“Look, you fools. You’re in danger. Can’t you see? They’re after you. They’re after all of us. Our wives, our children, everyone. They’re here already. YOU’RE NEXT!”
People ask me fairly often where to watch holiday rom-coms without paying for the Hallmark channel. This question almost instantly turns me into Kevin McCarthy shouting the hysterical warning at the end of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You don’t have to go looking for holiday rom-coms: they’re coming for you. They are everywhere. Yes, Hallmark has 41 new movies this year and a back catalog of hundreds, but you don’t need a special streaming service to find them. Last year I subscribed to the Frndly app to get access to the Hallmark channels (in reality, there are three Hallmark channels), but this year they’ve been added to my YouTube TV subscription. If you’re willing to watch older ones, they can be found scattered across most streaming services, including the free ones like Tubi and Pluto. But also, Lifetime has 34 new holiday movies this year and some older ones free without a subscription on their app. Netflix has 11 new holiday movies, and while they’re not all romances, most of them are. HBO Max, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are similarly dropping new holiday flicks while having a large catalog of older ones. But also…you can find Christmas movies – brand news ones! – on UPTV, BET and Bet+, and even – yes, on The Food Network! What’s next? Christmas movies on ESPN and MSNBC? I checked and all ESPN has currently is tired debates about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. A movie about a spoiled young heiress taking over her dead mother’s football team and falling hard for the corn fed offensive coach (played by Marc Blucas) would be an improvement.
Because I am prone to obsessiveness, I really wish I knew the total number of holiday rom-coms available across every channel and platform this year. I don’t, but I’m sure it’s in the thousands. The challenge is not accessing them, it’s avoiding them. They’re after all of us, and you may be next!
FUNDRAISING UPDATE: Just a reminder that this is all about the Benjamins. We’ve passed $1500 toward our $4800 goal for asbestos remediation in our friend’s home. You can help us out by pledging per movie on this form: https://forms.gle/LdpkmPiDppD9aTjF7. If you don’t want to mess with pledging and just want to make a flat donation, you can find me on Venmo (@Sharon-Autenrieth), PayPal (@sharonautenrieth1) and the Cash App ($SharonAutenrieth).
Entry #11: LET IT SNOW (2019)
DIRECTED BY LUKE SNELLIN
Watched: November 11, 2021
Our Romantic Couples: Julie (Isabela Merced) and Stuart (Shameik Moore), and Angie (Kiernan Shipka) and Tobin (Mitchell Hope)
Their Meet Cute: Julie and Stuart meet on a train. He is a popular singer who assumes Julie is a fan when she tries to return his phone to him. She is *not* a fan. Angie and Tobin have been best friends since childhood, but Tobin wants to finally declare his love to Angie.
Plot Synopsis: Like I said, Stuart and Julie meet on the train. After it breaks down (near her Laurel, IL home) Julie starts walking home and Stuart follows her. Her offers to buy her lunch at the Waffle House, which is missing the “W”, and she saves him from a pack of teen dance squad girls who recognize him. They end up at her house after Julie explains she has a scholarship to Columbia but can’t go because her mother is very sick. Meanwhile, Tobin and Angie go to play ice hockey with a bunch of friends including JP, who is basically perfect. Tobin is jealous of JP and starts to behave a bit recklessly, including stealing a keg of beer belonging to the Reston twins, who everyone fears. Meanwhile, Tobin’s friend Keon has his plans for a party at his his house ruined when his parents don’t leave for the holidays, and must switch to having his party at the Affle House, where he works. Meanwhile, Dorrie – who also works at the Affle House, is trying to figure out why the dance squad girl she made a real connection with will now barely give her the time of day (but also passionately kisses Dorrie in the ladies room). Meanwhile, Dorrie’s best friend Addie is convinced her boyfriend is cheating on her because he didn’t respond to her messages and is hanging out at the Affle House without her. Meanwhile, Joan Cusack is dressed in tin foil and driving a tow truck.
Star Power Casting: This is an entire movie full of young “where do I know him/her from?” actors. I’ll give you a sampling. Isabela Merced was Dora in the delightful live action Dora the Explorer movie. Odeya Rush (Addie) had large roles in Dumplin’ and Lady Bird. Kiernan Shipka was Sabrina in the series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Jacob Batalon (Keon) was Peter Parker’s best friend in the Tom Holland Spiderman movies. Shameik Moore was the voice of Miles Morales in Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. And Joan Cusack, of course, is a legend and a goddess.
110% Award: Joan Cusack, as “Tin Foil Woman”, because she spouts a lot of advice while wearing tin foil.
Observations: This is a teen Magnolia or Grand Canyon. Strike that, it’s actually a teen Love, Actually, or New Year’s Eve (2011). It’s got tons of intertwined story lines going, does almost no work in character building, and drops you into the plot as if you showed up 15 minutes later for the movie. I found it very confusing.
This is also the sort of movie wherein the nerdy boy is played by someone who is a model in real life.
There is a scene in this movie in which three generations try to dance like Mick Jagger. It’s short, but it’s too long.
Angie’s nickname is “The Duke” but she wants to be called Angie. That’s certainly her choice, but I think “The Duke” sounds cooler.
This movie has a great soundtrack, but it strains credulity that these high schoolers in 2019 Illinois are into The Waterboys. I mean, I hope I’m wrong. I hope The Waterboys are slaying with the under 20 set, or even the under 50 set. But I’m dubious.
In Let It Snow we know someone is very, very ill because they are having fun and then go into a terrible coughing fit. So is it lung cancer? Consumption? Can I count Julie’s mom, Debbie, on my BINGO card as a dead mom, even though she’s not there quite yet?
The interfaith Christmas service is very silly and over the top. The best bit though, is the joke behind why there are only two magi in the production. It’s the little things.
Do you know what’s hard to do in a Christmas movie? Kiss for the first time. It never fails that you’ll be leaning in for contact and – BAM! – interruption. You’ll succeed later, though, and when you do there’s a good chance that crowd will applaud for you.They are probably applauding you because they realize how hard it was to bring that kiss to fruition.
A piglet is not a great Christmas gift for a friend, even if she has always liked pig stuffies. That pig is going to grow huge in your suburban town, and then what have you got yourself? A porch pig, which will be in violation of a lot of municiple codes.
I’m mocking this movie, but honestly, it was pleasant. Not great, and kind of confusing, but you could do worse. Also, it’s Christmas-ish. The whole thing takes place on Christmas Eve, I think.
BINGO? No way. Christmas is kind of sidelined.
Available on Netflix
Entry #12: SANTA’S CHRISTMAS CIRCUS (1966)
DIRECTED BY FRANK WIZIARDE
Becky Scott is a university theatre costume shop supervisor and costume designer, teacher of all things sewing and crafts, and loud autism mom. She’s known Sharon longer than The Official Preppy Handbook has existed. And once upon a time she designed clown costumes and ran away with the circus.
(Note from Sharon: No, this is not a rom-com. If you want to file a formal complaint, please make a donation to the fundraiser first.)
The call for movie reviews went out, and I answered. I wanted to find a movie that spoke to me and so the search was on for a circus-themed Christmas movie. Surprisingly, or not, this wasthe only thing I found.
A bit of background: Whizzo The Clown (Frank Oliver Wiziarde) was from a circus family, served in WWII, and after a short gig in radio, in the early 1950’s scooted over to television. He wasfrom the Kansas City area and worked for about 30 years as a local television station kids-show host. A lower-budget KC version of Bozo. This kind of thing was pretty common, even the smalltown I grew up in had its own small television station right there where the Starbucks is now, and sometimes local kids would get to be on tv.
Clowns from that era are not for the faint of heart, so this special comes with a big coulrophobia warning. His appearance is familiar yet unnerving at the same time. The energy level is so nonstop chaotic I question what was happening when the cameras were off. This guy had me wide-eyed concerned, and that right there says a whole lot. Whizzo is joined by about a dozen sugar-infused children and a very traditional Santa.
As to the production design, this is television in 1966. There was no set design, by any legitimate definition. The magic carpet (yes, Whizzo and the kids take a magic carpet to the North Pole) is probably from the Wiziarde living room. There was no costume design beyond what pearl-and-apron-clad moms stitched up. The spfx were not special nor effects. Some underpaid stagehand was lobbing handfuls of fake snow from off-camera. There was littleediting, the main story was likely prerecorded in one take except for a few specific moments that are obvious when you watch the show.
I think they could’ve done better. Kansas City is a big city, and this is the same era of television as The Munsters and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Other Whizzo footage seems to have moremoney dropped onto it, at least. He seems to be beloved, with specials and reunion shows and parade appearances. I mean, I get it. Whizzo isn’t Dick Van Dyke. I just think there could havebeen a little more oomph.
Random chaotic observations of mine that go with the random chaos of the show:
*You’re in trouble when the lead actor is the same person as the director.
*There’s a reason why clowns usually don’t talk. And if you don’t know why, watching this special will teach you.
*One clown/director carrying a show for an hour, including herding children and doing bad magic tricks, without a real script, should be attempted by no one. I wonder what kind of insanity wasgoing on just out of view of the camera, but I envision it was similar Act II of Noises Off.
*Do not work with children. This is one of the most basic rules: don’t work with kids or animals. They will steal your scenes and break the fourth wall.
*Television was different back then, Christmas was different, clowns were different, kids were different. And I know that you think kids are always the same, but kids in the mid-60s were threatened to keep their mouths shut, forced to wear uncomfortable shoes, and trained to hideunder their desks when the sirens went off. Those kids are now boomers, and television like this is why they act like they do.
*Remember when we used to fill up balloons with our own saliva and germ-filled breath and then blubbery-spray spit-air balloons around the room making painful squeaking noises? And remember when we used to think culturally-appropriated Christmas decor was fun? Good times, good times, let’s not bring those back, okay?
*You’re in trouble with me when your clown costume doesn’t have the plaids matching, or the print matched up, because I’m a stickler for matching plaids and I don’t care if you’re a clown, have some quality standards. And the shoes are clown Vibram toe sneakers. The image of those shoes haunts me.
There is a plot but it gets lost in Whizzo’s personal chaos. I think it has something to do with a little girl being sad about Christmas commercialism, only to be told by Santa that Christmas isn’tabout commercialism right before he promises to bring everyone presents. Sketchy.
You get the idea. I could go on and on (and my initial notes did) about how my 2021 jaded artistic-refined filter scoffs at a 1966 low-budget local-television Christmas special. That’s really not fair of me. And honestly, the kids are adorable, even though you can tell they’ve been instructed to not speak. They don’t dress children like that any more.
However SPOILER there is a redeeming part to this frenetic clown fever-dream. The best thing about this movie, hands-down, is the “vintage” (for us) footage of the animatronic store window Christmas displays of the Kansas City Country Club Plaza. It looks like news reel, and you can often see the reflection of stores across the street. Whizzo brings us the real-deal holiday store windows and the Plaza lights, footage that I didn’t know existed much less in such a random place.If you’re old enough to join AARP, watching those early-animatronic Christmas window sequences will make your heart grow six sizes. This is the childhood of so many of us. And as a native Missourian, the annual drive to Kansas City to look at the Plaza lights as a child is a deeply rooted tradition that many of us carried to the next generation. You forgive Whizzo’s manic monologue.
The kids in the movie should be in their 60s right now. I wonder if that was their shining moment, and if their grandchildren know they were in Santa’s Christmas Circus. I hope they got the therapy they needed.
Several months ago, Sharon posted a throwback about her daughter, Tess, who had found Sharon’s childhood Fisher-Price record player, played with it for a few minutes, then asked,dryly, “Did this amuse you when you were young?” That’s how I feel about Santa’s Christmas Circus.
Bingo? Of course not, but surprisingly I did get to check off a couple.
Available on Tubi
Entry #13: NANTUCKET NOEL (2021)
DIRECTED BY KIRSTEN HANSEN
Watched: November 23, 2021
Our Romantic Couple: Christina (Sarah Power) and Andy (Trevor Donovan)
Their Meet Cute: Christina slips on snow and nearly falls through a rotting board on the wharf where her toy shop is located. Andy catches her.
Plot Synopsis: Andy, newly divorced, and his daughter, Wink, are visiting his widowed father in Nantucket. Andy’s dad, Oscar, is a real estate developer who has only recently moved to the area and has apparently bought the entire wharf. Oscar’s wife/Andy’s mom always loved the quaint little town, so in tribute to her Oscar is going to tear down the wharf and put in a glitzy, state of the art marina. (Just sit with that for a second before we move on.)
Anywho…Christina owns the toy store started by her mother, who is also dead. She is horrified by the idea of losing the store which she considers all she has of her mother. Dead mom’s hang heavy over this movie. She first tries to fight Oscar, then tries to sweetly convince him to switch. He is not wooable – except, possibly, by his plucky childhood friend/housekeeper/cook, Janice.
On top of all of this, of course, Christina is falling in love with Andy, who is heavily involved in his father’s business. Smooching with the enemy! Can love conquer all and save the toy store?
Star Power Casting: Absolutely none. Who are these people and how did they stumble into careers in acting?
110% Award: It must go to Daniel Bacon as Jacob, Christina’s friend and fellow wharf business owner. He is also the director of the local theater troupe. I’m giving the award to D.B. for two reasons. 1) He has the thankless task, so common to Hallmark films, of executing a gay-coded performance without raising your Aunt Susie in Georgia’s blood pressure even a smidge by being an overtly gay character. (Yes, I know “not all Georgians”.) Secondly, Daniel Bacon is in THREE new Hallmark movies this year – which seems like a different kind of 110% award. He knocked ’em out and I hope he earned a sweet little pile of cash. However, based on the quality of A Christmas Treasure and Nantucket Noel, I don’t have high hopes for his third 2021 film, You, Me, and the Christmas Trees.
Observations: When people make fun of Hallmark Christmas movies, this is exactly the kind of film they’re mocking. Whew. What a stinker. Female directors are as rare in the Hallmark world as in the rest of the film industry. Seeing a woman director’s credit usually makes me happy. Not this time.
Trevor Donovan is the rare blonde male Hallmark lead, and not just a little bit blonde. Blonde, blonde. Christina’s friends try to sell her (and us) on him by saying he looks like “Brad PItt’s younger brother” but really, he looks and acts like a block of wood. Some kind of blonde wood. Birch, maybe.
People in this movie say the weirdest things. I kept writing down quotes that were some combination of faux Zen koan and seaside gift shop wall art. Try this one on for size: “Life is like a boat. Steer it left or right as much as you like, but the wind will blow you where you’re supposed to be.” That bit of fatalism came from Andy’s dead mom. She had a lot of other sayings but I didn’t get them all written down.
Also, after one of Christina’s friends shares the news that the wharf has been purchased by a real estate developer who plans on revitalization, someone questions the veracity of this rumor. “Are you sure?” The reply is a grand epistomologic inquisition: “Does anybody really know anything?”
Late in the film, declaring her love for Birch, Christina says, “You came in like a gust of wind and changed my whole life.” Andy replies: “Ditto.” It was the best two seconds, maybe the only good two seconds, of the whole movie.
No, wait. The other good two seconds (maybe more!) was the very long awkward pause in which Oscar seems to be trying to recalling his next line. I enjoyed it.
Please unravel this riddle. When Andy shows up at his dad’s house, his dad’s employee, Janice, is holding some Christmas lights. Oscar grumpily asks where she got them and she says: “I found these in the *unpacked boxes* in the garage. I am looking forward to the fan theories on how that works.
This movie seems to be trying to have it’s empty cup of hot cocoa and drink it, too. It points out the tropes but doesn’t use them any less. For instance, this line from Christina: “A developer can’t just waltz in and start barking orders! With all due respect, it’s a little cliche.” It sure is, Christina. It sure is.
I would like to congratulate Wink on her mom simply being absent, not dead.
Speaking of Wink, when she gets excited her voice gets high and squeaky, and it hurts.
Oscar is a very villainous villain. The fact that we’re also supposed to see him as a loving father and grandfather is pretty wild, given how ridiculously ruthless he is in dealing with the “shedders” (the wharf dwellers). I guess this falls into the “even Hitler liked dogs” idea? Anyway, he’s awful. Late in the film he realizes his awfulness and tells Janice that she treats him better than he deserves. She says, and I love her a little bit for this, “Luckily you pay me good money to keep me patient.”
Christina is reasonably angry that a developer swoops in a week before Christmas and wants to kick the business owners out BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but after her initial outburst (which doesn’t even contain swears!) she is treated as if *she’s* the problem. She ends up apologizing to Oscar for “getting off on the wrong foot” and asks if they can’t somehow compromise. Oscar, who has said he doesn’t want to see the local “debate” over revitalization turn into a protest, responds to Christina’s olive branch by saying, basically, “You can shove it, and by the way, stop trying to seduce my son.”
Andy is really dumb. He doesn’t understand s’mores at all. Also, as a grand romantic gesture he lays a trail of seashells for Christina to follow, but there are only 2 shells. Is that even a trail?
This is the third movie I’ve watched this year in which someone’s home was decorated without their consent. People never learn.
This is such a bad movie. Not bad in the same way that A Husband for Christmas was bad – not flashy bad. But extremely Hallmark by-the-numbers bad.
EXCEPT! When Christina and Andy lean in for their first kiss, it’s not interrupted and they actually kiss! “HA!” says Hallmark. “You think you know me? You don’t know me!”
BINGO? If I consider Andy a terrible, big city boyfriend – and I want to – then yes. BINGO.
Available on YouTube TV and the Frndly App.
Entry #14: LOVE HARD (2021)
DIRECTED BY HERNAN JIMENEZ.
Sylwinn Tudor is a polymath drawing from wells of largely unhelpful knowledge like traffic-light patterns, composting methods and visualizing data (but only in my head). Currently a software engineer, previous hats have included doula, lactation counselor, farmer, and installation artists. Always a wife and mama of four delightful humans.
Our Romantic Couple: Nina Dobrov (as Natalie Bauer) and Jimmy O. Yang (as Josh Lin)
Their Meet Cute: They don’t really have one as they met through a dating app and have been long-distance dating.
Plot synopsis: Natalie is a writer who has made a career out of exploiting her romantic misadventures. Based in L.A., she only expands her datjng profile search area because her pushy friend does it for her. This leads her to Josh, in small town, upstate New York. She falls for Josh’s good looks immediately and they get to know each other through a montage of long conversations. They finally meet in person when Natalie plans a surprise trip to visit Josh for Christmas. She arrives unannounced at his family home, first meeting his parents and then meeting him. She quickly discovers that Josh has catfished her using the pictures of local hunk, and Josh’s grade-school bestie, Tag (played by Darren Barnet) on his profile. She is pretty disgusted and flees to drown her sorrows at the local pub. Enter the dreamboat Tag for real. After some shenanigans, Natalie agrees to pretend that she is Josh’s girlfriend, helping him save face with his family, but only if Josh will hook her up with Tag. The stage is now set for all the romance, awkward situations and heart lessons one could want.
110% Award: This goes to Harry Shum Jr for playing, or over-playing, Josh’s absurdly narcissistic older brother Owen. You name it, Owen does it better: looks, beautiful wife, job, placing the star on the Christmas tree, caroling. If it can be a competition, Owen will make it so.
Observations: My rom-com bingo card was a little sparse on this one as the film is trying very hard to both follow the expectations of a rom-com while also subverting some of the tropes. Jimmy O Yang plays a delightful lead as Josh. He is sweet and funny, even if a lot of his humor comes down to self-deprecating jokes about all the ways Josh lacks in traditional good looks and masculinity. His secret ambition is to launch a candle-making business with scents for guys because “50% of the candle burning population is going unserved.” This is perhaps my favorite subversion of the prototypical romantic lead that we encounter. You have to love a guy who is concerned about disappointing his Dad cause he aspires to make candles!
Josh’s uniqueness is almost entirely rooted in his not being a hunky, shallow-minded, outdoorsy, dude’s dude. Because of this, his character gets more complexity than anyone else on screen. Even Natalie comes down to a two-dimensional, “LA 7” who learns that faking everything about her personality to appeal to a guy is also a kind of catfishing. But she at least gets a second dimension unlike every other character who at best is a stick figure sketch of a single thought: Tag is a shallow climber-hunk; Natalie’s bestie is a pushy loud-mouth; Owen (winner of our 110%) is a consummate spotlight thief.
There are several attempts at creating tension that we are supposed to care about: Josh’s relationship with his Dad; the central misunderstanding between Josh and Natalie; Natalie’s deadline to write about her latest failed romance. None of it works. Overall, Love Hard wasn’t terrible for what it is. We got all the moments one looks for in a rom-com: the couple, the lessons, the falling in love. It hits all the right notes, in the right order. It just didn’t elicit much of a response in me at all. Which is perhaps the most damning thing one could say. Indifference is somehow worse than hating it.
Available on Netflix
Entry #15: MY DAD’S CHRISTMAS DATE (2020)
DIRECTED BY MICK DAVIS
Watched: November 27, 2021
Our Romantic Couple: Well, this is embarrassing. There isn’t one.
Plot Synopsis: 16 year old Jules lost her mom two years ago and since then she and her dad, David, have been stuck in anger and grief. Jules decides it’s time for David to start dating again and secretly signs him up for several dating sites. The “dates” are a series of disasters. Meanwhile, Jules has her first boyfriend and her first fight with her longtime best friend, Emma. That is…pretty much it.
Star Power Casting: Jeremy Piven (Entourage) as David.
110% Award: Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Mr. Thompson, the very awkward school counselor. He’s only in one scene but it’s a doozy.
Observations: This movie cheats. It uses a classic Christmas rom-com title and then offers something very different. It’s a melancholy movie about grief and the toll that loss takes on the relationships left behind.
This may be an indication of the gigantic hold Hallmark-style Christmas movies have on our culture, when a more “serious” film tries not to distance itself from holiday tripe, but instead to “pass” as such.
While the acting in My Dad’s Christmas Date is solid, the script is hit or miss. Sometimes it slides into cliches, like the life advice David gives to Jules which boils down to “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
On their first date Jules and her new boyfriend go to the theater to see the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim. This is an excellent version and I salute them on this choice, even if the boyfriend, Ben, later turns out to be a tool.
After a terrible attempt at a date, David comes home and explodes at Jules when she tries to talk to him. The emotional resolution soon follows, but I really, really wanted David to apologize and he never did. I have raised five children and I have definitely been in David’s position, and parents should wholeheartedly apologize more than we often do.
My Dad’s Christmas Date is set in England (David is an American working as a lawyer for a British firm) and the one scene of Jules’ upper crust British family is savage. It seems tonally disconnected from the rest of the movie, but it’s also the only scene where the jokes work. I could have watched more of that.
While most of the humor falls short, the sadness in this movie rings true. Grief is isolating: David doesn’t know how to connect with Jules whilie they are both awash in pain. Jules’ best friend, Emma, doesn’t know how to support her. And the school counselor who calls Jules in to discuss how she’s doing is absolutely useless. He can’t even bear to speak openly about the loss Jules has suffered.
Jules sings in a church choir and their performances of “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Once in Royal David’s City” are beautiful, and about the only Christmasy thing in the movie. Also, the line from the latter song, in which Jesus is described one who “feeleth for our sadness and he shareth in our gladness” seems a fitting ending. In grief we all desperately need someone who can feel for our sadness and help us find our way back gladness.
BINGO? Oh, heaven’s no.
Available on Netflix