Happy New Year! We Give You the Saddest Holiday Movie Ever!
It’s the penultimate edition of the the Rom-Com-Athon, III! I’m glad you’re reading this after all the champagne and ball-dropping, because this compilation includes a movie that sees the dead mother trope and says, “Hold my beer.” It’s been fun to open the rom-com-athon to some out of the box entries this year, and it now includes one unmitigated tragic tearjerker. Still, you never want to miss a review from Justin Mory. The man knows his movies!
And don’t worry about being overwhelmed by melodrama, because that tragedy is carefully swaddled, like the baby Jesus or your Grandma’s precious, magical heirloom snowglobe, among four standard issue holiday rom-coms. We’ve got castles, contests, mysteries, and yes, a magical snowglobe.
FUNDRAISING UPDATE: Just a reminder that this endeavor is all about the Benjamins. We’ve passed $2400 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 #41: THE CHRISTMAS HOUSE 2: DECK THOSE HALLS (2021)
DIRECTED BY RICH NEWEY
Watched: December 23, 2021
Our Romantic Couple: Mike (Robert Buckley) and Andi (Ana Ayora); Brandon (Jonathon Bennett) and Jake (Brad Harder); and Bill (Treat Williams and Phylils (Sharon Lawrence)
Their Meet Cutes: Not applicable. This is a sequel and these are all returning couples.
Synopsis: After looking forward to a Christmas break from his TV show, Mike is convinced to compete on a celebrity Christmas decorating show called “Deck Those Halls”. The other celebrity – some guy with abs – drops out due to illness and Mike’s manager has the idea to have Mike compete against his brother, Brandon. Brandon isn’t a celebrity, but he and Mike have a long standing rivalry, so the reality TV dynamics are poppin’. Also, Mike wants to propose to Andi but her ex, Zane, keeps showing up unannounced to spend time with Andi’s son, Noah. Mike is feeling some insecurity around Zane, who has done everything and been everywhere (he’s even punched a shark). And Brandon is getting way too invested in the decorating competition because he’s tired of living in his celebrity brother’s shadow. Meanwhile, Mike and Brandon’s parents, Bill and Phylis, just want to enjoy retirement and co-starring in a local production of a Christmas play.
Star Power: Treat Williams and Sharon Lawrence as the parents, Bill and Phylis – or Billys, as Brandon and his husband Jake take to calling them.
110% Award: Treat Williams. He and Lawrence are both wonderful, but Williams get to do more with his role, especially in a final scene in which he’s playing a jury foreman on Mike’s show and he’s terrible. Watching Treat Williams pretend to be a bad actor is a lot of fun.
Observations: This is a shiny bauble of a Christmas movie: well produced, bright and happy, filled with cast members who seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s not a romance: it’s a family comedy, and I’m here for it.
Bill and Phylis present something I rarely see in these movies – older parents whose lives don’t revolve around their children. Yes, they love their sons and their partners and their grandchildren. But they have their own interests and hobbies and would, in fact, appreciate it if their children acknowledged what matters to them. When Mike and Brandon ruin the opening night of Billys’s play by fighting in the audience, I was both annoyed (it’s a ridiculous, over the top scene) and sad. I thought, “Your parents have shown up for you two for decades. Can’t you “show up” for them now?”I would have liked to see more of that strange play, by the way, which seems to combine naughty Mr. and Mrs. Claus humor with product placement for Sears. Sears, of all things!
Another family dynamic this movie handles well is the challenge of co-parenting with an ex. Zane is handsome and full of himself – and British, to boot . But he’s Noah’s dad and both Mike and Andi deal with him respectfully. There is no subplot about Mike being jealous that Andi might still have feelings for Zane. If Mike is threatened at all, it’s by how cool Noah thinks his dad is. In this subplot, at least, I liked how grown up the adults seemed.
Early in the film Mike takes Noah to a Christmas carnival where he buys him his first every corn dog. How did Noah reach 13 or 14 without ever having a corn dog?
Marvelous Jim, the owner of the local magic shop, returns. But whereas last time he seemed like an eccentric but real person, this time out he’s a magical being. Like, literally magic. I’m not sure what to make of it.
I’m also not sure what to make of Mike’s manager, Kathleen, who seems to be running the show on “Deck Those Halls”. What is her job title, exactly?
I believe in a review last year I wrote that Jonathon Bennett is like a golden retriever onscreen: bouncy, ebullient, irrepressibly friendly. He truly is. This movie requires him to be tormented by jealously for much of the story, but even that is tempered by his good nature. Robert Buckley, who I also like very much, naturally radiates good humored self deprecation onscreen, and Jonathon Bennett naturally radiates joy. It certainly appears that he is having a blast making these movies.
In December of 2019 Hallmark, after protests, Hallmark pulled an ad featuring a same sex couple kissing at their wedding. Last year Hallmark aired The Christmas House, which showed a same sex couple (Brandon and Jake) planning to adopt. Intimacy was limited to a forehead kiss, and there story was a B-plot to the romance between Mike and Andi. This year, Brandon and Jake’s story is as central to The Christmas House 2 as is Mike and Andi’s. They also have two children now (a few years having passed since the previous story). AND they get to properly kiss, more than once. For all the valid concerns about white-cis-heteronormativity in these movies, Hallmark is changing faster than a lot of its viewers. I’d be curious to know what it’s more traditional audience thinks of a sweet family comedy like this one, which treats a same sex cople with warmth and respect.
You know what’s a real shocker here, though – much more unprecedented than a same sex smooch? Mike and Andi are unmarried and they LIVE TOGETHER. I think this may be a first for Hallmark. It’s wild.
Watched on the Hallmark Channel
Entry #42: THE CHRISTMAS THIEF (2021)
DIRECTED BY DANNY SALLES
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Michelle Wist is the Queen of Christmas! CCB, MJH, and Lacey Chabert have nothing on her! This is her fourth review for this year’s rom-com-athon!
Romantic Leads: Jarrid Masse (Detective Nick) and Michelle Borth (Private Investigator Lana Lawton)
The Meet Cute: Two sleuths bump into each other while tailing Mr. Claus.
Synopsis: Thefts of Christmas items (a jade ornament, a real emerald and a ruby from the magi’s treasure chest in the creche, and a treasured baseball signed by Babe Ruth) bring a “home-for-the-holidays” gumshoe-wannabe and a cop together. Adorable nephew, Henry (Bryson JonSteele) hires his aunt to solve the case.
Teddy (Leigh Foster), the kind neighbor/former boyfriend complicates the plotline by showering Lana with kisses and heartfelt Christmas surprises. He warns Nick off, “I’ve loved her since I was six. Please honor that.”
The clues all point to Santa (Tom Lally), but the jolly elf stays ahead of the criminal curve by giving intuitive presents and guidance at appropriate moments and writer, Joany Kane, confusesthe issue with additional Poinsettia. Santa (Scott Samuel) and Alarm Company Santa (Nick Davis) nipping into and out of scenes to muddy the Christmas punch.
Lana’s helpful Dad arranges a new career for her with Mr. Grenell (Ted Williams III), a lobbyist attorney wanting to hire her. Good pay but Immediate acceptance required.
Mind-gripping tension mounts as the competing swains’ big showdown is a cornhole contest. Bean bags loft through the air with ferocity as the townsfolk cheer. It must be sensational because it’s the top shooter at the police academy versus the star pitcher on the high school baseball team.
Detectives, Nick and his partner, Marie (Rachel Cerda), race about tracking sightings of large guys in red suits.
In the climactic reveal of the true culprit, the boy next-door gets a drubbing, the girl gets her dream job, and under the mistletoe, the first kiss.
Whew. No loose ends in this one. All wrapped up in reindeer paper and tied with a clumsy red bow.
Star Power: Sara Sevigny (Maxine Yule), Vivica A. Fox (Robin, head of a Private Eye Company and possible future employer of Lana).
Observations: A very special rendition of Silent Night in which Lana spies a suspect lurking and switches her angelic tempo to a triple time, finger-snapping, off-key rendition in an effort to escape her performance and zip through the crowd.
I question Director Danny Salles judgement in the ‘highly believable’ fight scene with a drone careening into a door frame and a knock-out shin kick.
There was an Antics Montage while on stakeout: Lana and Nick risking reprimand by singing karaoke over the police radio while eating apple cinnamon donuts, wrestling, then napping. Carbo-coma probably.
Notable: Could you believe it that Lana says, “I once asked Santa to be Nancy Drew?”
Entry #43: SNOWGLOBE (2007)
DIRECTED BY RON LAGOMARSINO
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Margie Zumbrun joins the three-peat club with this review!
Watched: December 24, 2021
Our romantic couple: Angela (Christina Milan) and Eddie (Josh Cooke)
Their Meet Cute: Angela mistakes Eddie for a pizza delivery guy, because he’s carrying a pizza. He’s actually her new neighbor, who has purchased a pizza. It’s a perfect example of those small ineffable moments in these films where the main character responds in a way that is *almost* but *not quite* like a real live human.
Synopsis: whoo boy. Let’s get this over with. Are you ready? Are you sure?
Angela is a Christmas-obsessed New York girl living in an apartment building managed by her loving yet overbearing Afrocubano / Italian-American family. She works at the family deli, and she is constantly having to rebuff her family’s attempts to get her a boyfriend. These attempts include repeatedly leasing the apartment next to hers to eligible bachelors, which is a totally normal, not at all creepy thing for parents to do to their children and for apartment managers to do to their tenants. When Angela realizes Eddie is the latest in a long line of these unwitting suitors, she responds by letting out a sort of GAHHHH in his face and stomping off. So you know he’s the one.
BUT THEN a magical musical snow globe arrives in the mail. No return address. Angela loves how the winter village inside seems to depict the “perfect Christmas.” She winds up the music box and falls asleep. So you know she wakes up in the snow globe itself.
Angela is not concerned by this development, assuming it’s a dream. She enjoys the ice skating, holiday cooking, friendly inhabitants, and local hottie Douglas (named, one presumes, for the fir). When she wakes up she wishes immediately to return. She soon finds that she can, every time she plays the music. She spends more and more time inside the snow globe, falling in love with Douglas and ignoring her real life and potential love interest Eddie. But what will happen when Douglas follows her into the real world?
Star Power: Lorraine Bracco (Goodfellas, The Sopranos, The Basketball Diaries) as Rose Moreno, Angela’s overbearing mom.
The 110% Award: Matt Keesler as Douglas. He commits to a role that requires him to be a jolly, sexless, blank slate. This character’s back story is “shovels snow.” He once counted all the lights on the village Christmas tree. He’s a Christmas-obsessed Ken doll. Matt Keesler approaches this by channeling a Mormon. It’s an inspired performance.
Observations: The snow globe people – sheltered, naive, aggressively platonic – took me back to my homeschooling days. They repeat phrases like, “Hi, I’m [name]! Merry Christmas!” They’re like characters from a video game.
When Douglas follows Angela out of the snow globe, he knows nothing about TV, toasters, football, or cars. Angela has to leave him with Eddie (“You want me to babysit your boyfriend?” asks Eddie, a reasonable human who knows this movie is ridiculous). This leads to the best scene in the film, with Eddie and Douglas at the zoo. Douglas has never heard of hippos before in his life (“life”). He also confesses to Eddie that sometimes, when ice skating with Angela, he will put his arm around her. Eddie observes Douglas closely after this admission then leans in and asks “So are you like, really rich or something?” Reader, I died.
It is unclear why Angela is attracted to Douglas. He is obviously a hunk but also just as obviously not actually human.
I will spare you my theory for why the snow globe is a metaphor for substance use disorder.
Eventually everything is sorted out. Douglas returns to the magical snow globe. Angela and Eddie end up together. And I was left to ponder the metaphorical significance of a movie that ends with a Christmas goose stuffed with lasagna.
Bingo: nope but close. Exchange eggnog for hot cocoa and we would’ve had it!
Entry #44: ALL MINE TO GIVE (1957)
DIRECTED BY ALLEN REISNER
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Classic film aficionado Justin Mory returns!
It’s 1859 in a small community called Eureka bordering the vast winter woods of Wisconsin. A young immigrant couple named Robert and Mamie Eunson (Cameron Mitchell, Glynis Johns) arrive from their native Scotland to live with Mamie’s uncle, only to find her uncle’s cabin destroyed in a recent forest fire and the uncle and his family burned alive. The initially taciturn townspeople of Eureka turn out en masse to help the young Eunsons rebuild the cabin, however, and Robert and Mamie, left alone in a strange new country, spend the next half-decade carving out a hardscrabble life in the forbidding locale. Robert trudging forty miles a day to work in an Oshkosh logging camp, Mamie keeping home and doing seamstress work for the disapproving wealthy women of the area, the unending routine of work and survival is broken only by the ringing (masculine) bell and piercing (feminine) whistle of local midwife Mrs. Pugmeister (Hope Emerson), announcing to the surrounding snow-covered pines of yet another addition to the fastly growing Eunson brood.
Three bells followed by three whistles later, over a scant five-year period, the Eunson family has grown to include forthright Robbie (Rex Thompson), red-mopped Jimmy (Stephen Wooton), and musical Kirk (Butch Bernard); followed by well-mannered Annabelle (Patty McCormack), helpful Elizabeth (Yolanda White), and finally baby Jane (Terry Ann Ross). Despite the infant mortality rate hovering well above fifty percent in nineteenth century Central Wisconsin, the Eunson children somehow survive and thrive during these dangerous years to safely arrive in 1870; only for cruel fate to intrude yet again as middle child Kirk suddenly contracts diphtheria during the statewide outbreak of that year. Nursed by his mother in quarantine, father Robert takes the five other children to an abandoned shack in the middle of the woods to avoid infection, Kirk recovers, and the other children escape infection, but Robert falls fatally ill, and soon dies in his wife’s arms, Mamie comforting him in his final moments with bonny memories of Scotland.
The following year without her husband takes a serious toll on Mamie, struggling to provide for a large family as a widowed mother in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, travelling on foot between ungrateful, judgmental clothing clients like busybody gossip Mrs. Runyon (Reta Shaw), and the mother of six eventually develops typhoid fever for her self-sacrificing efforts. In her delirium, as she approaches her own fatal embrace with eternity, mother Mamie imparts a final legacy to her eldest son Robbie: entrusting the disbursal of her smaller children to five welcoming, adoptive families. In the mourning wake of his mother dying on the first snowfall of winter, young Robbie makes the roving rounds of blizzard-shrouded Eureka, pulling a hand-drawn sleigh on Christmas Eve carrying his five younger siblings to hopeful families.
Merry Christmas from the wintry hellscape of Old World Wisconsin! Based on a popular real-life article and subsequent children’s book titled “The Day They Gave Babies Away”, co-written by Dale Eunson (son of young Robbie from the story) and his wife Katherine Albert, which first appeared in the December 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan, the story had first been dramatized as a TV episode of the CBS anthology show Climax! in 1955 before receiving this lavish, all-star, Technicolor filming — made on scenic locations in California and Oregon, doubling for locations in the mid-nineteenth century — by RKO Pictures during that venerable film company’s final year of production.
All Mine To Give as a heartwarming family Christmas tale is a curious case of a bright surface intent battling an unyielding and much darker subtext; somewhat of a specialty for movies and TV shows produced during the anxious mid-1950’s. On one hand, for example, you have a well-matched and attractive pair of actors in Mitchell and Johns, displaying honest affection and real devotion to each other as the ill-fated Eunson parents; on the other, you have a storyline and setting which inevitably grinds their happiness and hopefulness into sudden illness and death. You also have six cute child actors, including the previous year’s breakout Bad Seed (1956) herself, Patty McCormack as adorable middle daughter Annabelle — appearing in the same pigtails and pinafore of the previous film without the slightest degree of irony — disposing of themselves in a makeshift, third-act Eunson diaspora in order to otherwise avoid forced admittance to the state orphanage asylum. And then, finally, the story’s “happy ending” involves the inevitably bleak albeit beautifully photographed image of eldest son Robbie pulling an empty sleigh up a darkly snow-capped hill to a subsequent lifetime of child labor in a northwoods logging camp.
As both a Christmas romance and historical family melodrama, I think few would disagree that they just don’t make movies like All Mine To Give anymore. And in the case of this film, that’s probably for the better. Sugar-coating a relentlessly grim storyline and an unequivocally harsh setting with lush color photography, cute kid-casting, and cheery dialogue may put viewers in as stressful a position of reconciling a sweet outer shell with its bitter-tasting core. And like mixing an excess of Christmas spirits with stark realities far removed from holiday cheer, the inner contents of one’s viewing digestion may have far more to give than merely mouthing glad tidings of the season.
I found All Mine To Give on a DVD set titled “4 Films Favorites: Classic Holiday Collection Vol. 2”, released by Warner Brothers Home Video in 2011, and although I had avoided the film before due to it’s too saccharine-looking image of six child actor faces free-floating over nostalgic imagery of Middle-American Christmas past, in finally watching I was instead surprised by its darker historical themes and possibly unintentionally intended, darker undercurrents. Like a shiny Christmas dream-ornament with a darker-hued and gaseous-hovering nightmare reflected within, All Mine To Give might prove an irresistibly sinister Christmas viewing present to unwrap; others beware!
Entry #45: A CASTLE FOR CHRISTMAS (2021)
DIRECTED BY MARY LAMBERT
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Jim Tudor teachers film studies courses at Webster University, has worked in film, and is the co-founder with this wife, Sylwinn, of ZekeFilm. Jim is also the father of four children who are being raised to have excellent taste in movies.
Watched: December 24, 2021 (Completed. Took several sittings, this.)
Our Romantic Couple: Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) & Myles (Cary Elwes), amid grotesque amounts of Scot-sploitation, actively resist one another for a stretch that feels longer and more sexual-tension-y than the first three seasons of Moonlighting.
Their Meet Cute: Upon arriving to the titular castle, she literally stumbles out of the vehicle and into his unsuspecting arms. Begin the timer…
Synopsis: Sophie Brown, America’s most famous novelist, finds herself run out of the country after the one-two punch of killing off one of her beloved characters, and then psychologically snapping over the outcry on “The Drew Barrymore Show”. She does the only thing a wealthy, alone big-city outcast can do at such a point- she flees to lush Scotland to connect with a castle from her family’s distant past. But, wouldn’t you know it, the castle, Dun Dunbar, is in dire financial straits. Thankfully, that crisis is immediately averted when Sophie decides to buy the darn thing and live in it. But how long can this New York author last in a drafty, centuries-old stone structure with no central air, crappy Wi-Fi, and the nearest bathroom a long hallway away?
Myles, who is initially introduced as the castle’s Groundskeeper Willie, turns out to be (gasp!) the lord of the place. He’s a huge crank about everything, and clearly upset about having to leave Dun Dunbar to the woman whose aristocratic ancestors once bossed around his servant ancestors in the very place. Surely Sophie won’t last but a few days before she realizes her folly and abandons the whole thing.
Guess what, she doesn’t. Instead, she lets Myles get under her skin before finally pulling him into her bedroom. (While this is a very chaste movie, they do have off-screen pre-marital sex. Which is probably supposed to be a bit hot! for the target demographic, but really just plays as icky and somehow weird).
Christmas arrives just in time for a requisite plot complication, wherein Myles temporarily becomes a jerk again, prompting Sophie to storm out. As in, out of the castle, out of town, forget-it-the-movie’s-over OUT.
But wait…! The quaint townsfolk congregating in the pub remind her that getting a ride out to the airport will be next to impossible on Christmas. Plus, her plaid custom-made dress is ready! Might as well put it on and make an entrance at the big Dun Dunbar Christmas gala that she planned right before things went temporarily south. And guess who’s feeling 100% less jerky? I guess this last bit would technically be spoilers. But c’mon.
Star Power: …Brooke Shields? Yeah right, maybe if it was 1981. With forty years since her heyday to hone her acting craft, it’s regrettable to report that she didn’t bother. Cary Elwes? Somehow, the one-time Dread Pirate Roberts-turned killed-off corporate tornado chaser just doesn’t seem like the answer. No, that honor goes to Drew Barrymore, who seizes (ceases?) the opportunity to promote her #%* daytime talk show in this movie. She’s there at the beginning taking Sophie to task on television for killing off the beloved character, and then again during the end credits for Sophie’s face-saving (a poor choice of words, sorry) return interview. Just to further punish viewers when they thought the movie was finally over, this credits “bonus” bit was edited in a Cuisinart; a pure final assault that plays like the rejected work of the world’s most aggressive avant-garde video artist on a bad day. Just… why??
110% Award: I could be all martyr-y, and yell “me!” My family, having taken care to join me in watching the final hour of this movie (not really a movie) can attest to the endurance test that is A Castle for Christmas. But the real answer is (as Mike Myers once stated) all things Scottish. I don’t think I’ve seen this much plaid in all my life. Kilts and jigs and pubs and old-world Scottish castle decor clog any visual breathing room that A Castle for Christmas might’ve had. Pile Christmas on top of that (plaid bows on everything, of course), and it gives way to total saccharine suffocation. Elwes (who is reportedly a small bit Scottish himself) trots out an accent that’s passable but compromised for the cliche inflections he piles on. Near the end, the gentlemanly older guy in the pub, while wearing a kilt and #%& beard ornaments, hops up onto a table and does a celebratory jig. The local ladies have a swell laugh, but frankly the guy looks demented, like he’s thinking, “Me beard’s done spouted shiny tree bulbs!!”
Observations: There’s no way around this… we have to talk about Brooke Shields. Her very presence imbues this would-be feel good bit o’ fluff with a kind of comedic Grand Guignol sensibility. She’s trying so, so hard to be the perky wealthy famous ostracized everywoman that the story demands. But her every reaction is heightened. Her Sophie is the living embodiment of big shrugs, massive eye rolls, super-scrunchy face, and even a deranged Julia Roberts cackle or two. One can deduce that her sense of subtlety was washed away in the Blue Lagoon.
Making what appears to be her debut in this illustrious niche is director Mary Lambert- one-time music video queen, having worked with the likes of Madonna (the videos for “Material Girl” and “Like a Prayer”, among others), Sheila E (“The Glamorous Life” video), the Go-Go’s, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Sting (I know this list is long, but any child of the ‘80s should understand the indulgence) as well as a veteran of a few b-grade horror titles. As my wife pointed out, this career history explains a lot in terms of the editing and even the garish sensibility.
But on the plus side, just look what A Castle for Christmas has done. For just one magical hour, the members of my family set their earbuds and video devices aside to join me, unprompted, in a show of pure moral solidarity. (Either that, or morbid fascination). “Is this a real movie??”, remarked our oldest daughter. (Answer: It’s supposed to be, but no. It cannot be considered one). “This is so much worse than the one I had to watch for this”, said Sylwinn, my wife. (She was good and got her film, something called Love Hard, slotted in early as Entry 14). A true moment of familial holiday bonding over some primo Yuletide torture. This doesn’t happen when I throw on my new Citizen Kane Criterion Blu-ray, I’ll tell you that.
BINGO? Almost! My family members who were filling out the card for me were pushing hard for me to declare the one-block exterior set a “Quaint, Christmas-obsessed small town”. But that would be cheating. Just because, once Christmas explodes, the street has seven matching wreaths on four separate dwellings and no fewer than three professionally decorated Christmas trees in any given shot, there is no collective Christmas obsession plot point. The reason they were pushing so hard for that was because it would’ve netted me bingo on this, and then we’d win all the cash. So, so close. (Wait, that’s not how this works…?)
Watched on Netflix. In sanity-preserving chunks.