Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 9, 2017
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Christmas Movies, Kindle Fire, Chinaberry
The Hallmark Channel's annual "Countdown to Christmas" is already under way, with this
year's new movies debuting on weekend nights at eight or nine p.m.
Now that there are two channels -- the regular Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and
Mysteries -- you can choose what kind of experience you want to have.
The Hallmark Channel has the sentimental, magical, romantic movies where you know within
the first fifteen minutes who is going to end up realizing that they love each other more than
Hallmark Movies and Mysteries has the three-kleenex movies where genuinely bad things
can and do happen, and while these also have love stories and non-tragic endings, you can shed a
lot of tears along the way.
Now, the fact that these movies are so predictable is not a flaw. This isn't HBO -- not that
HBO's premier offerings aren't also predictable in their own way. With Hallmark Christmas
movies, the audience tunes in precisely because they trust Hallmark to deliver, in a two-hour
movie, an ending that can let the viewers trundle off to bed feeling good about the world.
I've heard some people (who are nowhere near as smart or open-minded as they think they are)
say that Hallmark movies are for lonely middle-aged women who keep cats.
To which my reply would be: and why shouldn't that audience segment have well-written, well-acted, and well-produced films that meet their needs? And no, it's not just women, and not just
people with pets, who watch these channels at Christmastime.
The existence of Hallmark holiday movies doesn't take away a single oppressively cliche-ridden
arty film from the "connoisseurs."
In some ways, it's harder to write and direct an entertaining, well-made 88-minute Christmas
comedy than an art film in which you get praised for communicating badly with your
audience. No praise for lack of clarity in a Hallmark movie! The filmmakers actually have to
care about and, yes, respect their audience.
Not all Hallmark Christmas movies are equally successful. Early on in Hallmark's tradition of
coming up with dozens of new movies a year for the run-up to Christmas, there were a lot of
movies about people suffering from the painful condition of having "lost their Christmas
Sometimes this was because a beloved dead person was really into Christmas and now the grief
takes away all the mourner's enthusiasm for Christmas celebration. Other times, they are simply
so busy with their careers that they don't have time for this most sentimental and family-oriented
Some of those movies were quite fun, though for me, at least, they became less fun to exactly the
degree they departed from anything resembling reality. Stories in which Santa turns out to be not
only real, but also relentlessly determined to meddle in people's live, can be fun ... but perhaps
the story executives at Hallmark began to weary of those plotlines -- especially when good
writers came up with non-magical storylines that fit the parameters of a Hallmark Christmas
For instance, Catch a Christmas Star has two excellent stars. Shannon Elizabeth, whom we
first met on screen in American Pie, has matured into an actress with real ability. The surprise in
this Hallmark movie is that she is also credible, or at least non-embarrassing, playing a pop
singer, "Nikki," with a big career.
Then there's her old boyfriend Chris Mitchell -- her first love in high school -- who disappeared
from her life as her music career took off. He married and had a couple of kids (played very well
by Julia Lalonde and Kyle Breitcopf), and now his 10-year-old daughter is a completely gonzo
fan of Nikki.
When she finds out that her dad actually knew Nikki, she arranges for herself and her brother to
sneak off to the big city to attend an autographing session for her new Christmas album. They
meet Nikki, and when the singer finds whose kids they are, and come on, you can guess the rest.
OK, this movie could have been awful in so many ways. The songs could have been terrible.
But they aren't. Most of them are traditional (no royalties) Christmas songs with very good
pop arrangements. The one new song is surprisingly good. They actually took some care with
this -- including casting a lead actress who can sing. She's not Streisand, but nobody else is,
either. By the end of the movie I was thinking: If they actually went to the trouble to record full
versions of all these songs, I'd buy this album.
Another way it could have been terrible if they cast some lame actor as the high school boyfriend,
so that we kind of hoped she'd rush back to her career and forget all about him. Instead, they cast
Steve Byers, an actor who has been working steadily since his first guest shot on the TV series
First Wave back in 2000. He's never had a big starring role, but like all the Hallmark movie
actors with any brains, he is using this starring role to show the superb skills he has developed
over the years.
As a loving father, as a brother and son in his original family, and finally as a guy who has a
good explanation for why he ditched Nikki as her career took off, he is completely believable.
The relationships with his family and with Nikki are very well written -- way better, for instance,
than Al Pacino's "fatherly" role in Nora Ephron's Heartburn -- so it's no surprise that Byers also
did a way better job of acting like a good father than Pacino did.
No, I'm not trying to diss Pacino -- he was way better than, say, Robin Williams as a dad in Mrs.
Doubtfire. My point is simply that in Hallmark movies, you sometimes see better writing and
better acting than a lot of things that get widely released in the theaters.
So I was happy to see that Steve Byers showed up again in one of this year's new Hallmark
Christmas movies: The Christmas Cure. Once again, he's the old boyfriend, and this time the
girl who got away and had a big-time career is Vanessa Turner (Brooke Nevin), a doctor
working in the ER of a California hospital.
Her dad, played by Patrick Duffy -- who has aged into a very natural actor -- is anxious for her
to come home for Christmas, and when that works out, she inevitably bumps into good old Mitch
-- Steve Byers, doing his best old-boyfriend performance so far.
It seems that Mitch virtually grew up in the medical clinic operated by Patrick Duffy, because
Mitch's single mom worked as the records clerk and receptionist. Now, Mitch has become a
general contractor, and he has remodeled homes and offices for practically everybody in their
Are Mitch and Vanessa still in love? Wait, did you miss the part where I said this is a
Hallmark Christmas movie? But that doesn't mean it's easy.
And there's a lot of entertainment along the way. Dale Whibley gives a delightful performance
as Vanessa's high-school-senior brother, who is trying to work up the courage to talk to a brainy-beautiful girl (the luminous Jocelyn Hudon) who he knows is way out of his league.
But the writers went further. So that we can see how Patrick Duffy's medical clinic has been a
blessing to the town, we get to meet various patients -- most prominently an old widow (Pam
Hyatt) who makes a fabulous 12-layer German cake every Christmas in honor of her baker
husband. It's the kind of obviously sentimental role that can be wrecked by an inept
performance, but she turns in a very good one.
The result is that we don't need a magical Santa or an elf to make everything work out. We can
understand why this couple haven't been together for the past ten years, and we can understand
why it takes 88 minutes for them to get back together. Meanwhile, we fall in love with the
town and with rewards that are better than winning prestigious jobs and making really big bucks
(Patrick Duffy's clinic did not leave him destitute -- he is a doctor).
One of the things that Hallmark Christmas movies do very well is casting first-rate child actors.
It's very rare to see an awful child actor in these movies; on the contrary, some of the child actors
are wonderful. Jacob Soley, for instance, who plays young Mitch in a flashback, has only a few
moments of screentime, but the audience falls in love with him -- as the audience also loves
Steve Byers as grownup Mitch.
In All I Want for Christmas, a movie from 2007 which showed up in the Hallmark Countdown
this year, there's an astonishingly natural and intelligent child actor named Jimmy Jax Pinchak.
In this movie, everything hinges on this kid being believable, because the plot is built on his
video application to a toy company's contest in which kids ask for the thing they really want for
Christmas. He asks for a new husband for his widowed mother.
The plot seems built around the exertions of the toy company's owner (Robert Pine), his
marketing executive, and his son (Greg Germann), who keep pushing the mom (Gail O'Grady)
into falling in love with and marrying a guy of their choosing. The writing is good enough that
the guy in question isn't awful; he's actually kind of nice.
But the heart of the movie is the relationship between the son and the next-door neighbor,
played by Robert Mailhouse, who has been a father-figure to the boy most of his life. To
viewers, it is obvious that this neighbor guy is who the mom should marry, and the boy soon
What makes this movie work, in spite of the far-fetched toy-company plot, is the utter reality of
the relationship between the characters played by Mailhouse and Pinchak.
Jimmy Jax Pinchak was so good that I looked to see what kinds of movies he's done since this
one -- it was impossible that he has not been cast over and over, at least until he got too old!
Well, imagine my shock when I found out that he was the actor who played Peter Wiggin in the
purported adaptation of my novel Ender's Game back in 2013. Oh, all right, then, apparently
he has worked, and I should have known it! But I was just as shocked to realize that, young as he
was in All I Want for Christmas, he also had a speaking part in The Polar Express in 2004.
I don't see any credits more recent than 2013, alas, so maybe he grew out of acting. Or maybe
he's just waiting to get the kind of adult role that can use his genuine acting talent. Because
Pinchak was not just coasting on cuteness. He could deliver a convincing line of dialogue as
well as any adult in the movie.
So far, most of the movies in the Countdown are (slightly) older ones; it's no surprise that
Hallmark Channel is holding back most of its big new movies for their Thanksgiving weekend
marathon, and then for every weekend in December.
I'm not going to repeat my reviews of movies I reviewed in previous years, but there were plenty
that I missed. For instance, Eloise Mumford gets one of those "here's what your life will be if
you ditch your true love, get on that plane, and take that great job" stories.
In Just in Time for Christmas, William Shatner plays the Santa-like carriage driver who sends
Mumford on her magical adventure, and Christopher Lloyd is wonderful as her grandfather
when she comes back home in the midst of her publicity tour for her million-selling self-help
With Michael Stahl-David very good as the exuberant coffee-shop owner whose marriage
proposal she turned down, the writers did a very good job of giving Mumford believable scenes
in which she has to cover for her inability to remember the events of the past few years. The
young woman that Stahl-David's character is about to marry isn't awful -- the writers played way
more fair with her than Nora Ephron did with the soon-to-be-jilted lovers in, say, Sleepless in
Seattle or You've Got Mail.
The flip side of this is Family for Christmas, in which perennial Hallmark favorite Lacey
Chabert is sent by an office-party Santa Claus to see what her life would have been if she had
married her college sweetheart after all. Writer Bryar Freed give Chabert such good dialogue,
with her kids and her close friends -- none of whom she remembers -- that we can believe that
she is able to bluff her way through.
The kids are played by wonderful young actresses, especially Milli Wilkinson as Caitlin, a proto-teenager who knows her mother has suddenly turned weird. In fact, without ever
sentimentalizing their relationships, we fall in love with her husband (Tyron Leitso) and her
daughters, so we definitely want them to get together when she returns to the real world.
It's a nice touch that in most of these movies, the writing does not insist that women should
always choose their "young love" over their career dreams. In Just in Time for Christmas and
Family for Christmas, the ambitions and aspirations of both female leads are treated with
respect, and they don't have to give up everything they've earned and learned in order to find
happiness and True Love.
One of this year's new three-kleenex stories on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries is Home for
Christmas Day, in which widow Jane McKendrick (Catherine Bell) is trying to shield her
daughter Betsy (Matreya Fedor) from the kind of heartbreak she suffered when her soldier
husband was killed in action, leaving her to raise Betsy alone.
We know how painfully lonely Jane is because of the way she resists the obvious romantic
interest of Jackson Hart (Victor Webster), to whom she turns whenever she needs comfort and
counsel, but whose wish for a real relationship she resolutely resists.
Meanwhile, in Jackson's diner, young Betsy happens to meet Tyler Sloan (Anthony Konechny), a
young soldier from the nearby military base, and naturally they fall in love. Knowing how her
mother feels, Betsy conceals Tyler from her as long as she can. Every scene is well-written and
well-acted, and even though there are some events that we know must happen, we can't believe
Hallmark would put us through such an emotional wringer.
Yeah, be prepared for that wringer, because writer David Golden doesn't shy away from the
tough scenes. And the actors are up to it -- especially Matreya Fedor, who proves that she has
graduated from child-acting roles to full-fledged adult ones.
This is one of the best Hallmark Christmas movies ... even though, to be honest, the story could
have been told without Christmas in it. But, perhaps because they knew this, the filmmakers
made sure to film it during winter in a place that gets a lot of snow, so the wintry and
Christmasy background is so completely convincing that we don't bother questioning what this
movie has to do with Christmas. (Not an elf or magical Santa is in evidence.)
Then there are the movies I didn't record. I caught just a glimpse of The Christmas Card,
another story about a soldier. Sgt. Cody Cullen (John Newton) comes to a small town to find
the woman (Alice Evans) who sent him a Christmas card as part of a church project to write to
servicemen. This one came at a time when he was filled with grief and despair, and so he comes
in search of the stranger who reached out to him in his time of need.
The ending was so good I'm looking forward to recording it and seeing the whole thing.
The two Hallmark channel do more than any other institution to help promote and provide
whatever this thing we call "the Christmas Spirit" is. If I've learned anything from the great
Christmas movies -- It's a Wonderful Life, One Magic Christmas, Love Actually, Miracle on 34th
Street (1947), Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bishop's Wife, The Shop Around the Corner -- it's that if
the story doesn't make us experience tragedy or loss, then we won't feel such intense joy along
That's why, for me, there's no reason ever to watch any of the "funny" or "thriller" Christmas
movies a second time ... with the exception of Die Hard, but that's because it's a great thriller, not
because Christmas is in it.
And that means that no, I have no particular affection for Home Alone, The Santa Clause,
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, or A Christmas Story. I know this makes me the
ultimate scrooge in the eyes of many. But for me, Christmas has deep roots, and the movies that
have become part of my Christmas have to find their way into those roots in my heart.
Now, this is not to say that I don't love some completely frivolous Christmas movies, for no
better reason than that I grew up with them. The two Bing Crosby movies in which he sings
"White Christmas" -- Holiday Inn (1942, with Fred Astaire) and White Christmas (1954, with
Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney) -- are deeply sentimental to me only because of memories
of watching them on our black-and-white TV while decorating the tree or wrapping presents.
Heck, I still love the 1934 Laurel & Hardy classic March of the Wooden Soldiers, which was
inexplicably renamed much later as Babes in Toyland, just so we can get it confused with the
1961 Disney musical Babes in Toyland starring Annette Funicello, Tommy Sands, Ray Bolger,
Ed Wynn, Tommy Kirk, and a very young Ann Jillian.
(There's also a TV original Babes in Toyland from 1954, with Wally Cox, Dennis Day, and Jack
E. Leonard; and a 1997 animated version with the voices of Charles Nelson Reilly, Lacey
Chabert, Christopher Plummer, Jim Belushi, and Bronson Pinchot.)
None of these have the element of tragedy; instead, I still love the Laurel & Hardy original
because of pure nostalgia, because I watched it with my mom and dad and siblings during the
days before Christmas. In other words, they're part of my childhood, and therefore I don't even
pretend that any of them are actually good. They're just ... part of Christmas.
I'm far too old now to experience any of the current crop of Hallmark Christmas movies in a way
that will lead to nostalgia, mostly because I don't expect to live long enough, or have a working
memory long enough, to ever get nostalgic about these films.
Now I'm going to say something that I know some readers are going to recoil from: I watch these
Christmas movies from Hallmark because even though a few of them are kind of awful (usually
involving Tom Arnold or Steve Gutenberg), most of them are in that sweet range between Good
Enough and Very Good.
In other words, they do a fine job of what they're meant to do: Engage the audience's heart
with stories tied to the Christmas season. Those who watch movies to be impressed, wowed, or
intellectually stimulated are generally wise enough to avoid the Hallmark channels entirely.
But that's is not why I watch movies. Ever. If I want an impressive, arty, intellectually
stimulating story, I'll write it myself, thanks. (That was a joke, kids.)
On Spectrum (formerly Time-Warner Cable) the Hallmark Channel is 123 and Hallmark Movies
& Mysteries is 629.
Maybe it's just because it's getting old (i.e., more than a year since I bought it), my Android
tablet has become annoyingly erratic.
It's a Samsung, and it has both a cellphone and a wi-fi connection, but no matter how I change
the settings, it absolutely demands that the wi-fi be connected in order to do anything that
requires the internet.
This should work fine -- the wi-fi signal in my bedroom, the only place where I use it, is very
So it's especially maddening that the connection with our local network keeps cutting out and
then returning -- sometimes in a few seconds, sometimes a few hours.
This means that I sometimes go a couple of days before Fitbit can sync up with my Ionic watch,
and some of my other software is unusable way too often.
My first thought was the usual best option: Replace it with the latest model of the same thing.
But then I read some of the many reviews that say the Kindle Fire 10 HD tablet from Amazon is
quite possibly the best option on the market. It's also cheaper than a lot of its competitors, so I
figured, why not give it a try?
All the rave reviews it gets are completely deserved. It found my wi-fi connection instantly
and never drops it. This means that, unlike the fading Android tablet, I can actually stream
music and movies to the Fire.
The screen is also bigger, and when I play Ticket to Ride, it doesn't crash.
It comes with Alexa, which I was sold on when visiting with friends and hearing them ask Alexa
various questions -- and then tell her to play whatever kind of music they wanted.
Because I've been an Amazon Prime subscriber since it first came into existence, this means that
much of the library of music on Amazon is available. I can lie in bed and, without getting up,
tell Alexa what I want to hear.
However, Alexa is not smart enough to know about whatever I played using touch commands.
That is, if I play a particular album by tapping the screen, then I can't tell Alexa to pause the
music, because I just get the answer that she can only perform such operations when there's
Yeah, that's right, if she isn't playing the music, then she can't hear it. That's a small
Not so trivial is the problem that the Fire 10 HD lives up to the tradition of all of Amazon's
Kindle devices: The battery lasts, like, forever.
But to have a battery that doesn't need charging for days, you have to devote a lot of space and
weight to the batteries built into the machine.
My habit with my Android tablet has been to use it to read Kindle ebooks while lying on my back
in bed. Using the cool swiveling handle that is built into its cover, I can hold it up at a
comfortable position for reading.
But the covers I've seen for the Fire 10 HD do not have that grippable, sturdy swiveling handle.
Instead, the covers are all designed to be used on a table, so that they prop up the Fire for use
on that flat surface.
Nobody in their right mind would call my stomach a "flat surface," and when I do rest the Fire on
my stomach in order to read, it's (a) heavy and (b) way too low for me to see it without raising
my head uncomfortably high.
If I try to hold it up, my grip is always uncomfortable and tenuous -- and the Fire quickly gets too
So until I find a sturdy, swiveling handle for the Fire, it's now sitting on a shelf near my bed,
poised to hear my commands to Alexa -- usually, right now, to play Christmas or classical
music while I lie in bed using the old Android tablet to read ebooks or play games.
But now I don't care if my tablet can sync with my Fitbit Ionic, because the Fire does it instantly
and reliably. Nor does it matter that my tablet can't stream anything without intermittent fails,
because, you guessed it, I have the Fire right there.
My review of the Fire is this: If you want a relatively inexpensive tablet for use on tables or other
flat surfaces, the Kindle Fire 10 HD will give you everything you want, reliably and
effectively, for a long time between recharges -- plus, it has Alexa.
But if you want a highly portable, lightweight mini-tablet to hold in your hand without fatigue,
the Fire ain't it. Too heavy. Too awkward. (Which is exactly how I've always felt about the
original iPad, with its laptop-sized form factor.)
There's a reason why Amazon has become America's department store: They generally deliver
quality and convenience -- like the Fire 10 HD.
They're not perfect, however, and their monopolist business practices have the normal deleterious
effects. Without much competitive pressure, they've gotten careless.
Recently we've received Amazon packages in which a paperback book was just tossed in
among a bunch of other stuff, with the unsurprising result that the book was beaten up in transit,
so the cover and many pages are bent or torn.
By contrast, we just opened a couple of boxes from a catalog company called Chinaberry. It's
an eclectic kind of store -- lots of toys, but also a bunch of children's books -- but when we
examined everything, it all measured up in terms of quality.
Best of all, Chinaberry learned what Amazon has forgotten: You haven't delivered the goods if
they aren't adequately protected from damage during shipping. The books we ordered were
carefully wrapped in heavy paper, so that there was no damage to the covers or pages.
Of course, nobody's perfect. A couple of felt novelties were just tossed into the box, and so some
felt reindeer antlers got folded. Ouch.
But hey, Chinaberry.com is now going to be a regular resource for us at Christmastime.
Check it out!