By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Nov 26, 2020 at 9:01 AM

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.

"Christmas in Vienna"

Alright, so the first Hallmark movie of the year went surprisingly well, but now let's get back into the snark and sassiness that I'm ... hold on a second, I LIKE THIS HALLMARK MOVIE TOO?! What's going on here?! This series is called Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell, not Matt's Hallmark Holiday Haven! You're ruining my brand, Hallmark, with these increasingly above-competent and charming Christmas movies – like "Christmas in Vienna," which happens to succeed as both a Hallmark movie and as some of the best travel porn I've seen in a long time. TIME TO STEP UP YOUR GAME, RICK STEVES!

Who stars?

Everyone welcome Sarah Drew to the world of Hallmark movies ... wait, she gets to go to Vienna on her first Hallmark movie? That seems unfair; you gotta earn those travel rights. Lacey Chabert just got to Rome last holiday season after working her way to practically president of the Hallmark Channel status, but Sarah Drew got to Vienna on her first go-around? She should've had to make 47 movies in a Vancouver backlot before she started earning those Hallmark frequent flyer miles. Well, congratulations on having a great agent, Sarah Drew. 

If you recognize the actress, by the way, it's probably from Drew's nine-year run as Dr. April Kepner on "Grey's Anatomy," where she started off as one of the cast's more annoying characters before developing into a very intriguing, nuanced and relatably human member of the Seattle Grace Hospital staff. So, in other words, she was a character on "Grey's Anatomy." And most impressively, she got to leave the show alive! Sure, she almost died about four times on the show between a hospital shooting, a stint in the army, a car crash and hypothermia, but honestly that's actually below average for a character on that show. She didn't even come close to filling out her entire "Grey's Anatomy" death punch card and earning herself a free coffee!

She's falling in love with Brennan Elliott, a Hallmark regular and former Chucky murder victim. He also stars alongside Your Hallmark Highness Lacey Chabert in a series of Hallmark Movies & Mysteries flicks called "Crossword Mysteries," about a crossword expert who helps solve murders and crimes. First of all, how many crimes require extensive crossword knowledge? But second, and most important: Wait, they allow MURDERS on that channel!? This is very exciting for my "The Crochet Killings" spec script.

Holly jolly or holy hell?

Let's be honest: No offense to Sarah Drew and Brennan Elliott, but the true star of "Christmas in Vienna" is its titular locale: Vienna. From just the opening shots of the movie, I was warmed with Viennese wonder. So bright! So shiny! So festive! I don't how much money the Austrian Tourism Department put into this film, but they got their money's worth, luxuriating in lavish Christmas displays across the city and gorgeously golden sets. Even the hotel room Sarah Drew's character stays in is the nicest, most warmly decorated hotel room I've ever seen in my life. I don't know what the budget was for this movie, but you see it all on screen – and whatever they didn't spend on lavish decor and sets, they spent on delicious Austrian pastries and desserts. FAIR!

Even removing the travel porn aspect of the movie, though, "Christmas in Vienna" is a pretty nice way to spent two hours. Sure, no one's been able to really travel anywhere for the past year, so it was merely pleasant enough going to a new place and getting to tour its shiniest buildings, ogle their native sweets, roam their impressive museums, look at more delicious strudel, listen to lovely classical music in gorgeous settings and DID I MENTION THE DESSERTS YET!? (I should've eaten before writing this review ... ) But seriously, remove that, and the movie's still a Christmas charmer. 

Drew plays Jess, a violinist preparing for a big show in Vienna – and as a former violinist myself (my teacher once told me that I was an insult to the concept of music and sound!), Drew fakes her strumming pretty well. Sure, most of her fiddling is shot from behind and from a moderately distant shot – aka a double's work – but when the movie cuts to closeups, she's pretending pretty well! Speaking of pretending, her character seems a little out of it during an interview with a local reporter. Maybe she's tense because she's playing in Austria – home of Mozart, Strauss, Franz Schubert and Hadyn. CAN'T IMAGINE THE LOCALS HAVE THEIR BAR SET HIGH FOR MUSICIANS!

Meanwhile, across town in a festive outdoor activity area, there's diplomat Mark checking in on his three kids and their nanny before he zips off to work on a Sunday. A person perhaps overly focused on business and work in a Hallmark movie?! WHY I NEVER! I sure wonder if he'll rediscover a love of life and Christmas!

Anyways, after checking in on the kids – one of whom says, "I think I'm getting that flu going around," which OH BOY IS THAT AN ACCIDENTALLY LOADED LINE OF DIALOGUE IN THE YEAR 2020 – Mark and Jess bump into each other at a nice Austrian Advent wreath lighting ceremony, with Mark thankfully serving as someone Jess can talk to in English. The two share an early flirtation – a pretty well-written and charmingly performed meet-cute – before he goes his way, and she goes off to fake practice the violin, eat dinner alone in a fancy restaurant and make the waiter feel very awkward by opening up too much. 

Thankfully, the two meet again at a fancy function celebrating her upcoming performance, their eyes meeting across the party. Unfortunately, all the charm from their previous conversation went the way of an Austrian pastry in my presence and disappeared. She makes strange jokes he does not get; he refuses to waltz with her because he's suddenly got a significantly sized stick up his Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Worse yet, the two run into each other again – as it turns out, his nanny is also her old college roommate friend who needs Jess to help with some babysitting duties – and he spends their entire conversation seemingly forgetting how the English language works. I TAKE BACK EVERYTHING I SAID ABOUT BEING CHARMED! I NEED 10CCS OF EMERGENCY DESSERTS, STAT!

As it turns out, we get exactly what the doctor ordered as Jess takes the kids out sightseeing throughout the city – including a sizable sequence where she just tries treat after treat. I want her job. Anyways, I learned about a bonbon called a Mozartkugel – pistachio, marzipan and nougat wrapped in dark chocolate – and any show that introduces me to a new sugary snack gets an immediate four stars.

But when they're not making me desperately hungry and giving me secondhand diabetes, Jess also helps the kids out with their assorted issues. The oldest boy, for instance, is isolated and struggling to interact with the other kids his age, but she teaches him to open up. The oldest daughter, meanwhile, is practicing for her own musical performance, singing at an upcoming Christmas pageant, so Jess gives her some helpful encouragement while they live inside their giant dollhouse of a home. Honestly, significant props to the set locator, the cinematographer and, you know, Vienna for supplying this movie with some tremendous eye candy. I mean, look at this shot! It's a legitimately pretty shot (when not run through my phone's crappy camera)!

But most importantly, Mark starts to warm back up to Jess as the two decorate the manor for the holidays and rekindle their original chemistry from their candle-lighting conversation. (Though at one point, Jess says Philadelphia is the Vienna of America, and unless these Austrians have pelted Santa with batteries before, I find this comparison ... dubious.) That aside, the two go ice skating and exploring the city, all while sharing some actually solid romantic spark. When his character unthaws, Elliott is a pretty charming Hallmark lead while Drew is a real bright and charismatic fit for these movies, classically fun and peppy while also bringing a funny sarcastic wit and dry delivery to the script's jokes and comedically awkward asides – which seem a little snappier than usual, too. I mean, there's a "Gremlins" reference and a joke about Mark having "resting grinch face"! Points to you, "Christmas in Vienna"!

Of course, it can't all be fun. You see, Jess is not there to heal her love of the violin; she's there to KILL IT FOR GOOD, no longer having the same passion for music she used to and feeling lost about what she'll do next. It's a nice and startlingly relatable character beat for a Hallmark movie, a person realizing the thing they've done forever and loved is no longer for them, too exhausting to be enjoyed anymore.

And it's not like we can just let this burgeoning romance go unhassled by life. So Mark – already concerned that the kids are getting too attached to their new caretaker and their adopted town – gets a job offer in Zurich, and while Jess doesn't want to overstep, she does point out that the kids seem happy and like they've found a home. Despite asking for her hot take, Mark doesn't take her opinion well, busting out the aforementioned "resting grinch face" and sulking up a storm over breakfast. THEN DON'T ASK FOR HER HOT TAKE, MARK! NO PASTRY OR CAKE FOR YOU!

Jess says she's going to do everything she can to avoid Mark now that she's ticked him off ... which is just asking fate to bring the two back together. So, of course, they end up conveniently back at the same Advent wreath lighting ceremony, apologizing for being rude to one another and cheersing each other over some gluhwein. People ... handling a realistic conflict like adults? Characters ... once again not falling out of love over some contrived misunderstanding or easily discussed confusion? IN TWO HALLMARK MOVIES IN A ROW!? This is the only good thing to happen in 2020. 

There's still 30 minutes to go in the movie, though, so clearly a second conflict is on approach – and so it arrives when the two go for a ride in Vienna's famous Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel. Isn't this the famous location from "The Third Man" where a shadowy Orson Welles eerily debates the neccesary evil of death and war? WELL THAT'S NOT OMINOUS AT ALL! And indeed, while they don't debate the banality and ease of evil, the two do run into another fight: While they both pitch each other the idea of staying in Vienna, she's fallen in love while he talks about how ONE DAY he might be ready too. Cue the sad trumpet sound. To make matters worse, while the two argue again back at the mansion about how he's running away because he's afraid to make a home and set his roots, the kids overhear about Mark's plans to move the family. Cue a whole brass section of sad trumpet sounds. 

Thankfully, Mark's common sense comes to the rescue, talking to the kids about the move and realizing that they should stay in Vienna where they're finding their place. He also realizes that Jess is the best, especially after she leaves the three kids gifts: a musical charm, a violin and ... an Eagles hat with a hook. It's a long story ... but nice tying up of subplots and themes aside, I'd be mildly harrumphy if I got an airport gift shop hat while my sister got a WHOLE FRIGGIN' VIOLIN. Plus, the Eagles are trash this season; even Viennese people would make fun of his team of choice. 

BUT I DIGRESS! It's a cute gesture, one that wins Mark and Jess back together – this time, for good as they both plan to stay in Vienna, Mark in his old job and Jess as a member of the local philharmonic. (And, if that falls through, she's clearly finding her love of music again through teaching.) And, as a final sweet note, Jess and the daughter perform together – as, when the latter's concert was canceled due to weather, Jess made plans to have the young one's class open her show. But the daughter has stage fright, unable to sing ... until her brother and the rest of the family comes out to sing alongside her. It's a sweet moment – though everyone in the crowd has to be thinking, "So who the heck are these random people on stage?"

But they're probably not because Vienna is seemingly the nicest, most festive place in the world, and I very much liked spending two hours there in this Hallmark movie. The only problem: The pastry and desserts scenes weren't scratch-and-sniff. Something to consider for next year, I guess, when we hopefully revisit these pleasant characters and gorgeous settings again. That's right: I want "Christmas in Vienna 2: Violin Harder"!

Verdict: Frohe Weihnachten! (which is "Merry Christmas!" in Austrian, as well as "pretty good movie!")

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? Mark's wife tragically died, which not-so-tragically means we get to DRIIIIIINK!
  • Christmas-y main character name? Unfortunately, Jess and Mark are pretty standard names. BUT Jess' last name is Waters – and what is water but just melted snow!? Eh!? EH!? OK, that's a stretch, which means I won't be stretching out my liver with this prompt. NO DRINK!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? They just don't diss fake Christmas trees like they used to. We have normalized plastic trees, and I for one do not approve. I also DO NOT DRINK AGAIN!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? Heck yes! Vienna is filled with old-timey traditions for Jess to learn about, such as the Advent wreath candle lighting ceremony. Today's candle is being lit in honor of ALCOHOL; DRINK IT UPPPP!
  • Hot chocolate? I wasn't sure we were going to get a swig of hot chocolate in this movie since Vienna's christkindlmarkets have plenty of gluhwein to go around. But lo and behold, what do these two grab for an ice skating intermission? Hot cocoa – which means GLUG SOME GROG!
  • Near-miss kiss? After missing out on near-miss kisses in the last movie, "Christmas in Vienna" practically makes a subplot out of these two almost, but not quite, locking lips. Which means I don't have to miss out on drinking some gluhwein for myself! MOZART? MORE LIKE MO' DRINKING!
  • Product placement? Besides making Vienna look like heaven on earht, have you noticed the 457 references I've made about pastry and desserts? This movie single-handedly added 17 points to my waist – and I regret nothing. And speaking things I don't regret, DRIIIIIIIIIIIIIINK!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? You bet they charmingly go ice skating! The place looks adorable ... but I will never go because the last time I went ice skating, I broke my chin open. (This is a true story.) I'll make up for it, though, by DRINKING MY SCARS AWAYYYYY!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? Nothing is ugly in Vienna – and that unfortunately includes sweaters and ties. Which means NO MORE PROST!
  • Big city person in small town? Unfortunately, Philadelphia is actually a smaller city than Vienna by a few huundred thousand, and even though it seem be charmingly quaint in this movie, Vienna has about 1.8 million people living there – so by no means a small town. KEEP SOBERING UP, DANG IT!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? There's no particular caroling, and while we get cookie decorating, the actual baking gets bumped off screen. However, there is a trip through a Viennese Christmas tree shop – the finest of all the tree farms – to salvage this category and SPICE UP MY LIVER WITH BIIIIIII(*burp*)ER!
  • Mistletoe? Not only do we get a mistletoe hanging decariously above our lovely couple, but we get an explanation for the translation and meaning of the word "mistletoe"! That's gotta be worth, like, FIVE drinks, amirite!? I'M GOING TO BECOME MORE BOOZE THAN MAN BY THE END OF THIS!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? They take a photo with Santa in "Christmas in Vienna," but I think the only deal made is that they give him $2 for a printout of the photo – which is not very magical at all. AUF WIEDERSEHEN, ALCOHOL!
  • Anytime you hear "Jingle Bells"? Like they're going to debase the home country of Mozart and iconic classical music with one of our dinkiest Christmas carols. KEEP STOPPIN YOUR FRUHSCHOPPEN!
  • Snowed in? Unless you mean snowed in by delicious desserts and good music ... which, unfortunately, I highly doubt you do. So in that case, WOLFGANG AMADEUS NO-DRINK-ZART! That's two Mozart puns in a single drinking game! (I may have a problem – with puns and alcohol.)

Unfortunately, the final categories are a waste since this isn't a Candace Cameron Bure or Lacey Chabert joint, there's no snow on Christmas and there isn't really a holiday cynic to win over. Mark may be a workaholic, but he's not particularly cynical toward the season. So I guess put away your booze – which is fine beacuse "Christmas in Vienna," like our previous installment, doesn't require alcohol to enjoy. Can you get drunk on looking at delicious desserts, though? Asking for a Milwaukee-based pop culture writer ... 

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.