By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 22, 2020 at 6:56 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.

"Christmas Waltz"

We've almost reached the end of this cursed marathon, and I must say: This trip through Hallmark holiday hell has been remarkably un-hellish – and I don't think it's because this past year's turned my brain into alcoholic marshmallow fluff! (Or at least not entirely.) So allow me to give my thanks ... to Netflix.

Yes, as much as I don't want to give credit to the company that also unleashed Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin upon us, Netflix deserves a lot of accidental credit for improving Hallmark movies. The Big Red Streaming Monolith's attempts to usurp Hallmark are admittedly pretty crummy, no matter how many Vanessa Hudgenses they pile into them, but they draw eyeballs and serve as competition – and thanks to that increasing competition, Hallmark's clearly upped its game this year, trying out some new scripts and committing to bringing new faces and perspectives to the screen. Even a rote movie like "Christmas Waltz" puts in the extra effort and becomes charming despite its cliches. Thanks Netflix! Now about erasing "Too Hot to Handle" from existence ... 

Who stars?

Lacey Chabert, who somehow has never been on "Dancing with the Stars." Candace Cameron Bure and Danica McKellar were both on there – during the same season, in fact – and you just know that's where Lori Laughlin's comeback career resuscitation is going to start. So I think it's time for Chabert to give it a shot – and now she's even got a decent audition tape thanks to this movie. There's even a "Dancing with the Stars" alum in here! OK, JT Church – the young receptionist and dancer – was just an alum from "Dancing with the Stars Juniors," serving as a young pro on the season focused on celeb kids and celebrity's kids. Remember that spin-off? And when America responded by uniting as one and destroying their television sets? I hadn't until this very moment – and now I am filled with profound regret. Television was a mistake. 

She'll fall in love with "Spinning Out" co-star Will Kemp, who is not only actually British but is ACTUALLY a dancer! He even starred in a "Step Up" movie and everything! He played the intense instructor in "Step Up 2 the Streets" – not "Step Up 3D," the greatest cinematic work of the 21st century, but still a solid entry. Certainly better than the fourth movie, "Step Up Revolution," which I gave negative stars our of four for not being called "Step Up 4 Your Rights." I've written MANY strongly worded letters to Summit Entertainment on this topic. 

Holly jolly or holy hell?

It doesn't really take much to make a Hallmark movie that feels remarkable or memorable. All it takes is a commitment to texture, to bringing something to the standard scripts and predictable pieces that makes the story feel unique. These plots are made to be beige, to be inoffensive background noise, to be the pleasant Christmas music you half-listen to while wrapping gifts or decorating or hiding from the family Zoom call. So when something pops – a performance, a location or, say, a story hook like dancing – it really stands out and makes a Hallmark movie feel special, like someone actually put in an effort as opposed to just going through the motions.

Case in point: "Christmas Waltz," which is fully predictable but, thanks to its lovely dance aspect, also fully charming. 

OK, maybe it's not FULLY predictable; after all, it doesn't start with generic B-roll of a city skyline! BWAAA!? And it's not vague warm Christmas decorations either? "Christmas Waltz," you've gone MAD!

Don't worry, things calm down after that as we meet our heroine Avery, a rising champion lawyer who's eagerly looking forward to picking out her wedding cake with her fiancee David. We haven't even met this guy yet, but I'm calling it: That man ain't getting married. You're the fiancee at the start of a Hallmark movie? Bad news, guy: You're getting dumped for a handsomely stubbled model. I don't care how long you've been dating and how much unseen history and chemistry the two of you once had; you better get your Tinder profile updated. Lo and behold, we meet David, and he's taking a phone call throughout the cake tasting, barely paying attention to the frankly gaudy Christmas-themed wedding desserts in front of him. My man, this is the best part of wedding planning: YOU JUST EAT CAKE! Save getting distracted for the invitations conversation.

The session ends with David in a sulky, distanced mood – probably because he just found out that he's the fiancee in a Hallmark holiday romance film. But actually, it's because he's gotten a promotion that's going to move him out to Boston – and becacuse he's the douche-esque first act fiancee in a Hallmark movie, he took the job without talking to his future wife first and just assumed she'd be totally cool about it. GOOD COMMUNICATION SKILLS! Better yet, he plans this conversation at a nice dinner out in public. Seems like a chat for behind closed doors, my soon-to-be-single amigo! Oh well, at least he definitely won't come back in the third act and almost ruin everything OHH NOOOOO!

Avery is suddenly a ship adrift. She had her whole life planned – but when you're a career-minded woman who make plans in a Hallmark movie, the screenwriter laughs. "Maybe this will lead you to something better," points out her best friend. HMM, MAYBE TO A HANDSOME AND SEXILY ACCENTED DANCE TEACHER, PERHAPS!? 

Indeed, Avery starts connecting with devilishly handsome dance instructor Roman (Will Kemp), who was supposed to teach her and David a special dance for their wedding but now will just have to teach her how to fall in love and follow her heart. And yes, also the waltz. He also might be breaking child labor laws by having his dance partner's kid (JT Church) run the receptionist desk, but that's an issue for a very different kind of movie. Let's focus on the initial meet-cute and flirtation, which ... is actually somewhat cute and flirtatious. He makes fun of her for showing up in heals; she sassily retorts back at him for his somewhat low-rent operation and pretentions. IT'S KINDA CHARMING! As Roman's homeland would say, they have good bants, with Kemp and Chabert providing some solid snap to the assorted zingers – even if he has to end eventually because Avery starts having a panic attack about not being perfect and storms out. 

Thankfully, after giving her ring back to David – what are you doing; KEEP THAT MONEY! – she goes back to apologize and keep going with the ten lessons she originally booked for the wedding. However, she still is making a massacre of poor Roman's feet, so our handsome instructor has an idea: Let's try this ice skating instead. Because if you can't do it on solid ground, surely the solution is trying it out on slippery ice while balancing on sharp blades. The man has a deathwish for his toes. But luckily for his phalanges, the two start a precious snowball fight out front of the studio instead ... that ends with Roman slipping on ice, landing on his head and concussing himself into the hospital. SO MUCH FOR THOSE SLICK "SPINNING OUT" MOVES, EH, KEMP!? Luckily, his brain is fine – and best of all, the doctor confuses the two for husband and wife. Sure, trite, but I smiled, dammit. (A reoccuring theme for this movie.)

Feeling responsible, Avery drops by the following day to make sure Roman's brain hasn't hemmorhaged, and he's all good, able to make jokes, flirty banter and even do a nice little tribute to Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character. See what happens when you put personality into a movie like this? The cliches charm! Avery won't stop until she damage Roman's health in some way, though, so she tries cooking breakfast for him and serves up a bad egg sandwich. He may not have a concussion, but at least he's got salmonella! Should've just gone to that burgers and beer restaurant next to the studio. (But seriously, you don't even see inside of the place or see any of the dishes, but I was craving this place so hard. It's got the two best foods! And yes, beer is a food – a porkchop in every can!)

No amount of concussion force or bad breakfast food can stop Roman and Avery's connection, though, as Avery continues to improve as a dancer. Roman's breakthrough comes with a new teaching tool (no, not ice skating; that didn't go so great last time): turning the lights off, helping her focus and relax while also giving us a lovely shot of the glowing Christmas light-hued studio. I thought maybe he would bust out a blindfold, but I'm guessing that was a little too "50 Shades" for Hallmark – but this works too. And it works for Avery, becoming so skilled that she even helps Roman rehearse the choreography for his big professional Christmas recital. (Gotta wonder how professional it is if a complete newbie can learn the steps in less than ten lessons, though.) 

But of course, their spark goes beyond the dance floor. Avery offers to help Roman with his business plan (classic Hallmark cliche) to expand his studio and tour a second location – though I'm admittedly not a fan of the new place. Looks like a haunted hospital ward and, most pressingly, doesn't have a burgers and beer restaurant. We'll call it a fixer-upper. Meanwhile Roman brings Avery into his family, showing her off at a very Russian family function. You know how I know it's Russian? There's just some random uncles in the back playing accordions! I don't think they talk to anybody or that anybody talks to them either; Uncle Yuri and Vlad were solely invited as musical entertainment. I love them; can I rent them for my next family gathering?

Anyways, the night goes so well that Roman dances and pins a little blissful "Singin' in the Rain"-esque number down the street with Avery, and it's honestly a delight. Very rarely do you see joy or exuberance expressed in a Hallmark movie – emotions never go very high or low, always calibrated as easy background noise like Christmas music when you're wrapping gifts or decorating – but this is the closest I've seen, with someone clearly feeling an emotion in the moment and finding a way to show it.

Alas, we've reached the third act, and that means we must unfortunately have a conflict. So what will it be? Will Roman get cold feet about his studio growing so fast and so suddenly? Or will Avery suddenly realize she's falling behind on work – including a big case she's supposed to finish – and cut off her lessons and her connection to Roman? She'd hate to disappoint her kinda snooty parents, after all. These are people whose first response to a classical dance recital invitation is that they don't like "loud music." Ah yes, I always forget about all the EDM and bass drops at holiday waltz performances. 

No, you already know what the conflict is – or more like who. That's right: DAVIDDDDDDD! (*shakes fist at the heavens*)

Yep, this suit-wearing dingus comes back from Boston hoping to win back Avery with a surprise appearance and grand gesture at her work: a bunch of flowers scattered all over her desk. She's still hurt by how little he ended up caring about her, though, so it doesn't work, and he leaves with all the roses and vases still covering everything. WELL HOW IS SHE SUPPOSED TO WORK NOW, DAVE!? So he resorts to plan B, which is dropping by Roman's studio, condescendingly talking about his life's work and snidely informing him that he and Avery are figuring things out so back off. Probably should let Avery know about that first, Ol' Davey, but don't let me stop you from stepping on your schwantz. 

Unfortunately, before we can enjoy that, we have to get through one of the annoying Hallmark tropes where our leading couple refuses to be grown-ups and just have a simple and honest conversation about what's bothering them. Instead, Roman becomes cold to Avery, and the two have a falling-out. That being said, it's admittedly not the worst of the Hallmark third-act dramas – that would be the "I overheard one small part of a conversation that I will now assume the worst about and pout away for 30 minutes rather than just have a five-second discussion because I have a baby-child brain" – and there is a kind of genuinely heartbreaking moment where Roman painfully tells her to look away from him while dancing, a callback to one of his earlier dance lessons about feeling the story of the dance rather than just the footwork. It's the best version of a bad plot beat – again, the power of personality and specificity. 

Thankfully, Avery and the movie come to their senses as she meets with David for a drink where he re-proposes (another reason not to return the ring) and inadvertently fesses up to scaring off Roman. So she walks on him and gets ready to go to the Christmas recitial – which has its own drama to deal with. Apparently Roman's partner is stuck in traffic, leaving him without anyone to dance with during the night's key waltz. GOSH, I SURE HOPE SOMEBODY IN THE CROWD HAPPENS TO KNOW THE STEPS! Again, I got some real questions about how legit this dance is if Avery can do it when, five days ago, the only move she knew was trip-ball-faceplant. 

Bah, details, shmetails! Avery is summoned backstage, where Roman apologizes for being frosty and she explains the situation with David (or lack thereof now). Also, Roman explains to his partner's son that his mom is stuck in traffic and ruining the show. OK, probably not – and after all, the routine turns out terrific as Roman and Avery have a lovely dance while I play a fun game of Star or Stand-In! (Last seen on "Christmas in Vienna!") I actually only clocked one very obvious substitution – a spin move that hides her face – but otherwise it's a nice dance, topped off with a climactic romantic kiss that I'm assuming that wasn't in the original choreography or else mom's gonna have a lot more questions to answer when she finally arrives. 

There are only so many steps in a classic waltz, but it's what a performer brings to those steps – the emotions, the personality, the texture – that can make the movements go from basic to special. And that's exactly what "Christmas Waltz" does – all the standard pieces of a Hallmark groaner that ends up neither standard nor a groaner.

Verdict: The opposite of David, aka good!

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? Both Avery and Roman seem to have healthy families – though who's to say that Avery's dad didn't die due to exploded eardrums after the infamous sonic bombardment that is a gentle Christmas waltz pageant?! Oh, he's fine? BALLET? MORE LIKE BAL-LAY OFF THE ALCOHOL FOR NOW!
  • Christmas-y main character names? Avery and Roman aren't quite Christmas-y names unless we're thinking the movie is making a reference to the Roman government trying to perform a census, causing Mary and Joseph to head to Bethlehem. What, not cute or romantic? CHASS-SAY NO TO BOOZE STILL!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? To any Hallmark screenwriters reading this article: First, my apologies. But second, and most important, if you put a fake Christmas tree diss in your movie, I will nominate it for Best Picture. I don't have an Oscar vote BUT I WILL FIND A WAY! In the meantime, PROME-NADA ALCOHOL!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? Finally! I thought I was going to have to resort to arguing that dancing and waltzing count as a old-timey traditions, but then Roman introduces Avery to both their Russian nesting dolls. Which I say means I can NEST SOME BOOZE IN MY TUMMY!
  • Hot chocolate? Not just once, but twice! There's even a whole cart of hot cocoa! TWO-STEP SOME MORE ALCOHOL DOWN YOUR THROAT!
  • Near-miss kiss? Dancing in waltz position would seemingly put these two in optimal near-miss kiss proximity, but Roman is just too darn professional for that – and I AM TOO SOBER FOR THIS GAME NOW!
  • Product placement? I mean, did I mention the burgers and beer place?! I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist, though, so instead of burgers and beer, ENJOY SALAD AND SOBRIETY!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? In a way, this should be two drinks, but thanks to the snowball fight, we never get to go ice skating. SHOTBLOCKED DARN IT! But what if I watched Netflix's "Spinning Out" simultaneously on my laptop? Still shotblocked? MORE LIKE SPINNING ON THE CAP TO MY BOTTLE OF RUM!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? I'm kind of surprised none of the accordion-playing uncles had an ugly sweater on. Nevertheless, no ugly sweaters – some good coats though! CAN'T GET CLOBBERED ON COATS, THOUGH!
  • Big city person in small town? They're in "New York" – aka Canada, specifically Vancouver and Abbotsford. I do not know of Abbotsford; I wonder what sights they have therOH MY GOD THE BURGER AND BEER PLACE IS REAL! IT'S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE! I DON'T EVEN CARE ABOUT THE LACK OF BOOZE AT THIS POINT!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? There's no caroling, and while Avery's friend kindly hauls a tree up to our lead's apartment, there's no farming or shopping for a fir. However, we do bake up some traditional cookies at Roman's family function which means TIME TO QUICKSTEP TO THE ALCOHOL SHELF!
  • Mistletoe? Christmas' favorite shrubbery is a no-show here, so TAN-GO PUT THE BOOZE AWAY!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? Unless there's a carousel involved, there's been little mystical shenanigans this year on Hallmark. But what could be more magical than discovering the burger and beer place is real!? STAY SOBER AND CHECK IF YOU NEED TO RENEW YOUR PASSPORT BECAUSE WE'RE GOING TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF (*forgets name, checks notes again*) ABBOTSFORD!
  • Anytime you hear "Jingle Bells"? Listen, Johann Strauss didn't work until the day he died writing waltzes for people a century later to shove his music aside for "Jingle Bells." Forget riding on a one-horse open sleigh; OH WHAT FUN IT IS TO STAY STONECOLD SOBER, AMIRITE?!
  • Snowed in? Maybe by TALENT! But no, there's barely enough snow for their snowball, much less to keep them blizzard-ed inside. FOXTROT? MORE LIKE FOXNOT DRINKING! (Listen, these are more fun when I've been appropriately liquored – and that's just not happening this year. I've apparently traded less alcoholic drinks for more years of having a functioning liver, and I DID NOT AGREE TO THIS TRADE!)

At least there's one final drink as you can take a shot for the movie starring Hallmark royalty Lacey Chabert. Maybe make it a Tchaikovsky shot ski for some bonus festiveness? Once again, though, the alcohol is not requisite to get through a Hallmark movie this year, leaving me with a full liquor cabinet and one final question: But really, how do we get Lacey Chabert on "Dancing with the Stars"? This is my fetch – AND I'M GOING TO MAKE IT HAPPEN!

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.