THE HALLMARK CHANNEL
The set up is always the same: widowed (or cheated upon) single spouse seeks meaning (via faith) and has the answer dropped into their lap (while reluctant at first) only to pray or seek wisdom through their child at which point a near tragedy (only barely averted) reminds all players of their divine fortune. Roll credits. Where’s my check?
-George Sawaya, describing with eerie precision the Hallmark movie formula
Ah, the Hallmark Channel: an imaginary land where the Nazis won the war and no one seems to care. Indeed, for metaphysically savvy viewers, a Hallmark film can challenge our sensibilities in ways heretofore unfathomable. For example, in Hallmark Land, if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you don’t exist. Or if you do (exist, but don’t celebrate Christmas), you will be celebrating by the end of the film. You will be celebrating. You will, be celebrating…
Indeed, when settling in for a Hallmark feature — which, of course, is generally late at night, after you’ve exhausted your bandwidth on reality’s harrowing trials — it’s often difficult to reconcile the fact that you are not experiencing the clumsy overtures to a softcore porno or a badly-made horror movie. Indeed, Hallmark films truly are a gift from the bowel’s of God’s awful mystery.
So without further ado, I present to you the first three movies, kicking off a month of Hallmark film reviews:
But first, we’ll need a metric by which to rate each film. Apropos of Hallmark’s total surrender to all notion of reality — and thanks to our rating system’s creator, Katie Rainey — we’ll assign each film a mystical creature that corresponds to the film’s quality to a highly arbitrary degree. Five such designations should do the trick:
Otter: Not the animal you want stickered atop your writing homework. An otter means that the movie was not just bad, but unwittingly bad — oblivious to not only how bad it is but also how bad they are as people for making such a bad movie without knowing that they did this very bad thing.
Horse: Meh. It’s a horse. We’ve all seen a horse.
Elephant: You’ve done just about alright. You didn’t wow us, but you didn’t dip your roll of film in a bucket of Terrence Malick’s jizz and call it art. Maybe you could’ve been a little more obvious about the plot — us Hallmark viewers really need to see the cogs churning inside the profoundly dumb actors that are hired to robot these roles. Or perhaps the opposite — a twist we saw coming so early, we abandoned it in its protracted absence, only to have it subvert its obviousness by playing on our impatience. There’s no one way to make a Hallmark movie (there are just about two). An Elephant suggests that a producer or director has yet to learn (that there’s exactly one other way).
Peacock: All the pieces for a masterpiece are on the storyboard. You’ve got your robotic protagonist, programmed to function in society with barely latent despair despite/because all he/she (no theys allowed in Nazi-ahem I mean Hallmark land) has endured (dead spouse/jettisoned dreams/spiritual bankruptcy). You’ve got Christmas on the horizon. You’ve got your small-town lunk/babe whose mature sublimation of their own existential malaise/coffered tragedy plays perfect foil to the protagonist’s hardened exterior. Maybe you’ve even got your hateable SO, the vainglorious city boy, someone to throw popcorn at as you secretly hope he pops that shirt off — cue the cheesy 70s muzak for some quick softcore — it’s what we’ve all been waiting for. But there’s just one thing missing. It’s not tangible, this one thing. Or it is, and it’s many things. Either way, the Peacock is a perfect film — except, in the spirit of its namesake, it tries just a little too hard to prove its pretty.
Rainbow Sugar Bear: The multiple orgasm of Katie’s rating system. Indeed, the last time we witnessed a Hallmark feature worthy of a Rainbow Sugar Bear, Katie laughed so hard, she said it felt like she’d just had sex, of which we have video evidence (of enjoying the film, not sex….you skeevy pervs).
ONTO THE REVIEWS ALREADY!
A Christmas Tree Miracle: First of all, let’s articulate the elephant in the room: Kevin Sizemore, who plays David George, feckless patriarch of the George family, looks like Rob Riggle’s overly earnest younger brother. At least in this movie.
A Christmas Tree Miracle stands out as departure from typical Hallmark fare in one resounding way: it is not a love story. Or, it is a love story, but not a tale of romance. Rather, the George’s are a family estranged from one another within their own homes. Our patriarch, David, thinks only about work. His wife, Julie, is — and this is a direct quote from Wikipedia — “frazzled by the season.” Teen siblings Nick and Natalie fuss over their mostly fabricated conflicts. Meanwhile, little Nina plays the cello like she’s ready for first chair at Carnegie Hall, yet no one can spare her a rumpled fuck.
A Christmas Tree Miracle’s central conflict mirrors that of The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, and Rosemarie DeWitt, in which Affleck’s character — also a patriarch — is fired after the financial crisis. Drama abounds when Affleck finds the job market far more resistant to overpaid corporate suits than he’d anticipated.
This is what happens in A Christmas Tree Miracle — only, like the Hallmarkian idiots they are, the George’s maintain their decadent lifestyle to disguise that David was fired. The charade is maintained until they’ve drained their savings and sold off all their additional properties and such — whereupon they finally fess up to their kids, who are understandably if a bit petulantly resentful.
Fast forward through David begging his actually estranged pop for dough, the family’s tour of local motels, the general despair involved with losing all your shit, and a moment of totally trivial generosity when David gives an old man a coffee so he won’t get kicked out of the shop for not buying anything. One night David throws a conniption over the idea of his wife going to work (typical Dave) and fumes off to the coffee shop, where he runs into Senator John Cutter, whose unfortunate mustache and generally douchey demeanor foreshadow some shady dealings: Cutter offers to hire David to develop factory projects if David can find suitable land. Elated by his fortune, David races back into his wife’s apologetic arms (why is she apologizing?) only to find that they’re being thrown out of the hotel because their card was declined.
Remember that arbitrary moment of magnanimity? With the old man and the coffee? Yeah well the old man’s name is Henry, and after finding the family asleep in a church, he invites them to stay with him on his tree farm — but not just any old tree farm: a Christmas tree farm. In exchange for their labor in the fields, Henry puts them up indefinitely. Meanwhile, in exchange for Henry’s altruism, David reports back to Cutter that this tree farm is perfect for the development project.
Interpolation: It’s very important, as an audience member, to make predictions throughout the film and to hold to those predictions. And it was at this moment that, without hesitation, I bellowed, “EMINENT DOMAIN.” Why did I call out EMINENT DOMAIN, which, according to Google’s dictionary, means ‘the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation’? I proclaimed this phrase with stentorian purpose because the tree farm was unprofitable (gave away trees for free) — which does nothing for anyone living outside the overly dystopian confines of Hallmark Land and in the real world of ruthless capitalism — whereas the prospective warehouses and factories would present economical benefits to the community. I therefore predicted that, in the inevitable event that David changes his mind about developing the land (the ‘divine fortune’ in George Sawaya’s Hallmark formula), Cutter will put into effect this convenient little piece of law.
Which is why we need to talk about Henry for a second — i.e. his decision to tend to trees that he gives away is merely the thin crust of this old cod’s extremely odd personage.
Hallmark movies and those of their ilk asymptotically approach two barely distinct genres of film: porno or horror film. But Henry (played by Terry Kiser, of Weekend at Bernie’s fame) took the subversive terror, which, along with blue-balling innuendo, Hallmark producers indubitably coach their talent to slip almost imperceptibly into their performances, a little too far. First of all, in playing the red herring for horror, Henry slips us the idea that he might actually be Jack Torrance’s long-lost brother from The Shining.
Every time he put that black hat on I was left to wonder whether he had any wet work penciled in for the afternoon, which bank he meant to hold up next, or if he’d simply slay the George family right there in broad daylight.
But it’s not just that face, whose physiognomy delineates unequivocal psychopathy. It’s the fact that he invited strangers to live his house — indefinitely. It’s his Pennywise-like alacrity, as if inexorably luring his suspiciously credulous victims into a trap made of his deranged happiness. It’s that fucking sprig of pine he sniffs on, all the live-long day, just sniffing at this sprig like any old psychopath would to get his olfactory fixation. It’s the way he calls David George, our unwitting patriarch, “the man with two first names.” It’s his backstory — dead wife and kid — that lends one the sneaking suspicion that, when confabbing with little Nina, he’s only one or two synaptic leaps from murdering her and the rest of the Georges.
I don’t care what I saw onscreen: Henry is a fucking monster, folks, and his death roughly 2/3 of the way through the movie came as a relief that the George family will never know. That he taught the Georges the ‘value of hard work’ or ‘the spirit of giving’ or ‘left them everything in his will’ moves the needle on my suspicion meter not a fucking millimeter.
Anyway, sometime before Henry’s death — his demonic spirit having left him in a lawn chair, that fucking sprig in his hand — David George, the man with two first names, has a change of heart about backchanneling with Cutter. Cutter, running for reelection, has no fucks to give, and shows up at the farm with some Colonel Sanders-looking magnate in tow. Big fucking surprise: Colonel Sanders turns out to fucking love Christmas. So he sides with the Georges, finding despicable Cutter’s opportunism and exploitation of a benevolent tree farm.
Cue Cutter’s invocation of EMINENT DOMAIN — but the barn door (they were haggling in some barn) opening onto a sea of protesters that someone got wind of the government’s still-unformed plan to expropriate the farm for commercial use, and the spirit of Christmas has thusly been absorbed into the meaty gears of the George squad.
So. The rating. The all-important assignation of qualitative animal to film of questionable quality. Katie and I, we deliberated. We deliberated and we deliberated. We took a break and deliberated some more. Clouds scudded and birds twittered and the light changed, and all the while, we were deliberating. Elephant or Peacock. Peacock or Elephant.
We agreed: it was a solid Hallmark. For an off-brand palliative, they’d done a good job of recreating the feeling, the gestalt, the zeitgeist of the proverbial moment (i.e. formulaic melodrama-as-barely-latent-porno/horror/white nationalist propaganda). In the end, Henry couldn’t carry the entire load. Someone else had to step up. Was it going to be David, the man with two first names? Nina, the wunderkind cellist to whom no one can spare a solitary fuck? Or Cutter, the poster-boy D-bag politician with a trash ‘stache to tickle even the stingiest pickles?
In the end, we couldn’t justify the Peacock. While A Christmas Tree Miracle certainly spread its weird-ass wings, whose blackened feathers indeed scared the fuck out of me, we needed a love interest to feel truly situated in Hallmark land. Also the script sucked and the delivery was even worse.
WHAT A RIDE
Well, I hope you enjoyed my first Hallmark movie review. I was hoping to get to Drinksgiving and Married by Christmas, but I find myself simply too enthused to limit these reviews to just a few paragraphs. So tune in for two more reviews, coming this Wednesday and Friday, to see whether off-brand Hallmark film, Drinksgiving, can make a play at greatness, and whether Katie’s bold prediction that Paul is gay comes to fruition in Married by Christmas. Until then, we’ll leave you with this reaction to a Rainbow Sugar Bear (review to come this week!):