And So It Begins (Again)

50 movies in 54 days, all of them Christmas romance movies. How hard can that be? Well, I know from last year that it’s pretty darn hard, actually. But I enjoy a challenge and in this case it’s also producing money for a charity I really care about. So we’re off. I’ve watched eight movies in the first eleven days of November, which puts me slightly off pace, but I’ll catch up. I will. I WILL, don’t look at me like that. I share my “reviews” on the fundraiser Facebook page, but I’ll also share them here, in bundles of five. Please note that I use the word review loosely, both because these movies don’t prompt a tremendous amount of deep reflection and because I’m too busy moving on to the next movie to spend much time on writing about them. Nevertheless, I persist.

A couple of other things as we start. While Hallmark rules in this genre, both in sheer volume of output and in the public imagination, I also watch non-Hallmark holiday rom-coms. It’s interesting to me to notice the differences in production style and tone between Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix. It also gives me a break from the oh-so-formulaic Hallmark firehose of movies. Yes, I know this is supposed to test my endurance, but I am only human.

Without further ado, let’s get to the movies.

Entry #1: A Shoe Addict’s Christmas (2018)

Alternate Title: I’d Like to Report a Crime Against Jean Smart

Watched: November 1, 2020

Noelle is a department store HR director who enjoys her job but wants to be a photographer, loves Christmas, has a dead mother, is assigned to work with a hunky firefighter on a fundraising gala, and has a guardian angel to show her – by way of magical shoes – how she’s messed up her life. You know. The usual.

Our Romantic Couple: Noelle (Candace Cameron Bure) and Jake (Luke McFarlane)

Their Meet Cute: Luke is moving into Noelle’s building. He tries to help her with her groceries and knocks her to the ground.

Star Power Casting: Jean Smart as Noelle’s guardian angel, Charlie

The 110% Award (for over-the-top performances): None. Everyone is pretty chill in this movie.

Observations: Jean Smart was my favorite of the Designing Women, and she’s been superb in recent years in shows like Fargo and Watchmen. What this movie does to her is inexcusable. Charlie is a fumbling, goofy lesser-Clarence who just spouts off about taking risks and having faith, and does it all in ridiculous costumes. Jean deserves better. Don’t do anymore of these, Jean. Let us know if you need money. We’ll try to help.

If a woman says she doesn’t want you to help her carry her groceries, do not aggressively grab for her groceries, especially if you are a stranger to her, and no, I don’t care if you’re a sexy firefighter. That’s basically assault, especially when you wind up knocking her to the ground.

I didn’t understand Noelle’s motivation. Is she grieving her dead mother or her lost boyfriend, or both? Does she love Christmas, or endure it? If she’s really happy in HR, why not do photography on the side? And I don’t know much about art, but her photos don’t seem that good to me. And her obsession with shoes is weird.

Noelle’s boss is very, very kind. Also coded as gay, I think, so that we wouldn’t think he’s a better romantic prospect than Jake (which, by the way, he is).

If you work at a department store and get locked in overnight, does that mean you can wear all the clothes and eat all the boxed cookies? Because Noelle thinks that’s what it means.

I chose this for the first movie because it sounded awful. Might as well dive in to the deep end, so to speak. It was not catastrophically awful, but it was boring – which may be worse. I don’t get the Candace Cameron Bure love. She’s pretty enough but seems to have two expressions: smiley and confounded. She’s no Melissa Joan Hart, is all I’m saying.

Entry #2: One Royal Holiday (2020)

Watched: November 2, 2020

Synopsis: Anna, a cardiac care nurse in Boston, meets James, the crown prince of Galwick (it’s in Northern Europe, I’m sure you’ve heard of it) and his widowed mother, Queen Gabriella, just as they are stranded after giving a generous donation to the cardiac care unit at Anna’s hospital. She doesn’t know about the donation, of course, and they don’t know that Anna was the solicitous nurse who cared for King Max when he had a heart attack in Boston. Anywho, a storm keeps them from flying home and Anna invites them to stay at her dad’s conveniently close and beautiful country inn in a Christmas-obsessed small town. Anna enlists James’ help in planning a formal Christmas ball for Christmas Eve and they fall in love. James flies home to do his duty to his country, but then flies back for love, and he gives Anna fancy slippers for Christmas. The end.

Our Romantic Couple: Anna (Laura Osnes) and James (Aaron Tveit)

Their Meet Cute: Anna gets buy-one-get-one on crullers while James is buying a tea. She insists he take her extra cruller. This is what passes for cute these days.

Star Power Casting: I mean…I guess Aaron Tveit is the start power casting. He’s been a regular on The Code, Brain Dead (highly recommended), Graceland, and Gossip Girl. He was also in Les Miserables, which I can’t stand. Make of that you will. Anna’s dad, Ed (Tom McGowan) is a character actor who you will recognize from lots of things and who was a regular on Everybody Loves Raymond and Frasier.

The 110% Award: Again, no one gets this for the size of their performance – although I’m tempted to give it to Krystal Joy Brown as “Mayor Sara”, who is just lording her mayorliness all over everyone all through this movie.

Hot Cocoa. What cosmopolitans are to Sex and the City, hot cocoa is to Christmas rom-coms.

I knew we were in trouble when the movie opened with James giving a speech about his family’s donation to the hospital and he pronounced the word “cardiac” as “cartiac”. I rewound to make sure I’d heard correctly. Yep, “cartiac”. Sometimes American actors shouldn’t attempt English accents, and this movie is one of those times.

Anna is awful. DO NOT LIKE. She’s pushy with her dumb cruller, she mocks James for being stuffy when she literally met him 30 seconds ago, she brags constantly about how much she loves helping people, and she doesn’t know what the word “provisionally” means. The premise of this movie is that given enough days trapped in a snowstorm with Anna, James can’t help but fall in love. I would have gotten a pair of snowshoes and hit the road on foot to get away from her. Also, she’s got a bland-pretty face and a bland-pretty singing voice, but has the air of someone who is their own proud stage mother. Girl, you are not all that.

The conceit in almost all of these movies that people go to big community parties on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day is wild to me. Most of us spend that time with family, and perhaps at church, don’t we?

For years and years this town has had a Christmas Eve “Pajama Ball”, which at least sort of sounds fun and casual. You can bust out your new Christmas jammies and drink lots of hot chocolate. But James convinces Anna to make it a formal ball with THREE DAYS NOTICE. When she says, “Where will everyone find formal dresses?” James suggests that all the women in town probably have a formal gown they’ve just been waiting to wear. Dude. Wut?Royalty really are different from the rest of us.

Entry #3: Holidate (2020)

Watched: November 4, 2020

Sloane and Jackson are both tired of spending holidays alone, so they agree to be each other’s platonic dates to every holiday gathering throughout the year. Of course, feelings are harder to manage than they thought and with every passing holiday, they grow closer. Meanwhile, Sloane’s wacky family has issues. In the end, both Sloane and Jackson overcome their fears of commitment and plan to spend holiday and every other day together.

Our Romantic Couple: Sloane (Emma Roberts) and Jackson (Luke Bracey)

Their Meet Cute: They are both in the returns line at a department story, returning terrible gifts. Sloane tries to cut ahead of Jackson because he’s taking too long, they bicker, and somehow wind up making plans to spend New Year’s Eve together.

Star Power Casting: There’s a lot. Aside from Emma Roberts (American Horror Story, Scream Queens), her mother is played by Francis Fisher and her Aunt Susan is played by Kristin Chenoweth. Also, Alex Moffet (SNL) plays Sloane’s brother-in-law, and Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) has a small role as one of Aunt Susan’s holidates.

The 110% Award: Kristin Chenoweth as the very sexually adventurous Aunt Susan.

Observations: Not very Christmasy. The vast majority of the movie falls on other holidays.

This is a Netflix holiday rom-com, and it’s much bawdier than any Hallmark release. Mind the swears, the sex jokes, and the enormous amounts of alcohol consumption.

Emma Robert and Luke Bracey have good chemistry and they’re both lovely to look at. They’re also both deeply flawed characters who are allowed to grow, which is nice. I’m kind of bothered by the amount of alcohol they consume, though, and the fact that their first sexual encounter – maybe? probably? – is remembered by neither of them because they’re blackout drunk. I don’t find that charming or funny, but the movie plays it for laughs.

Also not funny is the film’s weird emasculation of Peter, Sloane’s brother-in-law. He’s depicted as an overprotective and over-involved parent, and there’s a scene of him trying to inflate a yard ornament that seemed to have some subtext about his manhood. I didn’t like it. A man is not less of a man just because he’s a doting dad.

Holidate seems to borrow from other movies – from How to Be Single to Bridesmaids. It’s okay, but it went for too many cheap jokes. Occasionally the material rises to a higher level, like the recurring discussion of the “Ryan Gosling” train, or Jackson making Sloane peppermint tea by crushing Altoids in hot water. The latter is an example of the movie puncturing the perfection of most holiday rom-coms, and it was welcome. Also, both leads are really, really charming.

Have you ever seen a crowd applaud a couple of strangers kissing in public? That happens a lot in this movie. Maybe I just don’t go to the right public places for this to be a thing.

Entry #4: A Christmas Love Story (2018)

Date Watched: November 5, 2020

Alternate Title: When Dimples Collide

Katherine is a former composer/Broadway star who now directs a children’s choir in New York City. Greg is a widowed businessman with a 17 year old, Danny, who is interning with Katherine’s choir. Although Greg initially thinks the choir is a waste of time for Danny, who he hopes will follow him into business. But Danny has a good voice and and Kathryn won’t take “no” for an answer. Soon Greg and Kathryn are sparking and sharing their painful histories. Greg lost his wife to illness. Kathryn gave a child up for adoption many years before and…reader, you’ll never guess. Danny is her birth son! (I never promised spoiler-free reviews.) The choir’s Christmas concert is a big hit, Danny and Kathryn sing a newly-composed duet together, and Greg and Kathryn declare their love for one another.

Our Romantic Couple: Kathryn (Kristin Chenoweth) and Greg (Scott Wolf)

Their Meet Cute: Ride-sharing. Is that cute? I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.

Star Power Casting: Scott Wolf, from Party of Five and Kristin Chenoweth, from, well, everything. Not everyone has both Sesame Street and Bojack Horseman in their credits.


Observations: This was a very nice movie. I mean, NICE-nice. Nice people being nice to each other with about 30 seconds of mild conflict thrown in. The tension was never higher than watching my mellow sister and brother-in-law try to decide where to have dinner. As story structure a lack of conflict is a real problem, but keep in mind that I watched this two days after the presidential election. I didn’t really need more conflict.

The combination of Wolf and Chenoweth’s dimples is…a lot. Is it possible to have too much middle aged cuteness?

Kathryn raves about Danny’s voice – his “gift” – but it’s just an average high school choir voice. Chenoweth was on Glee: she’s heard much better. But the problem isn’t just Danny. Kathryn is a former Broadway STAR who now leads a children’s choir in NYC, of all places, and it’s such an unspectacular choir. Their concert is tepid and yet they play to an enthusiastic packed house. Why? How?

Unlike in Holidate, this movie allows Chenoweth to demonstrate her glass shattering vocal range.

Could Hallmark have put any less effort into the title of this film?

Entry #5: The Christmas Contract (2018)

Date Watched: November 6, 2020

Jolie is heading home for Christmas, but doesn’t want to be alone while her ex-boyfriend is around with his new love. Jack, her best friend’s brother, just wants a quiet place to work on his new ghostwriting assignment. Naomi, the best friend/sister, who also happens to be a lawyer, draws up a contract between the two which requires Jack to pretend to be Jolie’s boyfriend over the holidays in exchange for Jolie creating a website for him. Then off to Louisiana they go, where Jack is embraced by Jolie’s warm family and experiences the local Christmas culture, all while working on a romance novel. Life imitates art, and soon Jolie and Jack are falling in love for real for real, but it won’t happen without some hiccups.

Our Romantic Couple: Jolie (Hilarie Burton) and Jack (Robert Buckley)

Their Meet Cute: They met before the movie started, through Naomi. Jack stood Jolie up several months ago and they can’t stand each other now.

Star Power Casting: Any One Tree Hill fans out there? This one’s for you! Burton and Buckley are both veterans of that show as are Danneal Ackles (Naomi) and Antwon Tanner who plays Naom’s husband, Martin. Also from One Tree Hill is Tyler Hilton, who provides music in the movie. Ackles was also a regular cast member on Supernatural. However, for people my age the real star power is in the casting of Jolie’s parents, played by Bruce Boxleitner (How the West Was Won, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Babylon 5) and Cheryl Ladd (Charlie’s Angels).

The 110% Award: Ritchie Montgomery as local color “Mr. Rocky” who cranks the Cajun vibe up to 11.

Observations: Friends, I’m woried. This is my fifth movie and I’ve only hated one of them, and I’m worried that I’m becoming a soft touch. This one…I legitimately liked it. That only happened a couple of times last year!

Time does not work in holiday rom-coms the way it does for me. I decorate one tree every year and it takes me all day. In these movies two or three people can create a winter wonderland between lunch and afternoon tea.

The premise of this movie – two people pretend to be in a relationship – is both ridiculous and a cliche in these movies. Despite that, though, the cast is charming, the performances natural, some of the dialogue surprisingly nuanced. Even the music is good! Is it me? Or is the movie actually okay? I need someone else to watch it and tell me.

There’s some very meta dialogue in an early scene in which Jack’s agent tries to convince him to ghostwrite a romance novel by celebrity author Parker Hallowell. Jack says he hates the books because “they’re all exactly the same except in a new setting.” The joke, of course, is that this is true of Hallmarkish movies – and the “fresh take” that this one offers is that it’s set in Louisiana, rather than somewhere snowy.

Nice touch: Jordan Ladd, Cheryl Ladd’s daughter, plays Jolie’s sister, Breonna. She is the spitting image of her mother, so it adds some verasimilitude to the family scenes.

Nitpick: There’s a scene in which Jolie is playing the “fiddle” with a local band, and it’s clearly fake. Listen, I don’t expect Hilarie Burten to learn to play the violin for a holiday rom-com, but couldn’t some attempt have been made to have her movements with the bow match the melody we’re hearing? Just try, please.

Should I know who Tyler Hilton is? I only know Rihanna’s cover version of his song “Stay”, and his songs used in The Christmas Contract are far above the usual Christmas movie quality.

This is a Lifetime movie. Based on my experiences last year, they tend to be a bit higher quality in terms of acting and script. I think it’s also the reason the movie could poke fun at the genre – because we all know that “Parker Hallowell” romance novels with their identical plots are really a sly reference to Hallmark movies.

The Dead Mother Running Total

Five Movies – Three Dead Mothers

Only 45 movies to go.

For More Info About This Fundraiser…

This year I’ve added a simple registration form to track pledges and get everyone entered for prizes and bingo cards. Pledges aren’t due until the end of January and no pledge is too small – or large! Go here to register. Follow this link to learn more about Twigs, the great charity you’ll be supporting. And here’s the link to the Facebook page where you can see more details about what I’m doing and follow along for updates on prize drawings, pledge updates, and other fun stuff.