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Secrets & Lies

There are 5.8 million people in this country who ended their Thanksgiving weekend by watching Candace Cameron Bure in Christmas Under Wraps. This is the fifth made-for-TV Christmas film she’s starred in, and the record-setting ratings were so significant it even prompted mention on Deadline.com.

In my opinion, there have been many women much more charming and skilled than Cameron Bure to headline Hallmark films in recent years. Perhaps I am a bit biased against her, as the less said about her brand of “deferring to your husband IS equality, in the eyes of the Lord” commentary, the better. I believe she is quite popular in evangelical circles that overlap heavily with Hallmark viewership, but I stand firmly in the sliver of that Venn diagram that just sincerely likes cheesy stuff.

With that, let’s get to everything else wrong with this movie. Cameron Bure is Lauren, a San Francisco surgeon (yes, we do open the film with a requisite shot of the Golden Gate Bridge) who’s just performed her first appendectomy and is ridiculously pleased about it. We also learn that she is applying to the best general surgery fellowship in the country and expecting to get in. Now, I know that most of my medical knowledge comes from being a devoted fan of Grey’s Anatomy, but I am just semi-educated-guessing that you don’t get the most prestigious general surgery fellowship in the country if you just performed your first basic surgery. Ah, then the truth comes out: “My father was a fellow there.” Nepotism. Elevating mediocre white people in America for centuries.

Anyway, Lauren is convinced she’ll get the fellowship, her boyfriend will propose, they’ll move to Boston, and it’ll be her perfect life, just like she’s planned.

Raise your hand if you think the boyfriend’s actually gonna break up with her in embarrassing fashion.

After the dumping, Lauren heads home (she still lives with her rich parents; I will just mention, unrelatedly, that Candace Cameron Bure is 38 years old). Daddy breaks the news that she didn’t get the fellowship, but he’ll make some calls. We also find out that this is THE ONLY PROGRAM SHE APPLIED TO. Christ, what an idiot.

Luckily for Lauren, there’s one open fellowship slot in Garland, Alaska. (Garland.) She decides to take it not with the attitude that this is the consequence for her spoiled, naive actions, but as a resume booster, because the dude who beat her for her chosen fellowship was in Doctors Without Borders and this, to her, sounds similarly “outside the box.”

With apparently only the vaguest idea of what Alaska is, Lauren arrives in Anchorage and is promptly shocked to find that the town of Garland (Garland.) is 300 miles north of Anchorage and she’ll have to be flown there in a smaller plane. Plus, her fancy city coat and boots are no match for the 7-degree weather. Thank the Lord that the pilot, Andy, is cute. Not that Lauren seems to appreciate it. (Yet.)

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Andy seems to have many functions in the small town, as he helps Lauren get settled in her adorable log cabin (she resigns herself with a sigh) and introduces her around, including to his father Frank Holliday, a jolly man with a beard who loves cookies and runs a local shipping company.

And this is moment I start to realize I’m being tricked into watching another fucking “Santa is real” movie.

The Santa threat creeps along in the background as Lauren adjusts to a town without
her preferred coffee order (do writers know that nowadays small towns do have lattes?) and a tiny hospital in a converted house, where it’s just her, plus two nurses and two orderlies. Though we’ve already established that this movie is unconcerned with the realities of the medical profession, it does seem to me that a one-doctor town should have hired, say, someone in family practice rather than a surgeon where there is no surgical facility. Still, everyone in town seems to have an ailment they’ve been neglecting since the last doctor left them, and everyone starts to love Lauren because of her prescription-giving skills.

Andy’s also hanging around a lot, and his dad invites Lauren to dinner at their place. As she arrives, she’s sees something strange out of the corner of her eye near the barn. Could it have been an elf? You’re crazy, Lauren! says Andy. That’s just Garland, weird things happen in Garland, ha ha ha. Why don’t you come inside and listen to my dad and me talk in a vague manner about my reluctance to take over the family business? Which is definitely really a shipping company inexplicably centered in an isolated town accessible only by prop plane. For sure.

Lauren and Andy are clearly attracted to each other, but she can’t shake her disappointment as she sees pictures of her old friends in their new, big-city hospital assignments. She’s about to pack her bags and leave when she’s summoned to help with an emergency — which turns out to be a fucking INJURED REINDEER. A reindeer named RUDY.

Now, Lauren may be an idiot in many ways, but this reindeer bullshit is enough to raise even her suspicions. She keeps asking questions, and everyone in town keeps gaslighting her by insisting that all North-Pole-like coincidences can be explained away by preparations for the annual town festival on December 24th.

Where we might flee from a town full of lunatics, Lauren instead decides to stay a little longer, and soon finds herself really falling for Andy. He takes her on a midnight “picnic”: stargazing from the plane, then kissing under the Northern Lights (bad CGI, very romantic). The movie throws me a bone with a lengthy tree decorating montage. But through it all, Andy still won’t give her any straight talk about what goes on at Holliday Shipping.

The situation comes to a head when Lauren’s dad calls with news that the other guy dropped out of the Boston fellowship, and she has 24 hours to get there and take over. She’s conflicted about what to do, and when she talks to Andy about it, he gets pissy, of course, because a woman having professional goals is always a problem for a relationship. He wants her to choose to stay, even though he obviously hasn’t even told her the truth about the town. She decides to leave.

Moody Andy has to give Lauren her ride out of town, but for the second time, an emergency strikes and thwarts her escape. They’re headed for the airfield when they get a call that Frank has collapsed. Lauren rushes to treat him, and everyone’s relieved that he just seems exhausted. Andy feels bad that Frank’s been working so hard, and finally agrees to take on more of that blasted family business.

Somehow this annoyance convinces Lauren that taking the fellowship is the wrong move. So even though it means giving up her dreams of prestige (and, um, giving up surgery altogether…) she happily settles back into her cabin and gets ready to celebrate Christmas in Garland. At the town festival, Andy and Lauren reunite, kiss, etc., and he finally hints that she was right about her suspicions that he’s the fucking son of Santa. We close the movie with, God help me, a shot of a single reindeer and a sleigh going past the moon. (Sidenote: it’s the night of December 24th in Alaska and Santa’s only just taking off? You’ve got some time zone issues, kids.)

This movie is ridiculous, and NOT in the good way. Jesus frowns, Candace Cameron Bure.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/8 films
*female lead gets fired: 2/8 (I’ll count this one, as it’s in that realm of rom-com professional humiliation)
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 2/8
*romantic ice skating scene: 3/8
*romantic tree decorating scene: 6/8
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 3/8
*dead parents: 4/8

You see, “shepherd” is a word that has two meanings…

Here is a comment I made during one of my occasional late-night Twitter commentary sessions about cable TV, as I speculated on helming my own Hallmark movie:

Teri Polo

I was, of course, wrong; Teri Polo has not nearly had her day. Though she’s aged out of She’s About to Marry the Wrong Guy But the Right One Just Came Along roles, she’s beautifully aging into the companion subgenre, She Married The Right Guy But Then He Tragically Died and She’s Not Sure She Can Love Again.

In The Christmas Shepherd, Polo is Sally, an author of children’s books who’s just sold a new idea based on her own dog, a German shepherd named Buddy. The dog truly belonged to her late husband, a Marine who survived three tours only to come home and die of a heart attack. Buddy has since become her main companion, her only company in a big country house while her son, also a military man, is away at war.

Next, we meet single dad Mark, who’s trying to start a new life after moving to be close to his sister following his wife’s death after a long illness. He runs a coffee shop while his 13-year-old-ish daughter, Emma, rolls her eyes at him.

What could be better than a set-up for a classic small town Widow meets Widower and They Find Love Again story? Well, I spent a good chunk of this movie in a state of flushed, manic irritation, and you’ll soon see why.

Sally’s not home when a thunderstorm strikes, and a freaked-out Buddy runs through a hole in the yard’s damaged fence and gets lost. Sally is beside herself. (We’ll ignore the fact that Buddy is smart enough to drag her to her husband’s grave every time they walk through town, but apparently not smart enough to know where his own house is.)

On the road, Buddy gets picked up by a random but nice dude. There’s no number on his collar, just a name. (Not brilliant, Sally.) The dude can’t keep Buddy, but he drops him at a shelter. Now, Mark’s sister happens to work for a mobile animal rescue service that picks up dogs that shelters might otherwise put to sleep. She takes a liking to Buddy and convinces Mark to foster the dog, although he’s skeptical that Emma is ready for anymore change in her life. Of course, they immediately fall for Buddy. There house is a home again, yada yada yada.

Meanwhile, Sally’s able to track down the rescue service after a selfie the first dude took with Buddy shows up on a lost pet finder website. She contacts Mark and Emma. At this point, they’ve had Buddy for two weeks. And….. they don’t want to give him back.

Excuse me???????

They’ve already filed adoption paperwork! Emma’s had such a hard time in the two years since her mom died! Mark is trying so hard to be a good dad, and losing the dog will be very sad for her!

TOO FUCKING BAD. IT’S NOT YOUR DOG. GIVE HIM BACK AND GET A FUCKING PUPPY.

Sally has a more generous spirit than I do, and sympathizes with Mark’s so-called dilemma rather than threatening to sue his ass like I would. (Plus, she thinks he’s cute. Fucking cute men getting away with bullshit since the dawn of consciousness.) She shares her sad story about the dead husband and how he brought Buddy back from overseas, but also agrees to let Mark think it over and check back in a few days.

Girl, you need to fucking go over to his house in the dead of night and steal your fucking dog back. IT’S YOUR DOG.

Aaaaaanway. Buddy, through his peculiar powers, continues making Mark and Emma’s lives better. The cool boy at school who Emma has a crush on talks to her because of the dog, and he starts to attract customers to the struggling coffee shop by sitting in the window looking cute. (These customers include a pack of Santas, in case we’ve forgotten our Christmas spirit amidst all the dog stealing.)

Finally, just as my blood pressure can barely take it anymore, the kid starts to come around to the idea that she stole a woman’s dog and is inflicting ongoing misery on an innocent person just to avoid a few sad fee-fees. Emma and Mark head to Sally’s to give Buddy back.

When they show up, Sally’s baking Christmas cookies for care packages for her son and the troops, sort of like how Emma’s mom used to bake cookies for their whole neighborhood. They stay to help out, and with the issue of the dog finally settled, Mark and Sally find themselves noticing a brewing attraction. And they are suuuuuuper awkward about it. Bumping into each other in the kitchen like idiots awkward. It’s cute.

The next day, Sally finds Emma’s left-behind iPad at her house. She and Mark meet at a “Christmas Market” to make the exchange. (I want to make a comment about how Christmas Markets cannot possibly be a thing, yet if I dig into my memory I am sure my junior high choir used to sing at one. Bizarre.) This turns into a bit of a coffee date, chatting about their old lives before their spouses kicked their respective buckets, etc. And then, AN ICE SKATING SCENE!! We’ve had a slight shortage of those so far in this year’s Hallmark crop. The rule is that one person has to be really good at it and the other has to be reluctant because they’ve never done it and then they fall a lot. This time Mark is the one who falls a lot.

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Courtship rituals continue with things like tree shopping, but Sally remains wary of the whole situation. You might think it’s because, remember, these people almost stole her dog from her, but really it’s because she hasn’t dated anyone since her husband died and didn’t think she ever would again.

Luckily, Buddy is still on the case. He’s baaaaaasically a magic dog, you guys. Like, he planned this whole thing to bring the two of them together. So every time Sally wants to leave he’s all laying down on the porch resisting and such, going WE ARE MEANT TO BE ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY. After a lovely evening of Sally helping Emma get ready for her first dance (yes, with the cool boy from school — Buddy strikes again), Mark presses Sally about her feelings, and she admits them, but still insists she’s not ready. As she heads home into a snowstorm, of coooooourse her truck breaks down. I am not sure how Buddy could have been responsible for this, but if a German shepherd can look satisfied with himself, he does. Sally calls Mark, he comes to help, they kiss in the snow, Buddy barks his approval, and Christmas happiness sprinkles down upon everyone.

It’s meant to be, lady. Deal with it.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/7 films
*female lead gets fired: 1/7
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 2/7
*romantic ice skating scene: 3/7
*romantic tree decorating scene: 5/7
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 2/7
*dead parents: 4/7

Gretchen Wieners is Soooo Princess Material

It’s hard to believe, but even though it’s just Thanksgiving today, on Hallmark time we’re halfway through our Countdown to Christmas. Amazing!

Before we get into today’s movie, an anecdote. I was at a party this past weekend happily drinking champagne out of a plastic picnic cup when the topic of this little project came up. Since this was a crowd of screenwriters, the first question I got was: “What pervasive themes have you seen over the movies so far?” I answered with brutal honesty. Heteronormativity. White people. And a weird idea that if you aren’t super into Christmas, you must have serious damage.

Those first two issues are especially pronounced when the basis of your story involves European royal lineage. But how can I be mad at A Royal Christmas when we’re talking about GRETCHEN WIENERS HERSELF as the scummy American trying to get in on that royal line? And when MOTHERFUCKING JANE SEYMOUR is the snippy queen trying to scare her off??

Lacey Chabert (who I’m sure is tired of always being called Gretchen Wieners, but I’m sorry, Lacey, you were part of something timeless, get over it) is Emily Taylor, the daughter of a TAILOR and aspiring fashion designer in Philadelphia. Her boyfriend is charming generic-Britty-accented Leo (Stephen Hagen, who should’ve tapped in to play Matthew Crawley when Dan Stevens wanted out of Downton Abbey — seriously, doppelganger). And though Emily’s dad scoffs a bit at the fact that Leo doesn’t have a job, little does he know it’s because this supposed normal student is living off that never-ending credit line from the kingdom of Cordinia. (“A small sovereign state in the south of France.” DON’T LOOK IT UP IT’S TOTALLY REAL.) Once the news is out, Emily (who’s just recovered from her relief that Leo’s secret life isn’t a secret wife) agrees to head home with him for Christmas to meet Mother.

Meanwhile in Cordinia, Queen Isadora is very dissatisfied with the staff. It’s so hard to find good help when you don’t have a Carson-the-butler to help, although her right-hand man Victor is doing a good impression. Still, she’s been brought mandarin marmalade when she prefers quince, and the tea is tepid. Unforgivable. When Leopold and Emily arrive, she insults his casual-American-university clothes and refers to Emily as his “acquaintance.” Oy vey.

As Emily does her best to stay smiling while explaining to Isadora about her goals for a fashion line (“Hoodies! Well, the world awaits.”) and trying to pass the test of eating various horrid local delicacies, we learn of a looming nemesis: Natasha. The girl everyone under the Cordinian sun, but ESPECIALLY the queen, wants Leo to marry. She’s a duchess. She’s suitable. She doesn’t want to make hoodies for a living.

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Despite seeing how truly adorable Leo and Emily are as they do things like dance around the ballroom, harass the statuesque guards, and stage sword fights with what are surely priceless historical objects (the castle location is fantastic; Hallmark definitely used the money they saved on the shitty locations for A Cookie Cutter Christmas), the queen keeps bringing up ol’ Duchess Natasha. And didn’t Emily know? She’ll have to be prepared to meet not just Natasha, but all kinds of royals at the upcoming ball. Not that Leo told her to pack for a goddamn ball or anything. MEN.

Leo takes Emily out for a stroll in town, where they buy a small, scraggly Christmas tree like Emily always did with her dad as a kid, and befriend a nun and a moppet-orphan named Poppy, like you do. It’s a very pleasant day, until Leo gets recognized and mobbed, giving Emily a taste of life with a famous person. Between this, the queen, and Natasha, doubts are creeping in.

Things keep getting worse as even with the help of the maid she’s befriended, Emily makes a fool of herself at an important dinner, going from not knowing what fork to use to sipping from the finger-rinsing bowl to asking an infertile couple about their children. (Seriously, Leo has given her NO help navigating this shit. Like so many cute and charming boys, he’s also fucking useless.)

But while Emily’s feeling hopeless, she’s secretly winning hearts. The queen accuses her man Victor of liking her, which meets little protestation. And here’s where we start to understand the queen a little more. Though she misses her late husband, she didn’t love him at first, either. But, of course, her parents knew what was best. Just like Leo, she wanted to run away from responsibility when she was young and marry someone who wasn’t suitable, but now she knows the throne is more important than one person’s wishes. Hmmmm. We’ll get back to that.

The next day, Emily’s relieved to find out that the Baroness, whom she offended the night before by asking about children, is actually a nice gal who confesses she also made many faux pas when she married the Baron. At last, an ally besides her lunk of a boyfriend! They go shopping in town together, where they run into adorable orphan Poppy again, and if you don’t suspect we’re gonna see a damn heartwarming adoption before the end of this adventure, I don’t wanna know ya.

Fun with orphans aside, the royal ball approaches. Left alone again while Leo does his royal duties, Emily turns to Victor to help her get prepared for the ball. But no amount of waltzing, proper greetings, and hors d’oeuvres etiquette can prepare her for…. the gown the queen presents her to wear. Guys, it’s BAD. But if you’ll recall, she’s an aspiring designer. Time to bust out those skillz, and I don’t mean to make a hoodie. I mean some damn Disney Cinderella shit.

Leo’s plan to ask Emily to marry him is still just a plan as the night of the ball finally arrives. She wows in a gorgeous gown whipped up from that ghastly garment (no helpful mice needed), impresses on the dance floor, and charms with her manners. But Leo keeps letting himself get snatched away for the royal rounds (led by that minx Natasha), and an exhausted Emily soon ends up in the kitchen teaching the servants how to make a good old-fashioned Philly hoagie. Bad timing, though, since they’re supposed to be, you know, working the ball. The queen busts in, starts firing people, and tells Emily off. She’s a commoner and has no idea what it takes to be royal. Ouch. Emily is ready to hit the road.

Leo finally clues in that maybe this trip hasn’t been a bed of roses for his girlfriend, and hastily proposes while she’s trying to pack her bags. But she can’t say yes, because she doesn’t want to pretend to be someone she’s not — she’s proud of who she is. YEAH GIRL. And because this is a TV movie… the bitter queen overhears the whole thing. Could her heart be cracking?

The next morning, the queen summons Leo and tells him the story of that commoner she was once in love with. Finally, she’ll give her blessing to his union — except, Emily’s already gone! Time to hop a royal jet to Philly!!! (By the way, that commoner love of hers? IT’S TOTALLY VICTOR. And she’s all “Call me Izzy” and he’s all *tiny hopeful smile* and we’re all Be happy and bone down, aging but still totally attractive people!

One proposal in the Philly snow later, we’re back in sunny Cordinia for the wedding. As Emily’s and Leo’s kiss gets a tearful reaction from those previously stoic guards, it starts to snow there, too! Just as you’re thinking “It’s a Christmas miracle!”, Leo literally says “It’s a Cordinian Christmas miracle!” And that’s the last line of the movie.

Okay, if you don’t want to see Lacey Chabert running around a castle and finding orphans their perfect families before she has a fairy tale wedding, I don’t even know why you’re here. Other Hallmark films, step up and take note. Also, this movie has DECENT BANTER. I’m not saying it’s His Girl Friday, but in the world of surface-level TV-romance relationships, it’s nice to see the lead couple actually throw some flirty zingers at each other. (I don’t know if Jane Seymour’s lines were also really good or if I just love the way she sniffs haughtily with each one, but her efforts were also noticed and appreciated.)

This movie gets ten heteronormative white people stars.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/6 films (But come on, her family, the Taylors, are tailors? What is this, an ancient village? Are the Smiths around the corner literally smithing things or whatever?)
*female lead gets fired: 1/6
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 2/6
*romantic ice skating scene: 2/6
*romantic tree decorating scene: 4/6
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 2/6
*dead parents: 3/6

Hark the “Harold” Angels

Sometimes one wonders whether certain Hallmark films are conceived by pulling a couple of Christmas-related words from a bag and shaping a movie around whatever comes out. With a title like Angels and Ornaments, that could be the case. Luckily, I have a higher tolerance for angel-meddling stories than I do for Santa-meddling ones, probably because the plots are less likely to involve wide-eyed moppets who don’t even know how good their privileged little lives are.

Here we follow the story of New Yorkers Dave (Graham Abbey) and Corrine (Jessalyn Gilsig, usually seen playing mildly psychotic women on Ryan Murphy shows), two longtime friends who work together at Dave’s Music Shop and laughingly protest the idea of being anything more than friends, although they are both single and wanting more. Corrine in particular is having a rough holiday season, as she’s just broken up with her latest bad-boy-by-Hallmark-standards-beau, she’s feeling guilty about not wanting to go to Florida to spend Christmas with her mom, and she’s lost out on the solo in the upcoming Christmas concert for what sounds like not the first time.

One night, Corrine is drinking wine with an unnamed sassy lady pal when carolers show up on her doorstep, their Dickensian outfits bearing a striking resemblance to a special ornament her grandfather made many decades ago. One of the carolers in particular catches her eye — and she’ll be seeing him again soon.

The caroler is Harold, and it turns out he’s a rather cranky angel trying to carry out a mission to get Corrine and Dave to finally see that they’re meant for each other. He complains about everything to his liaison on the ground, a no-nonsense guy who runs a hot dog stand. Their conversation gives us the first sense that this movie is just a tiny bit self-aware, as Harold’s complaints about his assignment are met with Hot Dog Guys words of wisdom: “Clichés are important when forming a narrative; they tap into the universality of mankind.” He also has deep thoughts about relish.

Harold gets a seasonal job at the music shop and proceeds to inappropriately interrogate Dave and Corrine about their love lives. Pleasingly, we’re only at the thirty-minute mark when Dave admits to Harold that he DOES have feelings for Corrine. Suddenly I’m not quite sure where the twists of the story will take us, and I’m very happy to report that it does involve a Male Makeover Montage in which Harold, who is quite dapper, forces be-sweatered Dave to buy a decent suit.

Angels and Ornaments Final Photo Assets

Also to the film’s credit, Corrine is not an idiot, and she, too, quickly figures out the goal behind Harold’s meddling (which really is quite weird for a guy who’s know them for like two days). She tries to find out a bit more about this mysterious man, but all research based on what he’s told them leads to dead ends.

Eventually Harold’s maneuvering (Compliment her more! Notice the book he’s reading!) leads to Corrine and Dave having a lovely evening together out on the town, and we at home get to giggle whenever the movie shows the New York City skyline and then cuts to a scene that was clearly filmed in suburban Vancouver. (This is the most egregious setting-related nonsense I’ve seen in a Hallmark film in a while. At least most of them have the sense to pretend to be set in New Jersey or outside Seattle.) Just as everything seems to be set on the path for love… Corrine’s ex Tim shows up with a truly ridiculous amount of roses, saying he’s changed. Torn, she decides to give him another chance for one date to try to prove himself. Dave does himself no favors in this situation by letting Corrine believe that an ornament depicting a little girl caroler that he bought for her is from Tim. WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS IN MOVIES? If there is anything I’ve learned from romances, it’s to include a damn card when you send someone a gift.

Meanwhile, a frustrated Harold talks to Hot Dog Guy about the human life he lived before becoming an angel… which sounds an awful lot like Corrine’s story about her grandfather, who wrote songs for her grandmother and mailed the sheet music home every week, but never made it home from The War. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat! And the next time Harold stops by Corrine’s place, he finally starts to put this together — but he’s so freaked out that all he does is yell at Corrine for going out with Tim instead of Dave. It’s really not a good look.

On her date, Corrine’s having a good time until she realizes Tim didn’t give her the ornament (girl, this neckbeard didn’t go into any store that sells cute glass ornaments, come on), and he insults Dave. Upset, she leaves the restaurant and finds Harold playing the piano at the music shop — a song she recognizes, because her grandfather wrote it. Now she’s freaked out, and he hastily claims his grandfather and hers were best friends in the war, and he was afraid to tell her that that’s why he’s here, because she might think he’s crazy. Though she (smartly) thinks he’s lying, he basically convinces her by showing her the scarf he’s wearing — with her grandmother’s embroidery. She invites him to drink tea and hear the story of her family, but he declines, secretly too sad to listen to the tale of his own cut-short life and the love that he lost. Awwwww.

Meanwhile, Dave has a plan to show his love for Corrine. With the promise of donated instruments and the puppy dog eyes of a desperate man, he finagles a spot in the Christmas concert for her to sing a song of her grandfather’s that he’s written lyrics for. The song is quite pretty, and catchy enough that it’s still sort of stuck in my head. Harold is touched to hear his music sung on stage, Dave and Corrine kiss, everyone claps, yay! (Also apparently they’re all on public access TV at this point.)

Now it’s time for Harold to say goodbye. Corrine asks if he is who she thinks he is, but he won’t give a straight answer, and says he’ll see her again in good time. Then, as his reward for succeeding in his mission, he’s off to finally be reunited with his wife, a beautiful silhouette wearing an old-timey hat.

In case we’re still not clear on the situation, later Corrine finds a photo she’s never seen before hidden in her scrapbook, and it’s not weathered and faded like the others — it’s Harold’s face for sure. So just at the moment your most aged and addled family member might be asking “So it WAS the same guy all along?” a character is going “WE WERE RIGHT, IT WAS HIM ALL ALONG.” Handy.

Angels and Ornaments is schmaltzy, but it’s such a genuinely nice movie that it’s hard to make fun of too much. It’s a bit serious, not half-farce like so many of Hallmark’s movies, and the undercurrent of Harold dealing with the loss of his human life pulls the second half of the film together and makes the end of the story, though very predictable, something more than just success in a matchmaking scheme. The actor Sergio Di Zio is also so likeable that you just kind of want to reach through the screen and hug him the whole time.

Y’all know I’m a softie underneath all the snark, but don’t worry: next up, we’ll find Lacey Chabert discovering she’s secretly engaged to a prince. Her Highness Gretchen Wieners, aw yeah!

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/5 films (Rare instance of a male character getting that treatment here.)
*female lead gets fired: 1/5 (We’re doing well on this trope this year!)
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 2/5
*romantic ice skating scene: 2/5
*romantic tree decorating scene: 3/5
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 2/5
*dead parents: 2/5

Santa’s elf is coming to town.

THE KID’S TOO OLD TO BELIEVE IN SANTA.

Okay, needed to get that off my chest before heading into this recap. The character in question is ten, and I am a curmudgeon who would never tell a child Santa was real in the first place. So yeah, I think the kid’s a loser. But of course, in the world of the dreaded “Santa really exists!” Christmas film, my protests have no merit.

The movie is Northpole. Yes, spelled as one word. Because I guess that’s the name of the city at the North Pole? I don’t fucking know. We’re trapped in one of those stories about how sad kids down south are killing snow magic or something, there’s an elf named Clementine, Santa has a horrible fake beard and looks like he’s been on the Atkins, and Mrs. Santa has clearly had Botox.

Hallmark has been obsessively promoting this film as if they’re the first to ever think of making a Christmas movie that features Santa. I mean, they are the only ones to do so using Tiffani Thiessen, that I know of, so that’s something. (FUN FACT: little Brandi once wrote a fan letter to Tiffani [-Amber] Thiessen and received a signed photo in exchange. Those were the days.) She is Chelsea Hastings, single mom to Kevin Hastings, new kid in school. She’s also a reporter, and her first major scoop at her new paper is… a story about a tree-lighting ceremony that’s been cancelled! This town has no Christmas spirit! We all hear Kirk Cameron’s cries echoing across the lands. A WAR ON CHRISTMAS!!

Thank Santa there’s an elf on the way.

While Chelsea stalks the mayor and finds a possible connection between the neglect of Christmas Tree Park and a planned new development, Clementine stalks Kevin into helping her with her elf biz, restoring joy and whatnot. Of course no one believes him that the elf is real, but they’ll all come around soon enough. (Sidenote: Clementine has a mom. Is this the first time anyone has admitted that elves definitely procreate and aren’t just created via Santa’s beard magic or whatevs? Is this the first-ever hint that elves have sex?? THIS IS A FAMILY FILM! No one tell Kirk Cameron about this!!)

"Northpole" Hallmark Channel

Thank god there’s at least a cute teacher involved in this stew: Kevin’s teacher, Ryan (played by Josh Hopkins, also Grayson from Cougar Town, a show I will defend to my grave). But he’s too fun-loving for serious Chelsea, which means she’s weirdly rude to him when he does nice things like helping her carry her Christmas tree or humoring the blathering of her freak of a son. DON’T WORRY, she’ll be discovering her inner child again by the end of this adventure.

With Chelsea accepting Clementine as a friend from school Kevin just weirdly likes believing is an elf (unclear why teacher Ryan doesn’t point out he’s never seen this kid before), they all work together to save the Christmas tree lighting. Except they have to do like no work on that front, because the assumed-to-be-Scrooge-y development guy never wanted to pave over the park at all — he wanted to restore it in his sister’s memory. And so, Chelsea learns a lesson about seeing the good in people instead of assuming the worst! She lightens up and finds her own ~~~Christmas spirit~~~. We do have to endure some more chatter about the mayor not wanting to give a permit for the lighting or somesuch, but you’ll forgive me for focusing more on my drink than the movie at that point.

Anyway, eventually the whole town shows up at the park on Christmas Eve, there’s gospel singing, a couple firefighters are all “Permits? We don’t need no stinking permits!” and Clementine flies away on her mini sleigh, which provokes surprisingly little reaction from Chelsea and Ryan, who’ve just learned that elves are real but respond as if they’ve been told they’ve been drinking Diet Sprite all along.

THEN THEY FINALLY KISS. Jesus.

You can tell I’m not a fan of the “family” brand of Hallmark films as opposed to the straight-romance variety, but this is a reasonably pleasant movie, even if surprisingly little actually happens. The cast is enjoyable, and that’s half the battle. Still, I don’t understand why Hallmark has been so obsessed with this one — to the point where the end of the premiere was an announcement for a sequel during next year’s line-up. IT’S NOT THAT GOOD, HALLMARK. I’d much rather see The Further Adventures of Brandon Routh and His Matchmaking Cat.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/4 films
*female lead gets fired: 1/4 (Though she briefly quits in this one.)
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 1/4
*romantic ice skating scene: 2/4
*romantic tree decorating scene: 2/4
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 2/4
*dead parents: 2/4 (Here we get refreshing talk about her deadbeat ex! Much more realistic.)

The cookie crumbles.

A complaint often made by people who don’t enjoy rom-coms is that the predictable outcome of the couple getting together in the end takes away all the excitement. The counter-argument is that the journey is the fun part, watching the characters face obstacles and develop their love along the way. Stories aren’t just about endings, and even knowing a happy ending lies down the road, all sorts of high stakes can crop up before we get there.

That said, I really wish that someone had told the makers of A Cookie Cutter Christmas that there is only so much drama that can be squeezed out of a fucking cookie-baking competition.

I mean, we’re not even talking some kind of national, televised, big cash prize, Chopped-style competition. This is a few elementary school teachers in an auditorium. And our main character, Christie, isn’t someone who’s harbored dreams all her life of a triumphant career in baking. She’s bad at baking and hasn’t given two shits about that fact until now. So what makes her want to dedicate herself to going for what little glory there is to be won in this one-horse bake-off?

Hot Single Dad, of course.

Come to Mama, hot single dad!

Come to Mama, hot single dad!

James has just moved to town with his daughter, Lily, who is still getting over the death of her mother. Not only is he oh-so-sensitive and concerned about her, but he’s also just opened what he calls the Center of Hope, a charity meant to feed and clothe the poor. (Fun fact: I have seen this exact actor play a single dad who runs a homeless charity in another, completely separate cable Christmas movie, though I believe that one was an ABC Family joint. Talk about specific typecasting.) All the lady teachers immediately have their eye on him — including Christie’s biggest rival, Penny, who teaches just across the hall.

This rivalry runs deep because Christie and Penny were once friends, way back in their own elementary school days, but their friendship crumbled after an epic battle over a rendition of “Silent Night” in the school pageant. Ever since, they’ve been nothing but competitive with each other, still obsessing over that moment that split them apart. I’m not saying that two female characters can’t be positioned as rivals or enemies, but this has more than a little bit of a “bitches be crazy” edge to it that I could definitely do without.

As Christie begins helping Lily after school so she can catch up with the rest of the class, she and James develop a bit of an interest in each other. It’s revealed that he is a fantastic cook and baker, so he starts helping her develop her baking skills. He teaches her about mixing sweet and salty, ooh la la. He feeds her caramel from a spoon and her moaning is about the closest a Hallmark movie ever gets to showing an orgasm.

But here’s the crucial element to all this — no matter how much basic help she gets learning to bake, whatever actual recipes Christie uses in the competition, she must develop herself.

Yes, I did say “recipes,” plural. Did you think we were just building up to one big Cookie Event at the end of the movie?

Four times. Four times we have to watch her get up on the auditorium stage and make a thing and then watch Alan Thicke taste it and judge it. I can only assume they blew the whole budget on this cookie-making set and wanted to get their fucking money’s worth.

You will not be shocked that the final round of this death march to cookie triumph pits Christie and Penny against each other. By this time, James and Christie are really falling for each other — which means Penny must sabotage her enemy! She steals a recipe card from James’s house and plants it with Christie’s things, making it look like Christie is both cheating in the competition and merely using James for his peppermint drop expertise, which repulses him to his very charitable core. How can he ever love a liar?? (Ignore the part where SHE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW YOU BAKED AT FIRST, DUDE.)

Luckily, along the way, Christie has been questioning her competitive streak. Is it all worth it? Was she perhaps to blame for some of the “Silent Night” debacle all those years ago? She reaches out to Penny and suggests their students sing the song together in this year’s pageant, thus healing old wounds and making Penny feel guilty enough to confess her sin to James. He runs to Christie and apologizes, they kiss in front of a Christmas tree, and we all rejoice that she’s going to spend the rest of her life with this guy who seems like he’d divorce you if you so much as fibbed about putting a dent in the car’s fender with a shopping cart.

Perhaps it’s clear that I did not enjoy A Cookie Cutter Christmas as much as I did the first two films of this Hallmark season. Besides the tedium of the cookie drama, catty lady feuds are not my favorite thing, and while Erin Krakow as Christie is alright, David Haydn-Jones as James is bland as hell, somehow playing every scene as if he’s lost his glasses and can’t quite make out whoever’s in front of him. Plus, after watching movies involving a cowboy and a firefighter, a hero whose job mostly involves standing near piles of folded winter coats just isn’t that exciting. Sorry, charity. You’re boring.

I’m not going to tell you when this one is on again.

(Sidenote! The esteemed Linda Holmes at NPR is also a Hallmark fan and has a fun piece about the movies up today.)

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 3/3 films
*female lead gets fired: 1/3
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 1/3
*romantic ice skating scene: 1/3
*romantic tree decorating scene: 1/3
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 2/3
*dead parents: 2/3

On the ninth life of Christmas, my true love gave to meeee….

I’m sure that when Brandon Routh was posing for multiple magazine covers in his Superman costume in 2006, he thought it would be at least a couple more decades before he joined the land of made-for-cable movies. So I hope it doesn’t sound like an insult when I say that he’s kind of made for this thing. I mean, he could live inside of the opening scene of The Nine Lives of Christmas, in which he is Zach, a perfect specimen of a firefighter who nonetheless feels awkward posing for the annual charity holiday calendar. So humble! So hot!

Except, maybe Zach’s not so humble after all. We get a little twist with this character, who, in one way, is a noble man of the people, saving lives and whatnot, but who also is kind of annoying, as he resists settling into any sort of adult life by 1) dating models he knows he has no future with, and 2) living only in houses that he’s fixing up to sell for profit before moving on to the next one. Will a lovely lady who can repair his damage come along in time for Christmas?

Our Lady of Confirmed Bachelor Saving goes by the name of Marilee (say it out loud) White (yes, she is). We meet her as she’s falling asleep in veterinary school, which she’s paying her way through by working at a pet store after putting off her education for years to take care of her little sister following the death of their parents. So selfless! So sweet! But her friends and family are concerned that she’s working too hard and needs to get out and, you know, meet a guy like a NORMAL WOMAN GEEEEZ, even though she insists she’s not interested in addressing her love life until she’s done with school. Now we have two leads who are both resistant to the idea of a romantic relationship. How’s that gonna go?

This is, of course, where the cat comes in.

Ambrose is a scrappy orange kitty with a newly dead owner who’s got his eye on Zach’s house to make his new home. He’s not going to take no for an answer, even when Zach protests out loud to him that a cat is just too big of a commitment, can’t he understand?? Ambrose just rolls over to show his tummy, because he doesn’t give a fuck.

Animal-lover Marilee also has a cat, a fluffy gray one named Queenie that she must keep hidden from her cranky landlord. (Here’s where we start anticipating not just a human romance, but a cat romance, because thinking of cats and dogs as if they are human is just The American Way.)

And so the first moment of contact between our leads happens in the cat food aisle. The romance! The fantasy! The embarrassment when Zach notices that all Marilee has in her cart is a giant tub of mint chocolate chip! This is surely a humiliation she will never recover from… or will she??

ninelivesofchristmas-3166

Now, our man Zach’s model girlfriend, Blair, is sorta terrible. But we know she’s really truly EVIL when she wants to get rid of Ambrose just as Zach is starting to warm to the little guy. Turns out Blair’s father owns the pet store where Marilee works and where Blair figures they can dump Ambrose. During the ensuing interaction, Marilee displeases Blair so much that she convinces her dad to fire her. NICE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT, BLAIR AND BLAIR’S DAD.

Zach, feeling guilty, then tries to save Marilee from getting evicted when her landlord inevitably discovers her secret cat, pulling out his fireman badge (???) and interrogating the landlord about fire codes. Though his tactics don’t work, of course any woman would be thrilled to see a beautiful man attempting to abuse his power to be her knight in shining armor. And now Marilee is jobless and homeless kind of because of him… so Zach insists she stay in his fixer-upper house with him until she gets back on her feet. OoooooOOOOOOoooooh.

And thank god she does move in with him, because until now this “Christmas” movie has actually been woefully short on any sort of Christmas theme. But now! There’s a tree to be bought! There are Christmas memories to be shared while decorating it! And Marilee, previously only mooning over Zach’s “brown eyes,” (yep, those are for sure his only lust-worthy attributes) starts to see the wounded, sensitive dude who hasn’t let go of his angry childhood. And Zach starts to admire her because she… paints the living room.

I wish I was making that part up, but as if in a Key & Peele sketch, these two square-jawed white people bond over one of them mixing two different white paints to paint the living room the perfect shade of warm, inviting white. Marilee’s paint-mixing skills are EASILY the lamest hidden rom-com talent of all time, but I guess the Paint Whisperer was what Zach was waiting for all along. He soon gives in to his desire and kisses her under the mistletoe (admittedly, a pretty hot kiss), but then retreats again like the nonsense, sad-man,  love-just-ain’t-for-me goof that he is.

As is so often the case, it’s only when he nearly loses Marilee that Zach gets his shit together. After she invites him to a fancy Christmas party her sister is going to, and he panics and says he has to work, she ends up seeing him at THE SAME PARTY with a beautiful blonde. Soon it becomes clear that he was just promoting the fireman calendar we’ve all forgotten about by now, but first we get a refreshing moment of heroine self-awareness on Marilee’s part as she vent-cries to a friend: “I’m not even dating him; he doesn’t owe me anything.” True! But he totally does love you anyway, my dear, so as soon as she moves out and he realizes what he’s thrown away, he crashes her Christmas Day Pet Adoption Event in his chariot firetruck. In no time at all, they’re making out in front of a lot of confused people and animals.

And most importantly of all, AMBROSE AND QUEENIE REUNITE! May they sit haunch-to-haunch on the credenza judging their lame owners forever.

The Nine Lives of Christmas could’ve used a few more Christmastime set pieces, but the ease and comic timing of the two leads carries everything along very pleasantly. (Both Kimberly Sustad and Brandon Routh could easily anchor a big screen rom-com if such things were made anymore.) The film made me ask ask myself: where’s my magical cat to set me up with a handsome, perfect guy? Oh yeah, I don’t do pets. Another reason why I’ll die alone.

Though the actions of Ambrose influence the movements of the two main characters, thankfully the “magic animal” element is actually underplayed. Even if it wasn’t, I would still much rather watch this cat than the frequent Hallmark staple of a weird Santa-Claus-lookin’ guy named “Kris” or “Nick” hanging out around corners tapping his nose and giggling mischievously as he makes the lady fall into the guy’s arms or something. THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS TO FIX US SINGLE PEOPLE’S LOVE LIVES, HALLMARK. AT LEAST CATS FUCKING EXIST.

The Nine Lives of Christmas airs again Friday November 14th at 8pm.

Countdown to Christmas scorecard:
*female lead’s name is a Christmas reference: 2/2 films
*female lead gets fired: 1/2
*male lead has sad childhood Christmas memories: 1/2
*romantic ice skating scene: 1/2
*romantic tree decorating scene: 1/2
*character comes to senses after heart-to-heart talk with father figure: 2/2
*dead parents: 1/2


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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