October 13, 2019
ENTERTAINING CHRISTMAS - 4 stars
Pity the poor, pretty rich girl Candace Livingstone (Jodie Sweetin). Sucks to exist in the shadow of the accomplished parent. Candace's mom, Liz Livingstone (Jane Moffat), is a brand unto herself, a lifestyle guru whom talk show hosts tend to hype up as "the Queen of Crafts" and "the Dame of Decoupage." Her magazine - Livingstone Lifetstyle - is a Fortune 500 company. That's how bada-- Candace's mom is.
But this yuletide season, Liz Livingstone is retiring as acting CEO of Livingstone Lifestyle. She's pushing for her daughter to take over as the new face of the company, except the board of directors may need some convincing. It's not an automatic in. You see, Candace cannot cook or sew. She cannot arts & crafts worth a lick. She's always preferred to be behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight.
Some plot spoilers.
What kicks off the plot is a video from a little girl named Harper Ryan (Ana Araujo). It's a longshot plea from her for Liz to please help her plan a welcome home party for her soldier dad who is coming home to Cedar Falls, Vermont, on leave for Christmas. Liz would love to do it, except she has a prior commitment in Aspen for a charity fundraiser. So, in her stead, Liz dispatches her daughter, reasoning that not only is it a worthwhile deed, it's also a terrific opportunity for Candace to impress the board, what with social media on high alert about the little girl's video.
Candace is in Cedar Falls now, and she's nervous as heck. Luckily, she's got her friend - and the magazine's social media manager - Anna (Tamara Almeida) to accompany her and to, hopefully, even cover for her. Luckily, the Ryans are a sweet family who welcome them with open arms, and that Harper is as sweet a kid as she seemed on the video, and that no one resents Candace being there in lieu of her celebrity mom.
And, then, there's Harper's uncle, John (Brendan Fehr), who seems nice, except he's a reporter for the local newsrag, Cedar Falls Gazette. John's editor tasks John to dig up some dirt to dish on Candace. At least John's polite about his snooping, even if he doesn't let on to Candace that he suspects her of not being so arts & crafty.
Whatever suspense the movie musters hinges on those scenes in which we watch Candace as she tries to extricate herself from the tight spots she gets put into by the eager townspeople of Cedar Falls. After all, one can't blame the star-struck locals for wanting to have her exhibit the same skills as her mom's. See Candace participate in the town's crafts fair, and the cookie stand, and the gingerbread house contest. See her try to replicate her mom's famous signature snowflake pancakes. And looming over all that is that she still has to help plan the little girl's welcome home party for her pops.
ENTERTAINING CHRISTMAS is a good watch with some flaws. As much as it tries to push the romance, it just feels forced. Maybe it's because the script doesn't give Sweetin and Fehr enough to work up a nice chemistry. Or maybe the focus should've been about Candace's journey of self-discovery all along? It's disappointing that we see John concentrating so much on the piece he's writing on Candace, and yet we don't even get to read a snippet of it. And what was John thinking, leaving Candace by herself where she can read his notes? Of course, she misconstrues. He's got all his suspicions about her all jotted down on post-it notes and such. It's done, of course, so that we can arrive at that dumb last-minute obstacle. At least it does get straightened out without too much drama. And we learn that while Candace may not cook or sew or craft it up as well as her mom - or at all, really - she does have other talents to compensate. Oh, and that little girl, Harper? What a sweetheart.
Listen, if you're not too sure about this movie, just add a splash of lemon juice. That's an inside joke that you'll get when you've watched the movie.
SLEIGH BELLS RING - 4 stars
Meet Laurel Bishop. She heads up the Parks & Recreation Dept. in Mission City, and her boss, the mayor, has just dumped an almighty task on her lap. For the past five years, Mission City couldn't afford a Christmas parade. But this year saw an unexpected surplus in the city budget, and, so, parade on! It's two weeks before Christmas, so Laurel (Erin Cahill) doesn't have much of a window to work in. As an added incentive, if she pulls this off, the mayor promises to appoint her as the new City Manager.
Chalk up the parade as one more thing Laurel must juggle. As if caring for her lively young daughter, Scarlett (Dakota Guppy), isn't enough to occupy her. SLEIGH BELLS RING came out in 2016, and it's worth a watch. It's something to keep the sappy grown-up and the wide-eyed ankle-biter glued to the screen. Partly, it's because the acting is decent, and the story delivers nice moments, and partly it's because if you watch this during the holidays, how can you not get swept up in the Christmas spirit? Christmas is insidious that way.
Some plot spoilers.
This being Hallmark, the male lead is like a second citizen. Erin Cahill snags most of the shine. She's the one allowed to show her personality, while David Alpay must settle for your typical Hallmark hero, good-looking and bland and colorless, a plank on legs. Alpay plays Alex McCord, who was Laurel's high school and then college sweetheart until he up and left without saying goodbye. See, Alex wanted to chase his exciting dreams of working in finance in New York. It was a supremely jerk move, and, once I found out he done that, I started giving him the side eye, on principle.
Alex is back in Mission City, temporarily, there to help his Aunt Audrey (Robyn Bradley) sell her antique shop. Mission City being a small-scale metropolis, Alex was bound to run into Laurel eventually. But their reacquanting happens courtesy of a strange, ramshackle sleigh that Laurel had found near the woods off Hickory Road. It's around this time that the movie winks an eye at the viewer. Laurel had sweet-talked the owner, Mr. Winter (Donovan Scott), into letting her borrow the sleigh for the Santa float in the parade. Don't be surprised that Mr. Winter - frame, broad in the beam; beard, white; disposition, jolly - matches the sleigh in eccentricity.
Turns out, Alex isn't just good with finance, his passion has always been antiques and woodworking. He's only too happy to refurbish the run-down sleigh. But, listen, he's only in town for a mo. He's waiting word on whether he's gotten that job upgrade at the finance firm. So, maybe don't read too much into his reconnecting with Laurel. And Laurel? Does she have it in her to drop her guard and let in the jerk who broke her heart years and years ago?
I say meh to the romance; it's by-the-numbers stuff. I was more keen on how Laurel navigated one work catastrophe after another. So much drama over procuring a humongous Christmas tree to park in front of city hall. She still has to secure a marching band. The parade Santa just dropped out. And the most freaky thing: that temperamental sleigh keeps disappearing.
There's a sub-plot involving Laurel's assistant Becky (Jenna Romanin) who suspects her man, Wade, of hiding something from her. I easily guessed what he was up to. Can you?
Nothing subtle about this one. But the movie executes the familiar plot beats with dexterity and polish. And the kid actress is cute as a button, and Erin Cahill sure is easy on the eyes. And no one plays Sant- er, Mr. Winter, as convincingly as Donovan Scott. But that sleigh? I think you gotta LoJack the thing.
CHRISTMAS INCORPORATED - 3.5 stars
It's Christmastime in New York, but poor Riley Vance. Once an executive assistant to the V.P. of Visual Merchandising and Brand Development, Riley now only has $89 in the bank. She's out of a job. She has heaps of on-the-job experience, except no one will employ her because, well, she's currently unemployed. See the pickle? So, here's Riley going for interview after interview only to be rejected each time. But, then, at her lowest ebb, she overhears a hot tip. Seems as if the up-and-coming William Young (Steve Lund), who recently inherited his father's corporate empire, has a habit of burning thru assistants. And he's looking for a new one. Riley Vance is all over that.
Some plot spoilers.
Okay, this probably goes down as a low point in her career. Riley snags the personal assistant position, but by way of fibbing, only let's be kind and call it a case of mistaken identity. Riley is promptly tested as her prospective new boss asks for her input regarding his company's bottom-line decision to shut down their struggling flagship toy factory in Dover, New Hampshire. Riley, proving she's not cutthroat material, suggests that, instead of shutting it down, Young Inc. tries to salvage the factory. Two hours later, Riley is on a flight to Dover, with young Mr. Young motorcycling up a bit later.
CHRISTMAS INCORPORATED is one of the movies Hallmark premiered in 2015 under its Countdown to Christmas banner, and it's one that I'd seen a bunch of times over the past few years. It's okay. It's a feel-good holiday movie. Hallmark knows its target audience and so piles on the sentiment. And with Hallmark nowadays churning out "original" movies as if they were on an assembly line, it's bound to regurgitate its heaps of tropes. But here's the thing. I am a Hallmark jvnkie. And when it comes to yuletide movies, I eat them up as much as the next sap.
Shenae Grimes-Beech and Steve Lund are the leads, and I always smirk when I watch pretty people having pretty people problems, because I just can't relate. I do buy that their characters progressively get closer as they try to solve the problem of how to save the toy factory. Well, Riley is trying to actively save the toy factory. William thinks it's a lost cause. Doesn't help that William isn't much a fan of Christmas, doesn't celebrate it. He glowers: "I'd rather face a firing squad than this much Christmas." Except faced with the pep and persistence and appreciation for Christmas that Riley exhibits, we suspect a change of heart for the gloomy young CEO.
Two side characters make this movie that much more interesting. One is the eager-to-please mayor (Ron Lea) of Dover whose tactics are equal parts smarmy and endearing. The other is the forewoman (Sara Botsford) at the toy factory. I don't know what it is, her delivery, her directness, but I was struck by how she was onscreen. Whatever it was she was doing, it made her character seem more real.
CHRISTMAS INCORPORATED is clean and corny and presents a dewy-eyed narrative. Characters harboring unrealistic hope in their hearts get to say sunny platitudes like "Nothing is impossible at Christmastime" and "With any luck, we'll pull off a Christmas miracle." And, good gosh, the store Santa even drops in at storytime at the book store to confide to the kids that "the elves refer to Dover as Toy Town." Whoever played the store Santa, by the way, is just perfect in the role. And what an impressive voice.
Can the irrepressible Riley Vance revive William's dormant Christmas spirit? Can she save Toy Town with her gumption and her rebranding ideas? Well, not if her lie by omission comes back to haunt her. Not if that glory-seeking local newspaperwoman has her way. And to Riley Vanarden, wherever you are, I hope that, next time, you're patient enough to wait to be called in for your interview, instead of ducking out and allowing someone with a similar name to swoop in. I have a post-credit scene in mind in which Riley Vanarden missed her interview because she had to step out to take a call where she learned she's the long lost princess of some delightful European kingdom. See, everybody wins. 3.5 out of 5 stars for this movie. Would've been 4 stars but there was no such post-credit scene.