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A holiday movie marathon's goal: to make this Grinch grin
'Tis the season when Greg turns into The Grinch.
That's how some friends and colleagues refer to me this time of year, due to my habit of greeting the holiday season with folded arms. While they are spreading cheer around houses and offices and buying Christmas trees in early November, I am more apt to be a bit grumpy until about Dec. 23.
I do find the Grinch label a bit unfair (for one thing, I only get furry and green when I'm sick). But I admit the pressurized Christmas crunch, which seems to kick off earlier every year — like September — and the corresponding onslaught of holiday tunes in stores, massive crowds and gridlock traffic can make me more janky than jolly.
Attempting to give my spirit a jump-start this year, I came up with an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea.
I would undertake a daylong marathon of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, those cinematic chestnuts that pop up annually with holly-covered titles like "Marry Me at Christmas," "Christmas Next Door," "Miss Christmas" and "With Love, Christmas" and "The Mistletoe Inn."
Every year, starting in late October and continuing until late December, the cable channel presents a nearly nonstop parade of original holiday-themed movies. (The only break is a four-hour Monday-Friday block of home improvement series "Home & Family.")
The programming stunt has become a popular holiday staple for Hallmark, which this year added 21 new original movies to its lineup. The films often feature familiar faces from vintage shows like "Full House," "The Wonder Years" and "Beverly Hills 90210."
With their slick, colorful production designs and lighthearted tones, the films have long attracted a loyal fan base of viewers who binge them while sipping hot cocoa or wrapping presents. They embrace the Hallmark formula: freshly scrubbed performers, romantic tension (but no sex), small-town values, family harmony and caroling children.
The kids are all adorable. At least one key character — adult or youth — is facing the loss of a loved one, but their grief is healed by the holidays. Hugs are plentiful, and happy endings are a given.
My colleagues embraced my concept with elf-like glee, eager to see whether a Hallmark marathon would boost my holiday spirit. They outfitted a small viewing room with a tree and other holiday decorations, set me up with eggnog and cookies and picked out the program.
The selections were:
"Christmas in Evergreen"
Ashley Williams stars as Allie, a veterinarian in small-town Vermont who is preparing to move to Washington, D.C., to start a new life with her hunky boyfriend. (We know he's the bad guy because he works in an office high-rise, looks like Tom Cruise and flies in a helicopter.) But her plan is (merrily!) foiled after meeting a traveling, recently widowed man and his young daughter who become enchanted by the town's all-consuming Christmas fever and a magical, wish-granting snow globe.
"Christmas at Holly Lodge"
Sophie (Alison Sweeney) owns a picturesque mountain lodge where a "Christmas miracle" occurs each year, but it has fallen on hard times. She forgets her financial woes when she becomes attracted to a handsome visitor, Evan (Jordan Bridges), but is dismayed to discover he's been dispatched by a greedy developer to purchase the property.
"The Christmas Train"
Dermot Mulroney is Tom Langdon, a journalist who takes a cross-country train trip at Christmas. Passengers include movie director Max Powers (Danny Glover) who is accompanied by an aspiring screenwriter — and Tom's ex — Eleanor (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, sister of Ashley of "Evergreen" fame above). The former flames battle before their love slowly re-ignites.
"Switched for Christmas"
Hallmark Channel MVP Candace Cameron Bure ("Fuller House") — "We call her one of our queens of Christmas," said a spokesperson — pulls double duty as estranged twin sisters. Divorced single mom Chris and hard-driving never-married executive Kate switch lives to organize their respective Christmas par-ties. Mayhem and romance ensue.
I embarked on my nightmare before Christmas around noon and, except for a very short break, watched the films back-to-back, exiting with a red-eyed stumble after 7 p.m.
So did a day of Hallmark movies make my heart grow three sizes?
I will answer that in a minute, but here's what I can tell you.
In Hallmark movies, subtlety takes a holiday. The tones are upbeat, plots are predictable, dialogue is cheesy — when faced with an obstacle in "Christmas in Evergreen" Allie's go-to line is "I've got an idea!" — characters are one-dimensional and performances undistinguished. The relentless focus on the restorative power of holiday celebrations can be heavy-handed: Key plotlines revolve around whether man-made or natural obstacles will derail the festival, party, family gathering, etc.
The films also take place in a universe that is predominantly white. Though some of this year's crop feature actors like Glover, Holly Robinson Peete and Sheryl Lee Ralph, their characters are all supporting roles, and their presence is more awkward than organic. None of the leads in this season's new films are performers of color, and ethnicities other than black are all but invisible.
The primary goal of the movies, despite their flaws, is to be uplifting and inspirational. There were times during the marathon when I did feel a tug at the heart or a tear in my eye. Resistance was futile.
The most notable moment came during "Christmas at Holly Lodge" when Ralph, playing a grieving widow staying at the resort, arranged a last-minute video call between a sad little girl and her father serving in Afghanistan. Ralph then leads guests in a chorus of "Joy to the World."
That scene's emotional effectiveness helped establish "Christmas at Holly Lodge" as my favorite of the bunch. It also illustrated how Hallmark can move beyond its traditional cookie-cutter approach to reach viewers outside its core fan base.
Ralph's overall performance conveyed the loneliness, pain of grief from loss and other issues many struggle with during this season. The film also illuminated how her character's healing came not from a holiday celebration but through helping another person feeling the blues.
Including more layered characters and scenes showing the power of true human connection would go a long way toward making the slate more relevant and relatable.
Did my heart grow three sizes? I don't know about that. But, thanks to Hallmark, perhaps one or two.