Hey, Kids! Let’s Put on a Fundraiser!
I said I wouldn’t do it again, and I meant it! For the last two years I’ve conducted a terrible, wonderful experiment on myself – watching 50 holiday rom-coms and reviewing them in a span of 54 days leading up to Christmas, for the purpose of raising money for charity. It worked, in the sense that money came in and I survived, but it really ate up my holiday 2019 and 2020 seasons. I planned to take a break this year until I found out that a friend needed some help with asbestos remediation in her home. I’m working hard to practice mutual aid these days, and one of the principles of mutual aid is that everyone has skills to offer in support of their neighbors. I do not have the $4800 needed for asbestos removal, nor am I certified to remove it myself. But you know what skill I have? I know how to watch and review the insipid holiday movies that sprout like dandelions every fall. (To be fair, I like dandelions, and I like some of these movies, too. Some. A few.)
To avoid another holiday season when I was a slave to the rom-com-athon schedule, friends of mine started volunteering to serve as guest contributors. You have no idea what a relief that was! And rather than watching a total of 50 movies, we’ve shot for only 48. If we can raise $100 per movie, we’ll have the asbestos remediation covered, my friend will be able to live in a safe space, and no one person will lose their minds watching holiday movies! Woohoo!
Let’s make this work. All I want for Christmas is to schedule asbestos removal. You can help us out by pledging per movie on this form: https://forms.gle/LdpkmPiDppD9aTjF7. If you don’t want to mess with pledging and just want to make a flat donation, you can find me on Venmo (@Sharon-Autenrieth), PayPal (@sharonautenrieth1) and the Cash App ($SharonAutenrieth).
And now, to our first batch of movies!
Entry #1: A Husband for Christmas (2016)
DIRECTED BY: David DeCoteau
Our Romantic Couple: Brooke (Vivica Fox) and Roger (Ricco Ross)
Their Meet Cute: Brooke is attending her boss’s Christmas party and spills a drink on another attendee. In line to get a club soda from the bartender she meets a Roger, who helpfully tells her that she should get a club soda for the spill.
Plot Synopsis: Brooke and Roger are both graphic designers whose companies are merging, placing their jobs at risk. Brooke’s boss offers her a promotion to VP and a doubled salary *if* she marries Roger, who is in the country on a work visa. Brooke and Roger go through with the super illegal marriage of convenience, but a malevolent coworker rats them out to INS and they find themselves under investigation. In an attempt to avoid arrest and/or deportation, Brooke and Roger do a deep dive into each other’s lives, spend time with Brooke’s family – including her younger sister who is engaged to Brooke’s old boyfriend – and find themselves falling in love. But uh-oh! Did I mention that Roger’s girlfriend has made a surprise visit from England to spend Christmas with him? Will the INS officers be fooled? Will this marriage of convenience become a love match?
Star Power Casting: Well, whatever else one might say about the two leads, Vivica Fox will always have Independence Day and Ricco Ross will always have Aliens. Also, Jackée Harry has a cameo as a wealthy friend who makes Brooke feel badly about her life. Dominque Swain – remember her? Swain had a run of playing alluring young teens in movies like Lolita and Face/Off. Here she plays Brooke’s unlikely best friend. Finally, Brooke’s boss is played by Eric Roberts who is famous for, ya know, being Eric Roberts.
The 110% Award: Anytime Jackée Harry is in a film she’s going to go big, and she’s good at it. But she can share the award with Hilary Shepherd as Natasha, the film’s “villain”, a coworker who sneers and sneaks and reports to the feds. I’m not sure why she’s so mean, unless I missed a plot point, but boy is she ever.
Observations: A few days ago, before I decided to do another fundraiser, I started this movie just for fun. Think about that. Just for fun. I wanted to see how I would feel about a Christmas rom-com if I was watching it with no greater purpose and no need to write about it. I made it about 7 minutes before I gave up because it was already so very, truly terrible. Across the spans of three long holiday seasons, A Husband for Christmas is the 102 movie that I’ve seen and friends, it’s probably in the Top 10 for sheer execrability. Is that a word? It should be, so that it can be used for this movie.
IF you watch this movie, and you shouldn’t unless you are raising money for mutual aid, please note the woman in opening scene – a tall blonde in a red dress who looks like she came from the set of a very different kind of film – and listen to her wail “Boohoo” after a drink is spilled on her. It’s a one line acting tour de force. She also deserves the 110% Award, probably.
Brooke has a criminally bad boss in Mr. Rawlings (Eric Roberts). He doesn’t know her name, either calling her Beth or “Darlin'” throughout the film. He uses the threat of job loss to convince her to commit a felony. When Brooke tells Mr. Rawlings that the INS is investigating the fraudulent marriage, he replies, “If this goes sideways, I had nothing to do with it.” When INS busts Brooke and Roger and Brooke is cleaning out her office and anticipating her arrest, Roberts gives a hilariously flat line readng of “Oh no, it’s my fault.” This guy is a class act.
Speaking of Mr. Rawlings, could the film not have taken 5% of its Christmas decorations’ budget and redirected it to buying Eric Roberts at least one suit that fits him?
In a world of weird, creepy, nosy street corner Santas, this movie’s weird, creepy, nosy street corner Santa stands out. I can’t explain: you just have to experience him. Also, why no beard, dude? Again, did they spend the entire budget on Christmas lights and couldn’t give you more than a soul patch?
I have often heard it said that the worst English accent ever committed to the screen was perpetrated by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. That was true until 2016 when American actor Ricco Ross played “Englishman” Roger Burkett in this movie.
Brooke doesn’t like Christmas. I don’t know why – maybe because her sister is engaged to her ex-boyfriend, although that seems a weird thing to take out on Christmas. But anyway, as in so many of these movies, antipathy toward Christmas is demonstrated by not knowing the words to “Jingle Bells”.
Roger and Brooke are the worst criminals ever. In the history of crime-doing, no one has ever been worse at it than Roger, with his halfbaked photoshop skills, and Brooke, who gives the worst possible answer to every question the INS officers ask. If there is a little used criminal statute against imcompetance, they both need to be charged under it.
Roger’s girlfriend, Gwen (another fake Brit) comes to visit and promptly disappears. I know Roger has the INS investigation to worry about, but it is VERY rude to abandon your guest who flew from England to spend Christmas with you. To the famous Reddit question “AITA”, the answer is “Yes, Roger, you are.”
Also, Roger is creepy. Like…too much too soon, dude. “We have the same favorite color! We have the same music box! Put your hand on my chest and calm down! You don’t have to go through any of this alone!” Brooke just met you, Roger, and you’re just doing a crime together so you can both keep your jobs. Ease up on the stalkery vibe.
Brooke’s dad is weirdly anti-immigrant. Also, he has an award for “Citizen of the Year”. What? That’s an award we give?
Oh, there’s so much more. The green screen driving, the lines that don’t seem to follow any logic, the airport scene. THE AIRPORT SCENE! But I am going to leave you with the most pressing question of all, and maybe the only good reason to watch this movie. Roger paints, and folks, I have to know: WHY IS THERE A PAINTING OF NICK CAVE IN HIS LIVING ROOM?
In short, this was a wonderful/terrible choice for my first viewing of 2021.
Did I get BINGO? No, but close!
Available on TUBI, if you’re into this sort of thing or curious about the Nick Cave painting.
Entry #2: Gingerbread Miracle (2021)
DIRECTED BY: MIchael M. Scott
Watched: November 7, 2021
Our Romantic Couple: Maya (Merritt Patterson) and Alex (Jon-Michael Ecker)
Their Meet Cute: They’re old high school friends and almost-sweethearts.
Plot Synopsis: Maya is a freelance contract lawyer who has been living with her parents for two years, since a romantic breakup. Luis, the owner of a local Mexican bakery (where Maya worked in high school) hires Maya to help manage the sale of his shop. Luis’s nephew, Alex, also a lawyer, comes home from the big city to spend the last Christmas with his Tio Luis before the sale of the panaderia. Reconnected for the first time since they were teens, Maya and Alex soon find romantic sparks flying even as they bicker over the sale of the bakery. Meanwhile, Maya is interviewing to join a large law firm in Denver. Oh, and also, the gingerbread cookies from the panaderia are magic and are granting wishes. Will Luis sell his shop to the handsome french baker, Jacques, for his patisserie? And will Maya find love with Jacques or Alex?
Star Power Casting: Jon-Michael Ecker has been a regular on a several series, including Narcos, Queen of the South, and Chicago Fire. Maya’s dad is played by Robert Wisden, who made it into last year’s rom-com-athon for Five Star Christmas. He’s been in lots of things, but I always choose to highlight his role as mind-control killer, Robert Patrick Modell, in The X-Files.
The 100% Award: This is usually given for big performances, but there aren’t any here. I would like, just this once, to rename it the -110% Award and give it to Jorge Montesi, as Tio Luis. Luis has been down since his wife, Julia, died and Montesi (a Chilean director and actor) plays it veeeeery down. Subdued doesn’t even begin to describe this performance.
Observations: I was going to rant about casting a very white actor as a Hispanic character, but Jon-Michael Eckert, while he is American-born, is the son of a Brazilian actor and started his acting career in Mexico. So I stand corrected.
This is a decent movie. Boring, and fairly low stakes, but the actors are competent, the dialogue is largely natural, and the plot makes sense. This is also a very of-the-moment feeling movie. There’s a lot of discussion of work/life balance and whether it’s worth going for the big career move if you boss will expect said job to become your highest priority. Maya decides she’d rather keep her patched-together free lance career which allows her to work “in sweat pants and dress jackets on video calls”. If that’s not a 2021 work ethic, I don’t know what is.
For his part, Alex became a lawyer because, as the child of immigrants he felt a responsibility to become a professional and make his elders proud. He and Maya both make legal work look pretty dreary, though, and Alex only finds true fulfillment when he decides baking is his true calling. (Oops! Spoiler! But you’ll see from a mile away that Alex will end up running the panaderia and keeping it in the family.)
Jon-Michael Eckert is a very appealing lead. Many Hallmark male leads are like JC Penny catalog models – or, as my daughter says, like the guys in eharmony ads. Weirdly bland and robotic, utterly interchangable. Eckert has sort of a David Duchovny/Robert Sean Leonard look and seems like a real person. I salute him for this.
A lot of this movie hinges on people making wishes and eating gingerbread cookies. I have never liked gingerbread, although I recognize its construction utility. Do other people actually like the way gingerbread tastes?
Just one nitpick. Maya, Alex, and Jacques participate in a gingerbread obstacle course and reader, there’s no way it works. That is all.BINGO? No, but again – close.Available on the Frndly app.
Entry #3: A Prince for Christmas (2015)
DIRECTED BY: FRED OLEN RAY
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR!!!Today’s movie review is written by my friend Breanna Teintze, the person I most want to be on my apocalypse survival team! (Who am I kidding – she’ll be the captain of her own team and I’ll be my way onto it.) Breanna writes fantasy novels (well) and gardens (badly). She lives in Idaho with her husband, where she homeschools her three kids, polishes swords, and perfects her eyeliner. She is sarcastic when she’s nervous. Her series, The Empty Gods, is published by Jo Fletcher Books.
Synopsis: In the small European country of Balemont, in a weirdly tiny castle, lives a prince. Oh sure, you might think that Prince Duncan (Kirk Barker) has a great life–his dad is Rex Manning and his manservant is the guy who was the Irish spy in The Langoliers–but actually he’s restless, and not at all comfortable with the prospect of his upcoming arranged marriage. Also, his royal last name is Humphries. It’s enough to make anyone run away with only a Burberry scarf and a number of tasteful sweaters.
Meanwhile in a small town in America lives Emma (Vivia Bianca), a cafe-owner who hates Christmas because of grief and crushing debt. Emma stomps grimly around town, ignoring carolers and staring into the middle distance. Luckily for her, the runaway prince can’t drive on ice and puts his rental car in a ditch. He winds up towed into town and getting breakfast at Emma’s restaurant.
Duncan and Emma click over a remarkably gross-looking plate of biscuits and gravy. His car is irreparably damaged, but he’s so attracted to Emma that he doesn’t really mind being stuck. When she discovers he’s never experienced childhood delights like sledding and making snow angels (“my parents were really strict”), they embark on a day of playing in the snow and eating cupcakes. Duncan is delighted, and reciprocates by trying to help Emma process her grief (her parents died in a Christmas car accident), working on the cafe’s cash flow problems, and taking her on a fairytale date, complete with a horse and carriage.
Of course, that’s when Emma discovers that he’s not only a prince, he’s an engaged prince. Can their budding relationship survive? (Spoiler: yes. He brings her roses and wears his prince sash. It’s fine.)
First, I must say it: everybody in this movie is more charming than the lead actress. Bianca is cute as a button and she does great during the scenes where’s she’s allowed to be flirty and happy, but when she has to play grief or anger the director must have said “just stare really hard over everyone’s shoulders, like you think you see a deer on the hill but you’re not sure, maybe it’s just a bush”.
Duncan is absolutely the protagonist of this movie, a poor little rich prince who learns to bus his own dishes and be honest about his boundaries. He is pursued by Emma and must decide what he thinks of her advances, which is a neat reversal of the usual dynamic. When Emma points out that he’s being selfish and cowardly by running from his responsibilities, he takes himself back to Balemont to confront his parents. (Again. He told them before he ran away that he didn’t want to get arranged-married. But the second time’s the charm, I guess.) The writers did take care to let us know things about his character and Barker works hard to make him sympathetic, so we can understand why he finds a blue-collar woman like Emma refreshing and fun. And he’s principled enough that we can picture him eventually renouncing his title and getting a job.
There are attempts at similar insights into Emma–we know she’s working through her grief and that she keeps the family-business cafe out of guilt, and we know she dreams of traveling to Europe–but her character arcs never quite close. Some of this might be because of Bianca’s blank-eyed acting, but it’s also that Emma utterly lacks agency in the last third of the movie. She decides to sell the cafe at one point, which could have been a moment of freedom (to finally go to Europe!) and healing, but then Duncan tells her not to, so she doesn’t. She yells at Duncan for lying about his identity and is determined to stay mad at him, but then her sister tells her not to, so she doesn’t. Overall she spends a lot of the movie calling herself a fool and worrying about money, which is honestly kind of a bummer in a movie about a literal prince showing up to sweep her off her feet.
You’ll enjoy this movie if you like: sweaters, scarves, princes somehow not watching enough TV to understand American slang, Americans trying to cuss in British and being more explicit than I suspect they meant to, charming B&B owners, sashes.
You won’t enjoy this movie if you don’t like: a prince making caring, attentive faces in all directions, at everyone, even the cafe line cook.
Other interesting bits:
Ten points to Rex Manning (sorry, Maxwell Caulfield) for being a perfectly dorky king and swanning around in shawl-neck sweaters. Minus ten points to the props person, who had the queen worriedly perusing, in one scene, what I recognized as a McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, title clearly visible. That, buddies, is an antique primer for teaching little kids to read. Maybe the queen reading at a second-grade level explains a lot?
Bonus prize:Awarded to the chamber of commerce for Aurora, New York, our “small town”. We know it’s Aurora, NY because literally everything in town is labelled, and the characters mention it a lot. Here’s hoping it brought a lot of business to that one cupcake store, guys.
Bingo? Nope. There is a lack of Santa in this movie.
Entry #4: A Christmas Treasure (2021)
DIRECTED BY: MICHAEL ROBISON
Watched: November 10, 2021
Our Romantic Couple: Lou (Jordin Sparks Thomas) and Kyle (Michael Xavier)
Their Meet Cute: He’s serving her table at his aunt’s restaurant. She orders the meatloaf and pretends that she will add salt and pepper. He is pleased that she was only punking him. Sparks fly.
Plot Synopsis: Lou writes for her hometown newspaper (which has been in her family for generations), but is planning to leave for the Big Apple to work on her novel about the Spanish Civil War (please insert eye roll). Kyle, a chef, is visiting his aunt Marcy (Lossen Chambers), owner of a local landmark restaurant, while he looks for work in Chicago. You can take the rest of the plot and write it yourself. You’ll do fine.
Star Power Casting: Jordin Sparks Thomas, in her first Hallmark role, of course.
The 110% Award: Aurelia Cerquozzi, Costume Department. Hallmark tends to dress his female leads almost identically and not especially well. Classic, but boring seems to be the idea. But Jordin Sparks wardrobe in this movie is legitimately on fire. I would especially like to call out the pink coat which is much more interesting and less boxy than most Hallmark lady-coats. You go, Aurelia Cerquozzi!
Hallmark movies are formulaic: that just comes with the territory. But seldom does a movie come along that is this predictable, that so completely lacks all dramatic tension, in which the stakes are so law and all performances are so calm and restrained that it could be used as surgical anesthesia.Have I mentioned how predictable this movie is?
Lou has two friends. One is her very pregnant sister. The other wears a bad wig. Is it the Makeup Department that is responsible for wigs? If so, I’m very disappointed, especially when Aurelia over in Costume was setting the bar so high. Anyway, very pregnant sister is scheduled to sing the solo at the town Christmas festival (unlike every other year when Lou has sung). But pregnant sister, you aren’t singing that solo. You will be delivering your child that night, and Lou will sing that solo AGAIN.
Early in the film the town leaders open a 100 year old time capsule which includes a 100 year old recipe for “Christmas Stew” from that landmark restaurant. Then Marcy and Kyle spend half the movie trying to choose a recipe to fix for the big cookoff that is part of the Christmas festival. Crab cakes? Bacon wrapped pork loin? Something that looks like a single ravioli on a small plate? Why do we have to watch all this cooking and tasting when we KNOW they are just going to end up making the Christmas stew? Which they do, and they win the contest.
Kyle says he’s moving to Chicago to work at some fancy restaurant where maybe they’ll let him add comfort food to their nouvelle cuisine. Kyle, they won’t and you won’t. Lou says she’s going to New York – in fact, no matter what happens throughout this movie, she insists over and over that she is going. She’s so excited, so full of purpose and determination. Aw, sweetie, no. You’re not going to New York. You are going to stay right here in Pine Grove, working at the family paper, marrying Kyle who will be the chef/partner at his aunt’s landmark restaurant, singing at every future Christmas festival because you are Jordin Sparks Thomas, and your little sister is not. There will never be a surprising move in your whole, Hallmark-predetermined life. And that’s fine, I guess, but it’s really, really boring to watch.
Jordin Sparks Thomas is fine, I guess. Very lovely in her terrific wardrobe, and charming enough. Her version of “This Christmas” at the festival is the movie’s emotional high point, but saying that is not really saying much. Still, that woman can sing.
Bingo? No, and I really feel that this movie owed it to me.
Available wherever tedious Hallmark movies are sold, er, broadcast.
Entry #5: Christmas in Vienna (2020)
DIRECTED BY MACLAINE NELSON
Today’s entry is written by Michelle Wist. Michelle is an Inveterate Romantic. English and Art major, former home school mom of 4, ofttime substitute teacher at Trinity Christian School, visitor of my Mom in California, and wife of Andy for 46 years.
Watched: November 9, 2021.
Our Romantic Couple: Jessamyn (Sarah Drew) and Mark (Brennan Elliot)
Their Meet Cute: Jess is visiting Vienna and during an Advent Candle Lighting Ceremony and stands next to Mark, who speaks English and explains the ceremony to her.
Plot Synopsis: Jess is a disillusioned concert master from Minneapolis, who has been invited to be a guest violinist at the Vienna Opera House, but has lost her love of music. Mark is a widower with three children, who has found relief from his grief in making his diplomatic work his priority. Mark’s cousin and artistic nanny, Tori (Alina Fritsch) has invited her friend, Jess, to the Olsen manor where the two leads meet again. As Tori’s artistic skills are noticed, she is called to display her ornaments and work a stall at the Weihnacht (Christmas) Market. Jess fills in as nanny to Mark’s talented progeny, Summer, Julian and Isla. The children accompany Jess on her several sight-seeing trips in wintertime Vienna. As Jess bonds with Mark’s offspring, she discovers their neediness. Summer is afraid of appearing onstage for her solo as part of the Vienna Children’s Choir. Julian refuses to unpack his things as he does not believe the manor will be a lasting home. Isla is painfully shy and is almost speechless in the presence of newcomers. Jess encourages each child and they start overcoming their issues. Summer is told that perfection is not the goal but to take joy in the action. Julian is encouraged to learn German to finally feel at home in Austria. Isla is handed Jess’s violin and Jess suggests that Isla can use an instrument to speak when she is too bashful to verbalize.
As Jess and Mark interact in the breakfast room of the manor, at the Shonbrunn Palace, and in picturesque meetings around town, their attraction to each other increases. He teaches her to ice skate at the Rathausplatz; she reveals her lifelong love of the carol, Silent Night.
Jess’s blossoming feelings ignite her enthusiasm to once again perform in public, shining forth in virtuoso practices. The Viennese maestro (Tina von Carlowitz) is moved to offer Jess a position as a lead violin for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The crisis occurs, dooming the budding romance, when Mark is offered a promotion in his diplomatic career, which necessitates a family move to Zurich. Jess and Mark share a moment atop the Riesenrad, the giant ferris wheel, which ends in her disappointment as Mark refuses to commit to the relationship because his departure is imminent.
Back at the manor, Jess confronts Mark regarding the wellbeing of his children due to his restless nomadic lifestyle, and he withdraws, abandoning her on Christmas Eve. There is a secondary romance between Tori and Vincent (Stephan Gorski) who played the part of Mark’s diplomatic secretary.
The maestro notices Jess’s rehearsal is lackluster and the Viennese job offer is in question.Mark muses on Jess’s concerns about moving the kids, and Jess leaves heart-felt presents for each member of the famiy to meet their needs; a blanket to warm Mark, a good luck necklace for the nervous Summer, a hook for Julian to “hang his hat,” and a violin for little Isla.
The climax of the film is when the family supports one another on stage for the brilliant holiday performance of Silent Night, Jess and Isla playing violin, and Mark, Summer, and Julian singing. Mark decides to continue working in Vienna and he and Jess pledge their love.
Star Power Casting: Jessamyn (Sarah Drew), Mark (Brennan Elliot), Tori (Alina Fritsch), Summer (Allegra Tinnefeld), Julian (Oskar Ricketts), Isla (Abigail Vollnhofer), Vincent (Stephan Gorski)
The 100% Award goes to the Christmas Dessert Selection: Jess and Tori sample chocolately SacherTorte at the Hotel Sacher; Jess and the children munch Christmas cookies (Mozart Kugel, Kokobusserl, and Linzer Stangerl) in their travels about town. The deliciousness continues with Lebkuchen or Life Cake and a second helping of SacherTorte shared by the romantic leads. The Wiehnachtkekse Bakerei at the Market is also a source of noteworthy delectable treats.
Observations: The realistic shots of Viennese sights create the feeling that the viewer visited these exotic locales in Austria. The “on location” shooting of the film at Christmas 2019 provides a much better winter background than the typical Hallmark Christmas movie in which the same floral arrangements can be seen in multiple settings and the snow looks like reused quilt batting. Only one other location, Bucharest, was used in shooting this film.
Tease: There was an excellent scene in which the two leads share a sweet experience revealing their dreams and special vulnerabilities together and the intimacy builds as the snow begins gently falling. The director, McClain Nelson, keeps the suspense going as the couple gazes into each other’s eyes but do not consummate the moment with a kiss.
Issues: I had a problem with the unbelievable speed with which a 6-year-old picks up a violin for the first time and 7 days later is able to play Silent Night on stage before the Opera House audience. The clips in which Sarah Drew plays the violin were not realistic to me and I am not a musician. Director Nelson compensates by having Sarah Drew turn partially away when using the bow to conceal the actress’s lack of ability.
Available through FuboTV.
Only ticked 8 spaces on my Bingo card.