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Family for Christmas

A Thoughtful Christmas Tale
This Hallmark holiday romance downplays the romance and concentrates on the choices we make in life. Lacey Chabert does a good job of portraying Hanna Dunbar, a successful television newswoman who is single. A Christmas miracle allows her to see what her life would be like if she made other choices.

Or is it all a dream? Regardless, Hanna has an opportunity to compare two possible life tracks, and she is changed by that experience. What I like most about the story is that when she is placed in her alternate life, the shock of the experience is not glossed over for comedic effect; she actually does seem concerned and distraught. Hanna is a bright woman with agency who comes to understand that her choices have consequences, and that we sometimes make those choices because they seem to naturally follow from the life path we are on.

The Sweetest Christmas

Not Inspired, But Acceptable
As Hallmark holiday romances go, this abides by common storylines. A young woman (Lacey Chabert as Kylie) runs into her ex (Lea Coco as Nick) just as her boyfriend is revealed to be an unromantic, clueless dweeb. They catch up on old times while Nick assists her attempt to win a baking competition.

Lacey Chabert demonstrates why she is a Hallmark favorite, with her cheerful, affable demeanor. The amount of chemistry between the two leads is acceptable, making this a decent film, but not one of the best.

Big Sky

Strong Characters Highlight This Series
David E. Kelley presents this suspense story about two sisters who go missing in Big Sky country. After the third episode, I am sold on this crime thriller that features some good acting. That includes the actresses who play the two girls, Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn.

The character development is excellent. To say anything more might reveal too much about this series. But I plan to watch the entire season.

If I Only Had Christmas

References To The Wizard Of Oz
This Hallmark holiday story is advertised as a take-off on "The Wizard of Oz". Though it is not connected thematically with the 1939 classic, it does contain numerous references to that film. And it is amusing to note them. Here is a compilation of the main references, in my opinion:

Darcy Gayle (Candace Cameron Bure), an attorney from Kansas City, represents Dorothy Gale. She has a dog named Bobo (compare Toto). Her two brothers are Zeke and Huck, like the farmhands in TWOO. Her father's wife is named Emma (compare Auntie Em).

She travels to Connecticut to work pro bono for a charity: Emerald Educational Trust (compare Emerald City). There she meets Glenn Goodman, VP of Communications for Austin Industries (AI) who, like Glinda the Good Witch of the North, shepherds her adventure. In her pursuit of success for Emerald, she works with Jackie Crow (cf. the scarecrow) who has plenty of ideas, but little focus until Darcy recognizes her talents; she works with Bridget Tinsley (cf. the tinman) who is very pragmatic until Darcy warms up her heart; and she works with Riley Lyons (cf. the cowardly lion) who is very fearful until Darcy boosts his confidence.

AI's Chief Financial Officer is Winona West who, like the Wicked Witch of the West, is Darcy's main roadblock to success with Emerald and, eventually, AI. She effectively blocks any contact with the CEO of AI, Austin himself, who almost no one has ever seen. Austin (Oz) is the Wizard, of course. He is a mystery until the proverbial curtain is pulled back to reveal his identity.

There are many verbal references to TWOO and it is all good fun. This story is not big on romance, but it is whimsical

Christmas Waltz

Lacey And Will Do It Again
Hallmark re-teams Lacey Chabert (Avery) and Will Kemp (Roman) for this holiday romance about a jilted fiancée who makes the best of the situation.

Avery decides to take the dance lessons that were to prepare her for her wedding day. At the studio, she meets studio owner and dance instructor Roman, who encourages her to challenge herself.

The film features a strong cast and believable chemistry between the leads. Will Kemp, especially, deserves praise for his acting, which is supplemented by his classical dance experience. The dance sequences were choreographed by Jean-Marc Genereux.

Watch for J T Church, the talented young dancer who appears to have an acting career in his future. You might remember him as a junior dancer on "Dancing with the Stars".

The satisfying ending includes a finale that is reminiscent of "Dirty Dancing".

Five Star Christmas

A Gentle Holiday Heart-warmer
A man and his family put on a good face for an incognito critic who visits their B&B.

This Hallmark holiday romance has a strong cast, featuring Bethany Joy Lenz as Lucy Ralston, daughter of the owner of the Ralston Inn.

This film has elements of comedy combined with heartwarming moments. It also has a gentle tone and a slower pace.

The Mistletoe Secret

Average At Best
Many of the reviews of this Hallmark holiday romance are blaming the performance of Kellie Pickler for its lack of chemistry. She plays the central character, Aria---a young woman who runs the diner in the town of Midway, where they celebrate Christmas every day. The film depends on her unflagging energy to convey an upbeat charm and make her believable as the object of love. As a fan of Ms. Pickler, it pains me to agree that her performance is uneven and uninspiring.

On the other hand, I don't agree that she lacks acting talent or charisma. I remember when she first came on the scene as a contestant on "American idol". And so I have to believe that she lacks confidence as an actor and/or she is dealing with personal issues. I hope she can yet prove she deserves roles such as this one.

The film's story is exactly what we expect from a Hallmark production. Tyler Hynes, who plays the male lead, Alex, holds up his end and one wonders what might have been if he had more energy to work with. Patrick Duffy is charming as Aria's father, who gives her solid advice and sometimes wears the red suit and whiskers.


Hitchcock Psychological Mystery
The story of "Marnie" is a mystery at heart. It involves the strange life of a young woman, named Marnie (Tippi Hedren), who has criminal tendencies and other psychological issues. Sean Connery plays Mark Rutland, the man who enters her life and tries to discern the causes of her behavior.

Director Hitchcock directed a number of films that plumb the depths of the human psyche, especially regarding aberrant behavior. "Psycho" is the best known of these. But "Marnie", unlike "Psycho" , has no elements of horror; it lets the viewer consider the behavior of Marnie, which is extreme and sometimes shocking.

Hedren is convincing in her unusual role. Connery is wonderful in his role. Diane Baker's performance leaves you wanting more. And there are some briefer roles that are interesting to watch for, like Bruce Dern, Mariette Hartley, Martin Gabel (husband of Arlene Francis, who would often appear alongside her on the panel of "What's My Line?"), and Louise Latham in her second credited acting performance.

The style of Hitchcock, aided by the music of Bernard Herrmann, makes this film worth watching, but it is not one of his best.

Chateau Christmas

Ms. Patterson Is The Highlight
This Hallmark holiday romance tells the story of two exes who have been apart for years. She has become a world-celebrated pianist who constantly travels. He has settled into a teaching job. They meet again at Chateau Neuhaus during the Christmas season, and she agrees to perform for the Christmas program.

The chemistry between the two is believable. And the acting, in general, is adequate, even if the roles are not so demanding. The story is quite nice, especially when it veers into a side story about the reunion of a long-defunct musical quartet.

My one complaint about the film is that the musician characters are not convincing as performers who actually play their instruments. And one piano piece is distractingly substandard if viewed within the context of virtuoso music.

On the other hand, Merritt Patterson, who plays pianist Margot Hammond, is the highlight of the film. She is beautiful and she exudes great energy. Luke Macfarlane, who plays her ex-boyfriend, Jackson, matches up with her well.

My Three Sons

Visual Comfort Food
This show lasted 12 seasons and was a mainstay in my childhood homes. It took the family format (like "Leave it to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best") and turned it on its ear. There are no women in the Douglas household (though one of the men fills many of the traditionally female roles).

As the series progressed, characters were added or deleted---as with many shows---but "My Three Sons" (MTS) morphed so many times it felt like they were desperate to inject novelty. Eventually, they even brought women into the family.

Nevertheless, this was a popular series. A big part of that was due to the likable cast of characters. Even gruff Uncle Charley proved a softie whenever someone was down in the doldrums and needed attention. But the head of the household was the father, Steve (Fred MacMurray), the affable, cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking gentleman who dispensed wisdom with a gentle tone and an earnest sincerity.

I think it is fair to measure a sitcom by its tendency to generate humor, drama or moments of tenderness. The MTS brand of humor is low-key, perhaps because the characters are laidback. As with most sitcoms, the drama is usually not dire. Most of the family's problems are not existential. But the all-male household does lend itself to occasional moments of tenderness, as when they decide to adopt Ernie.

This might not be one of the best shows of the sixties, but it provided comfortable viewing for many years.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Cameron, The Auteur
James Cameron deserves credit for a stellar directorial career that demonstrates his penchant for big ideas. The major stepping stones of that career are remarkable: "The Terminator", "Aliens", "The Abyss", "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", "Titanic", and "Avatar". His ability to write certainly plays a role in his success, but he is a conceptualist who has found a way to finance his biggest concepts.

Terminator 2 is one of his greatest successes if only because it is difficult to create a successful sequel to a blockbuster. Some argue that T2 is an even better film than its antecedent. How could Cameron have topped himself?

First of all, he doubled down on the time travel theme, envisioning an exciting possible result of the action in "The Terminator". Personally, I love time travel films. And I really enjoy the way he gives us a challenging timeline. Even John Connor (Edward Furlong) says when he thinks about the apparent contradictions in the timeline, he finds it very confusing.

Then Cameron gives us a different villain. If you think the original Terminator (T-800) was badass, check out the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Part of what makes it so menacing is that it has unknown qualities. Like the creature in "Alien", we learn of its capabilities as the story advances.

Much of the film is seen through Sarah Connor's (Linda Hamilton) eyes. She provides voiceovers that add a broader perspective of the action. And one has to be impressed by her physical transformation for T2. No longer the character she was in "The Terminator", she used training to create a new physique to match her new view of the world. It's an impressive way to signal her new sense of being.

The film can be viewed as one long chase, but it is more complex than that. Moments of humor are mixed with moments of panicked action, or moments of tenderness. Every individual action by the main actors is magnified by its significance in resolving the existential issues facing the world, known by only a few.

Schwarzenegger plays a pivotal role as the same character in "The Terminator", but not the same character. As with Sarah, the new realities have repurposed his "life".

This film certainly deserves a "10" for its boldness, its creativity, and its accomplished results. It won 4 Oscars. It might have deserved more. That's a matter of personal opinion, of course. But Cameron has given us a film that can be watched time and again.

You, the People

A Relevant Reminder
This short film is part of a series dedicated to the assertion that crime does not pay. Obviously, it sometimes does, but this fictional story about a city election is meant to demonstrate the importance of each individual's vote. What the film does instead is demonstrate the importance of anti-corruption laws and regulations.

A corrupt incumbent mayor---and the machine that keeps him in power---is opposed by a candidate running on a reform agenda. We see the many tricks and crimes committed by the machine and the lengths it will go to. Some of those methods are still being used today, though they might be nearly unrecognizable due to changes in technology and laws. For example, employees of companies with government contracts are still coerced for contributions, albeit in an indirect and technically legal way.

This film is both instructive and inspirational. It reminds every voter that vigilance is a necessary part of franchise rights. And if local elections are important enough to attract unscrupulous powerbrokers, what is implied about state or national elections?

A Timeless Christmas

A Touch Of Sci-Fi
Kudos to Hallmark for reaching beyond the usual holiday-romance formula and adding an element of science fiction. This film includes time travel and the dialogue even mentions H.G. Wells' classic "The Time Machine".

Industrialist Charles Whitley (Ryan Paevey) awakens one morning to find he has been transported more than a century into the future. He meets a beautiful twenty-first century woman, Megan Turner (Erin Cahill), who decides to help him return to his own time.

The first part of this story is very similar to "Time After Time", which is an excellent film from 1979 (not to be confused with "Somewhere in Time").

The two leads are excellent in their roles. Paevey is fairly convincing as the human anachronism, balancing mild bewilderment with romantic interest.

Christmas in Vienna

Show Me The Magic
I suggest that when Hallmark produces these holiday romance movies, the first order of business should be to cast two leads with demonstrable chemistry on film. Unfortunately, this film lacks adequate chemistry to make it memorable.

On the other hand, the performances of the two stars are adequate, If you overlook a poor imitation of violin finger work. And the child actors are actually great in their roles.

But the architectural wonders of Vienna cannot fix this story about two people who meet while at career crossroads. In the end, this is a romance and its most important element is the magical feeling of true love found.

This Is Where I Leave You

A Likable Dramedy
A death in the family reunites four siblings for a week. In that time, their interactions demonstrate that life is not simple. In fact, they are confronted with most of the occurrences that complicate life: divorce, pregnancy, affairs, love and death. Each of them must refine his understanding of happiness.

The central character is played by Jason Bateman. He is surrounded by a strong cast. My favorite performance is by Tina Fey, who commands every scene she is in.

As in life, the plot does not resolve into easy, happy solutions. Each character must deal with real issues---or not----and sometimes they are not masters of their own fates. The film never settles for the maudlin, and does a good job of balancing comedy and drama

The Little Shop of Horrors

An Offbeat Tale
It is tempting to grade this film higher than it deserves given its place in the Corman canon and the fact that it's a precursor to a wonderful stage play and film musical. But it's a low-budget, offbeat, patched-together film the really shows its inferior production values.

None of the performances stand out much because of the production, which supposedly was filmed in two days.

Still, it is fun to watch and to wonder how anyone saw the bones of what became a quirky, funny, hummable musical.

One Royal Holiday

An Enjoyable Holiday Romance
If you like stories of holiday romance, you may well enjoy this one. It starts off with the winter weather conspiring against travel, forcing Anna (Laura Osnes) and James (Aaron Tveit) to spend a few days together in a beautiful, small town inn.

They have very different personalities and disparate trajectories in life. She is a Boston nurse and he is a crowned prince. The story is, of course, about the improbable stirrings of romance, which somehow blossom into deep feelings. But there are major obstacles to overcome.

I found this film improved as it progressed. Indeed, its most enjoyable portion is the final act, thanks to the wonderful acting of the two principals. Also, despite the predictability of the final outcome, the writing is fresh, with plot twists and surprises that add layers of emotional depth.

Dr. 90210

The 2020 Season
I did not watch the series when it originated. So my comments only apply to the current season, starting in 2020.

I disagree with one reviewer who called the current surgeons "boring". These women are clearly dedicated to their craft, which is an art form. Furthermore, they can definitely relate to their female patients. And most of them are female. Finally, their compassion and their dedication to perfection makes them the kind of aesthetic surgeons that anyone would want in charge of her health and appearance. People come from near and far because these doctors have demonstrated that they identify with their patients and always place them first.

Besides that, they are stylish and humorous.

Fashions of 1934

Lighthearted Fun
William Powell and Bete Davis team up in this frivolous Pre-code comedy that moves quickly, but is somewhat disjointed. Never mind, because the film delivers plenty of content---from the fantastic fashions to a Busby Berkeley number.

Powell is a con man constantly on the grift. Davis is appealing as a designer.

Though the ending is dull, this film is like a pleasant postcard from the 30s.

I'm Much Obliged

Song And Dance
Though it is short on both running time and thematic continuity, this is a rather entertaining film. It is a compilation of performances by singers and dancers, some of whom are rather talented. In fact, other than the first song performance, I enjoyed all the acts.

In particular, watch for the tap dancing routine; the lead dancer is terrific. On the other hand, the dancers that surround Vera Van as she sings "Merrily Bound for Nowhere" are a sloppy assemblage, which is typical of troupes of the day.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!

Sadly Lacking
What can you say about a film that has no coherent point of view and no characters that are genuinely likable?

It has been written that Peter Sellers was very unhappy during the filming and that he made life difficult for cast and crew, but I don't think that is why the end result is lacking. The film is conceptually and structurally flawed. And that is why this film, which is listed under the comedy and romance genres, includes so little humor and no real romance.

Another film that better covers the intergenerational cultural connection is "Breezy", directed by Clint Eastwood.

On Pointe

I enjoy good films about dance. The fact that this one includes Juliet Doherty convinced me to watch it. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. Though the main character, Paige (Doherty), has a passion for dance, the real focus of the film is the conflict between Paige and her mother, Lynda (Kaitlyn Black).

Paige's parents are separated and on the verge of divorce. Lynda is a bitter woman who takes her frustrations out on her children, especially Paige. Lynda's behavior is abusive, and others see that, but can do little to intervene. Paige's dance instructor does what he can and, eventually, makes a positive impact.

Doherty's dancing is the best part of the film, but the entire film feels incomplete and the ending is abrupt. See "High Strung Free Dance" for a better representation of Doherty's talents.

Let It Snow

A Christmas Romance
This is one of those Christmas romance movies that the Hallmark Channel specializes in. It stars Candace Cameron Bure as Stephanie Beck, a hospitality industry exec who is sent to the Snow Valley Lodge by her father to assess its profit potential as the newest acquisition by their firm. There she meets Brady Lewis (played by Jesse Hutch), the son of the owners of Snow Valley. From the start, it's an oil-and-water relationship, with no apparent possibility for romance.

But they do have one thing in common---they harbor no affection for Christmas, though for different reasons. Stephanie and her father do not celebrate the Christmas season. She lives in Arizona and has never seen snow fall. Brady, on the other hand, was raised with all the trappings of Christmas at Snow Valley, where they enshrine all the traditions and dedicate themselves to making the season special for their guests. However, family conflicts have soured him on the yearly celebrations.

Stephanie Beck is a role that seems designed for Bure. She does a convincing job of showing us the changes in her character. Though most of the plot is predictable, her enthusiasm carries the viewer along, to share in the magic that is Christmas.

This is a film filled with touching moments, guaranteed to satisfy true romantics.

Free Dance

Inspiring And Upbeat
Structurally, this film owes a lot to "Center Stage", but it claims its own place in the list of entertaining dance films. A large part of the credit goes to choreographer Tyce Diorio, but there are plenty of other accolades to go around.

It is not the easiest thing to capture dance on film, but the director, cinematographers and editors do a nearly flawless job. That action, combined with some wonderful music, keeps the tempo high.

Of course, it helps if you have a gorgeous, talented cast, which "Free Dance" does. Films of this genre can be an opportunity to see new, young actors and performers. Watching the film, I was blown away by the beauty on screen and the quality of the dancing. Juliet Doherty, who plays the central character, Barlow, shines. And there are others I look forward to seeing in the future, including Harry Jarvis, who plays a pianist who is drawn to Barlow; and Thomas Doherty, who plays Zander, the choreographer; and Jorgen Makena, who plays Kayla Jordan, the performer who threatens Barlow's role in the big production they are rehearsing for.

This film takes us to some unexpected places, like an electric scene at a nightclub with a Roaring Twenties theme, a joyful sidewalk rap performance, and a tender subplot about a reclusive former pianist.

Though it focuses on dance, this film has an inspirational message that relates to all artistic disciplines.

Aurora Teagarden Mysteries: Reap What You Sew
Episode 8, Season 1

Weak Writing Makes This Episode Less Than Sew-Sew
This is the eighth in the series of Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, starring Candace Cameron Bure, and the second I have watched. It begins with the murder of a close friend who recently moved back to Lawrenceton. She was finding success with her online craft instruction business, but they found her stabbed to death in the house she was renting from Aurora's mother.

We don't necessarily expected Agatha Christie-like writing from these Hallmark Channel mysteries, but crime-solvers are more interesting if they contain a clever, believable twist. Unfortunately, this story relies on clues, coincidences, and assistance falling into the lap of our librarian sleuth. And in the end, she never really solves this murder. Worst of all, though we understand the victim was a close personal friend, Aurora (Roe) never shows much grief. She talks about how the crime is tough to handle, but the emotions are not there.

Aurora and her "regulars" work the case in parallel to the police detective in charge of the official investigation, sometimes sharing evidence. There are plenty of suspects and a basketful of red herrings.

In one of the final scenes, someone stumbles across the murder weapon. The coroner had determined the weapon had a serrated blade, so naturally when a pair of pinking shears is discovered, the case is all but closed, right? We are supposed to believe that, but everyone knows that pinking shears have saw-toothed "blades", not serrated. And no coroner would equate the width of a pinking shears blade with that of a common steak knife. And how many people would think of stabbing someone with pinking shears, given their thickness? This solution to the crime is inadequate and unbelievable.

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