Please note that all Christmas movies are rated on a curve for very obvious reasons.

HOLIDAY HARMONY

The leads with sitting together with their heads leaning against each other. She is holding a guitar. There is a lit tree behind them. Tagline: Let your voice lead you home. Title styled to look like music at the bottom.

While I think it’s perfectly plausible to enjoy Holiday Harmony as a Noel-flavored anesthetic agent for your eyes—with the added bonus of Brooke Shields—some things still managed to prick me through the haze.

Gail Travers (Annelise Cepero) is a singer who wants to send in her audition video for a chance to be one of five opening acts on iHeart radio’s Christmas Eve special. If selected, she would also get a three year contract and a spot on a tour. All of this information is carefully explained by Gail’s friend Lila (Lauren Swickard, who co-wrote the movie and wrote and starred in the California Christmas movies). By the way, did you catch that it was iHeart radio behind the contest? If not, don’t worry because their name will be mentioned or their logo shown no less than 28 times during this movie, which makes it basically a propaganda film about how iHeart Radio can be a hero to small indie artists. I remain dubious. With Lila’s help, Gail makes her video, submits it, and gets accepted in the span of, like, nine hours! She’s that good and iHeart radio is that efficient. Lila also encourages Gail to write her own songs, but Gail says she’s never felt inspired. Don’t worry, Lila has some trite advice for that: “Inspiration finds you, you know. You just have to let it happen.” That’s right! Deadline looming? Don’t worry! Just sit back, relax, and wait for the inspiration to find you, like a rat tracking down cheese in the middle of a maze. 

Gail and her VW bus named, I kid you not, Jewel head off on a great American road trip to Los Angeles for the concert. Along the way, she keeps her fans updated via Instagram and she stops to play gigs in small bars to earn gas money (those must be some good tips). She shares how amazed she is that she’s gone from homeless before she bought her van to making her debut on national television “with some of the top artists in the country.” I adore that no actual names are used. Everything is going along just fine until she hits Harmony Springs, OK. First, she gets a phone call from someone at iHeart radio letting her know she’s going to need to perform an original song. What?!? ‘Twas that foreshadowing before with Lila? Then, because she’s so distracted trying to calm herself down, she doesn’t see the scarf and festive hat wearing alpaca standing in the middle of the road until the very last minute, which causes her to swerve and hit a fence post. (Honestly, there was room to go around the alpaca and continue on her merry way, but then we wouldn’t have our movie.) Gail’s phone is somehow completely crushed in the crash, the alpaca plays dead, and Brooke Shields shows up with a slightly questionable accent that I let slide because she’s otherwise likable. The good news for Gail is that Brooke Shields is the town’s mechanic, assisted, of course, by her Emotionally Unavailable son Jeremy (Jeremy Sumpter). The bad news is that it’s going to take close to two weeks for them to get the needed parts to fix Gail’s van AND it’s going to cost a lot more money than she has. Also, it seems NO ONE in town has anything more modern than a flip phone, upon which I call foul. Small towns are awash in smartphones. Jeremy says, “There ain’t no use for fancy around here.” Sweet mulled wine! Is this man having a conversation or reciting lyrics from a Country song? Also, was this line written twenty years ago? Smartphones aren’t considered a luxury anymore. They’re a utility, especially when you live in the middle of bumfuck and need to, say, deposit a fucking check and don’t want to drive two hours round trip. Whatever. Jeremy does not have a dead wife (Hallelujah!), BUT he is mourning a loved one (of fucking course he is) and that has some bearing on his feelings about cell phones. After a night of karaoke where Gail impresses all of the locals except for Scarlet (Morgan Harvill)—who has had a crush on Jeremy since grade school days, because there must be jealousy—Jeremy sets Gail up with a gig teaching music at the local school. Nearly everyone else in town has tried and failed to get the kids ready for the annual Christmas Gala competition, and now, with only two weeks left, Gail is their final hope. In exchange, Jeremy will set her up with a studio apartment and he’ll fix her van. Perhaps, he will also offer to take her out for dinner, share intimate conversations with her, and, dare I say it? Start to become Emotionally Available!! Gail decides that she and the children can help each other by both writing original songs for their upcoming concerts. Because what’s better than the workload you already have? Why, doubling it, of course! 

If you stay at the surface level, the gentle message of this movie is about finding your place and your home, which is all well and good (assuming you can ignore the fact that a huge corporation is claiming responsibility for making this happen). If you let yourself think about it more deeply, though, the movie seems to be saying that you can have it all: The small town life and the quiet career along with the fame and the fortune, which seems a lot less likely, but this is a Christmas movie after all. But here’s a thing that really got under my skin. When Gail is explaining to her student Rosemary (Jordyn Curet) that the song she’s writing has to impress “some of the best music people out there” (so much modesty iHeart Radio), so it has to be perfect. Rosemary responds that nothing has to be perfect and that “cracks happen in our lives just to let the light in.” I mean, mark this down as a place I was not expecting to hear Leonard Cohen poorly paraphrased. However, please also mark me down as unimpressed, because I watched all the way to the end of the credits and they did not give him any credit at all. In case you’re confused, the line they are slightly rewording is: “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Does iHeart Radio also want credit for plagiarism? 

Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:

2-Sometimes I have the distinct desire to remove an eyeball to relieve the pain, but I can’t complain too much. Drugs would dull the discomfort, but I can get through without.

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A HOLLYWOOD CHRISTMAS

Jessica in the top half and Christopher in the bottom half. They are separated by a red block with the title inside. Behind them a re blurry Christmas lights. Tagline: She's directed every love story...but her own.

A Hollywood Christmas is like a matryoshka doll of rom-com Christmas movies, so it should go without saying that if you’ve ever used the words “formulaic” or “predictable” derisively toward this genre, this movie isn’t for you. However, if you’re all in on antagonists becoming romanticists and more fake snow than can possibly be environmentally sound, then be aware that while this movie sometimes gets caught up in its MANY moving parts, it still mostly manages to gently parody and earnestly honor the tried-and-true Christmas rom-com recipe with pretty good results.

Everything is going well filming the pivotal scene, when the big city lawyer serves the owner of Chloe’s Cakes and her loyal pup with a 30 day eviction notice, until one of the extras starts sneezing. Writer and director Jessica (Jessika Van) is disappointed to learn he lied on his application about being allergic to dogs. However, she thinks on her feet and grabs another guy in a suit (Josh Swickard), who she assumes is an extra, to take his place. It turns out, though, that the guy, whose name is Christopher, actually works in finance for The Network, which has recently had some massive executive turnover, and will be closing down the Christmas Movie Division, effective almost immediately. Obviously, Jessica gets to finish making this movie, but not without Christopher’s careful oversight. Jessica is utterly baffled by the decision. “Everyone loves Christmas movies,” she tells Christopher. He, of course, wrinkles his nose and asks, “Do they? Aren’t they all a little predictable?” And here Jessica basically quotes me by saying, “that’s a feature not a bug. That’s the whole point of Christmas movies.” She goes on to ask him if he knows “how hard it is for a female director to build a reputation in this town?” And this is the part where I would like to ask everyone involved in the making of this movie if they intended this as irony? Because while they could have used a female director (or first assistant director or additional 2nd assistant director or writer or cinematographer or editor or set decorator) they didn’t. But they did let us know it’s super duper hard for women out there in this business. Really?!?

Anyway! Back in this movie—inside the movie—Jessica’s assistant Reena (Anissa Borrego) is convinced that everything is going to work out because it is a Christmas movie all on its own. “You’re the lead, like Chloe, trying to do this special Christmas thing, and Christopher is…the big city hotshot, trying to shut you down.” And so, according to Reena, if Jessica and Christopher follow the formula for a predictable Christmas movie, they can save Christmas movies for the entire network! Okay, I agree. It doesn’t sound so great on paper, but let’s be real? How many Christmas rom-com plots actually do? Meanwhile, in trying to massage the fragile egos of the two stars (Riley Dandy and Zak Steiner) of the Christmas movie she is really making, Jessica will accidentally create conditions for a third formulaic romance to play out. 

There are some moments when they show small things behind the scenes—like the faux actors pulling off their wintery attire to reveal summer garb beneath—that add a fun layer to the movie. And there are some funny moments, like when they are searching for Chloe’s canine costar or when they describe some of the thrillers the network will soon be producing. Or when they make fun of Christopher’s extremely white and extremely upper crust roots. I could have done without the teary and protracted intervention to address Jessica’s fatal character flaw feeling quite so much like a meeting of a 12-step program. And, like I said before, there are moments when the whole movie kind of trips over itself like a baby animal whose legs are still too long. However, it’s a fun twist on the usual comfort watch that is self-aware enough to laugh at itself. 

Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:

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HOTEL FOR THE HOLIDAYS (2022)

Georgia is seated on the hotel reception desk and Luke is standing in front of her. Her arm rests on his shoulder and her hand is on her forehead. His arms are crossed. Their names are above and the title below.

On an innumerable day of Christmas movie watching, my streaming service gave to me, 100 misunderstandings, 432 secrets, five romantic arcs, a hotel manager with a plan, a chef hungering for love, a slightly shady Santa, a cupid-like canine, a posing pop star, an abdicating prince, and a humble hotel to house them alllllllll. 

Hotel for the Holidays (2022) is a fluffy Christmas confection that will require almost nothing from your brain. What will it give you in return? Mild entertainment that mostly won’t offend—Santa is an exception, in my opinion—which makes the question of whether it’s good or not mostly moot.

There are five days left until Christmas and things are super duper busy at the Hotel Fontaine in New York City. After checking in a guest (Morgan David Jones), who immediately loses his dog Dickens (Salsa), hotel manager Georgia (Madelaine Petsch) rushes off to help her BFF and hotel concierge Kiki (Jamison Belushi) unload some items for the annual Jingle Mingle—a Christmas Eve event for singles. But before Georgia can even make it out the front door, she falls over (literally) Milton (Neil Crone), the hotel handyman, which is lucky because the old hotel has more than a few things that need his attention. Milton will surely get to them once he’s finished fixing the plumbing behind the bar for Florence (Jayne Eastwood), who needs his help a lot. I wonder why that could be? 

But Georgia has a spot of calm when she looks at her phone and remembers her upcoming meeting with Madame Fontaine (Lisa Langlois), the hotel’s owner, to discuss Georgia’s double cross your heart secret plans to start her own Modern Hotel. It’s important that you get the juxtaposition between the fact that this hotel is old and quirky and that the hotel Georgia wants to own will be new and modern, so the movie will whack you over the head with it a lot. 

Anyway, outside a young guy (Morgan Lever) in a Santa suit with a bell and bucket is staring at Kiki’s backside as she struggles to unload the car. He says, “Ho, ho, ho. How ’bout a donation,” in that voice. You know the voice I mean. I dry heaved. Kiki is organizing the whole entire Jingle Mingle party by herself, and has plans to get ALL of the elements from the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Not representations of them, but actual lords-a-leaping and swans-a-swimming. Sadly, none of these are visible at the party itself. 

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Chef Luke (Mena Massoud) is putting the finishing touches on the grilled cheese sandwich he’s whipping up for Georgia’s lunch. Apparently he makes her lunch every single day because he has a big old crush on her as she does on him because they’re destined to be together, but neither of them know it yet. The other chef (Gabriel Davenport) who has a secret romance going on with one of the maids—this sounds racier than it is in the movie—scolds him for just not telling Georgia how he feels, but of course Luke can’t tell her! It would ruin the movie! Can we pause to talk about the “lunch” he makes for her? Sure, he grates some truffles on top, but that doesn’t make this grilled cheese sandwich look any less pathetic and lonely on the plate. There’s no vegetable with it. No drink. No fruit. Nothing at all except what appears to be a rather cold and congealed grilled cheese that he didn’t even bother to cut in half. Another day he prepares some vegetable sandwich that is literally the size of her head. I’m not sure how she’s supposed to even begin to approach eating it. I don’t understand. This guy is supposed to be some kind of fancypants chef, but he can’t manage to make her anything beyond a sub and diner grilled cheese? Over this lackluster meal there is more banter about how old and quirky the hotel is, which Luke ADORES and Georgia might abhor. But, EXCUSE ME, I must interrupt myself to tell you that here AGAIN there is a reference that seems suspiciously close to the SAME Leonard Cohen lyric that is used (plagiarized) in Holiday Harmony. At one point Luke says to Georgia that “they say cracks let the magic in.” Erm, what? First of all, does magic need cracks to get in? Doesn’t it just get in by virtue of being magic? Second, did “Anthem” play a lot in the background during cocktail parties at the annual convention of the National Society of Screenwriters for the Preservation of Mediocre But Comforting Christmas Movies (which I just made up)? Because that’s the only thing that explains these two weirdly similar phrases. 

But wait! We haven’t even met all our characters. Next up is Pandora (Kayleigh Shikanai), a pop star who is trying to recover from the megaflop of her most recent single. She wants to lay low and reconnect with simplicity—in the presidential suite, of course. Pandora will find her way to spending time doing less diva and more everyday activities, which might not actually change the direction of her life, but will maybe make her grateful? And then there is, of course, the former Prince of Caspernia, now just known as Raymond (Max Lloyd-Jones). (I call foul on any prince, even one from the made up country of Caspernia, being named Raymond. The actor’s real name, Max Lloyd Jones, sounds more princely.) He’s flanked by his bodyguard (AJ Zoldy), who just can’t give up the gig out of devotion or something. 

So, now we have all these people at the hotel Fontaine where one man searches wildly for his dog Dickens until he finds him in the arms of a handsome stranger! Milton and Florence maybe feel some sparks over a broken sink. Pandora plots how to get in touch with herself and common folk. Luke just wants to keep making greasy spoon lunches for Georgia until he dies. Kiki runs all over the city as if she’s not a concierge in a city with all kinds of delivery services at her disposal—unless this is a sly reference to Kiki’s Delivery Service?!? And then there is Georgia who finally has her secret meeting with Madame Fontaine and pitches her plan for a new hotel. It turns out Madame Fontaine is only lukewarm on the plan and wants Georgia to come up with 49% of the money. Where’s a gal going to get that much capital right before Christmas? Oh, I think you know. That’s right, after insisting they are notorious at the Hotel Fontaine for their discretion with guests, Georgia is going to hit up Not-Prince Raymond to become her business partner, which will lead to some misunderstandings with Luke, who will think she’s hitting him up for some, erm, other things. Jealousy will ensue! Misunderstandings will accrue! But all will be solved by Christmas when Georgia declares that maybe modern isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and owning something is not as important as belonging! Uuuuh, are you sure about that? For a while I was concerned that this movie was going to punish Georgia for her ambition, but in the end the movie is really poo-pooing  modernity, which isn’t too surprising since Christmas movies are infamous for their nostalgia for the feeling of nostalgia. And I’m not saying modern is always better, but they should really get someone other than Milton to have a look at the wiring toot sweet.

Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:

2-Sometimes I have the distinct desire to remove an eyeball to relieve the pain, but I can’t complain too much. Drugs would dull the discomfort, but I can get through without.

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