Collaborative Blogging, TV Reviews

Dolly Parton's Heartstrings: Jolene, or: Hallmark Christmas Lite

This year, we’ve endured sadistic nuns, swarms of cockroaches, Instagram stalkers, and zombies frequenting strip clubs, but it was the Christmas Collab that just about broke us. Luckily, our health and happiness always comes before sticking strictly to a theme; and a TV series based on the songs of Dolly Parton seems like the most perfect reason to disrupt a monthly theme. Though, strictly speaking, the TV episode we watched this week is as close as you can get to a Hallmark Christmas movie without actually mentioning Christmas.

The Show:

Heartstrings episode 1: “Jolene”

The Premise:

Inspired by the Dolly Parton song of the same name, Jolene is a flirty troublemaker whose insecurities attract men but ruin her female friendships.

The Ramble:

Based on the classic Dolly Parton song, Jolene fully lives up to her reputation as a gorgeous, self-confident charmer who has a smile for every man she sees. After being fired from her day job at a bank, Jolene is looking forward to letting loose in her evening job at sleazy honky tonk bar Baby Blues.

Meanwhile, housewife Emily struggles to care for her preteen son, keep her marriage alive, and organize the community’s upcoming harvest festival. Looking for some spice in her life (and in lieu of the actual Spice Girls), Emily hears from her gossipy co-organizers about the sketchy bar and plans to meet husband Aaron there for date night.

a woman stands in a living room, surrounded by seven seated women

When Aaron stands up Emily for date night (again), she intends to leave right away until friendly bartender Jolene convinces her to stay. An aspiring singer/songwriter, Jolene performs a duet with club owner Babe (none other than Dolly herself)–and she’s good! After Jolene saves Emily from a creepy bar patron, the two are friends for life. Emily is eager to stay in touch with Jolene and offers her a job teaching guitar to son Jed.

an older woman with teased blond hair sings onstage next to a woman who sings and plays the guitar

All the while, Jolene is having an affair with a married man. In fact, Jolene’s type seems to be complete scumbag, which has Babe worried. Abandoned by her mother as a child, Jolene is quite keen to avoid any sort of emotional attachment, opting instead to focus on her dream of moving to Nashville and making it big as a country music star.

Unlike most of her friendships with other women, Jolene’s relationship with Emily feels very easy and natural. Emily folds Jolene into the family, even though Aaron seems a bit too keen to spend time with the talented young singer with an encyclopedic knowledge of dad music.

a man, woman, and child sit at a table in a crowded bar

With advice from Jolene, Emily attempts to make her love life more interesting. For her part, Emily asks Jolene to perform at the harvest festival–as long as the organizers approve. It’s at this fateful audition that Jolene recognizes her married lover, the husband of one of the women on the board. Disappointed when Jolene tells her the truth, Emily feels caught between her friendships with both women. Worse, Emily begins to feel paranoid that Jolene would be willing to cross the line and have an affair with her own husband, Aaron.

As the harvest festival approaches, Emily distances herself from Jolene and becomes increasingly convinced her husband is having an affair with her former friend. After being heckled during her performance, Jolene confronts Emily, making for the uncomfortably personal fight that can only happen between good friends who know each other well.

Is it too late for Emily and Jolene’s friendship to blossom?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

I didn’t hate this; Dolly swanning in and dispensing words of wisdom every now and then was very welcome.

Based on this first episode, the series seems to be a condensed version of a Hallmark Channel movie. The obvious advantage to this approach is that the episodes are shorter than a film, thus avoiding the problem of a thin plot making the run time feel endless.

The plot here is a bit flimsy, but it’s enough to keep the hour interesting, and there are enough melodramatic twists and turns to entertain. And the emphasis on the friendship between Emily and Jolene may have been predictable to a fault, but it was a refreshing take on the song’s story. It’s a little aggravating to see Jolene feeling sorry for herself because she’s too attractive and charming, but this episode does touch on some of the truths behind female competition and the highs and lows of friendships between women.

What elevates this is the production values–the show looks and sounds good, and the cast works well with the material they have. Above all, the sassy presence of Dolly makes the first episode a good time, even if the story itself isn’t particularly memorable.

Did my blog wife give in to this one’s Southern charm or chase it out of town? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Slay Belles, or: You Can't Take the Christmas out of Santa

Where would we be without passion projects? Certainly, I’ve wasted a healthy share of my life watching awful B films that have clearly been scraped together by a few dedicated souls. On the other hand, these are the films I remember as they’re so strange, so unpolished, and perhaps tacky, that they fall outside of the norm and make their own special statement. This couldn’t be more true for this week’s pick; there’s a lot I would change about this film, but I’m sure it will be difficult to forget.

The Film:

Slay Belles

The Premise:

Off to explore an abandoned theme park for their livestream, a group of friends is caught up an ancient battle between Santa Claus and Krampus.

The Ramble:

Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, Santa and three women have seemingly tied up and threatened a police officer. Why in the world would Santa commit such an outlandish crime? Let’s rewind to 12 hours earlier.

All prepared to work her regular shift for the holidays, responsible one of her friend group Alexi is pleasantly surprised when gal pals Sadie and Dahlia have made arrangements to cover her shift. The duo of Sadie and Dahlia are minor social media stars, relying on their Adventure Girl videos to make their money. When they’re off to adventure, the two don colorful (and quite skimpy) outfits and explore abandoned buildings.

three women walk together outside, dressed in revealing Christmas-themed costumes

Today’s outing is to Santaland, an abandoned amusement park, and Alexi is thrilled to be along for the ride. However, the ladies certainly have their priorities in order when they stop at a grungy roadside bar. Hoping to drink in peace, the locals are less than impressed with the Christmas cheer the three women bring along. Along with the bitterly sarcastic bartender, the ladies meet police officer Sean. He warns them to be careful as they explore because of a string of deaths possibly caused by a bear. Spoiler: it’s not a bear.

Determined to enjoy their day, the ladies don their festive apparel and record their adventures. Little do they know, they are being watched on camera…and by a sasquatch-like creature. After an encounter with the creature, the group seeks shelter in a cozy cabin and attempts to convince the police dispatcher of what they saw.

a large, hairy creature with large horns stands in a cabin, covered with tinsel

Before long, an older biker appears, claiming the cabin belongs to him, aka Santa Claus. As the women believe him to be a deranged stalker, Santa has to work to prove he’s the real thing–and that the creature is none other than the Krampus.

Santa admittedly epitomizes the Baby Boomer stereotype when he tells his sad tale: Krampus, who is inextricably connected with Santa, is no longer needed to scare morality into children. Just like Krampus, Santa is no longer needed either. Santa honestly utters the line “You can take Santa out of Christmas, but you can’t take the Christmas out of Santa.” However, now that Krampus is on the loose, Santa again has a purpose. But, since the two are connected, Krampus needs to be stopped but not killed.

a man with a white beard and biker outfit stands in a cabin, a deer head with a red nose mounted on the wall beside him

In order to lure out the Krampus, our leading ladies will need to behave badly, which is as cringey as you might expect. Somehow, the plan works, and Krampus is in the gang’s clutches–but, inevitably, he escapes (though not before a dramatic lightsaber-style fight with Santa). The group loops Sean into the plan rather unwillingly, though he’s quite forgiving of being tied up and held at gunpoint, all things considered.

three women with brightly colored hair huddle with an elderly bearded man and a man in police uniform

Though armed and fully prepared to put the plan in motion, things do not go as anticipated. The sudden arrival of Mrs. Claus changes everything–but is she as ready to save Christmas as legend would have us believe?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Spoilers below

I’ve got to admit I enjoy some of the creative ideas here and their potential to create a quirky Christmas horror. The surprise reveal of Mrs. Claus is genuinely unexpected, and I instantly loved her character even though her purpose was largely to cackle madly. I connected with her intense hatred of Christmas and found myself rooting for her. And this is the only Christmas film I can think of that ends with a decapitated Santa.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore how incredibly low-budget this film looks and feels, as well as the truly horrendous acting and dialogue. The soundtrack is unforgivable too, featuring a bunch of obnoxiously loud, shitty dubstep (even for dubstep).

I expected our leading ladies to be way more badass considering this film’s title is Slay Belles. For most of the film, they exist to demonstrate the absurdity of social media stardom. Sadie gets especially tiresome as she giggles incessantly about being naughty and waits for her shitty boyfriend to message her back.

Also, there are so many scenes featuring the incompetent police force and dismissive dispatcher; though ostensibly comic relief, these scenes get old so very fast.

But credit where credit’s due: the filmmakers clearly had fun with this and were willing to take their wild ideas and run with them.

Would belle of the ball Christa pause for a selfie with this one or chase it off with a bat? Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Rare Exports, or: Dick the Balls, er, Deck the Halls

We started December on the blog truly expecting we could make it through an entire month of Christmas cheer. I made it perhaps 20 minutes into our first cringingly upbeat film before promptly changing my mind, and I can report similar stats for Christa–and she even shares a significant number of letters in her name with the holiday!

If you can’t escape your true nature, embrace it. Is probably something a Batman villain has said, but it holds up! We’re delighted to celebrate Christmas the Blog Collab way with bloodshed, sinister happenings, and horrible American billionaires. Wait, aren’t we trying to escape reality?

The Film:

Rare Exports

The Premise:

After an American drilling operation disrupts the way of life in a small Finnish town, a young boy tries to prove the evil version of Santa is on the loose.

The Ramble:

In a remote part of Finland, a mysterious American drilling operation has struck gold. Metaphorically, at least–what they’ve really found is a 65-foot-thick layer of sawdust. What’s so great about that, you ask? The sawdust seems to be evidence of a massive icebox for a sacred treasure, apparently with a time limit. Things kick into gear as the crew works to reveal the treasure before December 24th.

a man in a heavy coat stands at the top of a mountain, facing a group of workers at an excavation site

Spying on the worksite are youngsters Pietari and Juuso, who put two and two together rather quickly. Juuso is already rather cynical, but Pietari is quite concerned that Santa may be dead. Pietari takes a familiar course of action to anyone determined to win an argument: he researches the hell out of Santa. However, he doesn’t like the information he finds, learning that, according to many legends, Santa is less jolly and more bloodthirsty than he’s been lead to believe.

Meanwhile, Pietari’s rugged mountain man father, Rauno, is gearing up for a reindeer hunt. He makes a living butchering and selling reindeer meat, and Pietari avoids the shed where the gory work is done by all means necessary. Rauno is a tough but tender dad who makes Christmas a low-key event but is fiercely committed to keeping his son safe–especially as Pietari seems oblivious to the dangers of wolves and other unseen forces lurking in the woods.

After the reindeer hunt turns out to be a dud, Pietari blames himself. It seems something has escaped from the dig site and slaughtered all of the reindeer. The adults blame wolves, but Pietari worries he and Juuso unleashed something sinister when they cut a hole in the fence to sneak into the site.

figures ride on a snowmobile toward a fenced-in area, dramatically snowy mountains in the distance

Fired up and demanding answers, the group heads to the operation’s HQ, only to find the area abandoned. As it turns out, the dig has been abandoned as it’s horribly backfired–whatever mystery is buried in the ice has a heartbeat and malicious intentions.

Shortly after, Rauno’s business partner finds a naked old man dead in an illegal wolf pit the two dug. The two leave the old man lying in the butcher shed as they determine what to do with him. Before they’ve made a decision, the old man begins to come back to life.

Around the same time, the children of the small Finnish town sense they are being watched. Oddly specific things go missing: radiators, potato sacks (but not the potatoes), and the old hairdryer that once belonged to Pietari’s deceased mother. Finally, all of the children except for Pietari disappear.

an elderly man is chained up and hanging from the ceiling of a butcher's shed

When the old man wakes up properly, he’s a bit–make that extremely–aggressive. Suspecting he’s related to the drilling operation and its consequences, Rauno and his friends (including Juuso’s dad) interrogate the old man. Though they learn nothing, they realize he may be Santa Claus. Sensing an opportunity, they offer to sell him to the Americans because that would be something Americans would buy, honestly.

The, uh, “American” with a rather pronounced Finnish accent leading the whole operation is absolutely ecstatic. He’s all too keen to meet the real Santa for reasons I’m not super clear on.

When the two parties meet to make their trade, things don’t go as planned as the men realize their Santa isn’t the real thing. The real Santa is apparently much more sinister. Throw into the mix dozens of naked bearded men, and it’s likely to be an emotionally damaging evening, rather than the nice lumberjack convention this could’ve so easily been.

Will Pietari come up with a clever plan, saving the day while also managing to prove he can be a rugged mountain man when the situation calls for it?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I have to give this film credit for imagination; the title refers to the rare export of Santas from Finland, which the entire film leads up to (spoiler/not really a spoiler?). There are many twists and turns along the way, and the film doesn’t often go in the direction I’d expect. And the cinematography is stunning; all of those dramatic, snowy mountains.

However, I find this film falls just shy of its potential–in part because of how surprisingly…wholesome it is? True, this is the only Christmas film I can think of featuring full-frontal male nudity. And, like, a lot of full-frontal male nudity. But I was expecting horror, and we didn’t get a lot on this front. We didn’t even get to see the real Santa except as a chunk of ice with horns, and I would’ve at least liked a glimpse! The beginning of the film is quite creepy, but the last half or so is almost as sickly sweet as some of the Hallmark-style Christmas movies we’ve watched this month. The emphasis is on Pietari gaining confidence, saving the day, becoming a man, etc. And let’s talk about that, shall we?

There are some super uncomfortable messages about masculinity here. One–Pietari is maybe 10 or so? And yet there’s a lot of focus on him huntin’/shootin’/fishin’ to prove how manly he is. As a character, he was adorable and I never wanted him to grow up. Maybe just let a child be a child? And the men make a rather clumsy attempt to interrogate the old man, which just comes across as mean-spirited even if he is an evil Santa. I also can’t remember any women in this film at all, which is…problematic, to say the least. The idea of a rugged manly community feels like the ultimate ideal in this movie, rather than an unsustainable way of life destined to doom your chances of survival pretty damn fast.

I admit there are definitely parts of this film I’ve taken too seriously, as it’s very darkly funny. But my brain cannot get around the fact that the Finnish dude bros in this film are supposed to have successfully started a business built around selling people. It’s unclear to me if this is something to be frowned upon; the characters involved are all depicted in a pretty positive light. Even if you take this exclusively from the horror movie angle, you should not be selling an ancient evil for profit! It will come back! Period.

Would my festive blog wife give this one a Santa suit to cover itself or send it back to the pit it came from? Find out in her review here!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Let It Snow, or: The Spanx of Weather

As we discovered last week, there is no trace of romance in my wintry heart–though I blame our film’s deliberate lack of intelligence and originality for my stoic reaction. This week’s pick on the Christmas Collab throws teens into the mix. Surely things can only improve as a result?

The Film:

Let It Snow

The Premise:

The stories of teens in a small town at Christmas time intertwine as they experience romance, friendship, disappointment, and the magic of the season.

The Ramble:

Laurel, Illinois: the folksy Midwestern town that seems perpetually covered under a dusting of fluffy snow and probably smells of just-baked gingerbread. As the magical holiday season begins, the teenagers of this town are in for a roller coaster ride of emotions. Even more so than usual.

Among the local teens are Angie and Tobin, who have been besties since the age of 5. Just as Tobin works up the nerve to let Angie know he likes her as more than a friend, sensitive college jock JP enters the picture. Instead of enjoying a chill day watching movies together, Tobin ends up attending JP’s party, a questionable and somewhat dangerous mix of broomball and beer.

a teen boy and girl stand side by side with a snowy landscape behind them

Unfortunately for Tobin, JP seems to be the perfect combination of sweet, conventionally handsome, and masculine in a non-toxic sort of way. After stealing a keg from the college party, the trio are on the run from the twins (rumored to have a criminal record) hosting the event. As the day goes on, Tobin’s tolerance for Angie’s new romantic interest wears thin, and the two friends end up fighting.

Meanwhile, bffs Dorrie and Addie are focused on romances of their own. Dorrie is excited to begin a new relationship with Kerry after a single but perfect date. On the other hand, Addie is laser-focused on keeping her boyfriend’s attention though he doesn’t seem especially worth the effort.

standing in a restaurant, a teen girl holds a small pig, facing another teen girl

When Dorrie dishes out harsh truths about Addie’s poor decisions and addiction to drama, shots are fired (effectively). Additionally, Kerry shows up with her friends during Dorrie’s shift at Waffle Town and refuses to acknowledge her–even when Dorrie brings her an adorable Harry Potter-themed plate of waffles. What gives?

Just outside of the city limits are local girl Julie and famous singer Stuart, both traveling by train. When the snow strands them, the two make their way to the old standby for breakfast, Waffle Town. Lonely during the holidays, Stuart tags along to Julie’s Christmas celebrations, which include a rather New Age pageant and assembling a miniature Christmas village. Though Julie enjoys spending the season with her family, she is conflicted: just as she has been accepted to Columbia with a generous scholarship, her mother has been diagnosed with a serious illness.

two teens sled down a snowy hill

Truly, Waffle Town is the thread tying these stories together–along with the party aspiring DJ Keon plans for that evening. Add to this mix Tin Foil Lady (played by darling of the blog Joan Cusack), local legend and weirdo, and we’ve checked off all items on the list of quirky and charming Christmas characters.

Will this assortment of characters get the merry Christmas season they’ve wished for?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

You know, not that much happens in this film–and what does happen is predictable AF (and most likely forgettable AF). That being said, I didn’t hate this, and here’s why.

The emphasis here is decidedly on romance, but it’s not the only type of relationship valued in our film. Friendship is important too, as well as family, self-respect, and open-mindedness. Addie, who admittedly annoyed the bejeezus out of me, begins to recognize toxic patterns and behaviors, which I always find incredibly cathartic. The Julie/Stuart story line is also a bit aggravating as it’s the most melodramatic and least believable. Nevertheless, I was actually rooting for most of the characters to arrive at their (inevitable) realizations–even the ones who annoyed me.

Biggest complaint is the character names are impossible to keep track of except for the ones wearing name tags in Waffle Town. I dare you to fight me on this.

Would my wintry blog wife hop on a sled with this one or leave it out in the cold? Read her review here to find out!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Knight Before Christmas, or: Orange You Glad It's December?

It’s Christmas time on the Collab, so prepare yourself for picturesque snowy scenes, story lines so sweet they’ll give you a cavity, and one or two sarcastic quips. Make that a lot of sarcasm, especially when so many of our Netflix offerings for Christmas are…quite different from our usual fare.

The Film:

The Knight Before Christmas

The Premise:

A medieval knight is sent forward in time to present day Ohio, where he meets an unlucky in love teacher.

The Ramble:

Merry Olde England, 1334. Not that this matters–what’s important is that you know our opening scene is medieval AF complete with chain mail and full tankards of ale all around. The Christmas celebrations here revolve around hunting, though the hunt will be short-lived for knight Sir Cole with probably a dozen middle names and a surname I forget. When he encounters an old crone in the woods, Cole is thrown forward in time with a prophecy regarding his destiny: the knight has until the end of Christmas Day to figure things out or he never will. Which, all things considered, is pretty shitty as all of this is supposedly a reward for his kindness.

a man in chainmail armor stands in front of a Christmas light display

In the present (in a made up town in Ohio), high school teacher, devoted aunt and sister, and all-around goody two-shoes Brooke is soaking in all of the Christmas spirit yet feels there’s something missing. Could it be she’s missing her deceased parents? Still nursing a broken heart after ditching her cheating ex-boyfriend? Clearly yes, but obviously the biggest problem here is that she’s given up on the idea of true love.

a woman stands in a classroom, facing a teenager

This changes when, on a snowy evening, Brooke hits a stranger with her car–none other than Sir Cole, her literal knight in shining armor. Believing Cole is sweet but the victim of temporary amnesia, Brooke invites him to stay in her guest house. However, when Brooke’s guest goes hunting for skunks and lights a bonfire in the front lawn, it becomes clear that Cole is more than just slightly quirky in a charming sort of way. Cole manages to redeem himself with those most beautiful words in the English language: “What say you and I binge watch together?”

As one might expect, Christmas activities abound, providing ample opportunity for Brooke and Cole to get to know each other while having virtually zero chemistry. Cole gets involved with the charity event Brooke is hosting because of course she fucking is. But even after an unnecessary subplot in which Cole saves Brooke’s niece from falling into a frozen lake, he is no closer to discovering his quest of destiny or even getting some onscreen action. At least he gets 50 cents and an orange as a Christmas present from Brooke (there is a reason for this as explained in the film, but for fuck’s sake–anyone who tried this with me would get an orange chucked at their head).

a man and woman walk through a Christmas-themed park, linking arms

With the deadline to make Cole’s dreams come true rapidly approaching, our knight in shining armor seems destined to return to his own time. But surely he’s coming back for those fancy armor gloves he left behind? Oh, right–and true love?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

I hated everyone in this film even as this makes me question the person I’ve become. Admittedly this film was a bit of a roller coaster, as I enjoyed the first few minutes and the fun premise. However, I started watching the clock before we were even halfway through this adventure, which wastes a cute setup to cross off all of the made-for-TV Christmas movie cliches.

I found the message about charity insufferable and honestly rather gross. One of the characters in need of support throughout the film is a single dad who works about 200 hours a week yet still finds the time to give back by volunteering. Brooke decides she will use the charity evening to appreciate this dude’s hard work and straight up gives him a huge chunk of the money raised. This is supposed to be heartwarming, but to me came across as incredibly condescending and embarrassing. Honestly, this kind of public gesture feels more about seeking praise than actually helping people in need. And I don’t even know where to begin with the idea of charity being essentially synonymous with giving money.

As a lover of period dramas, I recognize the hypocrisy in this statement, but I found romanticizing the medieval period an odd choice. Seriously, Cole’s hygiene would have been so much worse than depicted, and he would have been virtually incomprehensible–and, most likely, wildly inappropriate. And I’ve seen my share of technical challenges on Bake Off; medieval baking was disgusting, and there’s no way Cole would’ve managed to make anything remotely appetizing by our standards during his Christmas baking session.

I fully accept how strange and perhaps worrying it is that I’m so angry about this innocuous film. I’m sure that, at least in part, this film is a victim of the lack of clear focus for my anger in our topsy-turvy world. Either way, I gave zero fucks about the characters in this film or their ludicrous devotion to the concept of true love. Which is totally something a villain in this film would say–if there had been even a hint of conflict during the entire run time.

Is this the year I finally glow from within because my Christmas spirit is so bright?  Methinks not.

Would my lady blog wife travel across time itself for this one or throw its 50 cent Christmas gift back in its face? Find out in her review here!