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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 12, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies

The artist who denies the possibility of beauty confesses his blindness.

*

The Hallmark Channel has been in the business of producing and broadcasting Christmas movies for a long time.

So long, in fact, that starting the first of November, they have been able to mount a Countdown to Christmas -- back-to-back Christmas movies so that no matter when you wrap Christmas gifts, you can have a Christmas movie playing in the background.

Whether they can do this without any repetitions, I don't know. But they've made a lot of Christmas movies, and there are a good number of new ones this season.

Make no mistake about what these Christmas movies are for. Hallmark Channel promotes their holiday schedule with a "Sweetest Family Moments" collage. Hallmark knows their audience; they aren't afraid to use "sweet" and "heartwarming" in their promotions.

Normally, I'm the sort of hard-hearted wretch who will run from anything touted as "sweet" or "heartwarming," because to me, those words always translate into "badly written," "smarmy," "sappy," "banal," and "embarrassing."

Not at Christmas. I grew up in 1950s America, in a British-descended, Dickens-rereading, Santa-visiting, stocking-hanging, tree-trimming, Christmas-loving household. It is impossible to separate my childhood memories from Christmas, and vice-versa.

So "sweet" and "heart-warming" are not bad words to me, when it comes to Christmas movies.

However, this does not mean that I switch off my critical faculties when watching Christmas movies. Even if you give them a huge pass on the cliche front, some Christmas movies are way better than others; and some are truly awful. Hilariously awful. Tragically awful.

Let's talk about that "cliche pass." There are obvious formulas in Christmas movies, and you know, the moment you recognize them, how they'll turn out.

1. Characters quickly sort themselves into couples, so that you know who is going to get together with whom, and share a "sweet," "heartwarming" kiss before the movie ends.

2. There is almost always a scrooge, at least one character that is actively annoyed by Christmas or tries hard to avoid any aspect of the celebration. There may also be characters who are neutral or unconcerned, but can be won over if they fall in love with a Christmas-loving character. No matter what, it's a lousy Christmas movie if the scrooge is not won over by movie's end.

3. Somebody died or is dying or will die. Period. It's actually kind of appropriate that the birth of the Savior who redeems from death should be celebrated with stories in which characters deal with death, but Christian faith in the resurrection is not why death features prominently in Christmas movies.

Instead, death is there to make it clear that Something Important is going on here, that it isn't just about singing carols, buying presents, visiting family, or decorating extravagantly.

Often, death is also used to explain why the scrooge has given up on or actively fights against Christmas. Usually, somebody he loved dearly died at Christmas; sometimes, the dead loved one merely cared a lot about Christmas, and so Christmas now brings back memories of pain and loss.

4. God can take action, usually through angels. Ever since It's a Wonderful Life, Christmas movies have been rife with angels. Usually, in addition to solving everybody's problems (in clever and indirect ways, so the characters are still free to choose their own lives), the angels are wry or silly or avuncular, providing comic relief and words of wisdom in equal doses.

You have to turn off any thoughts of serious theology; it would be hard to imagine that God would meddle so arbitrarily in some people's lives, while leaving equally needy people without any help.

Especially because the angelic interventions are usually aimed at making someone feel "the spirit of Christmas," which, however lovely it might be, does not really compare with a lot of other human priorities.

But many of these "angels" are doing more than just making people like Christmas again. They're healing rifts in families, helping people regain lost confidence and hope, and giving comfort to those who grieve. Those are worthy endeavors for fictional angels to be involved in, and I can enjoy watching movies in which angels intervene in ways that could have been, and should have been, accomplished without angelic meddling.

5. Wise words are spoken -- either by those angels or other characters -- and these deliberately quotable lines usually make me think of the song "My New Philosophy" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which the character Sally adopts any stray statement and turns it into the new (and momentary) guiding philosophy of her life.

Needless to say, no character in a movie can say anything wiser than the writer is capable of thinking up, and few writers are very wise. The result is that most "wise" statements reflect the popular philosophy of the moment, and you can almost date the film by seeing which fad philosophy is spouted with great solemnity in the movie.

Perhaps the most offensive was the one where somebody who had lost a child was told that eventually all the sad memories would be replaced by the happy ones. Maybe the loss of children is just too deep a wound for a Christmas movie to take on, but I can affirm that this particular "wise" saying is pure bushwa.

The happy memories are there all along, and the sadness never fades. You learn to cope with daily life and concentrate on other tasks, but you are always one word away from grief for the rest of your life. Period. Every parent who has lost a child can affirm that this is true.

So the movie that made this statement was surely written by someone who had never lost a child. And I say, good for him. I would never wish that pain on anyone. But at the same time, perhaps someone who has never suffered a particular pain should refrain from offering feelgood platitudes to those who have.

That is not an exhaustive list of the cliches. A good Christmas movie will have the elements that make up all good stories:

A character is struggling to achieve something that the audience believes is worth achieving.

A character is torn between two goals that at the moment seem equally worthy.

A character is trapped in a rut and doesn't have either the hope or the courage to get out of it.

And, of course, there are the normal Useful Tools of storytelling, like the sidekick friend to whom the main character can pour out his or her heart, thus allowing the writer to tell the audience what the character is thinking.

In Christmas movies, there are often well-meaning parents or other family members, who make annoying, inconvenient demands but end up being the key to everything -- but this is a common trope in movies set at other times of year, as well.

In a way, I've just reviewed nearly all of the holiday movies -- but merely observing what these movies contains says little about the quality.

Yet in talking about specific movies, it would be presumptuous of me to tell you a movie is truly terrible, when I know perfectly well that the Christmas movies that make me cringe are often someone else's very favorite heartwarming movie. That doesn't mean they're dumb and I'm smart. It only means that I'm not in the audience for that movie, and they are; that they're hungry for something that I have no taste for.

However, I must make two exceptions -- neither of them for Hallmark Christmas movies.

There is no excuse for the existence of Jack Frost (starring Michael Keaton), which has Frosty the Snowman possessed by the ghost of the dead father of the children he plays with. This staggeringly bad idea somehow made it past studio executives who are usually quite capable of saying "no" to excellent movie ideas. Apparently when it comes to "holiday movies," they assume that the audience will buy anything. Jack Frost was resounding proof that there are ideas (and scripts) too awful to watch.

My other most-detested Christmas movie is the Bill Murray version of A Christmas Carol, called Scrooged. I confess that part of my loathing for Scrooged is my absolute inability to care what any character played by Bill Murray says, does, thinks, or feels. (The only exception was Groundhog Day, which I credit entirely to the good-natured writer-director Harold Ramis; he also made Chris Elliott and Andie MacDowell look good -- so, clearly, angels intervened.)

The real root of my hatred for Scrooged is that nothing was ever funny, and no character was interesting enough to engage me for more than a second at a time. To me it's an appalling waste of film stock, since it has no trace of the love that must infuse a film for it to be a legitimate Christmas movie.

On to the Hallmark Movies that I've liked so far this season. I didn't set out to explore them; but when a letter came from my sister, telling me about movies that she and my mother had enjoyed in past years, I flipped north of Comedy Central and eventually came to Hallmark. And Christmas officially began.

*

The movie that initially hooked me was Trading Christmas. Well, officially its title is Debbie Macomber's Trading Christmas. Including the name of the author of the original book helps bring that writer's established audience to watch the movie, and also helps remind movie watchers that this is based on a book which you might want to buy. Everybody's happier, except for people who think titles should be titles and credits should be credits, with a clear boundary line between them.

Sometimes you can get a good idea of just how much Hallmark itself believed in a movie by looking at the cast. If you actually recognize any of the cast members, it usually means that Hallmark spent more money on cast salaries. That means they think the movie has a chance of being a favorite, and therefore it's worth spending more money on it.

With Trading Christmas, the most recognizable cast member to me was Faith Ford, playing Emily Spengler. Faith Ford was a regular on Murphy Brown, and she has aged very nicely -- if she's had any plastic surgery, it doesn't look like it; she simply looks lovely, without denying her maturity. (Contrast this with the tragic results of too much surgery, which makes any casting impossible except as a character who has had tragically bad plastic surgery.)

The premise is quite simple. A few years after her husband died, Christmas devotee Emily Spengler, a second-grade teacher, finds out that her only child, daughter Heather (Emma Lahana), a college student in Boston, has decided not to come home to rural Washington state for Christmas.

This is so unbearable to Emily that she decides to surprise Heather by bringing Christmas to her. So she arranges a house-swap with a professor who needs to get away in order to finish a rewrite of a novel; but when she arrives in the condo in Boston, she discovers that surprises aren't always a good idea. Heather has already gone to Phoenix with her boyfriend, Jason.

So Emily is stuck in Boston, in a condo devoid of all Christmas decorations; but because she inadvertently sets off an alarm, she meets the professor's brother, Ray Johnson (Gil Bellows, a character actor you'll recognize because he has been in most movies made since 1994).

Off in Emily's hometown, professor Charles Johnson (Tom Cavanagh, another character actor you can't help but recognize) is still blocked on his novel -- and he also, as the movie's scrooge, hates the Christmas decor at Emily's house.

(The Christmas decor was meant to signal "overkill" to the audience, but Emily didn't go half as crazy decorating for Christmas as I do. Hmmm. Don't care, still gonna do it.)

Alas, the neighbors have all been primed to "welcome" him with visits to drop off cookies and other treats; every interruption, of course, makes it impossible to concentrate, and he's especially grumpy with the kids next door, who expect adult neighbors to play with them in the snow.

To make matters not just worse but impossible, Emily's best friend, Faith Kerrigan (Gabrielle Miller), decides Emily needs cheering up. Having no idea that Emily has gone to Boston, Faith shows up and, for various reasons, can't leave for a week. She has nowhere to stay but Emily's house, which makes her an extremely unwelcome housemate for Charles Johnson.

Naturally, Faith and Charles, who detest each other at first, gradually become attracted, partly because Faith is a would-be writer who admires Charles's many published works, and partly because Faith provides Charles with the insights that allow him to get past his writer's block and write another draft of his novel that solves all its problems.

Thus we watch two couples inevitably get together, with Emily getting past her feelings of guilt over falling in love with someone else only a few years after her husband's death, and Charles getting over his resentment of Christmas and coming to realize that he does need a friend -- in particular a womanfriend with literary insight -- in his life.

Could this possibly be more cliched? But remember, Christmas movies get a pass on their cliches; what matters is that the writing is engaging, and Faith Ford, Gabrielle Miller, and Gil Bellows give such warm and believable performances that it's a pleasure to watch.

It's unfortunate that many actors in Hallmark Channel movies think that the audience is so stupid that they must give exaggerated performances -- the kind of performance we call "mugging," where they make sure to point up every emotional reaction and laugh line. In Trading Christmas, only Tom Cavanagh makes this mistake, and he manages to be engaging enough that his awkward acting almost makes his character more endearing.

Daughter Heather is given some perfectly awful things to say to her mother, particularly on the phone at the start of the movie. If I were the parent being spoken to that way, I'd hang up instantly and decline to take that child's calls for a while, while I brooded about how I had raised such a rude and hateful child.

But Faith Ford, as her mother, takes it all in stride ... and so do we. Eventually, the daughter wises up a little (with the help of her surprisingly insightful boytoy boyfriend , played well by Andrew Francis), so all is forgiven.

Trading Christmas is, to sum things up, exactly as romantic and heartwarming as the doctor ordered, and on average it's better-written, better-acted, and better-directed than most Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.

*

When I saw the title of Fir Crazy, the rhyme-pun was so empty that I knew I would hate the movie. It was well-enough done to overcome that initial bias, and it ended up being a favorite.

Elise (Sarah Lancaster) grew up in rural New York, helping with her family's tree farm business. But at sixteen she rebelled and stopped selling Christmas trees. Instead, she became a marketing executive at a shoe company ... until she lost her job just before the Christmas season.

Meanwhile, her aging father broke his foot so that neither he nor Elise's mother can come to Manhattan to sell trees in their traditional sidewalk tree lot. Of course Elise is guilted into helping employee Shane (Greg Calderone) run the tree lot; not least because Elise's sidekick Nanci (Inga Cadranel), who has no opinions about Christmas ("Still Jewish, remember?"), points out that family is family.

It's inevitable that Elise will fall in love with schoolteacher Darren (Eric Johnson, who has played some excellent parts in his career, including this one), but the storyline actually centers on the scrooge character, Gary, played by Colin Mochrie, whom many of us came to love as an improv comic on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Gary's company has just bought out a rival, which operates a high-end jewelry and gift store directly behind Elise's family's tree lot. The family has an ironclad contract that entitles them to be there, but Gary makes it his cause to find a way to get them booted out because they're blocking his store.

Most of the time, Gary is nasty in a bad-management kind of way that is pretty believable, as when he abuses the very nice store manager, Isaac, played wonderfully by Arnold Pinnock.

Only once does the writer overstep and make Gary unbelievably mean -- but Mochrie carries it off anyway. We know that Gary will get his comeuppance -- what's the point of the movie if he doesn't? -- but along the way, it's Elise who recovers the spirit of Christmas and, more importantly, the spirit of family and honor.

To my great surprise, every character was enjoyable, and I liked learning something about how tree-lots are handled on the streets of Manhattan.

One of the best things about Fir Crazy is that the writers, Elizabeth Hackett and Hilary Galanoy, took pains to create really interesting and well-developed minor characters. There's the homeless guy (Marqus Bobesich) who tries to sleep among the trees; the married couple about to have their first child, to whom Elise hand-delivers their tree; and even a charming male coffee barista (Danny Smith) who stays in the friend zone.

One sequence in Fir Crazy made me remember all the Christmas ornaments my wife and I made early in our marriage, and where we acquired other ornaments in later years. Those ornaments hold the whole history of our family, in a way, and so I'll probably get all sentimental and cry so much that I can't decorate the tree this year without dropping stuff.

(Getting older and being chronically sleep-deprived has made it so I cry at the drop of a hat. But hat-dropping is sad, so maybe I'm not completely insane.)

In Fir Crazy, I don't think there are any weak performances, and if the scrooge's conversion happens way too fast, that's forgiven because the transformation of Elise, a secondary scrooge herself, is handled so gently and thoroughly that the movie is already satisfying before Gary's wake-up call.

So forgive the title and give Fir Crazy a try.

*

My sister recommended the Mrs. Miracle Christmas movies, and I made the mistake of watching the second movie in the series first: Call Me Mrs. Miracle.

Like Trading Christmases, the angel-character of Emily "Mrs. Miracle" Merkle was created by Debbie Macomber, but this movie was definitely written and budgeted to be a long step below Trading Christmases in Hallmark Channel's hierarchy.

You'll recognize Mrs. Miracle, however, because she's played by Doris Roberts, most recently known for playing Raymond's mother on Everybody Loves Raymond. And she was the titular Grandma in the thrillingly bad videogame-design comedy Grandma's Boy (2006).

But her fame goes back much farther -- she was Mildred Krebs throughout the entire run of Remington Steele (1983-87), and she played memorable roles dating back to the 1960s.

And before: she had roles in live television dramas back in the early 1950s, when she was still in her twenties.

Doris Roberts was in her eighties and going strong when she made the Mrs. Miracle movies, and she manages to make some pretty awful dialogue work perfectly well. She's got skills.

Call Me Mrs. Miracle takes place in Finley's Department Store, where manager Jake Finley (Eric Johnson) is trying to prove himself to his Christmas-hating father, J.R. Finley (Tom Butler, who has played unhappy-businessman roles on TV and in film for decades). Naturally, Dad hates Christmas because his wife always loved the holiday -- and then thoughtlessly died on Christmas twenty years before.

Jake keeps bumping into Holly (Jewel Staite, who played the hyper-cheery Kaylee on Firefly and in Serenity), who is full of ideas for dress designs, but is thanklessly working in marketing for evil professional designer Lindy Lowe (Lauren Holly).

The writers wanted Lindy to be like Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada, but not for a second was Lindy written or acted believably. Given truly awful lines to say, Lauren Holly made every one of them worse, with mugging that would make Nathan Lane ashamed of himself. Lindy isn't a scrooge, she's just a tyrannical moron; but we know she's going to end up using all of Holly's design and marketing ideas.

Meanwhile, Holly's life is complicated by the fact that she's taking care of nephew Gabe; his father, Holly's brother, has been deployed overseas, and his mother died a couple of years ago (making this a two-dead-person Christmas movie). Gabe is played by Quinn Lord, who gives quite possibly the best performance in this movie.

Jake Finley's position at Finley's Department Store is even more precarious because he didn't order any of the hottest toy of the season, a toy robot. Jake's reason is straight out of Big -- it's the kind of toy that's fun to watch for about a minute, and then the kid goes on to do something else. What's fun about that? However, while other stores have crowds clamoring to buy this toy, it looks like a financial disaster to his father.

Meanwhile, Jake was committed to filling his toy department with real toys, basic toys -- the kind you can play with again and again. The weird thing is that there's not a Lego to be seen, while the movie makes a big deal about electric trains.

How can I say this? Electric trains are the original toy that you switch on, watch it do the same thing over and over, and get bored with.

I say this as one who loved his HO scale trains as a kid, and still has plans to build a great N-scale train layout ... someday.

The fun in playing with trains is making the layout. I remember saving my allowance to buy miles of HO-scale track, and then, with or without my brothers' help, building tracks down the hall and then around in circles in the living room, with overpasses and crossovers, switches and spurs, and then a whole bunch of model buildings that I had glued together from kits.

I devoted hours and hours to building those houses; my older sister contributed by making (and teaching me how to make) papier mache hills and tunnels, fully landscaped with paint and lichen. But after hours of setting up the train layout and testing it with locomotives until all the dead spots and breaks in the track were fixed, the fun was over.

Once I'd made Mom and anybody else in the house watch me put my trains through their paces, so that every bit of track was driven over while a captive audience said, "That's really nice, dear," there was nothing much to do except take it all down and put it away.

It only got played with further if my brothers and I decided to play a war game with our Airfix plastic HO-scale soldiers and all the Matchbox-scale tanks and artillery we owned. Plastic soldiers (or "boy-dolls") are the kind of repeat-play toy that Jake Finley in Call Me Mrs. Miracle was talking about.

But train sets are not. They're just like toy robots, only old-fashioned and trackbound and, to a generation that never saw a real steam locomotive, dull. (Yes, I did see steam locomotives several times at the train stations in Salt Lake City, Utah, and San Jose, California. I'm that old.)

Never mind the choice of toys. What about Call Me Mrs. Miracle? Remember that to enjoy any Hallmark Channel Christmas movie, you have to turn off a good portion of your critical faculties. If you are good at numbing the "Oh, come on!" part of your brain, then this movie is quite enjoyable.

Director Michael Scott has about half his credits in Christmas TV movies -- including Trading Christmases -- and he ekes out of a weak script a much better movie than it should have been.

Surely budget limitations caused him to rely on a very static camera -- set it in place and then make the actors stand in front of it to play out the scene.

Perhaps the clearest symptom of the quality level is that Jake is played by Eric Johnson, who is absolutely delightful as the love interest in Fir Crazy -- yet he is pretty wooden in his performance here. We know that the acting talent is there, but -- as usual -- actors are rarely able to be better than their script.

Yet with all these criticisms, I still have to admit: There were moments in Call Me Mrs. Miracle that touched my heart, and moments that made me laugh. Many of the heartwarming moments were not earned by the movie so much as invoked by it: A soldier coming home to his motherless son at Christmas is going to make you cry, even if the moment takes place in a lame movie.

But even though Call Me Mrs. Miracle limps a bit, and the borrowings from Miracle on 34th Street are obvious and distracting, it is not in the "lame" category. I enjoyed it. I imagined my mother and sister watching it and also enjoying it. Besides, they'd be doing needlework or other tasks while they watched -- like me, my family often treats television like radio, to be heard and not seen.

As a Christmas-season pastime that invokes the nostalgia and love associated with the season in most of our memories, Call Me Mrs. Miracle does a perfectly good job.

*

I won't spend very long on Angel in the House. It can also be found under the titles Christmas Angel in the House and Foster. Successful movies don't go through a series of title changes. Yet, written and directed by Jonathan Newman, it seems to have been a labor of love.

It has the strongest cast of any of the movies I'm discussing this week. Toni Collette, Ioan Gruffudd (whom we forgive for The Fantastic Four because he played Horatio Hornblower so brilliantly), and Richard E. Grant -- three of my favorite actors.

Aging Hayley Mills even makes an appearance, and come on, you couldn't get all four of these actors into an Indie film if the script was bad.

Richard E. Grant plays the top angel, working with his angel crew to help a young married couple -- Gruffudd and Collette -- cope with the death of their four-year-old son and their subsequent inability to conceive another child.

They take in a foster child, Eli, played charmingly by Maurice Cole, whose British accent somehow doesn't distract too much from the story. Eli is, of course, one of Richard E. Grant's angel brigade. Naturally, he revives his foster parents' hope and optimism, and when they're all happy again, and not on the verge of divorce anymore, the angels allow them to get pregnant, and Eli, after witnessing their joy over the pregnancy, writes them a thank-you letter and disappears.

He really disappears -- there's no record of him with the agency that assigned him to this family; his picture has disappeared even from their snapshots; he simply never existed. Except that they remember him.

Personally, it seemed to me that they took all of this way too calmly. But it's at the end of the movie, and the message of the scriptwriter is in that letter from Eli, in which he made those false and smarmy predictions about good memories driving out the bad ones.

But the flashbacks of happy memories with their dead child, as well as their joy with the new baby, made it so I -- you guessed it -- cried like a baby over things that the movie did not so much create as invoke.

Here's the thing. Inadequate and false as the writing might be, the actors are wonderful. Good acting can't save a bad script -- except with the help of Christmas angels. There was an oversupply of such angels in this movie, and I have to say, if you don't find many moments in this movie charming and affecting, then you shouldn't have any friends, because you have no heart.

But come on, please: Enough with the roughhewn angels. Watching Richard E. Grant as a homeless guy at the end made me think of Harry Dean Stanton as the angel Gideon in one of the truly great Christmas movies, One Magic Christmas, which has all of the cliche elements and transcends them through excellent writing and brilliant, understated, completely believable performances.

It's a bad idea for filmmakers to quote or reference great movies and make us think of how much better they were than the one we're watching right now.

Enough complaining. Angel in the House is on my list, flaws and all. And if you haven't lost a child, you won't be annoyed by how wrong the script is in dealing with parents in the aftermath.

The best of the Hallmark Channel movies I've watched so far are Fir Crazy and Debbie Macomber's Trading Christmas. In my opinion, they're a fair bet for having a good time as a family or group of friends during the Christmas season.

And if you don't like them, what can I say? Maybe you just can't turn off your critical faculties long enough to enjoy cliche-rich Christmas movies.


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