your rights to your child.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

August 18, 2022

Just One Kiss

Too bad They’re All Not This Good-but then, It wouldn’t be Hallmark.

I knew this was going to be a 10 out of a 10 in the first 10 minutes. The dialogue was sharp and witty from the get-go. The stars were appealing and didn’t have the usual GQ male model vibe for the male or beauty pageant runway vibe for the female. Upon our first meeting with the striking Mia, an English professor, she is delivering a bitter cynical lecture on romantic poetry. Two students comment on her diatribe: “Professor Rivera needs a date.” …” Or a drink!” The girls make a few more appearances throughout the movie with their astute conclusions on the state of her love life going by the tone of her lecture. Very cute. We learn she is on her way to her lawyer to divorce her too handsome husband. He is 90 days sober but was a lying alcoholic who lost their house. He wants her back. And her tween daughter wants them back together too. She meets cute (a couple of times) with our leading man who is handsome but in a normal guy kind of way instead of looking like he just stepped out of a Vanity Fair ad. He is a lounge singer (now isn’t that an unusual profession for a Hallmark hero!?) and the music is wonderful. He is a bit of a flirt and plays the field but thanks to his conversations with a good friend and bartender we know he is a good guy and a keeper.

Despite her suspicious hostile attitude toward love and romance they bond over a love for old movies and he gradually thaws her icy sarcastic façade. The romance is facilitated by their two mothers who meet in the movie theatre the two frequent and know they would be perfect for each other. “He likes her! And she HATES him!… It’s perfect!”

Despite being wisely advised and cheered on by her best friend and his husband, all does not go smoothly in their enemies to friends to lovers journey. Mostly thanks to her jerk of an ex-husband and the inevitable misunderstanding with 20 minutes to go. I loved the unusual-for-Hallmark creative touches. The authentic New York vibe, the black and white dream sequences, the songs, the Greek chorus-like moms and the two female students, and even the original movie poster (not pictured but you can still see it on IMDb as of this writing)!

There is a cute twist at the end that was telegraphed early and often, and it just added one more unusual touch to the whole wonderful production. The cast of fresh faces have outstanding resumes, including Illeana Douglas. There were a few Hallmark veterans (Matty Finochio, David Ruttle, and Peter Benson in a short cameo.) and to my surprise, this was written by a veteran Hallmark writer. They must have told her to “do the opposite of what you think we want” or something. A movie like this is one of the reasons I doggedly look at almost every Hallmark movie. In addition to the crazily predictable and boring, there’s always a chance they shock with a truly excellent romantic comedy.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

April 3, 2022

A Bride for Christmas

Great Cast

I recorded this on a whim when I looked at the cast and vaguely remembered that it was pretty good. Sometimes I just don’t have what it takes to invest in a recent premiere movie that I haven’t seen yet. I just read what I wrote there. That is a sad commentary right there. Usually, I look at these re-dos in bed when I wake up in the middle of the night or the last thing before I try to fall asleep.

The plot was entirely predictable of course. The appeal lay in the cast of  Arielle Kebble, Andrew Walker, and Kimberley Sustad in particular. Arielle Kebble is one of the better early Hallmark actresses. Her movies for Hallmark are as memorable as they are few and far between. She is particularly good in those that emphasize lighter comedy rather than earnest heart-tuggery. Although don’t count her out when the story calls for heartbreak, however temporary (as this one does). Our heroine is a runaway bride who we meet Just as she is about to go down the aisle to wed door #3. We know trouble is on the horizon in the dressing room when she asks her mother how she knew her Dad was “the one.” But she walks down the aisle with a big smile. Arielle is very funny as her smile turns from happy and excited then stiff and then a bit panicked as she keeps walking past the wedding party and out the side door without a pause. Andrew Walker does his usual thing (which is a very good thing) as the commitment-phobe who bets his buddies he can get get a woman to accept his marriage proposal by Christmas. It was a little unclear what this was meant to prove. He settles on Arielle.

This is classic romantic comedy material as the “player” courts the gun-shy reluctant jilt and they fall in love for real. Kimberly Sustad, who was only 22 when this movie was made, practically a baby by current Hallmark standards, plays Arielle’s sister and turns a nothing part into one in which she almost steals every scene. I also want to single out Sage Brocklebank as Mike, the jilted bridegroom who is a creepy looming presence as he hopes to win Arielle back and sees her and Andrew falling for each other. He manages to elicit pity for his heartbreak and uneasiness as to what menace he is capable of.

I gave this a ‘7″ initially, but by today’s standards it is a solid “8.” Terrible promotional poster by the way.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

December 26, 2021

Time for Them to Come Home for Christmas

A Road Trip to Remember

Amnesia stories usually provide rich material for a nice story, and this one is no exception. Jessy Schram, a favorite of mine, plays a young woman who gets dunked in a river after being bumped by a car. We next see her in the local hospital near the Canadian border with amnesia. Her luggage has been lost. The only clue to who she is is an ad for a Christmas Tree lighting in Charleston, SC that she left behind at a local diner. It has a handwritten message on the back saying “Please Come” and signed “Mark”.

“Jane Doe” is an immediate hit at the hospital due to her friendly, spirited, and outgoing nature. Jessy conveys all of that with the underlying vulnerability that she is so good at. She makes a friendly connection with a nice nurse, Paul, who offers to drive her to Charleston as it is on his way to his family’s home. It is almost immediately apparent that Paul is hiding some secret pain as he is very conflicted about going home. Jessy and Brendan are perfectly cast and their performances are spot on. I like that they made Paul a nurse instead of a doctor, thus it made sense when he drives her in an old dilapidated car that conveniently breaks down on the way. A doctor would have flown.

On their road trip, they have a positive impact on all of the people they meet along the way. Including Alison Sweeney in a brief cameo appearance! This is a real thing this year. This is the third movie I have seen in which other Hallmark stars appear briefly in another movie not their own. I think it’s really cool. And very smart given the competition other networks are giving them for the attention of the Christmas movie viewing public.

The movie keeps you engaged at all times what with the mystery behind Paul’s sadness and conflicted feelings going home and Jessy’s real identity. Jessy starts having flashbacks which hint that she may be married and have a child! Why would she leave a husband and child? Is she a bad person? Is he a bad person? It won’t be a spoiler to reassure you that she is not a bad person and her future lies with the nice and attractive Paul.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

November 29, 2021

Wedding Every Weekend

Way to Go, Hallmark!

I agree with all of the positive reviews regarding this movie. Kimberley Sustad is a very likable and talented actress and does comedy very well. I liked the plot and the slow-building realistic growth of her feelings for Paul Campbell and his for her. It’s been a long time since I have looked forward to the inevitable happy ending with such anticipation in a Hallmance. Too often it’s just a big yawn. They did avoid most of the usual Hallmark tent poles in the plot although the “big misunderstanding” was front and center.

Yes, the diversity was laid on with a trowel. Jewish, Black, multi-ethnic, and gay weddings. But sometimes the politically correct thing is also the right and good thing. In fact, the only “normal” (Ha Ha) couple was the lead couple, now that I think about it. Hopefully, the religious right can take some comfort in that. As for me, I hope Hallmark doesn’t think they’ve done their duty for the time being as far as diversity is concerned and non-WASP non-straight people go back to being relegated to tokens. I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will be guided by the praise and not the invective.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

August 17, 2020

Lucky in Love

I Change My Vote!

When I first saw this movie 4 or 5 years ago, I gave it a 5. I just rewatched it and I am bumping my grade up to an 8. Unfortunately, this is a sad commentary on how mediocre the current crop of Hallmark-type movies are. They now churn them out so frequently, that the quality of the acting, plot, chemistry between the leads, directing and writing has inevitably suffered. Consequently, when I see one that is half-way decent or has one great thing going for it, it earns at least a 7 from me. This one features some actors who have since made it pretty big in Hallmark-Land. namely Benjamin Hollingsworth, Ryan Kennedy, and Peter Benson. And low and behold Cindy Busby in a bit part as a friend of our heroine and barely recognizable with brown hair. I loved Jessica Szohr in the lead role as a girl who achieves the life of her dreams due to a series of coincidences. She was very exotic looking and a far cry from the pageant ready looks favored by most hallmark heroines. Her acting was top notch as well, and I loved the ups and downs she goes through to achieve her happy ending and the right man for her. All in all, it was very entertaining, especially since they didn’t cling to stereo type black or white characterizations. The guy who was the initial “villain” turns out to be a great guy, and our good girl heroine turns into a bit of a bitch before she sees the error of her ways. It looks like Jessica has gone on to other projects besides Hallmark. Hallmark would do well to groom more female leads with her range and interesting looks.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

March 1, 2020

Holiday Date

And for Something a Little Different…

This is a genuinely amusing little variation on the usual Hallmark template. It starts off with all of the clichés in place: Nice girl gets dumped before the holidays when she is expected to bring the dumper to meet the family for the first time. she can’t bear the humiliation or to disappoint them so she falls in with a plan to substitute an actor to impersonate the architect “Mr. Christmas” ex-boyfriend. He is a born and bred New York City actor who is anxious to visit a small town to get a feel for a role he is up for. One problem. He is Jewish and can’t even build a gingerbread house. The chemistry between the charming leads was great, there was some ample support from veteran actors Bruce Boxleitner and Teri Rothery. And the talented Anna Van Hooft, who usually plays the villain in Hallmark movies, does a credible job in a throwaway part as the supportive sister, for a change. And let’s not forget the contribution by a Hallmark stalwart Peter Benson as the brother-in-law and all of his helpful advice.

This was a nice romance with some good laughs fueled by the tension of when will the truth come out, and what will happen then, and the cluelessness of fake fiancee Joel, played with aplomb by newcomer Matt Cohen.

One of the best this year. Hallmark Christmas movie fans: Don’t miss it!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

December 16, 2019

My Favorite Wedding

This One Succeeds due to Maggie Lawson and Paul Greene

I enjoyed this one and was going to review it long ago after I first saw it, but it was not yet available on IMDb. This movie follows the usual pattern: Competent and no nonsense woman saddled with a guy who takes her for granted attends a wedding and meets the laid back best man. Sparks fly after the usual friction between the two, and then the original boyfriend appears out of nowhere. Add to this a bridezilla (surprise surprise.) What sets this one apart is Maggie Lawson. She adds brightness and nice comic timing. I enjoyed seeing her again after Psych. Paul Greene is one of my more favorite male Hallmark regulars, and the two play off each other very well. I am hoping Hallmark will have Maggie back soon. **8 stars out of 10**

July 15, 2017

Sweet Carolina

Hallmark Takes a Daring Step Forward

It’s not often Hallmark actresses get to portray anguish on camera. Luckily they have a real pro and bona fide actress in Lacey Chabert, who did a very credible job. I can think of very few in the stable of regulars who could have pulled off the scene where she learns her beloved sister and brother-in-law have been killed. I cried. The whole ensemble handled the story very well. You can tell they pulled out the “big guns” to meet the challenge of a script that actually called for a range of emotion: Gregory Harrison and Teryl Rothery as the parents, good ole Peter Benson as the city boyfriend who gets dumped for the small-town coach, who was played by the always welcome Tyler Hynes. I appreciated that they got a normal-looking kid who could act to play the introverted son.

There were very real problems and conflicts that had to be resolved. The father was a good guy, but too controlling. Gregory Harrison managed to keep him likable. I groaned when they were setting up for the customary Hallmark food fight ( or snowball fight if it’s winter) but it was actually funny, thanks to the performances.

It was good to see Hallmark break out of its own box a little bit. Fear not, most of the usual templates were still in place, but baby steps! Kudos.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

May 17, 2021

P. S. I just noticed that Lacey Chabert was actually one of the writers. You go, girl! **8 stars out of 10**