The Banality of Christmas

The sameness really gets to you after a while. A few basic plots are rehashed over and over. The lead actors and actresses look alike. The sets not only look the same, but sometimes quite literally ARE the same. Light jazz Christmas standards play under opening arial footage of generic towns. Small family owned businesses are threatened by big city corporate sharks. Pretty 30-something women trip into the arms of handsome 40-something men. Sparks fly. Cookies are baked, snowballs thrown, ice skated, trees lit. People respond to every Christmas tradition as if it is an epiphany. GREAT MISUNDERSTANDINGS occur. Kisses are interrupted, then brough to fruition. Love conquers all. The same light jazz takes us out and directly into the next movie, opening with arial footage that looks baffling like what came before. Another movie comes down the production line from Mar Vista, Asylum, Mar Vista; stamped from the same mold. Another, and another, and another.

I am weary. Thank God this is winding down.

Entry #41: Dashing in December (2020)

Watched: December 14, 2020
Available on MTV

Wyatt is an overly ambitious Handsome Mr. Business who goes home for Christmas in hopes of convincing his mother to sell the family’s Colorado horse ranch, which is hemorrhaging money. He meets with resistance not only from his mother but also from her ranch hand, Heath, a Handsome Anti-Mr. Business. Sparks fly. Wyatt and Heath bicker, flirt, fall in love, fight, and then make up. They come up with a plan to save the ranch, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Our Romantic Couple: Wyatt (Peter Porte) and Heath (Juan Pablo Di Pace)

Their Meet-Cute: Wyatt’s mom, Deb, introduces them. It’s not that cute, but it’s plausible.

Star Power Casting: Andi McDowell (Groundhog Day, Four Weddings and a Funeral) plays Deb. Juan Pablo Di Pace played Jesus in A.D.: The Bible Continues, the Bible drama series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downy. He won a “Grace Award” at the Movieguide Awards, which is an annual ceremony for “Christian and family entertainment”. The fact that he went from that to the lead in a gay holiday film makes my heart happier than perhaps it should.

The 110% Award: Andi McDowell’s eyebrows.

The most swoon-worthy moment in any movie I’ve watched this season is in the middle of Dashing in December. In a grand gesture, Heath has bedecked an outdoor pavilion with lights to serve as a dance floor for Wyatt, who admitted earlier that he’d never slow danced “with a boy”. As the two prepare to dance together the camera pans down to two pairs of boots, toe to toe. My heart fluttered. I reconsidered my general antipathy for romance. Kacey Musgrave’s “Oh, What a World” soared over the scene and I reconsidered my general antipathy for country music, too. Dashing in December is predictable, formulaic, and sappy. But it worked on me. I liked it.

This is what many of the people bitterly complaining about Happiest Season wanted: it’s a movie centered on a gay couple which is not, in any way, about coming out. Wyatt and Heath are both well and truly out before the story starts, although the movie offers up a little trick by having Wyatt’s ex-boyfriend named Lindsey. None of the conflict in the movie is connected to them being gay. Instead, it’s the usual for holiday rom-coms: opposing values, until someone (Wyatt) realizes what really matters in life.

Speaking of Happiest Season, Heath tells a story about having had a boyfriend in college, Cameron, who threw him under the bus to keep Cameron’s straight friends from finding out he was gay. That’s right: Heath’s old boyfriend did a “Harper”. Heath is still pained by the memory, still a bit reluctant to trust. “You deserved better than that,” Wyatt says, and it felt to me like the two movies were having a conversation between them. “Darn right,” I said aloud. “Abby deserved better, too, HARPER.”

This movie clearly spent a good bit on its music budget. In addition to Musgraves, Cody Belew, one of the few out country artists, contributed an original song and the soundtrack also features Michael Buble, Shania Twain, Sam Smith, and the gorgeous Winter Song by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles.

Belew and Twain are featured in a scene at a country bar when the cast members all show off their line dancing skills. I went line dancing once. Once. It looks a lot more fun in Dashing in December than I remember it being.

Dashing in December has some interesting things to say about the ways that grief and trauma paralyze us. The theme of “hibernation” comes up often, and when Michaelson and Bareilles’s voices sing, “They say that things just cannot grow/beneath the winter snow” as Wyatt visits his father’s grave, it’s actually very poignant for a holiday romance.

I didn’t really understand the big plan to save the ranch, but that never matters in movies like this. Ignore the business plan. Enjoy the horses.

This movie is on MTV which means two things. We see both dudes in very tight underwear, in one of those “Oops, didn’t mean to walk in on you!” scenes that populate these movies – but usually involve pajama pants or bathrobes. The second thing is that the movie is interrupted by a lot of commercials for phone sex lines. They don’t have those on the Hallmark Channel.

Warning. Don’t be misled by the title. No one dashes anywhere in this movie. However, I’d argue that Juan Pable Di Pace is pretty darn dashing.

Entry #42: A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado (2020)

Alternate Title: Abuse of Power: The Brooklyn, Colorado Story

Watched: December 15, 2020
Available on the Frndly App

Erin is the Director of Community Development for the tiny, Christmas-obsessed town of Brooklyn, Colorado. Her dad, the mayor, entrusts her with the task of finding the perfect Christmas tree for their first-ever Christmas tree lighting. Erin finds the “perfect” tree in the yard of a handsome firefighter and single adoptive dad named Kevin. Kevin does not want to give up his tree. Erin and Kevin bicker. Sparks fly. Erin hires Kevin to work part time as a safety consultant for the town’s Christmas festival. Erin and Kevin do Christmasy things with his daughter, Claire. Love grows, but will Erin get her tree, her man, or both?

Our Romantic Couple: Erin (Rochelle Aytes) and Kevin (Mark Taylor)

Their Meet-Cute: After spotting Kevin’s perfect tree, Erin sees the snowman he’s building with his little girl and decides to introduce herself by telling Kevin he doesn’t know what he’s doing and asking if she can fix the snowman. It’s honestly very rude and intrusive. Kevin is having a moment with his daughter. Mind your business, Erin.

Star Power Casting: None. If any of these actors are famous for anything, I refuse to acknowledge it.

The 110% Award: Mark Dozlaw as Steven, the “Gee whiz”, nerdy kid intern who works for the city. He’s got a real Jimmy Olson vibe, but he turns out to be the catalyst for this movie’s turn to a cautionary tale about small town political corruption.

Of all the movies I have watched, I hate this movie the most. It is not the most extravagantly bad – that honor still goes to 12 Pups of Christmas – but it’s certainly the most extravagantly evil.

Let’s start with that title. This movie was originally supposed to be called A Christmas Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You are, perhaps, familiar with Betty Smith’s classic coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s about a young girl growing up in early 20th century Brooklyn, NY, in poverty and with an alcoholic father. Some knucklehead in Crown Media thought that the tree in the novel’s title made it ripe pickings for ripping off – I’m sorry, “homage”. But, of course, they weren’t in any other way honoring the novel, so eventually they changed the name to remove Brooklyn. Because you can’t set a hackneyed Hallmark rom-com in a squalid 1912 Brooklyn tenement. Yet they chose to name the Christmas-obsessed town “Brooklyn, Colorado” as if this anything to do with the novel, which I must stress again, it does not. And we are left with an overlong and confusing title.

This movie is lazy as heck. The central question – will that handsome guy give up his precious, giant, perfect Christmas tree for some random Christmas festival because a pretty girl keeps asking – is taken straight out of another Hallmark movie, Miss Christmas. The script is lazy, the action (such as it is) is lazy, even the acting is lazy.

The city employees are planning their Christmas festival three weeks out. When will people in these movies learn that major civic events are planned months – not days or weeks – in advance.

Erin is awful.
1) She is shallow (“Winter fashion is my obsession”) and bossy. After intruding on Kevin’s time with his daughter she says, “I’m going to show you how to make the snowman the right way.”
2) She’s also terrible at her job. Among her plans for the Christmas tree lighting is a proposal to “build bleachers for the elderly”. Why would you build something that can be easily purchased? Why would you make old people climb and sit on bleachers? Why not chairs? The entire point is to see a ginormous Christmas tree: don’t you think they’ll be able to see it from chairs? Her proposed bleachers don’t even have handrails, an omission Kevin notices and points out, along with a load of other safety and fire code violations.
3) She is unprincipled. At one point she asks Kevin to approve something that would violate fire codes. “It’s not like I’m asking you to break the law,” Erin says. “Aren’t you?” Kevin replies, sensibly.
4) She has no boundaries. In addition to intruding on their snowman building, Erin makes embroidered Christmas stockings and gives them to Kevin and his daughter. This is a lovely gift to give to people you know well and who may not have special stockings already. But Erin barely knows Kevin and MAYBE HE ALREADY GAVE HIS CHILD A CHRISTMAS STOCKING. Butt out, lady.
5) She is careless in her use of social media – twice posting pictures of Kevin and his child to the town’s social media account without his permission.
6) Finally, Erin is a liar. When she hires Kevin he has two conditions. One is to be able to meet with the mayor to discuss the fire department’s financial needs. The other is that she will stop bugging him about his tree. She agrees and shakes hands on it. Reader, she never stops bugging him about his tree.

This movie includes an angry kiss. Kevin and Erin fight, yell, and kiss. This is a cliche but not in Hallmark movies. Great. The last thing these movies need is to start borrowing overused tropes from outside the holiday movie realm.

The snowman that Kevin and Claire are building is the fakest looking thing you’ll see this year. An inflatable lawn ornament snowman would have looked better.

Please note a scene in which townschildren are painting giant ornaments for the festival tree. All of them look like ornaments small children would paint except Claire’s. Claire, daughter of the lead, is a freaking prodigy. Delicate gold leaf designs bedeck her ornament. If the fire department really needs money, perhaps Claire should open an Etsy store to sell her art.

At one point, afraid that Kevin won’t part with his 40 foot Norwegian Spruce, Erin suggests another tree. “It’s leafier,” she tells her dad. LEAFIER???

There is a GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING involving a coworker who invites Erin out for dinner. She is all aflutter over being on a date until Neil tells her he’s gay, and she’s misunderstood his intentions. Later Neil exchanges meaningful glances with one of Kevin’s firefighter friends. Near the end of the movie that firefighter, in biker leathers, assures Kevin that Erin is NOT dating Neil. He should have added a giant wink to make the scene more subtle.

But here is the real problem with this movie. Brooklyn, Colorado is a hotbed of corruption and incompetence. Erin’s grandfather was mayor, her dad is mayor, and she is being groomed for the job. The mayor behaves as those in political dynasties often do – demanding what he wants, regardless of the will or rights of the citizenry. Kevin doesn’t want to give up his 40 foot Norwegian Spruce? But he must! The city will be saved by this messianic tree! Listen, if your plan for economic resurgence rests on a Christmas tree lighting, you need to be voted out of office. Also, why does Kevin, a firefighter, have to trade his labor for access to the mayor. Shouldn’t the fire chief be able to meet with the mayor just as a matter of course? Also, why doesn’t this town have an actual fire marshall.And you all, you aren’t going to believe this, but when Kevin refuses to give up his tree – very politely, over and over – an eminent domain order is issued and a crew comes to cut it down against his will! CAN YOU BELIEVE? At this point someone at City Hall (not Erin!) feels badly enough to investigate and find out that Kevin’s property can be declared a protected heritage site – and using that info, Erin is able to stop the tree cutting. But by then, Kevin’s will have been utterly destroyed and he gives up the tree voluntarily. “If my tree will save this city, I want to do that,” says a broken man.

So the tree is dead now, but the mayor got his way, and Erin got her way, and I hate this movie so much. At least Miss Christmas had the decency to let the leading man keep his tree.

Entry #43: Merry Liddle Christmas (2019)

Watched: December 16, 2020
Available on the Lifetime Movie Club App

Jacquie is a tech entrepreneur who needs to create the perfect family Christmas for a video shoot (it’s work related, and a big contract rests on it, and that’s basically all I remember about this McGuffin). She convinces her family to come to her dream home for Christmas, but it doesn’t take long for Jacquie’s perfect Christmas to spin out of control. She fights with her family, learns valuable lessons about what really matters, they all make up and go serve a meal to poor people. But also, Jacqui meets her hunky neighbor, Tyler. They bicker a bit, sparks fly, he goes with her to feed poor people, they fall in love. The end.

Our Romantic Couple: Jacquie (Kelly Rowland) and Tyler (Thomas Cadrot)

Their Meet-Cute: Tyler shows up at Jacquie’s door to…I think he was returning a package that had been misdelivered? He compliments her on her beautiful home, then says he’s glad the construction is finished since it was interfering with his sleep. Jacquie says he shouldn’t be sleeping that late in the day. They bicker, he leaves.

Star Power Casting: Kelly Rowland was a member of Destiny’s Child.

The 110% Award: Bresha Webb as Jacquie’s very sassy sister, Kiara. Kiara has my favorite line in the movie, when the sisters are looking at Tyler’s dating site profile, trying to convince Jacquie to swipe right. “You need to stop blocking your blessings! Please! He’s a dog lover!”

Observations: You may notice that I am writing this review several days after watching the movie. That’s a mistake. I don’t remember anything, and I took very few notes to help me out. I think the first thing we can say about this movie is that it was forgettable.

Jacquie’s family doesn’t approve of her entirely white and gold decorating scheme, and so they go and buy another tree – a real tree, of course. I get this plot element, but what I don’t understand is how the entire house changes color scheme through the course of the movie. By the movie’s final scene Jacquie’s entire home is bedecked in red and green. When did they have time for this?

I was a bit worried about the dynamic between sassy sister Kiara and her brother-in-law, Julian (married to peacemaking sister, Treena). Kiara and Julian hide out from the rest of the family and drink together. They seem to have a certain chemistry…but I guess I was confusing this with a different kind of Lifetime movie.

Frying the turkey in front of the video crew was the most predictable element of a predictable movie. We knew what was going to happen to that turkey, didn’t we?I will say, turkey excepted, the food looks good in Merry Liddle Christmas. There’s a sequel to this movie in which Jacquie and Tyler get married. I have zero interest in seeing it.

Entry #44: Good Morning, Christmas!

Watched: December 17, 2020
Available on the Frndly App

Brian Bright and Melissa Merry are the co-hosts of America’s #1 morning show, but Brian wants out of his contract. This news is sprung on Melissa just before the two bickering colleagues go to the town of Mistletoe, the winner of a contest called “Deck Your Town with Bright and Merry”. While in Mistletoe, the Grinchy Brian learns to appreciate Christmas AND his co-host. But what will happen when his actress girlfriend, Christina, shows up and tells him that she’s got a reality show offer for the two of them? Will Brian reconsider leaving Bright and Merry? Or will he take the reality TV gig with Christina?

Our Romantic Couple: Brian (Marc Blucas) and Melissa (Alison Sweeney)

Their Meet-Cute: None. They’ve been working together, with some hostility between them, for a long time.

Star Power Casting: Marc Blucas was Riley, Buffy’s corn-fed, secret-governement-initiative-soldier boyfriend on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Alison Sweeney is a veteran of Days of Our Lives, was the host of The Biggest Loser and also starred in a Hallmark series charmingly titled Murder She Baked.

The 110% Award: None

Observations: Their names are Bright and Merry. The town is Mistletoe. C’man, man.

A friend of mine was traumatized by seeing Andi McDowell in Dashing in December and realizing how old she’s gotten. I didn’t have that reaction. I thought McDowell’s signature curls looked lovely in gray. My “memento mori” moment came, instead, in seeing Marc Blucas in this Good Morning, Christmas! He has aged A LOT since Miss Christmas. I was feeling a bit sad about it.

But I’m not sad about Blucas now! You know why? Because I found out that in his offscreen life he lives in an old farmhouse on an blueberry farm in Pennsylvania with his wife and four children. They have cats, dogs, goats, chickens, and rabbits. It’s such a perfect outcome for Riley, er Blucas, that I’m now okay with him looking decidedly middle aged.

Brian and Melissa are put up at a very Christmasy inn in Mistletoe – the exact same inn that was used for Five Star Christmas, as a matter of fact. Anyway, their rooms are so bedecked with Christmas lights that they are BLINDING. It is way, way, way too much.

Brian grew up poor and sad and has no positive memories of Christmas. Melissa teaches him all the wonders of the season, starting with how to build a gingerbread house. Brian is very terrible at it.

The Bright and Merry producer, who is bad at her job in many ways, enters Brian and Melissa in a 3-legged wreath race. The standard size wreath is about knee-height on Melissa (lower on the very tall Brian, obvs), but after they trip and fall in a snowbank, the wreath is around their torsos. I’m going to need a slow-mo shot of how that happened.

The deputy mayor is briefly framed as a competing love interest for Melissa. He is Hallmark cute, but more importantly, he has nice lace up boots. I have a bit of a thing for boots (see my Dashing in December review).

Brian is a weird role for Blucas. Brian is an ex-NFL player who became famous on a celebrity dating show. He is glib, self confident, self absorbed, a bit of a bully. It seems more like a Stephen Huszar role. Blucas just exudes too much decency and niceness. They tried to build this character by giving Blucas slick backed hair and thanks, I hate it. (To cleanse your palette, google “Marc Blucas farmer” and you’ll soon find a picture of him looking very scruffy and holding a baby goat.)

Brian and Melissa decorate a tree together and CRY over it. Hallmark tries too hard sometimes to make the bits and pieces of Christmas spiritual experiences. I mean, I do think there’s a spiritual experience to be had around celebrating Christmas, but it’s never happened to me while decorating a tree. Maybe it’s me. Is it me?

Why is Bright & Merry the top rated morning show in the country? For the life of me, I can’t figure it out.

There are a lot of lines in this movie which are not actually funny but which produce peels of hearty laughter from Brian and/or Melissa. It’s disorienting.

This movie has not one, but two GREAT MISUNDERSTANDINGS.

Finally, there is a breathtaking violation of professional ethics in the last act of this movie. I don’t know all of the legalities, but my conscience tells me you should not broadcast a very private moment live without the consent of the people being recorded. This, alone, would be a good reason for quitting the morning show or demanding that the producer be fired.

Entry #45: Merry & Bright (2019)

Watched: December 19, 2020
Available on the Frndly App

Cate is the CEO of America’s #1 candy cane company, started by her grandmother 50 years ago and located in Britewell, Ohio – America’s Candy Cane Capitol! The company is struggling financially so it’s board hires a “corporate recovery” advisor, Handsome Mr. Business, Gabe, to make the company – Merry & Bright – profitable. Cate doesn’t want Gabe’s interference in how she runs the company. They bicker. Sparks fly. Gabe convinces her to try diversifying into chocolates and they take a trip to New York to meet with an investor and have him try Cate’s home kitchen chocolates. He agrees to invest, but only if chocolates and not candy canes become Merry & Bright’s focus. Cate says “No” and is hecka mad at Gabe for thinking this is a good idea. Then she has the brilliant idea to have MORE FLAVORS of candy canes, and this wows the investor who says he will give her money without diversifying into chocolates. Gabe comes to a Christmas dance to apologize, her mother gives Cate a dog (Cate immediately gives it back), Cate and Gabe kiss, fast forward a year, the company is doing great, and Gabe proposes. The end.

Our Romantic Couple: Cate (Jodie Sweetin) and Gabe (Andrew Walker)

Their Meet-Cute: Gabe approaches Cate without introducing himself. She thinks he’s her blind date, Gary from Akron, and tries to give him the brush off. Uh oh! GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING!

Star Power Casting: Jodie Sweetin was sassy Stephanie Tanner on Full House. Her mom is played by Sharon Lawrence, who was a regular on NYPD Blue.

The 110% Award: Darren Marten as Pete, the world’s dumbest hotel desk clerk.

The last movie I watched was called Good Morning, Christmas!, with lead characters named Melissa Merry and Brian Bright. This movie is called Bright and Merry, with a lead character named Cate Merriweather. IS ANYONE TRYING???

Gabe asks his boss (who turns out to be his mom) why he’s being sent to a candy cane company two weeks before Christmas. “Won’t things be slowing down?” he asks. “It’s two weeks before Christmas, I’d say they’ll be speeding up!” replies his mother. That’s now how factory production works, ma’am. Your son is right.

We see Cate on a bad blind date early in the movie, and I have to say – it was a realistically portrayed bad blind date. Anyone who has ever gone on a date with a walking ego will sympathize.

Cate’s mom adopts a dog from a shelter to give to Cate at Christmas, despite not liking dogs. She then hides and cares for the dog in her home for a few weeks. She gets attached. We know, we viewers, that she will end up keeping the dog. Even so, it’s a shock how quickly Cate says, after her mother gives her the dog, “Nah, you keep it.” Not in those words, but whew, it’s like five seconds. Despite having expressed a strong desire to adopt this dog at the beginning of the movie, I don’t think Cate really wanted a dog.

Speaking of the dog (the very good, very scruffy dog), instead of giving it to Cate on Christmas, at home, her mother gives it to her at a CHRISTMAS BALL that Cate is attending in formalwear. Who does that? Who just shows up to a formal event and says, “Merry Christmas! Here’s a dog!”?

Gabe was very unprofessional in his first meeting with Cate. That GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING is all on him. However, late in the movie when Cate is ticked that he wants her to diversify into chocolate – the gall, the unmitigated gall! – that’s on Cate. She’s the one who spent an evening making fancy chocolates to present to the investor. She’s also the one who has refused every other idea to save her company. Gabe is just trying to do his job and keep Bright & Merry afloat.

“Do you make any other kinds of candy?” Gabe asks early on. Cate is very proud to show him their “other” line: peppermint barber poles. Cate is not exactly an out-of-the-box thinker.

I don’t care what flavors Bright & Merry adds, people in this movie are way too stoked about candy canes. It’s another Christmas cult.

Remember when I said Hallmark tries to turn ordinary parts of Christmas into spiritual experiences? Gabe calls home after being allowed to push the button at the community tree lighting. “I’ve never felt this way before,” he says, earnestly, tears in his eyes. “So festive!”

This movie was not great.

Running Total

I have dropped the “holiday job losses” running total. Apparently we are in an economic recovery, because while financial crises continue to pose a threat (to ranches, city governments, and candy cane factories, alike) people in these movies are hanging on to their jobs much more often than they were early in the rom-com-athon. On the other hand, mothers continue to be dead at shockingly high rates.

Dead mothers: 29

Only 5 movies to go.

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