By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 03, 2020 at 7:01 PM

Snuggle up with some holiday cheer as OnMilwaukee shares stories of everything merry and bright in the spirit of the season.

Brought to you by Noel Indoor Light Park & Christmas Market and MillerCoors

On Nov. 9, 2017, during an OnMilwaukee editorial meeting, culture editor Matt Mueller brought up the craze of Hallmark Christmas movies. It was a decision he would come to immediately regret, as he was quickly punished assigned to watch a new Hallmark movie a week during the holiday season and write about his discoveries and loss of dignity. 

Three years later, having learned absolutely nothing, he made the mistake all over again. 

These are the never-ending chronicles of Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell.

"A Nashville Christmas Carol"

The birds are chirping once more, the fish have returned to the canals of Venice, and I didn't like a Hallmark holiday movie. Nature is indeed healing. Yes, after a pleasant start featuring not one but two actally enjoyable film fluffballs, we finally arrive at a new Hallmark movie that didn't work for me: "A Nashville Christmas Carol," which doesn't feel particularly Nashville and doesn't feel particularly like Dickens' timeless classic, which just leaves the "A" in the title – which, in my case, stands for "AH, IT FEELS GOOD TO BE BACK IN MY FESTIVE, CHEERFUL, ROASTY, TOASTY PURGATORY AGAIN!

Who stars?

Our hard-working heroine is played by Jessy Schram. This actually marks the third Hallmark movie of hers that I've done for this column after "A Royal New Year" (a Hallmark movie? Involving romance and royalty? WHY I NEVER!) and "Road to Christmas," where she already starred as a TV producer. If I hit five Jessy Schram movies, I should get a free mug – maybe it can say "Schram Squad" or something on it, I don't know. Anyways, when she's not here, she was on several episodes of NBC's "Chicago Med" – not to be confused witth "Chicago Fire" or "Chicago P.D" or "Chicago Human Resources."

She'll fall in love with Wes Brown, a Hallmark regular who also may or may not have served as Julian McMahon's double back on "Nip/Tuck." I'm just saying have you seen the two in the same room together? He also appeared in the recent Disney adaptation of "The Call of the Wild," a movie release from back in the days when you could go to theaters. Remember those? When the biggest concern you had there was not a pandemic but somebody deciding to answer a call in the middle of your movie? I can't wait to be annoyed by people at the movies again; I miss it so much.

Holly jolly or holy hell?

Was I abducted by the Ghost of Hallmark Christmas Movies Past? Maybe it's because the channel has put forward an obvious effort into bringing in new storylines and experiences as well as mixing up the usual cliches (Netflix's crop of Christmas movies are pretty bad, but at least they've been good for pushing the competition) but honestly, if I didn't know any better, I'd think that "A Hallmark Christmas Carol" was a forgotten film picked up off the shelf, dusted off and thrown on with a "NEW" sticker.

According to the stars' masked Instagram photos, it was definitely filmed this past year – but the bland jokes and screenwriting, needlessly imposing boss characters throwing in contrived conflicts, music-based guest stars with debatable acting skills, featureless filmmaking and the bordering-on-regressive idea that, ladies, forwarding your career is great and all but isn't love more important? It pulls out a respectable landing in the end – but otherwise, oh yeah, that's prime "forcing Matt to pour more vodka into hot chocolate" 2018 material.

The biggest issue: This supposed "Christmas Carol" update doesn't really have a Scrooge. Hallmark movies are too nice and gentle to have a Scrooge. So instead, we have Vivian (Jessy Schram), a television producer in Nashville overseeing another year of its annual star-studded Christmas concert special who ... is particular, I guess? She points out that the fake window needs more fake snow, notices that fabric colors don't match, sticks to her guns on her creative choices like starting the show with a poppy new song as opposed to a classic and gives their nervous young country star a pep talk BUT WITHOUT REALLY FEELING IT! The GALL! This all just sounds like ... being a quality director, honestly. If this was "A Christmas Carol," she'd be making everyone work overtime on Christmas Day for free, grumbling about how Christmas and country music sucks anyway, and making fun of orphans and puppies. LET SCHRAM SHOW THE RANGE!

Oh, but also Vivian is cold and distant to her former friend and current music manager to the stars Gavin, who's in town because his number-one client is also the TV special's high-profile opening act, played by real-life country star Sara Evans. Their post-filming meeting is about as frosty as the snowman – and not simply because Gavin pitches the idea of a dog on stage during Not Sara Evans' number. Wait, Vivian rejects a puppy? NEVER MIND, SCROOGE AHOY!

Her true crime to fate, humanity and the universe, though, comes later when she reveals to her little sister and film crew colleague that she's looking at leaving Nashville for Los Angeles and a dream job producing the IMAs, which are like the CMAs but six letters down the hall. Or they're like the Grammys but meaningful. Anyways, it's very exciting to Vivian to forward her career; she's done all there is for the country special, Los Angeles would open a lot of doors to her, and they ship their dad out of town for the holidays anyways so he doesn't have to do any prep work. (HOW DO I GET THAT GIG!?)

Plus, she wants her sister to go to law school, which, yeah, isn't exciting but she's an older sister and mother figure; her job is to encourage smart life choices – and last I checked, lawyer is a much more advantageous career path than production assistant. Take it from somebody in the media business: RUN WHILE YOU CAN! (Just kidding, editor! *nervously laughs while tugging at collar*)

Anyways, the most pressing thing I think sending Vivian out of Nashville is that, well, Nashville kinda looks lame in this movie. Maybe my expectations are too high after the shining glory that was "Christmas in Vienna," but even removing the gorgeous historic buildings, that movie gave you the feeling like you were immersed in that city and culture. "A Nashville Christmas Carol," despite filming at least a little in Music City – the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum is a real thing! – has little spirit of either the local or holiday variety. It's a lot of being indoors at the museum, empty grey wintry streets, standard aerial shots and generic snowy rural houses – no Nashville flavor. Where's the Jack's barbecue? Where's the music on every corner? WHERE ARE THE LOUD DRUNKEN BACHELORETTE PARTIES? The answer is likely that they filmed during COVID so big groups and the usual sightseeing were assumably cut back – but it'd be nice if they found a way to bring more of the city, even in lockdown, across on screen.

Anyways, clearly with all of these plans for leaving Nashville and getting a better paying, high-profile job, Vivian needs supernatural intervention. So Vivian finds a magical music box that only plays twinkly tunes that she can hear and, honestly, looks pretty ominous. (My honest first thought was "CALL THE BOMB SQUAD!") I don't know what the box does, BUT I DON'T LIKE IT! A bit later, she walks through a normal prop room door only to end up in a magical dive bar occupied by her mentor Marilyn Jinway, played by country legend Wynonna Judd.

There's just one problem: Jinway is super dead. 

But after a really quick explanation, Vivian is strangely convinced and pretty relaxed about chatting with her ghost boss in a phantom zone honky tonk. Maybe she's already familiar with the "Christmas Carol" story and knows she's in the Marley phase – though where are the chains? Where's the spookiness? "A Christmas Carol" is just too gothic a story for Hallmark to do justice, replacing anything dark, eerie or too regretful or hurt with marshmallow fluff.

Anyways, she's then introduced to the Ghost of Christmas Past – aka Pat (a joke I actually like!) aka twangy real-life country artist Kix Brooks – who launches them back to her first film shoot, back when she and Gavin were just kids playing with a camcorder. Well, Gavin's having fun while young Vivian was a real Stanley Kubrick, exacting about the blocking of their fake snowman. But when she's not making Shelley Duvall cry after 98 takes of the same scene, she and Gavin are having cute chlidhood flirtations – and gosh, it's a little charming. 

Unfortunately, that charm can't last long as her mom walks out on the family, leaving their dad alone to hold the fort and Vivian the older sister to sacrifice her Christmas wishes so her sister can have hers. See, and she's supposed to be our Scrooge!? 

We then pop a little further in time to when they're ... exactly the same age as they are now? Maybe this was a decade ago, maybe it was last week; who can tell? Actually, the hair and makeup team does one simple but effective de-aging technique on Gavin by giving him unkept, toused hair that screams "I'm in college and eat three square meals of ramen a day if I'm lucky."

That's right: In the near past, Gavin and Vivian are still best buddies, each pursuing their respective careers. For instance, Vivian films a pretty adorable cookie commercial pro bono for a local company. She does make a grave mistake, though: She has a conversation outside in the snowy Nashville cold ... without a coat on. RIDICULOUS! I'm not even mad that she's almost certainly going to catch a cold; I'm mad because Hallmark movies are basically winter coat porn, and while there are still some great ones here (the blue one! Such a pretty blue color!), I feel I HAVE BEEN ROBBED OF A COAT! She's even in her hometown so she can have as many coats as she wants – unlike some movies where a person travels somewhere but managed to pack a dozen winter frocks. 

The good news: Vivian doesn't catch a cold. The bad news: Her friendship, and pretty much romantic relationship, with Gavin is about to go the way of a plate of Nashville hot chicken in front of me: destruction. You see, the two had an arrangement that Vivian would direct the music video for Not Sara Evans, his first client and a musician on the rise. But unfortunately, Gavin gets Not Sara Evans signed by a big-time music label run by a guy named Chet and, well, nothing involving a guy named Chet can end well. My apologies to all the Chets out there, but in movie language, that character might as well be named Jagbag. 

Anyways, in addition to talking down to Vivian in general at a big party, he completely tosses out the idea of Vivian directing the music video – or seemingly any music video ever. CHETTTTTT! (*shakes fist at sky*) Sure, it might be fair to not let a young manager's unknown friend direct the debut music video for your next up-and-coming country star, but there's definitely some better, less Chet-like ways to handle the situation. And worst of alll, Gavin just kind of sits there and lets it happen, so Vivian is heartbroken and job ... broken? Is that a thing?

Thankfully, the night isn't a complete loss as she runs into the non-ghost, very alive version of Marilyn Jinway at the party who apprecciates Vivian's enthusiasm and creative ideas, so she hires her on. I can't say Judd is the world's best actor or even in the top ... significantly large number (her delivery can land flat) but she does have a commanding presence on screen that makes sense for a character like this. 

BUT WAIT! Thanks to Ghost Pat, Vivian gets a better view of the night. For instance, Gavin planned to reveal his love to Vivian the night of the party, but after she bailed due to Chet (CHET!) and refused to talk to him, their friendship fell apart. AND Gavin actually tried again to get her booked as the music video's director, but Chet (CCHHEETTTTTT!!!) declined. So Gavin was ineffectual and still along with it .. BUT HE TRIED! 

Then, a new ghost – the peppy Ghost of Christmas Present, showing up a bit late since I think we only have the third act left to go – appears to reveal that her sister's in love with her production assistant. OK, not sure what that adds here, and also seems like an HR situation to be discussed, but the important thing is that her sister also REALLY doesn't want to go to law school. And so, Vivian, warmed by all she's discovered, changes her ways, being more OK with her sister staying in town, forgiving Gavin, making an admittedly great Emmy Lou Hairless pun involving a cat and even bringing a dog for Not Sara Evans performance. GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!

Oh, wait, the movie's not over yet? I suppose that makes sense; heck, we haven't even gotten to the Ghost of Christmas Future. So yes, we get some final contrived conflicts created by the annoying station boss man who thinks that Vivian is great ... but demands that he move Eara Svans out of the show's top spot and sub in the nervy new starlet, played by RaeLynn. She was a contestant on the second season of "The Voice," which was approximately eight years and 127 seasons of "The Voice" ago. Never mind that the show is less than a day away – great work, boss guy! Really smart to totally rearrange the show this close to airtime; totally makes sense. I BET YOUR NAME IS CHET! (It's not; it's Henry Moss. BUT IT MIGHT AS WELL BE CHET!)

Best of all, the Chet-In-Spirit boss leaves it up to Vivian to break the news to Gavin that his friend and ultimate musician client is no longer the night's headliner. (Though question: Why would the TV show put its number one act on first? People would tune out immediately afterward, which is why Best Picture and other big acts are saved for the end of the night. I can't believe a Hallmark movie would have dubious and flimsy plotting!) He handles it pretty well ... but unfortunately, Vivian also accidentally breaks the news to Not Sara Evans, who runs off into the deserted Nashville night in sadness. And so has RaeLynn! All the while, Honorary Chet acts like this is all Vivian's doing. I'M STARTING TO THINK THE IMAS CAN GO SCREW THEMSELVES! 

Thankfully, this is a Hallmark movie, so things end happily. Vivian finds RaeLynn and Eara Svans bonding in front of some carolers before taking the stage themselves. I always love it when this happens in movies because I just imagine the carolers thinking, "OH THANKS; I GUESS WE'VE GOTTEN UPSTAGED THEN!" But they sing well together – so much so that Vivian gets an idea: the BOTH of them perform the opening number of the show. And they do, and it's very nice – and now nobody watching needs to stay tuned for anything else in the Christmas special!

Oh, and Vivian learns from the Ghost of Christmas Present that this wasn't so much about teaching her to change her ways but more to teach her that she's a wonderul person – one who deserves to be happy with a good and nice guy like Gavin. So the two put the past behind them and fall in love while she declines the IMAs job offer. But that's OK because the boss says she can just travel back and forth anyways. Because that's just what this new relationship built on admittedly rocky foundation needs: long distance. But hey, at least they didn't make her kiss off her career ambitions for a boyfriend like I was concerned they might.

I admit that the final third does its best to bring something new to this otherwise pretty rote Hallmark tale, and Wes Brown and Jessy Schram are good together. Wes Brown is charming and pleasant, while Jessy is a beyond capable Hallmark lead, lending some zip to these exercises in sentimentality. I wish the movie let her have more fun with that zip and own being essentially the soon-to-be-reformed grinch of the movie, which could give the movie some emotional stakes in the final third rather than force the boss to dump a bunch of conflict upon the film for the sake of conflict. 

But as for the movie as is, it's nowhere near as Nashville enough nor as "Christmas Carol" enough. Maybe they should've called it "A County Music Christmas" instead so my expectations wouldn't have put in places the final producct couldn't reach. In the end, there's only one thing left to say.

Verdict: Humbug

Drinking game drunken-ness score

Not that I needed any more excuses to drink heavily while watching Hallmark holiday movies, but thanks to Wide Open Eats, I found this Hallmark drinking game created several winters ago by human saint Brittany Graves and posted on Facebook. So let's go through the checklist and see how crushed we can get off Christmas cliches – and if you have your own drinking game, pass it along! After all, tis the season for sharing (and getting sloshed)!

  • Reference to a dead relative? You would think Vivian's mom would be absent due to death – but as it turns out, she just up and left like a Chet. THAT'S ALLOWED IN A HALLMARK MOVIE!? These movies are too puffy to allow for something that traumatic usually! Wild ... and DON'T GO WILD BECACUSE NO DRINK!
  • Christmas-y main character name? Gavin? Vivian? Chet? CHET! You've gone it again! Yet another reason to be mad at Chet! MUSIC CITY? MORE LIKE SOBRIETY CITY!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? Vivian may diss that fake window set, but the fake Christmas trees get to survive insult-free for another movie. I'm starting to think fake Christmas trees were never dissed in the first place. I've never watched a Hallmark with one yet – but when I do, I'm drinking an entire 12-pack in celebration. A 12-pack of bourbon that is. In the meantime, CONTINUE TRAGIC SOBRIETY!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? How about this for an old-timey tradition: the music industry, amirite!? No? No one out there? Just crickets? OK, well, don't blame for the bad joke; blame this movie for NOT LETTING ME DRINK!
  • Hot chocolate? I was pretty pumped when Vivian and Gavin were tricked into meeting for drinks – which is definitely code in Hallmarkese for hot cocoa. But then they got cider instead! What is this nonsense?! Cider is a fall beverage; now it's hot chocolate season. Meanwhile, I AM DYING OF THIRST; SEND HELP!
  • Near-miss kiss? The two are barely in love until the end so not particuarly, at least not in a fun way. Speaking of no fun, MY BLOOD ALCOHOL LEVEL IS NOW IN THE NEGATIVES!
  • Product placement? Normally this would be a good place to say that Nashville gets great product placement, but really Nashville doesn't get much love at all. The streets look empty and sad, the aerial shots look like any big city and the only local color that gets love is the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. Wait, can that count as product placement!? WOO! FINALLY DRINK! MY THROAT, IT ACHES!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? No, but they do play sack toss at one point ... which is like a snowball fight but against a hole-filled plank of wood. And also no snow or balls. There's also a popcorn fight between Vivian and her sister, which seems cute until you realize somebody has to clean all of that up. No matter who wins, everyone loses – including me because RETURN TO BORING NO DRINKING!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? Vivian wears a sweater that gets CONFUSED for an ugly sweater by Chet (classic Chet move), so maybe that counts? Sure, why not! Looks like you're good for at least one thing, Chet! DRINK!
  • Big city person in small town? Nashville's the 23rd largest state in the union, so I'm thinking that it doesn't quite qualify as a small town. WHY WON'T YOU LET ME DRINK, DEAR MOVIE!?
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? OK, there's no tree farming or cookie baking, but there is caroling that Not Sara Evans and Not RaeLynn dive-bomb. And speaking of dive-bombs, EXPLODE ALCOHOL DOWN YOUR THROAT!
  • Mistletoe? Here we go, now we're in a rhythm. The end of the movie features not one, but a whole bar of mistletoe hanging over our lovebirds' heads. I say a drink for each one – DRINK AND DRINK AND DRINK AND DRINK SOME MORE!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? There's a magic jukebox and a whole lot of ghost action going on, but there's no Santa or angel tomfoolery. THROAT IS PARCHED YET AGAIN!
  • Anytime you hear "Jingle Bells"? Much like "Christmas in Vienna," do you really think a movie taking place in Music City with a literal cast of country music stars is going to bother with just lowly ol' original "Jingle Bells"? Correct, we get some original songs and some re-imagined classics, but no "Jingle Bells" – which means GULP DOWN SADNESS INSTEAD OF A DRINK!
  • Snowed in? Snowed in by spiritual encounters maybe?! Eh!? EH!? Sigh ... no drink. I don't even have the passion for caps lock at this point. 

See, that's how you know this is barely a Nashville movie: barely any drinking. And it gets no better with the final categories as there's no snow on Christmas, no cynic won over by the Christmas spirit – as persnickety as Vivian can get, she still likes Christmas from the outset – and neither of the channel's royalty members. The one time this year I could've used a bit of alcoholic help to get through a movie. Somehow this is all Chet's fault ...

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.