Hallmark

It’s hardly a secret that I love Hallmark movies for their sweet, comforting familiarity. Most importantly, they leave me smiling. I’m planning to watch and rate all 31 of Hallmark’s 2017 holiday movies, and I’ll post summaries and ratings here. Newest posts at the top! (Movies that debuted before 2017 are marked by a + and appear at the bottom of the page.)

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The Christmas Train – 10/10
Hallmark Hall of Fame movies are a different beast from the usual fare. They have bigger budgets, bigger names, only come out three times a year or so, and are sold on DVD in Hallmark stores. As my Roomie says, “It’s more of a movie movie.” And this one has quite the cast, in star power and in numbers, so let’s do a quick list.

Max (Danny Glover) – famous Hollywood director, surrogate father to Eleanor
Eleanor (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) – script doctor & former war correspondent, ex to Tom
Tom (Dermot Mulroney) – journalist & former war correspondent, ex to Eleanor, dating Leila
Leila (Holly Elissa) – Tom’s long-distance, casual girlfriend
Agnes (Joan Cusack) – nosy Christmas train regular
Misty (Karen Holness, Hallmark alum) – friendly train psychic
Higgins (Terence Kelly) – former veteran Amtrak employee
John (John Innes, Hallmark alum) – recently widowed traveler
Julie & Steve (Kristen Prout & Anthony Konechny, Hallmark alums) – eloping couple
Kenny (Nelson Wong) – Barman, sometime Santa
Roxanne (Jill Teed) – Christmas train employee

Basically, there are as many people on this train as on the Orient Express, and there are a few more parallels as well. (Some are spoilers, though, so I’m not going to outline them.)

Director Max Powers asked Eleanor take an Amtrak train with him from DC to LA, a four-day trip ending on Christmas morning. He wants to set his next production on a train and wants her to write it, even though she’s only edited scripts, not written them. Tom is on the way to visit his long-distance girlfriend Leila, but is in no hurry to get there. Sick of post-war puff pieces, he’s hoping to find a hearty story on “The Christmas Train” and put to bed a few of his demons. Agnes travels the Christmas train every year and delights in following the passengers around, snooping as charmingly as possible. Max quickly befriends Tom, Tom and Eleanor see each other again for the first time since Eleanor left on a train from Jerusalem years earlier, and all the old hurts are ripped open.

Over the next few days, as the not-so-merry band of train travelers head into increasingly heavy snow (which increasingly concerns former veteran Amtrak engineer Higgins), meaningful items go missing, relationships are threatened, Kenny and Roxanne try to keep everyone on schedule and festive, and questions uncurl involving almost every person aboard. Moreover, Tom and Eleanor finally talk about their breakup and find evidence that they still love each other. Then Tom’s girlfriend Leila shows up for the last leg of the trip and things really get tense.

The movie isn’t a mystery, per se, but Roomie and I found ourselves questioning small details, pointing out slips of the tongue, and theorizing as if it were. Still, by the final scene, we had no idea one more big twist was coming. I’ll definitely watch this one yearly, if only to laugh at Agnes’s quirky lurking, feel warmed by Max’s caring advice, and watch Tom and Eleanor run through a train station after the Steve and Julie, revealing far more of their regrets than they mean to. A well-written, seamlessly acted, intriguing, atmospheric, hearty story I hope you’ll watch in front of a fire with a good friend, just like I did.

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The Mistletoe Inn – 10/10
I wish I’d live tweeted this one! I still might. I loved it enough that I’m seriously considering watching it again this weekend.

Kim arrives at a book reading, plops down next to her longtime boyfriend and fellow writer Garth, who is shocked and uncomfortable by her presence. He realizes Kim hasn’t read the pages he dropped off for her yet (I get the sense that she reads and edits his work often), she takes them out to start reading, and realizes they weren’t manuscript pages but a breakup letter. The douche. So now they break up in the back of another author’s reading because Garth, who has a book deal and an ego as prominent as his black plastic hipster glasses, thinks Kim isn’t a serious enough writer. Throwaway scene with her dad, then we see Kim at work at a car dealership, talking it over with a friend. Although Garth is a grade A jerk and the worst sort of over-inflated male white author, Kim does decide that she wants to do more with her writing and decides to sign up for a Christmas-themed romance writer’s conference. Contest to be read by secret author, yada yada, at an inn in Vermont, yada yada, Kim’s never showed anyone her work before, yada yada. All this happens very quickly, which is great because from the first bump outside the inn (same external set as a last year’s Date with Love), this movie is a cute, clever romp through the sweetest of romances.

Zeke has a book deal, but unlike Garth, he’s insecure about his ability to deliver. Having struggled with “writer’s block” for years, he’s hoping this conference will shake things up. He knows a lot of writing and plot and pacing and drawing inspiration, but it’s been a while since he’s been able to use it. Thankfully, after a few embarrassing encounters with Kim (she’s the embarrassed one, and no one pulls that off as winningly as Alicia Witt), he finds inspiration around him again.

The people in this movie, with the exception of Garth and fellow conference attendee Luanne, are SO nice. Supportive, kind, and generous, Kim is gracious when Garth shows up at the same conference, Sam is quick to stand by Kim in her embarrassment, and Zeke doesn’t cling to Kim when his writing starts going well again. Kim chides the overbearing Luanne on Kim’s behalf, the group leader treats them like adults, and Kim’s dad is always available to listen to his daughter. Sam is a sassy, sleuthing, confident, with an agenda of her own that she’s dedicated to, but which she’s also willing to set aside when necessary. Every moment Sam spend on screen was a delight.

But let’s talk more about Zeke. Zeke uses his and Kim’s experiences together in his work but maintains her privacy, as per her request. He also doesn’t drag her into his orbit or hover around her like she’s his new talisman / muse. Instead, he listens to her concerns and needs and helps her address them. This means skipping a depressive lecture on agents for a more positive take with snowmen. This means adjusting his writing habits to accommodate hers. This means encouraging her to let him read her manuscript, then giving her honest feedback in the kindest, gentlest way. He even helps her figure out how to address the biggest problems. Kim, meanwhile, adjusts her writing habits, provides feedback and encouragement, and offers writing exercises when Zeke gets stuck. They’re partners in literary crime. He helps her, she helps him. And all along the way, their growing in respect and affection for one another.

Hallmark’s been on an author kick lately, and I expected a movie drenched in inaccuracies about writing life, book deals, and publishing that would annoy at best and infuriate at worst. But this one was actually full of good advice! Not always perfect advice, but not the “what people think writers are like” kind of advice I usually find. The characters spoke realistically about plot, character arcs, inspiration, and writer experience. They glossed over a lot of book business stuff, which is scary and sometimes boring and, most importantly, not relevant to the writing stage Kim was in. Which made it a fine exclusion. There wasn’t enough time devoted to them doing that actual work of writing (what I like to call “get-your-butt-in-that-chair-and-write time”). And I don’t mean that we needed to see more writing montages. I mean, in the timeline of events, they didn’t spend enough time actually writing.

Still, I love that Kim struggles to take criticism of her work but gets better with practice. I love that Zeke had realistic reasons (life circumstances partially of his own making, not a mystical muse in the sky) for his long writing drought. Life feeds art and art feeds life, and you saw that here. I didn’t expect to see the workshops and lectures, the nitty gritty of learning whose suggestions and praise to trust and whose to dismiss, but The Mistletoe Inn was much more accurate than any other author-centered Hallmark I’ve seen. I found myself stirred into a writing mood by the end, and encouraged to write what I enjoy even if it isn’t what I feel like I should be writing. (Take that, Garth!) All this despite the fact that my NaNoWriMo dreams had recently died. I even warned my Roomie that I might have to stop watching and leave the movie for another, less tender time. Not necessary. And I discovered a new favorite Hallmark movie! It’ll stay on the DVR for the rest of the month, at least. Well acted, well written, sweet, authentic, and highly recommended.

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Marry Me at Christmas – 5/10
Maddie and her business partner run a beautiful little boutique in the tiny town of Fool’s Gold, but they might not be able to make rent January 1st. As they brainstorm ways to expand the business without new overhead (and hang a ridiculous number of over-sized Christmas ornaments) Maddie’s parents nag her to start dating again. Enter the Matt Damon of Bourne years. Action star Johnny Blake has a guy for everything—reindeer, wedding dresses, sleighs—but he quickly learns that Maddie is the only person he needs.

Johnny has escaped to Fool’s Gold to help his sister Ginger, who’s getting married soon. Actually, she and her fiance Oliver just decided to go ahead and get married before Oliver starts med school, but they don’t have anything except a date. Guess who Ginger asks to be her wedding planner? (You’ll never guess.)

Okay, you guessed. And that’s a bigger problem than you usually find in Hallmark movies because every note of this one is predictable. The lack of tension doesn’t help pull us through: we aren’t worried about Maddie’s boutique, if Ginger will get the wedding of her dreams, if Johnny will be willing to move to Fool’s Gold. Although well acted, Johnny’s hair is too fair for his skin tone and Maddie’s hair desperately needs to be pulled back into the cute ponytail she only wears in a couple of throw away scenes. Someone should also burn her red beret. Every scene with Ginger, Maddie’s embarrassing but well-meaning parents, and Johnny’s gleefully embrace of all Christmas activities make the movie fun despite the predictability and low stakes.

If you want something on in the background while you cook or crochet or put a puzzle together with a friend, you’ll find yourself getting occasionally distracted by what’s on screen. But in general, this isn’t one to set the DVR for.

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Miss Christmas – 6/10
Did you ever watch Buffy? Remember Riley, her college boyfriend who most people hated because he wasn’t brooding Angel or irreverent Spike? I always liked Riley. He was a good guy who grew a lot, even if you wasn’t on Buffy’s level. (I’d say no one was, but that’s a discussion for…not now.) I’ve kept vague track of the actor since then through Underground, one-off episodes of House and Castle, as well as a few Hallmarks. This year, he plays Sam, the grumpy farmer with milk cows whose son volunteered their family’s huge pine to adorn the central plaza in Chicago. Decorating must begin in a few days, and the original tree for the square fell through. However, Sam’s parents carved their names in this particular tree decades earlier, and Sam’s mom passed away last year, so he doesn’t want to see the tree cut down and moved away from the family land.

Holly, dubbed “Miss Christmas” in the Chicago media, is in charge of securing the tree and isn’t ready to let this perfect one go. Not when it encapsulates everything that the plaza tree, and all Christmas trees, should be. Nor is she willing to pass on this handsome, quiet single dad in need of healing and renewed Christmas spirit. The ending surprised me, which is encouraging even if I disagreed with it. I love the pairing of the bubbly actress with the more reserved actor. I never bought that Holly’s job was on the line, but it was a minor point and easily ignored. I saw the big problem coming from their first hello, but the way it unfolded wasn’t as easy to predict. Highlights include couple chemistry, close family ties, nods to sensible footwear, and a heroine who unabashedly loves Christmas trees even though people around her remain cynical.

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The Sweetest Christmas – 7/10
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the holiday Hallmark’s hero must be named Nick or the heroine must be named Holly. Not both in the same movie. That’s overkill.

This Nick is the owner of a fancy pizza place and the ex-boyfriend of struggling pastry chef Kylie (Lacey Chabert). We begin with the tried-and-true trope of an expected engagement dinner that turns out to be a business dinner. At Nick’s restaurant. Who Kylie hasn’t seen since she broke his heart in college. But that was years ago. Now she is working as a receptionist to pay for her massive culinary student loan debt, and Nick is working on the whole single dad thing. Kylie breaks up with her sleezy Mr. Business boyfriend after the not-engagement dinner, then learns she’s won a place in an annual national gingerbread competition. Except, her sister’s oven catches on fire. Re-enter Nick, who lets Kylie use one of the ovens at his restaurant to practice and prepare her entry. The movie is set in Helen, Georgia, which is really nice (and close to me!) even through the set looks like a quaint mountain town, which is nothing like Helen’s alpine Bavaria feel.

The real star is Ralphie, played by Jonathan Adams. Ralphie is Nick’s head chef / wisecracking best friend / babysitter / father figure. Smartest person in the room, funniest person in the movie. I just wish the actor wasn’t cast in a friend role. He could have carried this movie, or any other, on his own.

Aside: Much like the “gun” principle of storytelling (if you put a gun in Act 1, it better go off by Act 3), if you have a ladder in a Hallmark movie scene, the heroine better fall off and be caught by the hero. Intense, longing, somewhat startled looks follow. And, in that sense, The Sweetest Christmas did not disappoint. Set your DVR, throw some break-and-bake cookies in the oven, and prepare to enjoy. By the end of the night, you’ll be smiling and full, plus you’ll have room on your DVR to record another movie.

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Christmas Festival of Ice – 5/10
Recent law school grad Emma (played by Taylor Cole, of multiple high quality Hallmark movies) is working with her lawyer mother in her hometown while waiting for her bar exam results to come in, but she’s not as excited about that as she should be. She’s thrilled to be home this year for her town’s Christmas Festival of Ice, but due to budgeting troubles they had to cut the ice sculpting competition. Emma can’t stand to see this tradition, which she’s participated in with her dad since she as a young girl, fall away. As she searches for donors, she meets Nick, the owner of a local Christmas tree farm, who is secretly an amazing ice carving artist, but is hesitant to tell others, especially after his ice carving partner dumped him last Christmas. Emma keeps her fundraising a secret from her mother for very convoluted reasons, drops her deposition duties, boosts Nick’s confidence, and receives the big, anonymous donation she needs to put on the competition. Now she just needs an ice carving partner and to get up the courage to come clean to her mother.

This one is solid middle-of-the-road. It’s predictable, but had one twist I didn’t see coming. The motivation was iffy, though. Certain aspects really bugged me, like Emma waking up on the couch one morning for no reason; they just didn’t want have to build a set for her bedroom. Also, Emma’s fixation on ice sculpting as the thing that really makes her happy, unlike law, annoyed every fiber of my millennial being. You have a $75,000 law school education, Emma. Ice sculpting is not viable year-round career! She probably doesn’t have any debt (thanks lawyer mom!) but she should still be expected to want to keep the heat on at least, plus she’s addicted to that coffee stand she walks to multiple times a day. A few cheesy lines didn’t go well, but the real surprise of the movie was Nick. The actor (Damon Runyan) played the sleezy boyfriend in Valentine Ever After (10/10!). So, despite his new haircut, I had some trouble adapting to his leading man status. However, he definitely won me over. Nick’s arc ends about 60% of the way through the movie (not good storytelling, sorry) but the actor plays him so endearingly through that last 40%. And he pulls off the cheesiest line of any Hallmark (“You were my Christmas wish”) so well that the Roomie and I rewound to watch him say it again.

Don’t bother setting the DVR, but if you see it on, watch the last 30 minutes to enjoy optimal cuteness.

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+Dashing Through the Snow – 9/10*
Ashley, played by one of my very favorite Hallmark actresses, is an effervescent knitter/craft fair seller trying to make it to Seattle for Christmas so her mom, recently widowed, won’t be alone. When there’s a problem with her plane ticket, though, and grim-suited men swarming the area, Ashley joins a car rental line and is offered the very last car in the lot. But handsome stranger Dash (played by my hands-down favorite Hallmark actor) bribes the attendant to get the car for himself. He offers to share the ride with Ashley who, annoyed but focused on her mother, finally agrees (after making him call his mom to assure her that Dash isn’t an axe murderer). Ashley’s soft-hearted stories and delight in every moment of the journey, even when they break down in the snow, charms everyone they encounter. Dash tries to keep some emotional distance between them, especially as it becomes obvious that they’re being followed. But, like the rest of northern California, Oregon, and Washington, he can’t help but be taken in. Unfortunately, the FBI isn’t so taken, laying doubt on heroine and hero alike.

The end ties up too neatly and simplistically to feel genuine. Also, the puppy Ashley adopts would have made loads of piddles in that rental and their laps considering how infrequently they stopped and how often they left him alone. Nevertheless, and despite its somewhat grimace-worthy name, Dashing Through the Snow is cute, swoony, well-acted, well-written, and threaded with enough mystery to set this Christmas romance apart. The classic Christmas film references peppered throughout never land too on the nose.

(Bonus * for cute puppy)

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+A December Bride – 9/10
Layla’s ex-fiancé is getting married to her cousin, who he cheated on her with, so she and her ex’s friend Seth strike a deal. They’ll pretend they’re dating for the wedding and some business events, but they’ll “break up” once their holiday engagements end. The lie gets bigger and bigger, increasing the stakes for staying together and the severity of the inevitable fallout when they either “break up” or reveal the sham. I like the “pretend to be dating/engaged” trope because we—and most importantly, the couple—know what the BIG PROBLEM is going to be almost the whole movie, increasing the tension throughout the sweet, falling-in-love parts of the movie. After all the adorable bonding, Christmas decorating, successful business events, and cookie baking, the only thing keeping this couple apart is their fear of being the vulnerable one by saying they don’t want to break up / want a real relationship.

In most Hallmarks, they’d publicly break up anyway and be miserable until a friend or mentor wheedles one of them into returning to the other on Christmas morning with an apology and maybe an engagement ring. But in A December Bride, they’ve been miserable enough in their self-appointed emotional distance that, when it’s time to break up, they skip the miserable step and are honest instead. The moment is so joyous, and it’s one the sweetest, most swoon-worthy moments in any Hallmark.

Megan Ory (also in Dashing through the Snow, see above) is one of my favorite Hallmark actresses, and this movie is largely why! She’s so winning, so charming, and so bright without losing depth. No one plays a capable woman with a soft heart better. Also, I don’t watch the Hallmark channel series When Calls the Heart, but it’s male star Daniel Lissing tempts me to try it. He’s wonderfully emotive and delivers some questionable lines with convincing authenticity. Also, these two have chemistry for days. The aunt character is annoying and has the worst lines (seriously, she almost ruins the reconciliation kiss). Ignore her whenever possible, but make sure you’ve got plenty of DVR space so you can watch this one again and again.

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+A Bride for Christmas – 10/10*
Jessie has a habit of breaking off engagements. Most recently, she left Mike at the altar when she walked straight past him and ran out the side door. Even her dad calls her Bolt. Devastated that she’s hurt and humiliated another nice guy, Jessie swears off dating and throws herself into the interior design company she runs with her sister Viv.

Aiden is a financial exec who likes to gamble and, after some ribbing, bets his friends that he can make any woman fall in love with him by Christmas. At a gallery opening, one of his gambling buddies hears that Jessie has sworn off men and prods Aiden into picking her. Viv is amazing, Jessie is adorable, and Aiden fully appreciates both. His delighted face at a photo of her most recent almost-wedding day, his expression when she asks for a burger, and his grin when Viv suggests they go shopping are searing into my mine. Unlike Jessie’s past boyfriends, Aiden wants to get to know her, not mold her into who he wants her to be. He listens to her, and his encouragement helps Jessie feel more confident in her choices. Plus, they volunteer at a local animal shelter together and it’s THE CUTEST. Sooner or later, though, the bet is going to come to light. And Mike isn’t ready to give up on Jessie.

As I mention in Dashing through the Snow (see above), Andrew Walker is my favorite-favorite-favorite Hallmark actor. This is the movie that started it all. And it is also my favorite Hallmark movie ever. I haven’t loved all of his movies, but I love him in each of them. Also, he could probably have chemistry with a tree, which is important because his blonde tips are very not good here. Not as bad as his shaved head in Bridal Wave, though, when he and Arielle Kebbel, who plays Jessie, reunite at the beach for a less-than-stellar summer flick (seriously, don’t bother watching it). This movie is also why my roommate and I always call him Aiden, no matter what character he’s playing. (We call her Jessie, too, but she’s in fewer Hallmark movies.) I record and watch this one multiple times a year and have to stop whenever I see it on. I don’t expect you to love it as enthusiastically as I do, but I do expect that you’ll be won over, too.

(Bonus * for cute dogs)

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