' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, December 01, 2023

Friday's Mulled Wine: Navigating Christmas

Not long after reading Dorothy Wickendon’s October New Yorker profile of The Last Lighthouse Keeper in America, Sally Snowman, keeper of Boston Light, a lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, I sat down to watch my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the season. That movie turned out to be “Navigating Christmas,” in which divorced, hard-charging something-or-other Melanie (Chelsea Hobbs) books a Christmas excursion to a lighthouse on mystical St. Nicholas Island for her and her bratty teenage son Jason (Everett Andres) when the bratty teenage son’s dad bails on Christmas. Though Wickendon’s profile touches on archetypes and episodes that would not have been out of place in Robert Eggers’s “The Lighthouse,” Snowman isn’t out of her gourd, even if she was excited to batten down the hatches and stay put when a massive blizzard blew through. But the profile makes clear that maintaining a lighthouse isn’t for everyone, that the work is taxing, mentally and physically, and isolating. And though no one goes into a Hallmark Christmas movie, not even myself, snot-nosed critic, expecting veracity, I don’t know, that “Doll & Em” episode where they hole up in a lighthouse on a writing retreat seemed truer to the experience than “Navigating Christmas.” 

Apart from a foghorn joke that weirdly doesn’t become recurring, life in this lighthouse mostly just consists of putting up Christmas decorations, as ordered by the ostensibly jaded current lighthouse keeper in a performance by Stephen Huszar that seems more in the vein of slightly standoffish than jaded. (It isn’t fair, it really isn’t, which is why this is in parentheses, but just as Ryan Gosling should have played the male lead in another subpar seasonal Hallmark offering “Holiday Hotline,” so should Chris Evans have played this part.) Indeed, everything that transpires here is like every other Hallmark Christmas movie with the climactically illuminated lighthouse functioning as the climactically illuminated Christmas tree. In fact, that thinking outside the box is why I give “Navigating Christmas” one thumb up in addition to one thumb down. Opportunity was squandered overall, but you’re also required to paint within rigid lines, and so any flourish is appreciated. Plus, Andres’s performance as Jason really worked for me, not just mildly unlikable but truly spoiled, and when his character idiotically pilots a boat into the middle of nowhere at the end to churn the plot toward its conclusion, I kind of couldn’t believe how much I believed it. Kid needs therapy. And what is Santa if not the ultimate retail therapist?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

12 Potential Character Actors for Hallmark Christmas Movies

The narrative hegemony of Hallmark Christmas movies in tandem with their generally functional direction means that often what sets the good ones apart is the varying quality of the lead performances. What elevates them even further, however, is the caliber of the supporting cast. Like last year’s “Haul Out the Holly,” in which a superb group of bit players was headlined by one of the most renowned bit players of all, Stephen Tobolowksy. Indeed, consult any fly-by-night listicle of Hollywood’s best character actors and you are likely to find Tobolowsky. “Basic Instinct,” sure, and “Groundhog Day,” of course, but his resume goes so much deeper. When Michael Mann needed someone to play the President of CBS News as a corporate lackey in “The Insider,” who was he gonna call? Stephen Tobolowsky. And the wily old vet’s turn in “Haul Out the Holly” by playing cuckoo for Christmas helped transform it into truly, seriously the best made Hallmark Christmas I have seen. And that got me to thinking. It got me to thinking about other Hollywood character actors we could call to help out Hallmark. A few suggestions to get the holiday party started:

Bruce McGill. You’re telling me Bruce McGill, who should be in everything, can’t play one of those Not-Really-Santa-But-Totally-Santa characters? 

Luis Guzmán. Like how Natasha Lyonne just sort of was the receptionist on Mars in “Ad Astra,” I’m picturing the immortal Guzmán as just kind of being the clerk at a Christmas-themed hotel. 

Judy Greer. The hard-charging protagonist’s even more hard-charging boss back in the big city. A performance exclusively via Bluetooth headset. 

Clancy Brown. Overzealous mall cop hired for the holidays. 

Bill Irwin. Out of control Christmas choir director. 

Keith David. Beleaguered mayor of Santa Claus, IN.

Dale Dickey. Mystical yet practical proprietor of a reindeer farm.

Kevin Dunn. Corporate schmuck who wants to buy the reindeer farm to turn it into condominiums. 

Amy Ryan. Coffee shop owner who totally knows the protagonist better than she knows herself. 

Joan Cusack. Can’t you see her sporting a garish Christmas sweater and effusing holiday cheer to disturbing levels? 

James LeGros. Chairman of Evergreen, AK’s The 12 Days of Christmas who thinks it can be optimized into 3 days. 

John Turturro. People in these movies are always losing a loved one, but they rarely feel – they rarely look – like someone who has lost a loved one. John Turturro would look like he lost a loved one. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

Top 10 2023 Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie Synopses

Though I have friends who are regular comic con goers, I have never attended a fan convention myself, not that I’m judging. If Madeleine Stowe, a.k.a. Cora Munro, ever shows up at a Rosemont comic con, I’m there. More than that, though, when I peruse the list of 2023’s That’s 4 Entertainment Christmas Con in Edison, New Jersey, I start contemplating plane tickets to Newark in early December. The “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” luminaries get top billing but I’m more interested in all the Countdown to Christmas queens. Kimberly Sustad! Lacey Chabert! Alicia Witt! Even Melissa Joan Hart, who might be a Teenage Witch to you but will always be a hard charging event planner, in a manner of speaking, to me. If a Christmas Con sounds like an overabundance of the season, however, try a whole Christmas Cruise! “We hear time and time again that people want to immerse themselves in the world of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies,” Hallmark Media’s Vice President of Consumer Products, Natalie Vandergast, said in a statement regarding a five-day cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem from Miami to Nassau in November 2024, “and this venture is sure to bring our brand to life in a new, captivating way.” There will not only be panels and photo-ops with Hallmark Channel stars, but cookie decorating, an ugly sweater contest, and a tree lighting. 

It sounds like a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie come to life, in other words, in the way a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie might have a character’s Christmas village set come to life, mingling holiday and horror a little too much for my taste. No, I don’t need a Hallmark Christmas cruise, just a Hallmark Christmas movie synopsis. The synopses are plenty for me. Speaking of which, as tradition dictates, here are the ten best Hallmark Christmas movie synopses for 2023.

Top 10 2023 Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie Synopses

10. Christmas by Design. “A fashion designer gets accepted into a Christmas challenge to create a new holiday-themed collection and not only finds the inspiration for her next line but decides to redesign her approach to what’s most important in life.” LET’S GO!!!!!!!!!!!!

9. Under the Christmas Sky. “Sparks fly between astronaut Kat and by-the-book David when they work on a planetarium exhibit that's opening right before Christmas.” What do you think, will the stars align?  

8. Checkin’ It Twice. “A journeyman hockey player falls for a real estate agent in a career crisis when he’s traded to her hometown and moves into the cottage in her hockey-loving family’s backyard.” I mean, if that backyard doesn’t get transformed into a hockey rink that saves Christmas, what are we even doing here, Hallmark?

7. An Ice Palace Romance. “A journalist faces old fears when she returns to her hometown ice rink to cover a story. With the help of the owner and his young daughter, she begins to reevaluate her life’s purpose.” It’s just nice to know that in the world of Hallmark, the prominence of local journalism continues unabated. 

6. A Biltmore Christmas. “It follows Lucy as she’s hired to write the script for a remake of a holiday movie. She joins a tour of the grounds and when she knocks an hourglass over, she finds herself transported back in time to 1946.” 1946? Shouldn’t this be transported back in time to 1991? So that Madeleine Stowe can appear as herself in a Cora Munro costume? (Can Hallmark drop a Madeleine Stowe / Daniel Day-Lewis Christmas movie in the middle of next December without telling anyone, like a Taylor Swift surprise album? A Boar’s Head Christmas?)

5. Catch Me if You Claus. “Avery Quinn’s shot at anchoring news clashes with a Santa-suited intruder, Chris, who insists hes Santas son on a first Christmas mission. They unravel a career-making story together.” Career and Christmas can co-exist! 

4. Where Are You, Christmas? “Addy wishes for a year without Christmas and she wakes up in a world of black and white. She must work together with the town mechanic to restore Christmas.” Like “Last Christmas” took Wham! literally, so does “Where Are You, Christmas?” take Faith Hill to the letter, it would seem, combining “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “Pleasantville” and leaving me to dream of next year when Great American Family produces a word for word translation of De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.”

3. Holiday Hotline. “After leaving London, Abby works for a cooking hotline and connects with an anonymous caller, a single father who Abby is unknowingly smitten with in real life.” Written by the unknown fifth Ephron sister, Vidalia. 

2. The Santa Summit. “Jordin returns home to regroup after setbacks and attends the town’s annual holiday celebration with friends. She bonds with Liam but doesn’t get his name before they’re separated in a sea of Santas.” Sort of the clean version of Santacon.

1. Everything Christmas. “Christmas enthusiast Lori-Jo embarks on an epic three-day road trip with her workaholic best friend, Victoria, to a town where it’s Christmas all year round.” This is #1 because, honestly, while I know Hallmark will churn out another 20 or 30 of these movies next year, I also can’t quite grasp where else there is to go, as if the expansion of the Hallmark Christmas universe has finally stopped and in the space of this movie, finally collapse in on itself.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

I'm Only Listening to The Rolling Stones

Growing up, we had a family friend named Joe who only listened to The Rolling Stones. That sounds like an exaggeration, akin to my proclaiming in fits of passion that I only listen to Lady Gaga, even though I’m always listening to all kinds of stuff even if I’m listening to one artist a lot. But with Joe, it wasn’t just a figure of speech. My dad and I took a canoeing trip with him on the Upper Iowa River in the summer of 1991, meaning a couple years after “Steel Wheels,” and the whole three-hour drive up I-35 and across various northeast Iowa highways, that album is what we listened to, the cassette deck in his van automatically switching when one side ended, over and over. It got to where every time “Mixed Emotions” came around again, I felt a little twinge of excitement. Joe was a regular at shindigs my parents threw, and I remember occasionally trying to instill my own musical predilections upon him, opining on Bobby Brown, or Neneh Cherry, but it never took. Joe only listened to The Rolling Stones.

Joe’s devotion was at partially responsible for my requesting Hot Rocks 1964-71 as a Christmas gift one year, though my first proper Rolling Stones record was not until 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge.” “Love Is Strong” was the big single, but what I loved most was “Sparks Will Fly,” which prompted me to take the headphones off at the bookstore listening station where I was sampling the album to get the CD to take it to the counter to buy it (what a time to have been alive), as generic as the title yet also exceptional in its commitment to assembly line quality. After that is when I really dug into the band’s back catalogue, and if the pizza place where I worked during high school tricked me into thinking I did not like country music by relentlessly playing the country pop of KJJY, it was the country and western-inflected rock of The Stones that opened my eyes and foreshadowed how alt-country, for lack of a better term, would eventually settle as my preferred genre. And even if by the time I became a regular listener they had long since transitioned from innately being the world’s greatest rock 'n' roll band to a business empire branded as The World’s Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band, The Stones still retained their impeccable craftsmanship. They never stopped knowing how, to quote the (self-proclaimed) Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau talking about one of the group’s late period records, “to construct, play, and--sometimes--sing a song.”

Since “Voodoo Lounge,” there have only been three records of original Stones material. “Bridges to Babylon” was in 1997 during my ill-fated run at the University of Iowa, meaning that even if I really did love that album independent of everything else in my life, it became both an indispensable in-the-moment companion and an eventual echo of how I felt back then, that christening Charlie Watts snare drum on “Flip the Switch” opening a whole portal to Hillcrest Hall, Burlington Street Bridge, and Phillips Hall and my waking world language nightmare. “A Bigger Bang” dropped my birthday weekend 2005, the same summer I moved to Chicago, back when I loaded up on physical CDs to celebrate, and I heard it a day before it was released at the Record Emporium on Lincoln and Paulina.  “Is this the new Stones?” I asked the guy behind the counter. He sold me a copy even though it technically wasn’t for sale. That shop had a sign claiming it had been going out of business since I-Can’t-Remember-When and now, of course, it really is out of business. The Stones aren’t, though. Their 26th American studio album “Hackney Diamonds” was released in October. I was not especially anticipating this record, maybe because it’s been so long since the last one, but now that it’s here, like Joe, all I’ve really been listening to is The Rolling Stones. It’s not my favorite record of the year...but it also kind of is? 

“Hackney Diamonds” may “consist mainly of filler,” to repurpose music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine writing about the band’s 17th American studio album “Emotional Rescue,” “but it’s expertly written and performed filler.” That might sound like faint praise, but he didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t mean it that way about “Hackney Diamonds” either. I don’t have anywhere near enough musical knowledge to explain what the record is doing, just how it feels to me and how it makes me feel, production perched between retro and modern, so it feels like The Stones right now, lyrics that mostly function as a vehicle for Mick’s elocution, and a cornucopia of Keith riffs, ageless, distinctly his, more vital than the solos. There’re a few tracks I skip, and though I always like the Keith songs, I don’t much care for the Keith song here, though maybe that’s just because it precedes “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” and by then I’m just itching to jump ahead. That’s the track, after all, with my girl Gaga.

Gaga appeared with The Stones in 2012 for their One More Shot live PPV performance, that I shelled out to see, to sing the Merry Clayton part on “Gimme Shelter.” Clayton, though, effected a primal terror that Gaga can’t reach (no one could). Among the latter’s myriad vocal virtues, however, is an explosive earnestness, and that is what the roadhouse gospel of “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” spotlights. If it’s little too conscious of its own showstopper ambitions at the start, somewhere along the line “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” sheds those pretensions and kicks into a true holy roller register, Sir Mick Jagger and his multi-hyphenate sherpa Stefani Germanotta going to the spiritual mountaintop together, making me think that all these years later, ineffably, cosmically, I have finally imprinted my own musical taste on Joe.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Book Club: The Next Chapter

As the title suggested, the original “Book Club” of 2018 was about, like, you know, a book club in which four adult women reinvent their lives while reading “50 Shades of Grey.” In “The Next Chapter” follow-up, however, aside from an opening prologue, in which our four returning heroines – Vivian (Jane Fonda), Diane (Diane Keaton), Sharon (Candice Bergen), and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) – read some books over Zoom during the Pandemic and a few subsequent occasional nods to Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist,” director Bill Holderman’s sequel essentially eschews a book club for a road trip through Italy as Vivian, who never wanted to get married, is on the verge of marrying Arthur (Don Johnson). Let’s call this “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” cinema, less a movie than a movie as a breezy vacation, for us and for its stars, who do generally come across amused, especially in the moments when you can detect Bergen, not Sharon, trying to make her co-stars crack. Why it even has a song and semi-dance number, introducing one handsome interloper (Hugh Quarshie) so he can sing in “Gloria” in Italian, paving the way for Queen Steen to indulge her real-life accordion passion. [Insert scene where Mary Steenburgen plays accordion here.]

This easygoing air is reflected in a screenplay, co-written by Erin Simms and Holderman, where dramatic conflict hardly exists and the 101 basics like narrative connective tissue are sometimes renounced altogether. When the four friends trek by train from Rome to Venice, their luggage is stolen, though this mostly just manifests as a call for carpe diem. What’s more, when they are shown wearing new clothes, no explanation is given of where these clothes came from, not even providing a frivolous shopping montage. No, their stylish duds just magically appear, underlining how things happen, like a light-hearted night in the Tuscany clink where the cell comes complete with four cots, as if they were waiting specifically for our quartet.

They wind up in jail because Diane has illegally brought along her late husband’s ashes to scatter. This, along with Carol’s semi-dalliance with a chef (Vincent Riotta) from her previous life while husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) recovers from a heart attack back home, are intended as the script’s emotional complications but barely register, passing like a sun shower, while the ostensible screwball machinations of the climactic double wedding and a Police Chief (Giancarlo Giannini) who always appears at just the wrong moment never come to a froth; they barely come to a fizz. That ultimately marks “Book Club: The Next Chapter” as a movie that could only be enjoyed the way I watched it, on an airplane, on the way to Europe, and on the way to Europe for the first time since being stuck in Europe for 21 days. On occasion, every once in a damn while, despite the truism about life being difficult, for God’s sake, you just want things to be easy. 

Monday, November 20, 2023

No Hard Feelings

“Does anybody remember laughter?” cries out Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) in “Almost Famous” as she bursts backstage with a champagne bottle in each hand, quoting Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin from “The Song Remains the Same.” Jennifer Lawrence may as well be quoting Balk quoting Plant in Gene Stupnitsky’s rom com “No Hard Feelings” by charging into a genre that’s gone stale just like her character charges into a house party of college-aged kids, takes stock of all the yutes filming this out of place thirty something with their phones, admonishing for them failing to go off and screw as if she’s castigating an entire movie genre for its lack of sex, never mind capitulation to shame. In this moment I thought of Amazon Prime’s horror comedy “Totally Killer” in which a present-day teenager inadvertently time travels to 1987, stopping a killer but also coming face to face with a politically incorrect culture. Lawrence’s character might not be literally time-traveling, but she still comes across like one beamed in from a raunchy 1987 comedy, and when she attacks a group of different young people on a beach for deigning to steal her clothes while she’s off skinny-dipping, the nudity doesn’t feel gratuitous so much as an R-rated statement. JLaw is letting it all hang out.

Lawrence is Maddie Burke, an Uber driver who has her car repossessed as the movie opens, being priced out from the tourist-plagued Montauk where she lives in a home inherited from her mother. These details suggest a sort of socially conscious class comedy, though just as her home never feels lived in despite its outsized importance on the plot and her Uber driving is limited to one late movie montage, this is mostly just utilized as set-up, meaning that when Maddie sees a Craig’s list ad from a couple helicopter parents (Matthew Broderick and Laura Benanti) offering a Buick Regal as compensation to, ahem, date their sheltered son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) as a kind of emotional and sexual boot camp in advance of his going off to Princeton, she agrees. It’s as ancient a storyline as it is uncouth, Lawrence channeling Kelly LeBrock in “Weird Science” or Rebecca DeMornay in “Risky Business,” yet quite frequently delivered with gusto, as much by Lawrence as the movie. When Maddie shows up at the dog rescue where Percy works in a cocktail dress and more or less forces him into her friend’s broken-down van, it builds to an obvious punchline that nevertheless works, an erotic 80s thriller merging with an 80s comedy in which villain and victim are turned upside down. 

Later, when Maddie careens down the highway with Percy clinging to the hood of the car, the scene goes too far in the best way, leading to a car chase and a game of chicken in which Lawrence’s facial expressions, like the desperate gulp before flooring it, evince an unexpected humanity in the unlikeliest of situations. That Percy is on the hood of the car in the first place is because she has his phone and won’t give it back, goosing the over-the-top comedy with his nomophobia, and hints at how she breaks him out of his shell. That idea works best in moments like these, where comedy and character amalgamate. Gradually, though, “No Hard Feelings” becomes not just more sincere, but more sweet. That’s not entirely bad, because Lawrence and Feldman effect a believable chemistry despite the implausibility, if not ickiness, of their age difference. But it’s also disappointing to see a movie of such initial irreverence opt for nothing more than a commonplace message of To Thine Own Self Be True, doubly ironic given how “No Hard Feelings” ultimately fails to follow Lawrence’s spirited shamelessness into the breach. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: State of Grace (1990)

“State of Grace” was released into theaters on September 14, 1990, five days ahead of another little movie, maybe you’ve heard of it, “Goodfellas.” Given that they were both mob movies, the latter was destined to drown out the former, turning it into a box office flop gone from theaters virtually overnight. It’s doubly unfortunate because “State of Grace” isn’t really in the “Goodfellas” vein anyway, but more akin to “The Godfather,” not so much going for Scorsese’s romantic rug-pulling as mere romance, with big slabs of emotion that, unfortunately, can sometimes tend toward the overwrought, like the concluding slow-motion shootout and how director Phil Joanou shoots and lights even scenes at barstools to look like church confessionals. And if it suffered from its release date, it also suffers through the prism of time, because the main story in which lines blur between duty and friendship as undercover cop Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) infiltrates the Irish American gang of Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris) by reinvigorating his childhood friendship with Frankie’s wildcard brother Jackie (Gary Oldman) was ultimately done with, well, more grace in 1997’s “Donnie Brasco.” Not to sell “State of Grace” short out of the gate here, my apologies, it’s just that it’s one of those movies where the stuff on the margins frequently eclipses the stuff at the center, a movie with character and of characters.

“State of Grace” was written by Dennis McIntyre, a Detroit-born playwright, and so it makes sense it would excel at texture. The setting is the present-day, meaning that setting, Hell’s Kitchen, is being gentrified, an idea that lingers over the whole movie. At one point, Jackie leads Terry in torching some fancy high rise being built, the two men sprinting through the flames, an effective moment that both demonstrates Jackie’s loose cannon nature and a larger fatalistic feeling about their whole way of life. Frankie, meanwhile, often comes across less like some frightening big shot than the one adult in a violent romper room trying to maintain control, as he does when his gang’s attempt to shake down a bar owner ends in a brawl instead and Frankie trying to put out the figurative fire, epitomizing how Harris effuses so much tension just below the surface of his otherwise tightly controlled performance. There is even texture that the film itself didn’t bring. This is the movie where Penn and Robin Wright, playing Jackie and Frankie’s brother who is trying to leave the life behind, fell in love, and if Joanou never quite harnesses that blooming real-life romance in full, hemmed in to some degree by the standard issue love story plotting, there are moments when Penn and Wright break free anyway, like an early walk and talk on the street in which their chemistry is so palpable that it almost feels like a documentary. There are some things you can’t fake. That goes for Oldman’s performance too.

If the movie was a flop, Oldman’s turn seems to have lived on, cited as a touchstone turn by no less an authority than Leonardo DiCaprio in his 2016 BAFTA Best Actor speech. It’s easy to understand why. This is an actor’s performance, through and through, bursting forth with livewire energy yet far more controlled than his unhinged turn in the previous year’s “True Romance” where, perhaps encouraged by the maximalist Tony Scott, Oldman added so much actorly business that it almost became impossible to take seriously. In “State of Grace,” on the other hand, the volatile nature of his performance feels more channeled, all while crucially never making you feel as if the friendliness Terry feels toward him, isn’t believable. There’s not just a loyalty but a sincerity, even as that sincerity takes the figurative form of a car running toward a brick wall, sans seatbelt. And if in “True Romance,” Oldman often felt constricted by Scott’s camera, in one incredible shot in “State of Grace,” Joanou puts the camera on floor level and puts Oldman in a wide frame so that you can virtually feel him fill it up, a character too large for this world.