November 21, 2013

How to Pick a Made-for-TV Christmas Movie

I refuse to apologize for the fact that I absolutely adore made-for-TV Christmas movies. While I may have high standards for regular movies, I lower them considerably for this special film genre. Call it my holiday spirit.

Every year, both the Hallmark Channel and ABC Family run a Christmas movie marathon for the six weeks leading up to Christmas. During this time, Hallmark also debuts brand new Christmas movies every Saturday and Sunday night. (That's 12 brand new movies made just to let struggling actors renew their SAG cards, folks.) If you're worried about your social life cramping your ability to bask in the warmth of all this cheesy goodness, just make sure you set your DVR and watch them later, after all your friends have abandoned you because you can't stop talking about made-for-TV movies.

With so many options, how do you allocate your precious time between the movies?

The first thing you need to know is that all the movies include the following must-haves:
  1. A 90's B-List star or vaguely familiar looking famous-ish person (though a C or D-Lister from the 80's isn't out of the question in lean years). For example, I just watched a triple header of movies starring Elizabeth Berkley, Dean Cain and the chick who played Amber in Clueless. Watch enough of these, and you'll start to recognize actors just from other Christmas movies. As in, 'Oh that's the guy from that one movie where he was a rancher and fell in love with the woman whose car broke down on his property and just happened to know how to save his favorite horse, who is dying.'
  2. At least several references to "the magic of Christmas."
  3. Snow. Even if they are in the desert, there will be snow. Someone will create fake snow, if need be. There is always snow on Christmas in a TV movie. This may tie into the "magic of Christmas" point above.
  4. A miracle of some sort. It could be on a small scale, but there is always a miracle. Oftentimes they will even explicitly use the word "miracle." 
  5. And it always happens on Christmas Eve.
I've been doing this marathon for a few years now, and I have yet to see an example deviate from those points above. If all those things sound good to you, we can move onto the next step.

Despite the commonalities between them, the vast majority of Christmas made-for-TV movies follow four distinct plots:
  1. Romance. These are my personal favorite, since they combine the corny warm fuzzy feelings of the romantic comedy with some kind of melodramatic back story. Think: single moms, widowers, or people in unhappy relationships that don't realize it until they meet someone who is perfect from them mere days before Christmas. Then they confess their love and seal it with a kiss on Christmas Eve.
  2. Fixing past mistakes. These movies just copy other stories and stick Christmas in the title and theme. A Christmas Story with the three ghosts, reliving the same day over and over again like Groundhog's Day, or literally going back in time. Occasionally this theme combines with romance to have a character repeat a day until they realize they are in love with someone. And of course, correct it on Christmas Eve.
  3. Santa, his descendants, and saving Christmas. Christmas is somehow in jeopardy and it's up to either Santa's black sheep son/daughter or an unrelated child to save Christmas. Occasionally amnesia is involved (on the part of Santa, not the children). These movies tend to be heavy on must-haves #2 & #4 - Spoken references to both "the magic of Christmas" and Christmas miracles.
  4. Bringing joy to the holidays. This category may seem too general, because all the movies are in some way about bringing happiness to the holidays, but this involves plot lines like adopting orphans, helping scrooges re-discover the joy of Christmas, and really poor people coming into money that magically (again, must-have #4) solves all their problems. I don't know if the networks assume only poor people stay in on weekend nights to watch TV movies, but showcasing poor people coming into money seems to be a pretty popular theme.
So simply choose what appeals to you. Personally, I can only handle so many movies about orphans before I become hardened and insensitive to their plight. The three ghosts thing copies a story no one even really likes (but scared of looking like a jerk for disliking a story that features a poor, crippled kid) and come on, copying a movie made about the year's lamest holiday (with the exception of Flag Day and Bosses Day)? If reliving the same day is hell for the person in the movie, what makes them think we want to relive it with them??

With all this information in mind, go comb your TV listings, make a cup of cocoa (with mini marshmallows, of course, unless you're some kind of savage) and indulge in some guilty pleasure TV watching for the holidays. And if your significant other tells you they will leave you if they have to sit through another holiday screening of Love Actually, just make them sit through one of these movies and they will be begging you for Colin Firth and that absurdly hot guy who inexplicably hooks up with Laura Linney.

Final word: Watching made-for-TV Christmas movies is trendier and more enjoyable than going to an ugly Christmas sweater party.

November 15, 2013

Darling Companion (2012)

Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline

I thought this was going to be something like Marley and Me. Maybe a little sappy, but a drama about relationships that somehow involved a dog. It was, in fact, a drama about relationships that involved a dog, but was somehow far worse than a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. And the only tears shed were not due to a touching story, but over the hundreds of minutes of my life that were wasted while watching this.

First of all, Diane Keaton did her usual bit of freaking out every oh, 5 seconds. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just go watch The First Wives Club, Something's Gotta Give, Because I Said So (scratch that last one - it's just not worth it), etc. And I know old people still love her androgynous style from Annie Hall, but is it too much to ask that she ever wear something other than a pantsuit?

Besides having a terrible plot, the movie isn't even close to being balanced. If you're going to make a movie about relationships, at least try to make it seem like both halves contribute to its issues. "Marriages don't break up on account of infidelity. It's just a symptom that something else is wrong." [Name that movie! Bonus points if you can quote the following line.] Except in this movie, everything is apparently Kevin Kline's fault. Which isn't to say his character isn't a complete d*ck in the movie - he is. But again, the writers made him that way. Do people like this actually exist? If so, who marries them?

Additionally, the first half of the movie felt like it had been edited so much that you spent every 10 minutes wondering WTF is going on?? It had multiple plot lines that were given equal screen time, almost as if it were an ensemble movie. Except that it's not because the movie is supposed to be about Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, and their dog. It's as if the other story lines are a distraction to fill time because the writers couldn't come up with enough crappy dialogue for Keaton and Kline. And don't get me started on the reasoning behind putting a random gypsy into the storyline. Really? A gypsy? Why?

This whole movie just felt very... unfinished. Almost as if a drama student out there wrote this with hitting a certain word count in mind. The middle of the movie drags on and on and on with little action or meaningful dialogue and you have to wonder if they ran out of money to pay for new scenery or if their writers went on strike because absolutely nothing happens. I mean, there actually came a point when the movie switched into rough animation because I guess the director couldn't be bothered to choreograph an action sequence with a dog. I'm shaking my head as I type this because the whole thing was just so tragic.

Final word: I'm actually shocked this wasn't a straight-to-DVD release.

This somehow garnered 3.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Relatives of those involved with the movie must have been coaxed to write reviews. You can buy it and watch it for yourself. Don't say you weren't warned.

November 9, 2013

Morning Glory (2010)

Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton

I know this is probably an unpopular statement, but I don't really like Rachel McAdams. Sure, she did a good job in Mean Girls. And The Notebook. And I suppose, even The Vow. But here's the thing about those roles: they're all the same. She just played different variations of a snobby girl. And all of those roles could have been equally fulfilled by someone else. Even if you're a fan of her, you have to admit she's no Meryl Streep. 

Really, the only reason I watched this movie at all was because I had spent the previous day watching a marathon of Indiana Jones movies on TV and was feeling nostalgic over Harrison Ford and how he used to be awesome, so when this movie came on, I figured, how bad could it be? (Note to self: stop thinking this.) And I don't care what anyone else says, (What's the Story) Morning Glory from Oasis is an awesome 90's album. Which also led me to justify watching this movie, despite the album having absolutely nothing to do with the movie other than coincidentally sharing part of its title. (Note to self: if you can't think of a good reason to watch a movie, stop making up reasons to do so.)

The movie started out innocently enough - classic ambition, career-driven girl who works too hard at her job to find love who is somehow simultaneously always put together in her looks, but her personality is all over the map. (Note to self: find a rom-com that doesn't portray a successful woman as neurotic, quirky, or a general hot mess in creating and sustaining relationships.) Enter: Harrison Ford as the mean, unlikable guy who people respect because he's good at what he does and might secretly be a good guy underneath. (Note to self: just watch reruns of House on TV for this exact storyline.) Banter ensues. 

Aaaaaaaand that's pretty much the movie. I really don't need to elaborate or go any further because, well, you already know how it will end. All the characters are just endearing enough to make you somehow sit through the whole movie, despite knowing that it's lame. I guess that's why the producers spent $40M making it instead of casting Katherine Heigl and James Marsden for free because they're desperate to stay relevant. (Note to self: try and work in a reference to Katherine Heigl in every column.)

Final word: I think I even enjoyed 27 Dresses more than this.

Not to be confused with this album:

November 6, 2013

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake

You know how people think romantic comedies are predictable, cliche, and full of fluff? It turns out, dramas can be all those things too. And when I say predictable, I mean I knew almost every single event that was going to happen - in sequence - and some of the dialogue as well! It's as if the writer of this movie didn't have a single original thought.

I know there are die-hard Clint Eastwood fans out there, and I know he's made a lot of great movies over the years. And it seems a bit ironic, considering part of this movie premise involves ageism, but I'm starting to wonder if it might be time for him to retire. Not because he's old (though seriously, this man lived through the Great Depression!), but because he is apparently unable to play anything other than a cranky old man. I mean, he waited 4 years between movies and this is what he chose?? Come on, Clint - stretch yourself a bit. I saw more creativity from him talking to that empty chair!

Amy Adams, on the other hand, is convincing me she can play just about anything. Sure, we've seen this ultra-focused, career-driven, precise woman before (see: Leap Year), but she's just so gosh-darn likable you can look past her appearance in movies like this. And Cruel Intentions 2. (Everyone has to get their start somewhere, I guess.) She was about the only thing that made this movie even watchable (Sorry, JT - I still groan when I see your name on a movie poster).

Don't get me wrong: I like baseball. But I wonder what it is with Hollywood's obsession with baseball-related movies. I mean, they made two sequels to The Sandlot, for God's sake. I just feel like the romantic, nostalgic aura that surrounds most baseball movies is a little irritating. Yes, Field of Dreams was a fantastic movie. But look what happened: Kevin Costner tried to recapture that magic and ended up making The Perfect Game instead. We, the viewing public, shouldn't be continuously subjected to a few mens' love affairs with one sport. You can make compelling dramas with pretty much every other sport. (With the exception of tennis. Hollywood seems utterly unable - or unwilling - to find actors and actresses who can convincingly execute normal looking tennis strokes. And after Wimbledon, I'm not sure anyone wants to attempt it again.)

Final word: It didn't add anything new to my life, to these actors' careers, or movie history in general. 

If you have somehow gone through life without seeing this movie, please rent/buy/watch it immediately. This is a baseball movie.

November 1, 2013

Won't Back Down (2012)

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis

"Inspired by actual events." 

So... if I made a movie with overstated characterizations of good and evil and it contained opinions passed off as facts, but had anecdotal evidence to back me up, could I slap the words "inspired by actual events" on it? (Or in other terms, what most everyone is doing in debates over Obamacare.) For one thing, this movie isn't even based on a real person or event! Seriously. It's a composite of events that have happened in different parts of the country. So because parents out there are upset because schools out there are failing, that gives Hollywood the right to make a movie about it and call it "inspired by actual events." Therefore... I could make a movie about a parent dealing with their autistic kid because they gave their kids a vaccine made by an evil pharmaceutical company only out to pad its bottom like and call it "inspired by actual events" because well, Jenny McCarthy said it happened! What, a minute...

You know what movies are actually inspired by actual events? Apollo 13. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Miracle. Oh wait, those are "based on a true story." Sorry. Apparently we, the public, need to learn to distinguish between real stories and movies that are completely made up, but could be real... It's like learning to decode that special real estate agent speak like when they describe a house as "cozy," you know they really mean "tiny."

I don't mean to belabor the point, but it's just so frustrating when a movie is done in a certain style to make the watcher believe they are watching a true story, then promoted in a misleading way to again, make people believe it's a true story. Except it's not. It's just "inspired by actual events."

So why is this important? Because it makes teachers look like crap, for one. And while teacher bashing/union bashing (teacher union bashing really encompasses the whole two-birds mentality) is the latest cool thing to do, it apparently never occurred to the writers of this movie to give an accurate portrayal of the scope of the problem of our school system. I get that this is a drama, not a documentary, but then why put "inspired by actual events" on the poster? Why lead viewers to believe it's a real story? 

I'm obviously sensitive to the entire topic, having spent time as a teacher myself. And I don't deny the existence of crappy teachers, crappy schools, crappy administrators, and crappy union issues. BUT, when a movie is created to so clearly label "good guys" vs. "bad guys," you end up with a cartoon-like effect that makes it laughable to consider this a serious drama. It's so predictable, which is ridiculous, considering the writers weren't constrained to a certain set of facts because, as we already established, this story is MADE UP!! Ahem, "inspired by actual events."

While this movie was no doubt intended to inspire people to "fight the man" or something, the only thing it inspired in me was anger. Anger that this perpetuated the myth that there are so many bad teachers out there that don't care; anger that people still believe the only way to fix schools is to "hire better teachers; anger that Maggie Gyllenhaal's peppy demeanor is just so effing annoying! I mean, if I knew someone like her character in real life, I might need to slap her every once in awhile just to take her down a notch. There are a few good moments, of course, but those generally involved a few moments of spontaneity and not the long, contrived speeches that featured prominently throughout. Because hey, what would an inspiring movie be without inspired speeches? How about something that was "inspired by actual events?" Sigh. And it comes full circle. 

Final word: To say this movie was a well intentioned film that missed the mark is like saying Michael Moore fact checks his work. 

If you want to know a bigger reason kids are struggling in school, read this: