No Shame in the Hallmark Game
This week I saw Joe Pantoliano in a Hallmark movie, and I gotta say, that took me by surprise. We tend to think of these movies as being “beneath” legitimate actors, but the record says otherwise. Treat Williams, Jean Smart, Rob Lowe, Shirley MacLaine, Carla Gugino, James Brolin – they’ve all done Hallmark movies. Some movies are even star-studded. Mary-Louise Parker, Andy Garcia, and Mandy Moore co-starred in 2013’s Christmas in Conway, and The Christmas Train (2017) boasted Kimberly Williams, Dermot Mulroney, Joan Cusack, and Danny Glover. Given that Hallmark movies average $2 million budgets I doubt they pay especially well, but they only take a few weeks to make, so they’ve got that going for them. Especially as Hallmark and Hallmark-styled holiday movies spread in popularity, Hallmark is less where has-beens go to pay the bills and more a low-pressure side hustle for working actors.
FUNDRAISING UPDATE: Just a reminder that this endeavor is all about the Benjamins. We’ve passed $2300 donated toward our adjusted $3900 goal for asbestos remediation in our friend’s home. If you would like to help us out by making a donation, you can find me on Venmo (@Sharon-Autenrieth), PayPal (@sharonautenrieth1) and the Cash App ($SharonAutenrieth)
Entry #31: I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS (1998)
DIRECTED BY ARLENE SANFORD
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR! Breanna Teintze
If you are a lady of a certain age, you might remember Jonathan Taylor Thomas, bowl-cut darling of the 1990s Tiger Beat set. He voiced young Simba, was in Tom & Huck, and played the wisecracking middle kid on TV’s Home Improvement. Today’s movie features slightly-older JTT fulfilling his contractual obligations to Disney.
THE SETUP: Jake (JTT) is a smart-aleck, handsome 18-year-old at boarding school in sunny Los Angeles. He’s a Ferris Bueller type, running scams, oozing charisma, and somehow managing to keep a girlfriend– Ally, played by pre-7th Heaven Jessica Biel. Jake wants to take Ally to Cabo San Lucas for Christmas instead of going back home to the frozen East, where he would have to deal with spending the holiday with his new stepmother. His dad is lonely for him and offers a bribe: if Jake can get home by 6pm on Christmas Eve, he gets to take possession of a classic 1965 Porsche. Jake tells Ally he wants to change their plane tickets to fly East for Christmas instead, but when it’s time to pick her up to go to the airport, he doesn’t show up.
THE MEET CUTE: twist! This movie has an anti-meet-cute: our pair is already together, but when Jake doesn’t show up to take Ally to the airport, she decides he’s a flake and starts road-tripping back home with classmate Eddie. (This is a bad life decision. Eddie has the gender politics one would expect from a teen boy of the 90s, nobody should get in a car with him.)
THE STORY: One of Jake’s schemes has backfired, and a bunch of angry classmates glue him into a Santa suit and leave him in the middle of the Mojave desert. Instead of dying of dehydration, Jake sets off on a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles-esque journey, lying, stealing, and manipulating his way across the country, determined to both catch up with Ally/Eddie and get home in time to claim the Porsche. A series of extremely 90s mishaps ensue, which I will summarize with bullet points:
-”backstage passes to Dave Matthews at the Coliseum
-Biore nose strips-
”I’ve been listening to Natalie Merchant for 3 days!”
-Ally’s cropped Christmas sweater and pleather blazer-
”We’re driving to Vegas to see Tom Jones!”
-bucket hats and butterfly hair clips-
Aqua: Dr Jones
…and one line on my sheet of notes that simply reads: “Honeymoon suite in fake Bavaria surprisingly similar to real Bavaria”.
Once Ally figures out (in fake Bavaria) that the car has been at least as motivating to Jake as either her or a desire to see his family, she chews him out, telling him (correctly) that he’s a selfish, manipulative jerk. Jake takes this to heart and, when he later wins a 5k for Santas (he is still glued into the suit), ends up donating his winnings so that poor folks can get turkeys. This is somewhat undercut later when he continues lying and manipulating his way through the last few miles it takes to get home, including stealing a sleigh–but in the end he tells his dad to keep the Porsche, everyone is together at Christmas, and JTT is free at last of his Disney chains.
SHOULD YOU WATCH IT? How nostalgic are you for the 90s? For a holiday teen romcom, I was startled by how far we’ve come in the arena of consent and not making excuses for jerk boyfriends in general. Pro tip: if you have been a jerk, doing a Grand Gesture usually doesn’t help. Just apologize and mean it, and make it right, and quit doing the thing. If you have been a cheating jerk (like one character Jake has to help in order to get a bus ticket), please don’t show up at your spouse’s place of work to do the Grand Gesture. That’s how you get restraining orders.
JTT and Jessica Biel remain cute as two buttons, and I found myself glad both that her career continued to prosper, and that he managed to do what almost no child star does: successfully leave the business, get an education, and retire. (He went to Harvard!) Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to slap a Biore strip on my nose, put some butterfly clips in my hair, and listen to Aquarium.
BINGO? Yes. Have you any idea how many Santas there are in this movie? There are NINE THOUSAND SANTAS.
Entry #32: OPERATION CHRISTMAS DROP (2020)
DIRECTED BY MARTIN WOOD
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR! Christ Kessler
Watched: December 20, 2021, on Netflix.
Our Romantic Couple: Erica (Kat Graham) and Andrew (Alexander Ludwig).
Their meet cute: Erica arrives early and surprises Andrew on the beach. They bicker in the traditional rom-com meet cute convention.
Plot Synopsis: After learning about Operation Christmas Drop, Erica, A legislative aide for Congresswoman Bradford (Virginia Madsen), is sent to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam a week before Christmas to dig into how the base’s budget may be affected by the Drop. Bradford, the head of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, is looking for a reason to close the base since another AFB in her voting district may be sacrificed if she can’t close Anderson instead. Erica sets her sights on a Chief of Staff position as a reward for pleasing her boss. Captain Andrew Jantz is the flyboy who is assigned to charm Erica into writing a report to subvert the congresswoman’s agenda. The base is strategically located, and its personnel works with Japan and Australia to assist the islanders, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that this is even an issue.
The Drop is justified as a Low Altitude Training Exercise, and since the airmen are training anyway they drop crates of supplies (including food, medicine, and textbooks) to islanders in Micronesia while they are at it. Since the gifts are all donated, Andrew insists that the taxpayers do not pay for any of it, and exclaims, “and it’s Christmas!” Erica is not that crazy about Christmas since her mother died three years ago. Andrew wants to run out the clock on her visit and Erica knows it. She does not take any of his BS for the first half of the movie.
After Erica arrives at her room, she asks Andrew for an organizational chart and other documents so that she can begin to do her job. He asks her if she wants a mint on her pillow too, as if she is not a professional who has arrived to do a job. After she sets him straight he comments that she will fit in because “clearly [she] like[s] giving orders.” He then tells his crew that she is the “most high maintenance condescending pencil-pusher [he has] ever met.” Mind you, she asked for an org chart and a map from her assigned guide, not a spa day and a cup of herbal tea with manuka honey. When Erica starts selecting binders to study the budget, an airman points out to Andrew that the information is on a hard drive. Andrew won’t tell her, though, so she’s stuck carrying around heavy binders. Erica later explains to Andrew that she can see that the Drop is a worthy charitable endeavor, but writing her report isn’t a negotiation. He exclaims, “Everything’s a negotiation!” Something tells me that Andrew is never heard the word ‘no’ in his life.
When Erica meets the general’s wife, Erica asks her if she’s a decorator. The woman just gives her this look, and says she is the OSS Commander, then clarifies that she’s LT. COL. Blaine. Hot damn! After being treated ‘less than’ due to her sex, Erica’s doing it to another woman. Props for highlighting the sexism. Blaine tells Erica that Andrew is the “most honorable person you will ever meet.” Really, Lt. Col? Really?
One completely unbelievable scene is when, on a tour of one of the islands, Erica is so charmed by the children that she gives them everything in her purse and then gives them her purse too. Andrew looks on in wonder and dawning affection. Blegh!
Two thirds of the way through the movie, our protagonists are at a party and when she begins to compute the cost, she apologizes to Andrew for considering the budget. She APOLOGIZES to the male lead for being who she is. Grrr.
The congresswoman shows up on the island before a hurricane is supposed to ground all the planes. Will the Drop proceed? Will the congresswoman have a change of heart?
Erica and Andrew kiss at the end of the movie, however she is going back to DC to assume her new position as Chief of Staff. There is no mention of them being together anywhere or at any time in the future. I found this refreshing.
Star Power Casting: Kat Graham was Bonnie Bennett on the Vampire Diaries (TVD). Aaron Douglas as Mayor Sampson was Chief Tyrol on Battlestar Galactica Reimagined. And Virginia Madsen.
The 110% Award: Erica’s hair. It starts out as an uptight chignon but becomes long and straight as she starts to learn her Christmas movie lesson, then turns long and curly as her spirit learns to love Christmas again.
Observations:Kat Graham is 5’2’’. She is not only female, but small and cute, and the boys in OCD don’t take her seriously. This movie wants us to think of her as a Scrooge character but she is honestly just doing her job. Any snark she throws at Andrew is in response to his chauvinism. Ludwig is 6’2” and to my eyes, not pretty enough to be cast as a romantic leading man. The height difference is jarring, and I was not fond of his pale, skinny self, especially with his early characterization as an asshat.
Kat Graham is going through some sort of identity transformation now, but if she ever resumes being Kat again, can some casting director PLEASE cast her opposite of Ian Somerhalder in a rom-com? Their smoking hot Bamon chemistry was wasted on The Vampire Diaries.
Since 1952, the real US Air Force has dropped supplies to the islanders of Micronesia. As of today, American, Japanese, and Australian aircraft drop 50,000+ pounds of supplies to 56 islands, impacting 22,000 people.
Bingo: Nope. Got six squares though, including dead mother and overly ambitious career girl.
Operation Christmas Drop was written by Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer and directed by Martin Wood.
Entry #33: THE SANTA STAKEOUT (2021)
DIRECTED BY PETER BENSON
Watched: December 19, 2021
Our Romantic Couple: Tanya (Tamera Mowry-Housley and Ryan (Paul Campbell)
Their Meet Cute: Tanya is a new police detective, recently moved from Wisconsin. Ryan is a seasoned detective whose desk faces her in the squad room. They bicker endlessly.
Synopsis: Someone is stealing valuable art, and the biggest clue is that it is happening at swanky Christmas parties and they all have the same rent-a-Santa, Frank Miller (Joey Pantoliano). Tanya and Ryan are assigned to go undercover in Frank’s neighborhood, passing as newlyweds who have rented the house next door. They are steadily drawn in to the circle of neighbors who belong to Frank’s “Christmas Club”. Can this Christmas-loving widower really be an art thief? And what about the sparks that are flying between Ryan and Tanya? Can work and love mix?
Star Power: Easy. Joe Pantoliano. Joey Pants. The Matrix. The Sopranos. Memento. Pantoliano is a legendary character actor.
110% Award: I’m giving it to Lindsay Winch, as Alicia, another neighbor who is super into Ryan. You don’t find a lot of flirty housewives in Hallmark movies. It’s a little lascivious for the format to have an attractive woman trying to steal someone’s (pretend) husband. But Alicia definitely is, and she can make an offer to loan a cup of sugar sound surprisingly seductive.
Observations: For starters, my reviews are bound to get shorter as I careen toward Christmas, horribly behind schedule.
Just fyi.I can’t get over what bad detectives Tanya and Ryan are. They’re indiscreet and oblivious – which seems really unfortunate when you are UNDERCOVER and INVESTIGATING A CRIME. Two robberies are committed almost under their noses. In the first instance, theyt are distracted by choosing a Christmas gift for Ryan’s niece. The second time, they are undercover as wait staff at a Christmas party – but they’re vibing and decide to slow dance together, and that’s when the robbery happens AT THE PARTY. This is why fraternizing is frowned upon!
This is a wackier – one might say “screwball” – comedy than most Hallmark movies. Paul Campbell can deliver a quip effectively. Mowry, not so much. There are a few good laughs in here, but An Unexpected Christmas, which was written by Campbell, has more wit. Maybe he should have written this one, too.
In the first scene Ryan steals Tanya’s stapler, thus invoking both Office Space and The Office.
Have you ever noticed how bad the carolers in these movies are? They’re very bad. But also, in the middle of caroling, Ryan drops his badge on the ground in front of all the neighbors. Have I mentioned that he’s not very good at being undercover? Multiple times in this movie he says, “That was close!” after almost being “made”. Is he always this hapless?
When Ryan and Tanya move into the rental house to surveil Frank, Ryan makes fun of Tanya’s two modest sized suitcases. He’s a disorganized slob who didn’t need all that luggage, of course. Except that over the next few days he wears no less than four different winter coats. What? Why?
Speaking of coats…Paul Campbell is a tall dude and his first winter coat is definitely not the right size for him. It’s like he’s wearing his little brother’s coat. See my earlier complaints about ill-fitting men’s wardrobes in these movies.On the other hand, when Tanya buys the two of them matching Christms sweaters and Ryan’s is too small, it’s a good visual joke. He looks ridiculous, but it amused me.
Ryan and Tanya slow dance to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”. People slow dance to a lot of sacred carols in Hallmark movies. I don’t see that happening in real life.
Ryan and Tanya go double undercover at the party, disguised as wait staff – as I said – but their uniforms are elf costumes. This is a party at which a $2 million Faberge egg is being displayed. Do you think the hostess would have the wait staff dress in elf costumes? Does that correspond to what you see in the society pages? C’mon, Hallmark, super rich people are way too snooty for cheap elf costumes at their fancy art parties. They save cosplay for the Met Gala.
I will give credit where credit is due, though. The slow mo walk into the party dressed as elves is pretty funny.In a similar vein, Frank is hired to play Santa at the fancy people Christmas parties. Not only is a a very unlikely looking Santa, but his Santa costume is crap. As I have noted elsewhere, there is a standard among professional Santas that we seldom see reflected in Hallmark movies.
Joey Pants doesn’t get to do much. They wasted an amazing actor in this role and made him deliver a lot of marriage advice and a lame speech about how people are like snowflakes. No two alike, don’t ya know.
The Christmas club meets every night for holiday festivities and it would have taken only a slight turn for this to be a horror movie about a cult. After two nights, tops, I would have been out.
Except, on the other hand, they have a hot cocoa bar with hot cocoa FLIGHTS, and I heartily approve of this.
Also, since Tanya and Ryan are cops, they don’t limit themselves to hot cocoa. Hardboiled detectives drink hard eggnog or “Santa’s coffee”, which is cocoa with coffee in it.
The Santa Stakeout is not a good movie by any stretch, but I’ve seen worse. And I sort of liked Paul Campbell. He has a manic edge that could be interesting in a better role. I probably won’t find it on the Hallmark Channel, though.
Available on the Hallmark Channel.
Entry #34: JUST FRIENDS (2005)
DIRECTED BY ROGER KUMBLE
Watched: December 13, 2001
Our Romantic Couple: Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) and Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart)
Their Meet Cute: Chris and Jamie were best friends in high school but haven’t seen each other in 10 years. On an unplanned trip home he sees her in the bar where she now works.
Plot Synopsis: In high school Chris was fat and nerdy and secretly in love with his best friend, Jamie. At a party at the end of their senior year he is “friend zoned” by Jamie and humiliated in front o fhis classmates. Chris moves to L.A., loses weight, and becomes a successful record producer. He’s flying to Paris with a pop star, Samantha James (Anna Faris) when she sets her private plane on fire and they are forced to land in Chris’s hometown. Chris and Jamie reconnect, hang out, sparks fly. But Samantha has set her sights on Chris, and another old classmate played by Chris Klein threatens to steal Jamie’s heart.
Star Power: Well, Ryan Reynolds, obvs. But also Smart, Faris, Klein, Julie Hagerty as Chris’s mom, and Stephen Root as the president of the record label for which he works.
110% Award: Genuinely tough call between Anna Faris as an out of control pop star and Christopher Marquette as Chris’s younger brother. Faris is wonderful. She doesn’t get enough credit for her ditzy blonde roles in general, but Samantha is both ditzy and a raging egoist. She is like a terrifying child, and it’s a top notch performance. As for Marquette, he’s got a fantastic scream, and ample opportunities to use it. The scenes between him and Ryan – full of brutal physical comedy – made me laugh in spite of myself.
Observations: This movie takes place at Christmas time, but it’s not a particularly Christmas-centric movie. It’s a Farrelly Brothers style comedy – loud, dumb, sometimes raunchy, but sometimes undeniably funny. In fact, it’s like nothing so much as There’s Something About Mary, another movie about a grown man who is still obsessed with winning his high school dream girl years after painful humiliation.
Julie Hagerty is a gem. She’s not in a lot of scenes, but she raises the comedy bar every time she is.
Amy Smart is terrific, as she was in 12 Dates of Christmas which I reviewed in an earlier rom-com-athon. She’s lovely and charming and funny. Reynolds gives the weaker performance of the two, and I say that as a Ryan Reynolds fan. It’s as if he hadn’t quite figured his onscreen persona out yet.
Also, let’s talk about the fat suit. In the flash back scenes, Reynolds is wearing a fat suit, a retainer, and curly wig. This is just a few years after the Farrelly Brothers put Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit for Shallow Hal. The humor of the early 2000s was aggressively mean and mocking in all directions, so Just Friends was not unique in this regard. But let’s all agree to not stick attractive actors in fat suits for humorous effect, okay? Let’s just leave that behind us. We can also do without the whole concept of being “friend zoned”. It makes it sound like a tactical move for a women to not want to have a romantic relationship with a male friend. It’s not. It’s just…not wanting to have a romantic relationship. Chris accuses Jamie of being a tease at one point, but Jamie was always honest with him about her feelings. She didn’t owe him him anything other than the friendship they had.Of course, she does fall in love with the slimmed down version of Chris, but only after he drops some of his big city ego and self-absorption. So the movie sends some mixed messages about what women find attractive, and like Shallow Hal or There’s Something About Mary, you shouldn’t draw moral precepts from this movie.
Bingo? No, not nearly that Christmasy.
Available on Hulu.
Entry #35: CHRISTMAS AT CASTLE HART (2021)
DIRECTED BY STEFAN SCAINI
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR! Michelle Wist
Viewed: December 10, 2021
Romantic Leads: Lacey Chabert as Brooke Bennett and Stuart Townsend as Aiden Hart, Earl of Glaslough.
The Meet Cute: Having fled a row with his sister, the Earl strikes up a conversation over a pint with Brooke and Margot, adventurers newly-arrived in Ireland, who are seeking information about their ancestry at the village pub, Lanighan’s.
Synopsis: The orphaned sisters use their inheritance to finance a family-finding trip to Ireland after being ignominiously dismissed from the service of prestigious event planner, Paige Monahan. Their Irish father had been adopted in New York, but the girls seek other O’Reilly relations.
The Earl has traveled the world as an architect, building offices, hotels, and apartments in China, Dubai, Germany, and Italy, instead of attending to the family estate. His sister, Siobhan, played by Aoife Spratt, is justifiably furious that the head of the house has abandoned his responsibilities for 5 years.
Brooke and Margot Bennett arrive in Glaslough and leave the B ‘n’ B to have a tipple at the local watering hole. As the chat in the pub progresses, Margot, the impetuous sister, portrayed by Ali Hardiman, claims that the sisters are skilled event planners rather than what they are: unemployed waitresses. Brooke, the quieter sibling, allows the falsehood to stand. The hunt for relatives seems hopeless as in a cute scene, Clara, the bartender, calls out, “O’Reilly” and every person in the pub shouts back, “Aye.”
The young women pose as party planners par excellence and steal the website of their former employer as their reference. Through many trials in losing caterers, being hounded by magazine reporters, and worrying about their guilt being discovered, Brooke turns to the earl for help. She encourages him to pursue restoration work on the family chapel to dispel the ghosts of the destruction his firm had perpetrated in Italy and turn his past to a more positive future. He suggests that the sisters consult the Duchess regarding their ancestry.
The climax comes at the Duchess’s Gala, when Brooke’s success is apparent, the earl is declaring his love to Brooke, and the real Paige Monahan shows up.
It spells doom for the girls and they flee the castle in shame, when the irrepressible Margot prods Brooke one last time – challenging her to not miss her fairy tale ending. There is healing in the Hart siblings as Aiden promises to rebuild the chapel. Brooke finds the courage to meet Aiden one last time. Duchess Dunlevy comes through with the right O’Reilly household and the film ends with a joyous meeting of the O’Reillys, one and all, on Christmas.
Star Power: Lacey Chabert is one of two foremost Hallmark actresses with 27 Hallmark films to her credit. (The other being Candace C. Bure, also at 27 films). Lacey’s expressive eyes show her growing discomfort at the deception which is the plot’s main device. Stuart Townsend (LeStat in Queen of the Dead, 2002) appears stiff and bound up, but it is works as he is aristocracy, and is struggling with the ruthless history of his former firm, the broken relationship with Siobhan, and his guilt about the failing family estate.
110% Award: The irrepressible character actress, Ali Hardiman (Miranda in Metal Heart 2018), does a great job as Margot, doubling down as the naughty sister as she complicates the plotline, pushes the heroine to stay the course, and lands the son of the Duchess.
Observations: The Irish scenery added some winter magic, the drone footage soaring above the parapet of the castle turret, capturing the snow-frosted fields surrounding the structure. The shops of the village lend a wistful air of otherworldliness.
Bingo: Had many requisite elements: Dead parents, quaint town, royalty, financial crisis, horseback ride, Christmas tree decorating, Christmas party, and especially great (intentional) misunderstanding, but no Bingo.
Available on the Hallmark Channel, December 25, 2021 at 10 a.m. CST