The Completist’s Dilemma

The problem is, there are too many movies. You see, I am a completist. When I become interested in something, I move pretty quickly to absorbed, and then right on into obsessed. I did a three-part speaking engagement on Joss Whedon’s work several years ago and I prepared for it by not only rewatching every episode of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, but also by reading Buffy Season 8, The Runaways, and about a dozen scholarly and popular books about Whedon. I go hard when I get stuck on something. Last year my goal in the rom-com-athon was simply to survive it. This year I’m fighting the impulse to want to be the world’s foremost expert on holiday rom-coms – a title I could never hold, based on the level of obsessive fandom out there already. But also, the thing is, there are just too many dang movies. I keep DVR-ing and yet every time I check the Hallmark schedule there are dozens more movies I haven’t seen. And it’s not that I exactly enjoy them – I still wouldn’t say I’m a fan of this genre – but I want to be able to say I’ve seen them. I want to rise above the crowd of casual viewers. Here’s an analogy: in my rom-com free moments I’ve been watching a new Netflix docuseries called We Are the Champions, which explores some of the quirky, niche competitions in which people participate. One episode was about a chili pepper eating contest. Watching people choke down hot chilis while tears and snot pour down their faces, sweat drips from their hair, cramps set in, the vomit bucket is scooted closer – one wonders what could possibly be worth this suffering. But some people just really want to be world champion pepper eaters, and I want to be a world champion Christmas rom-com watcher. It’s probably not a healthy impulse for them, or me.

Entry #16: Christmas in Mississippi (2017)

Watched: November 18, 2020
Available on Amazon Prime

Holly is a photographer living in LA who returns to her hometown (Gulfport, MS) for the first time in several years. Volunteering at the local Christmas festival (which hasn’t been held since the town was devastated by a hurricane several years before), Holly runs into her high school sweetheart, Mike. Turns out he’s the festival director, and after sorting out a GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING which leads her to believe he’s married and has a child, Holly and Mike renew their old relationship. Mike, is a standup guy who left his career in Nashville to take care of his nephew whose mother died and whose dad is in the service. Meanwhile, Holly is trying to persuade her widowed mother to take a second chance on love with Al from Home Improvement. Just when Holly is getting serious with Mike, she gets a call that she needs to hurry back to LA if she wants a job as photo editor at a big time magazine. Once again, career and love are in conflict. What will Holly do?

Our Romantic Couple: Holly (Jana Kramer) and Mike (Wes Brown).

Their Meet Cute: Holly runs into Mike at the set up for the Christmas festival. She is still holding a grudge against him for not following her to college some years before and they bicker a bit.

Star Power Casting: Faith Ford (Murphy Brown) as Holly’s mom, Caroline. Richard Karn (Home Improvement) as Caroline’s suitor, Stuart. Barry Bostwick (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Mr. Kriss. Gary Grubbs (Angel, Treme, Will and Grace, so many things) as the real estate developer who provides an epiphany for Holly.

The 110% Award: Every Christmas-obsessed small town needs a local character, and Gulfport doesn’t have one. I guess we’ll go with Benny, who yells, “Hey, Hollywood!” at everyone.

Her name is Holly. There should be a space on the bingo cards just for “Her name is Holly.”

I like Faith Ford and it was nice to see her again. Her house in the movie is amazing, but she went a bit overboard on the Christmas lights. Does Caroline hire someone to hang them? It’s way too much work for one person to do by themselves, no matter how Christmas-obsessed she is.

Jana Kramer is very pretty, but during the big proposal scene at the end of the movie there are prominent veins in her forehead that I found distracting. Don’t we have movie magic to fix this sort of thing?

There’s a real Santa in this movie, which is a bit hokey but will help on the “something magical happens” square on the bingo card.

Kudos to Mike for not acting like Holly is betraying him when she says she’s heading back to LA for a job opportunity. They’ve been a couple for a matter of days, but this is not usually an obstacle to being possessive and demanding in these movies. See, for example, Angela in Christmas in Rome who asks her brand new boyfriend Oliver, “If you can’t even stay for Christmas, how can we possibly make this work?” I don’t know, maybe reconnect after Christmas? Anyway, Mike seemed like a normal, decent person and I salute him for it.

Holly, on the other hand, badly mishandles the GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING. Not only does she use it as an excuse to be super mean to Mike, she causes a huge amount of undue stress to an innocent bystander, Betty. If some person I hadn’t seen since high school tried to convince me my fiance was cheating on me, I’d stay mad at her for a while. Betty is very forgiving. This could all be avoided by just asking a couple of reasonable questions.

This movie was not especially exciting, but it was inoffensive. Shrug.

Entry #17: A New York Christmas Wedding (2020)

Watched: November 18, 2020
Available on Netflix

Jennifer, who has lost both parents and her best friend in death, is engaged to the scion of a wealthy Manhattan family, straining against her future mother-in-law’s attempts to control the wedding plans. After an encounter with her guardian angel, Jennifer is given 48 hours to live in an alternate timeline: one in which she has built a life with her first love, her best friend from her teenage years, Gabrielle. At the end of the 48 hours, Jennifer is asked to make a choice between and her “real” life and what might have been.

Our Romantic Couple: Jennifer (Nia Fairweather) and Gabrielle (Adriana DeMeo).

Their Meet Cute: It’s not that kind of movie.

Star Power Casting: Chris Noth (Law & Order, Sex and the City) as Father Kelly, Jennifer and Gabby’s parish priest.

The 110% Award: Tyra Ferrell, as David’s mother. She is only in one scene, but Ferrell maximizes – and perhaps overdoes – her depiction of a woman used to getting exactly what she wants with no resistance from anyone, including her husband and son.

This was a surprise. A New York Christmas Wedding is one of a handful of LGBT-themed holiday movies being released this year (I’ll certainly be watching Happiest Season on Hulu, and hope to catch The Christmas House on Hallmark. Lifetime has a candidate, The Christmas Setup, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to access that one. Even MTV is producing one, called Dashing in December. The surprise was not that a lesbian love story holiday movie exists, but that THIS lesbian love story holiday movie exists. Keep reading to understand what I mean.

The movie is a set in a very New Yorky New York. It’s not even a beautifully lit, romanticized New York as we see in Dash & Lily. Jenny and Gabby live in Queens, have always lived in Queens, and although the movie is affectionate toward their neighborhood, it does not polish it up for holiday film fans.

Jennifer is Afro-Latina (Puerto Rican?) and Gabby is Italian. There are certainly leading women of color in some Christmas movies, but rarely ones with such a rich, realized cultural background. The Nochebuena meal they share with Jennifer’s Papi (David Anzuelo) looks wonderful and Spanish without translation is muttered through the film.

There’s this phenomenon you may have heard of called “bi erasure”, which is simply the tendency to force all people into the categories of gay or straight. It would have been easy for this movie to hinge on Jennifer realizing that she wasn’t really in love with David – in fact, that she couldn’t be – because of her sexuality. It would have even made the story a bit more comfortable, perhaps. But Jennifer truly does love David. She tells him at one point that she loves him but that Gabby was her first love, and she wishes David could have met her. Jennifer is capable of owning authentic romantic and sexual feelings for both a man and a woman, and it was nice to see her bisexuality not diminished.

A New York Christmas Wedding delves deep into the tensions around religion and sexuality, but in ways I’ve rarely seen on screen. Jennifer and Gabby have great respect for Father Kelly and for the church in which they were baptized and confirmed. Gabby is even a choir director in the church. They don’t want to go elsewhere to be married. Gabby’s impassioned appeal to Father Kelly to marry them was very moving (and she points to the changing attitudes expressed by Pope Francis, making the movie very contemporary). A scene later in the film in which communion is served to same sex couples brought me to tears. There’s not a lot of wrestling with theology or scripture in the film, but what it communicates is the power and meaning of being fully included in one’s community of faith.

This is not to say that A New York Christmas Wedding is a complete success. It was a low budget production, and sometimes it really shows in the janky camera angles and poor sound quality. Some of the acting is not great, including the role of David played by Otaja Abit. A third act reveal about Azreal, the guardian angel and the cause of Gabrielle’s death is kind of a mess. The movie tries to throw in more messaging that fits well.

But for all the shortcomings, there’s a lot to love in A New York Christmas Wedding. Noth and Anzuelo are both very good. DeMeo and Fairweather both give great performances, but they’re even better as a unit. The depiction of their relationship, two women approaching middle age who have been in love for decades, is the most real, believable bond I’ve seen in any of these movies. Abit has some growing to do as a filmmaker, and he was thrown onto an awfully big stage having this film air on Netflix. Somehow the flaws seem a little more glaring on Netflix than they would on Hallmark, where the bar can be set very low. But A New York Christmas Wedding still manages to be a standout in this season’s crop of Christmas movies.

Entry #18: The Nine Lives of Christmas (2014)

Watched: November 19, 2020
Available on Frndly App

Zachary is a commitment-phobic firefighter who is adopted by a stray cat, Ambrose. Marilee is a veterinary student who needs a place to live. After circumstances bring them together Zachary decides his string of empty relationships aren’t enough, and commits to both Ambrose and Marilee (and Marilee’s cat, Queenie).

Our Romantic Couple: Zachary (Brandon Routh) and Marilee (Kimberly Sustad)

Their Meet Cute: Zachary is trying to choose cat food at a grocery store and Marilee approaches and saves him from buying cheap dry food that would be bad for Ambrose’s kidneys.

Star Power Casting: Brandon Routh was Superman, so there’s some literal star power for you. He is also in Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, but I prefer him in Chuck and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Gregory Harrison plays an older firefighter, Chief Sam, who gives Zachary advice on love and life. Gregory Harrison has had a long and prolific career (Trapper John, MD, Falcon Crest, etc.). Personal trivia: I had a huge crush on him as a teenager, after seeing him as the shunned Amish guy who goes West with Stephanie Zimbalist (who dies of a snake bite) in the miniseries Centennial.

The 110% Award: Chelsea Hobbs as Blair, Zachary’s terrible model girlfriend. She’s super evil, not only getting Marilee fired but “losing” Ambrose (because she hates animals, of course). Blair is evil enough that I was genuinely worried about Ambrose’s welfare when he suddenly disappeared, but then I remembered this is a Hallmark movie.

It was a no-brainer deciding to watch this movie after hearing that the female lead volunteers at a cat shelter. You see, I am an employee at a cat shelter, and while I am a dog person at home I’ve become very cat obsessed at work. I’m sorry to report that there are no scenes located in a cat shelter in The Nine Lives of Christmas.On the upside, there are two cats prominently featured in the movie – Ambrose and Queenie – and they are both beautiful and wonderful actors and very good babies.

The film opens with Zachary doing a photo shoot for a fundraising calendar. You know. Hot firefighters. But it’s already the Christmas season. This is just silly. Everyone knows the photos for calendars are taken well before December.

We know Blair is evil when she suggests getting rid of Ambrose on Craig’s List. DON’T LIST ANIMALS ON CRAIG’S LIST.

Marilee is a down to earth girl who can paint a house, install a stove, roast a chicken, and give you advice on pet care. She looks a bit like Katie Holmes – you know, the All-American girl, as opposed to the hot, party girls Zachary usually dates.

To be honest, I don’t think Blair is really model material. And I enjoyed it when Marilee’s coworker called her the Blair Witch.

Can we deconstruct the sexism of Chief Sam saying Marilee is the “best kind of pretty” because “she doesn’t know” she’s pretty? Especially in a movie about a guy who is hit on by women constantly and who 100% knows he’s pretty? I mean, there’s a reason Brandon Routh was cast as Superman, right? That sort of thinking – that it’s better for a woman not to know she’s attractive – is what leads to all of that stupid negging advice men give each other. A woman can recognize her beauty and still be a decent human being (unlike Blair) and men have capitalized for too long on women’s insecurities. Smash the patriarchy!

I have one other bone to pick with this The Nine Lives of Christmas. Marilee wants to keep Ambrose out of the shelter because she says, “I volunteer at the shelter. Cats rarely make it out of there.” I don’t know about whatever city Marilee lives in, but our shelter provides a quality home for cats and adopts out many of them every month. We also make sure every cat in our care is spayed or neutered so that there will be less lonely wanderers like Ambrose AND we carefully screen adopters which doesn’t happen when you list animals on Craig’s List, Blair, you psychopath.

And hey, if you want to adopt a cat or a dog, I know the perfect animal rescue to recommend (Partners for Pets in St. Jacob, IL). What a happy bonus that would be to this rom-com-athon!

Entry #19: Back to Christmas (2014)

Watched: November 20, 2020
Available on Hulu and Amazon Prime

Ali broke up with her long term boyfriend on Christmas Eve one year ago and has regretted it ever since. Now a guardian angel is giving her a second chance with Cam, but Cam is worried about Ali’s childhood friend, Nick. Is there a spark there that threatens Cam and Ali’s relationship? And do Cam and Ali even want the same things? And does someone need to do an intervention on Ali’s brother Jason?

Our Romantic Couple: Ali (Kelly Overton) and Nick (Jonathon Patrick Moore). Yeah, spoiler, Ali doesn’t wind up with Cam.

Their Meet Cute: Ali and Nick grew up together. She returns home for Christmas and sees Nick hanging Christmas lights on his childhood home with his dad.

Star Power Casting: How are we defining “star”? Ali’s mom is played by Gloria Loring, actress and singer but perhaps best known as first wife of Alan Thicke and mother of Robin Thicke. Second place goes to Michael Muhney as Cam, who played the awful Sheriff Lamb on Veronica Mars. In third place, it’s Jennifer Elise Cox as Ginny, the quirky guardian angel. Cox played Jan in the Brady Bunch movies. Kelly Overton was a regular on Van Helsing and True Blood, but I haven’t seen those.

The 110% Award: Cox as Ginny. Ginny is portrayed as a loud, silly platinum blonde with strong opinions about what Ali orders for lunch, among other things. The movie is not that exciting, so her broad performance is a welcome distraction from the predictable story arc.

Observations: This movie was originally called Correcting Christmas. It was a good decision to change it.

Ali takes the cute, clumsy young woman trope way too far. She spills her coffee down her shirt, breaks a heel, falls down in the park, falls out of bed, falls down the stairs. This would be annoying enough, but Ali *looks* like an athlete. Sure enough, Kelly Overton’s IMDB page tells us she played soccer and basketball and was a champion high hurdler. Some people can convincingly play clumsy. Kelly Overton can’t.

We are led to believe that Ali and Cam have been happy in their relationship for five years, bu Cam is a jerrrrrrk. He is jealous, possessive, manipulative, demeaning. He is the sort of guy who tells his girlfriend of five years that he doesn’t believe in marriage because human beings are serial monogamists. He also says, “You have one life to live. You’re going to waste it raising babies?” which is a dead giveaway that this move is not on Cam’s side. But why on earth is likable, down to earth Ali with this guy?

After Cam, the big city handsome Mr. Business, meets Nick, the handsom hometown construction worker, these two dudes immediately start arguing and insulting each other. It’s such an egregious display of fighting for a mate, I half expected David Attenborough to narrate the scene. If I was Ali I’d be turned off by both of them.

We need to talk about Ali’s family. There is a LOT Of dysfunction at work here. Ali’s younger brother, Jason, has just come from Singapore – he travels the globe for his never-even-slightly-explained job. I’m seriously worried that Jason is an alcoholic. He is either drinking or talking about drinking in nearly every scene. I’m pretty sure there was less alcohol in Lost Weekend than there is in Back to Christmas.

So Jason (Moses Storm) is an alcoholic who absolutely hates Cam and verbally abuses him at every turn. Mom is a frustrated woman who lives vicariously through her children, including by flirting with her daughter’s boyfriend. She actively discourages her daughter from marrying or having children because “Kids are a giant pain in the rear.” She interferes in her daughter’s love life because she can’t bear the thought of Ali staying in her hometown and marrying a construction worker. Mom is clearly full of a lot of regret about her own unhappy life. But Dad (Mark Hutter) shows no sign of understanding this. He just offers a bland smile and pretends not to notice his alcoholic son, his miserable wife, or his daughter’s emotionally abusive dirtbag boyfriend. This is the underbelly of middle class suburbia. If John Updike wrote a Christmas movie, it would be Back to Christmas. Although Updike might prefer Correcting Christmas, for all I know.

This movie is not very Christmasy.

Entry #20: The Mistle-Tones (2012)

Watched: November 22, 2020
Available on Disney+

Holly’s lifelong dream is to be a member of the Snow Belles, the holiday vocal group her mother founded 30 or 40 years ago (the movie is fuzzy on the timeline). When she’s denied a spot in the group, Holly forms her own vocal group and convinces the manager of the local mall to hold auditions rather than automatically giving the Snow Belles the spot at the Christmas Eve celebration. Holly rehearses with three coworkers but the real game changer comes when she discovers that their boss is a killer at karaoke nights. Holly blackmails Nick into joining the group, sparks fly between them, and it looks like victory and love await – when Nick is offered a promotion that requires flying to Asia just before Christmas. Uh oh!

Our Romantic Couple: Holly (Tia Mowry-Hardrict) and Nick (Jonathon Patrick Moore).

Their Meet Cute: Nick is Holly’s boss, so there’s no first meet-cute in the movie. Instead, we get Holly going to a karaoke bar while waiting for a tow truck and discovering that her demanding, stiff as a board boss is a super sexy karaoke star.

Star Power Casting: Tia Mowry-Hardrict was the co-star, with her sister Tamara Mowry-Housley, of the sitcom Sister, Sister. The mean-girl leader of the Snow Belles, Marci, is played by Tori Spelling of Beverly Hills 90210. Holly’s dad is the great Reggie VelJohnson, of Die Hard and Family Matters.

The 110% Award: Tori Spelling, hands down.

Observations: Sigh. I really wanted to like this movie. The cast seemed promising and I enjoy musicals, and the film’s pedigree (part of ABC’s 25 Days of Christmas) promised decent production values. It even started fairly well, with an adorable cat, an adorable dog, and Mowry in a super cute outfit. But ultimately the movie was a disappointment and by the end I was feeling genuinely hostile toward it.

Her name is Holly. His name is Nick. IN FACT, this is the second movie in which I’ve seen Jonathon Patrick Moore play a character named Nick. Please help.

The Snow Belles are clearly patterned after the Plastics in Mean Girls (if the Plastics had reached their 30s without any personal growth) and while it was obviously derivative, it was fairly well done. Spelling seems to be having a good time playing the villain, and I was actually sorry to see her softened up in the last scene.

Holly has a kind, funny, attractive coworker named AJ (Narindra “Andy” Gala). I wanted him to be the love interest, but knowing how these movies work, I suspected otherwise. But Nick is just the *wrong guy*. He’s not just Holly’s boss – which makes the blackmail and ensuing romance both creepy and grounds for both of them being fired – but he’s a petty, self-important, needlessly demanding boss. Just because he’s cute by holiday rom-com standards doesn’t mean that I’m forgetting how he treats his employees.

Unnecessary fat joke about coworker Larry (Jason Rogel).

Nick turns down a promotion he’s been wanting for ages because all he wants now is Holly, although they’ve shared only one kiss and she very recently blackmailed him. As much as I dislike Nick, I think this was a poor life choice.

When Holly approaches the mall Santa, who is also the mall manager (?) to ask about opening the Christmas Eve celebration up to other performers, Santa takes off his beard and hat and chats with her over coffee IN THE MALL. Santa needs someone else to be the mall manager just to tell him that no self-respecting mall Santa would take off his beard and hat in front of children. And if he did, the mall would find another Santa.

I enjoyed Glee for the first few seasons, in part because of the music. Sure, it was overproduced but you could recognize that the actors were actually singing. You could hear their voices blending. In The Mistle-Tones I genuinely don’t know whose voices I was hearing, other than Tia Mowry-Hardricts’s. It was like a vocal version of elevator music. Tori Spelling insists she did her own singing but admits some autotuning came into play. I suspect autotune should have been listed as a member of the cast.

There are Chippendale’s-style dancers auditioning for the mall show, and they are called the Chestnuts. Sometimes ABC Family is a little extra.

There were some good lines in The Mistle-Tones, including a couple of quality puns. Looking for a more “rocking” image, one of the members of the Mistle-Tones suggests they call themselves Sled Zeppelin. A rapper who auditions for the mall performance is named Ludacris Kringle. I can appreciate that. My favorite line, though, was one that rightly punctured the movie’s magic. When Holly tells Nick to lighten up, he replies, “Said the girl who blackmailed her boss so her caroling group could sing in a mall.” I mean, he’s right, Holly, and you should rethink your life choices.

I did enjoy the prescience of the director of The Mistle-Tones in having Marci and the Snow Belles descend a golden escalator at the mall. It was already hard not to make comparisons, but the deal was sealed when Marci shoves her way to the front of a crowd to watch Nick and Holly sing together, like Trump at a NATO meeting. But Marci, unlike Trump, at least has the saving grace of liking dogs.

Running Totals

Dead Mothers – 14
Christmas Job Losses – 5

Only 30 movies to go!

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