If You Believe (1999)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

If You Believe (1999) from Hearst Entertainment Productions
Rated TV-PG. Drama, Romance, Family Film, Christmas

Description: Jaded book editor Susan Stone (Ally Walker) has pretty much given up on finding happiness in life. But after receiving a hard bump on the head, Susan gets a strange visit from a cheerful and plucky girl named Suzie (Hayden Panettiere)…who looks an awful lot like Susan’s niece, Alice…and kind of like Susan herself. While she’s determined to be rid of her unwanted little guest, adult Susan may have to take a detour to rediscover her inner child first.

My thoughts: “Once upon a time we believed in love and magic. Then one day you stopped. That’s why you never found it…
“We need to fix that.”

There aren’t many made-for-TV flicks that end up on my all-time favorite films list. But this is one of them. Yes, the critical writing/editing/publishing industry aspect of the story is a huge hook for my literary self. And, yeah, this movie has much that wholesome holiday movies are made of, with the Christmas cheer and warmth and romance of it all.

But this isn’t just another hour and a half of predictable holiday fluff. I mean, yes, you can predict what will ultimately happen in a holiday film about a modern-day Scrooge lady. Still, this story hits some very real points along the way, uncomplicated but wise nuggets. The humor and heart doesn’t resort to outpourings of slapstick silliness or easy schmaltz. And when there are tears (not the comedic ones but the real ones), they’re unforced, unpretentious. You see the tears, and you get it.

Not to mention how the joint heroines leading this story play their acting duet well together, with a big sister/little sister “on the way to being BFFs” kind of chemistry. And as for the romance thread, where Susan and a possible Prince Charming are concerned—yup, there’s some fun, down-to-earth chemistry there, too.

When I first watched this movie years ago, I expected to be pleasantly entertained, and I was. I didn’t expect to find a truly great story, though. But I did. And I’ve been watching it every year since then.


Confession: I’ve wanted to post this movie on my blog for years, but I couldn’t find a trailer for it. Now, well—this clip is the closest I could get. 😀



When Calls the Heart: After Five Seasons, I’m Feeling Iffy

*Be advised: my reflections here include some When Calls the Heart: Season Five spoilers.*

While the TV show’s plot reflects a more recent spin-off series from Janette Oke and her daughter, Laurel Oke Logan, the show gets its name from Book One in the Canadian West series by Janette, first published in 1983.

I’m a big fan of wholesome television, and I’ve got quite a love for historical fiction books and historical/period dramas. Even so, after finally watching the fifth season of When Calls the Heart, I’m not sure if I’ll be going on to watch the sixth.

I’ve heard a Heartie or two compare WCTH to one of my all-time favorite television shows: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. As someone with an appreciation for both shows (as well as admiration for the spirit in which Janette Oke has authored her trailblazing Christian Fiction books), to the WCTH and Dr. Quinn comparison, I must give a respectful but honest “no.”

Neither of these television shows is flawless. But WCTH doesn’t compare to Dr. Quinn.

I’ve not read this novel yet, but I hope to do so sooner than later!

While both shows have their own kind of beauty, Dr. Quinn has a depth and grittiness to it that WCTH simply does not have, and I don’t think WCTH aspires to do so. For viewers who are serious about complex, nuanced, hard-hitting stories; impressive, believable acting; and historical drama that thoughtfully incorporates, reflects, and gives relevant commentary on major and minor aspects of history, Dr. Quinn is easier to take seriously.

Not to mention Dr. Quinn’s racially diverse cast of characters, all with their own rich stories woven into the whole, as opposed to the few, nameless faces of color that hover in the background of WCTH sometimes. Apart from a moment I recall from an earlier season, the actors of color on WCTH never get to say anything besides the brief, negligible, faint comments they might make, again, somewhere in the background.

(If I’ve missed or forgotten an episode or two when a person of color is more than just a background face and actually plays a consequential role on WCTH, someone let me know.)

Now, I don’t consider WCTH to be poor at what it does. Hallmark has a brand, I believe they know their audience, and they cater to it. What’s more, there are moments when WCTH really does shine.

Still, much of the time, the shine, or shininess, goes overboard. The tone and execution is often cheesy and hyper-bright. Plus, there are episodes when the show relies on almost nonstop background music. There’s a difference between well-placed music that enhances scenes here and there, and music that doesn’t stop long enough to let the acting or story stand or build on its own for a while. Too much music in the background can make the emotion feel more forced or manufactured than organic. (I will say, though, that the music in this show isn’t as excessive or overbearing as it is in some Hallmark movies I’ve watched.)

Hope Valley (formerly Coal Valley, when it had an open coal mine) is supposed to be a frontier town, with dirt/gravel roads, fields and woods all around, horses for transportation, and all that. Yet, the actors—the female ones especially—tend to look so…shiny. Super smooth, pink, and glossy, even when their characters are supposed to be makeup-free, and not a hair or a flowing curl out of place. (Also, while film and television actors/actresses often wear wigs and hair pieces onscreen, it shouldn’t be obvious. Erin Krakow, playing Elizabeth, is a lovely actress, but it’s unfortunate that her wig in Season Five looks as unnatural as it does.) Even AJ Foster, a female outlaw living a rough life on the run, always has on thick, dark eye makeup and conspicuous lip color.

Because Elizabeth comes from an affluent family in Hamilton, I can go with some of her wardrobe choices. But when the outfits of so many of these frontier townswomen (several widows among them, who aren’t supposed to be well-to-do) are light and powdery or appear rich in color and texture, it’s hard to get a “frontier” vibe from them.

I know that television aims to give viewers something nice to look at, but WCTH seems rather blatant about wanting to look bright and pretty more than it looks realistic.

Granted, I might not have said all this if not for the passing of Jack’s character. It’s tough for a television series to lose one of its leads, and with Daniel Lissing’s choice to leave the show, Jack’s death was the only option that would ultimately make sense for his character. Yet, although I found it to be a rushed and anticlimactic plot twist so soon after Jack and Elizabeth’s long-awaited wedding, and a part of my imagination isn’t fully settled or convinced by a major, sudden death that happens offscreen and shows nothing afterwards but a closed coffin and then a closed grave, I want it to be clear that Lissing’s exit isn’t the only issue that’s made me iffy about continuing to watch the show.

Again, I’m a lover of wholesome, hopeful television—life-affirming stories that make you laugh, cry, sigh, and remember what’s good in the world. And even with the aspects of WCTH that have bothered me, I’ve experienced enough enjoyment to keep watching it through five seasons.

But I’m not sure yet if the show’s good points are enough to bring me back for Season Six. I might rather spend that time rewatching Dr. Quinn yet again, to get my “wholesome historical” fix with excellent writing, depth, diversity, and grit to go with it.

We’ll see.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018) from Blueprint Pictures
Rated TV-14. Drama, Historical, Romance, War

My thoughts: “You have to write about them… This is your story to tell, as sure as I’m sitting here. And you will not be right until you do.”

Every writer needs to be inspired. In the aftermath of World War II, Juliet, a writer in London, follows the tug of inspiration to visit a hodgepodge of book club members on the island of Guernsey.

And here we have a lovely and compelling story about the blessing of books in the midst of horror, and finding people with whom one belongs. Though it didn’t captivate me at every moment, this is one of those rare instances when I like a film better than the novel it’s based on.

Granted, for me, a story told entirely through characters’ written correspondence does not work in a novel’s favor. While it has its creative points, that type of (rather choppy) storytelling tends to make me feel removed from a story, as if I’m reading bits “about” what’s happening and never get to step into the story itself and experience it right along with the characters.

The screen brings these people to life in a different way, making them more accessible. I couldn’t be so indifferent to Juliet here as I was when I read about her. This story truly benefits from giving its audience a chance to look into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society members’ eyes, and having the music there to enhance certain images is a notable advantage.

I enjoyed seeing the vitality of book discussions, the illustration of what literature, and the sharing of literature, does for us. Plus, being a writer myself, I’m partial to books and movies about writers. I’ll admit I cried while watching Juliet truly go to work toward the end (well, maybe I cried through most of the last fifth of the film or so), and the opening of the closing credits is just brilliant.

I also got a kick out of seeing the nice handful of actors from Downton Abbey, but that’s beside the point.

My corresponding reading: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.



The Out-of-Towners (1970)

Film reviews are subjective. I tend to rate films not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Out-of-Towners (1970) from Paramount Pictures
Rated G. (I personally would have rated it PG for brief, mild language, but that’s me.) Comedy, Family Appropriate

Description (from the film case): Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are perfectly matched as the hapless Kellermans of Twin Oaks, Ohio, in Neil Simon’s tumultuous comedy hit. The top candidate for a prestigious promotion at his company’s corporate headquarters in New York City, George (Lemmon), accompanied by his wife Gwen (Dennis), is all set to take a bite out of The Big Apple—only to quickly discover that The Big Apple can bite back! Their dream trip to the big city turns into a nightmare of diverted flights, forfeited reservations, missed trains, sinister strangers, paralyzing strikes, lost luggage…and uproarious laughs for all who experience this hilarious screen classic…

My thoughts: When I’m really in the mood for humor, I tend to reach for some of the clean, old-fashioned stuff.

This film is a ridiculously good time. It’s not even like I’m laughing hysterically through it whenever I watch it, as the movie doesn’t hit me on a hysterical level. Don’t get me wrong—it’s super funny. But it’s an easier kind of funny, where I don’t have to be rolling on the floor to still be thoroughly amused and entertained.

But don’t get me wrong x2—by “easier,” I don’t mean the film is flat, simplistic, or predictable stuff you can turn on while you’re busy scrolling through your phone. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the little stuff that’s a part of this movie’s genius.

And that genius really shines in the last few minutes, when such a real moment hits spot-on and brings it all together, in case you didn’t know you weren’t watching just a bunch of fluff the whole time. It’s a fun film that means something.