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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 17, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Children's Books, Hallmark Movies

We like to keep a nice supply of excellent children's books in our house, so that when the tablets and phones are put away and recharging, and our grandchildren are pouting about it in their beds, there are books to read.

Or have read to them. Or look at the pictures.

Children who have not fallen asleep with their head on a book (or a book on their head) are not being raised properly.

Here are some of our favorite finds among this year's new books, plus a few slightly older ones.

-- In Antoinette Portis's Wait, a mother takes her little boy on a walk. The entire book consists of the mother saying, "Hurry!" while the boy, having seen something interesting, says, "Wait!"

What makes the book so wonderful is Portis's absolutely clear and energetic illustrations. Many illustrators are so busy impressing us with their painterly style that I don't know how any child can sort through the mess to find what it's a picture of.

This is never a problem with Wait. Clarity comes first, so even the youngest children can see what the boy in the book wants to wait for.

--Some books need little more explanation than the title: If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! Elise Parsley's art is so full of humor (without losing clarity) that adults will enjoy studying the pictures as much as children do.

"During math," says the book, "you'll notice the alligator is hungry." The picture is hilarious; the tongue-in-cheek humor will delight adults as well as children.

A children's book that does not make parents wish for death after the forty-fifth reading is a treasure.

-- Where Are My Books?, by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, takes into account the way that children come to love certain books (and movies, and tv shows) so much that they read (watch) them over and over and over. And over.

One of the great misfortunes of my life was that in the early days of videotapes, when they cost as much as $90 each, we could only afford a few. And the one that my then-three-year-old son had to watch over and over and over was the Robin Williams/Shelley Duvall Popeye. I can still sing all the songs. Which is one of the main reasons I dare not have a gun in the house.

In Where Are My Books?, young Spencer finds that his favorite book, Night-Night Narwhal, is missing. And the next day, another book disappears, and then another. He sets a trap to catch the miscreant. Much of the appeal for adults comes from the ironically themed books on his favorites list.

-- Very Little Red Riding Hood and Very Little Cinderella, by Heapy & Heap, reimagine these classic tales by placing a very little child in the title role. What if these heroines acted like two-year-olds? Believe me, the tales lose none of their brilliance ... and they'll delight children without ruining the classic versions for them as they get older.

-- Ally-Saurus & the First Day of School, by Richard Torrey features a six-year-old girl who does not need an imaginary friend because she is an imaginary dinosaur.

Having had a nephew whose self-identification as Superman persisted right through many weeks of kindergarten (the teachers all went along with calling him Superman, to the point that many of them did not actually know his name), I know that such children are often among the smartest and most creative, as long as some adult doesn't set out to stifle them.

And Ally-Saurus is a delightful tale in which Ally's ability to stay in character inspires other children to let their imagination rise to the surface.

-- Waiting, by Kevin Henkes, takes the Toy Story premise -- that toys come alive when children aren't watching -- and brings it much closer to the realms of reality.

Five toys sit in the window of a child's bedroom, and ... wait. They look out the window and see things. Their adventures may be their own imagination, or the things that happen when their child-owner plays with them. Mostly, though, they ... wait.

And since children often feel their whole life is given over to waiting -- for Christmas, to get older, for Dad or Mom to be ready to take them on whatever errand they're planning -- the lives of these generally inert toys are charming. And borderline tragic.

-- Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos features a penguin who bounds around Antarctica looking for a dance partner. He doesn't find the person he's looking for -- but those he does meet turn out to be good friends when he's in need. And ... of course the dance partner he seeks is waiting for him by the end.

-- Leo: A Ghost Story, by Mac Barnett, pictures by Christian Robinson; it's a good thing that children take the idea of death in stride, mostly because they know it's not supposed to happen to them for decades.

So I don't think many children will be bothered by the fact that young Leo is a ghost. He's delighted when a family moves into the house he's haunting, because it means he'll have company. But they aren't thrilled with his company, because his manifestations are, one might say, disconcerting.

His solution involves some deception -- he convinces the daughter of the family that, rather than being a ghost, he's just her imaginary friend. Once he proves himself to be a blessing to the family, he can simply be himself.

-- Beyond the Pond, by Joseph Kuefler, tells of a young boy who is fascinated by the pond in his family's back yard. After proving to his own satisfaction that the pond is bottomless, he begins to find that it serves as a highway to a magical land. And when he returns, some of the magic comes with him, making his real life a little less ordinary.

-- I'm Trying to Love Spiders, by Bethany Barton, isn't fictional. It's an excellent book of real facts about spiders, with charming illustrations -- and a candid recognition that it takes time to become accustomed to the charms of arachnids, and some specimens are likely to be mashed along the way.

Not a bad preparation for the as-yet-unwritten sequels, I'm Trying to Like Boys and I'm Trying to Like Girls. A lot of folks will get squished along the way in those books, too. (No, those books don't exist. But they should.)

-- Billy's Booger: A Memoir (sorta), by William Joyce and his younger self. So ... do you have the courage to buy Billy's Booger and send it to a nephew, niece, or grandchild, knowing that you may end up having an interesting conversation with the parents after Christmas morning?

When we read about the adventures of Billy, I thought of one granddaughter who, when leaving the house to head out to a children's birthday party, was stopped by her mother, who said, "Now, darling, please don't be too weird.

"Oh, it's OK Mom," said the girl. "Everybody knows I'm weird, and they're OK with it. I can be as weird as I want to be."

So ... that's Billy in Billy's Booger. Just so you understand.


I'm sad to tell you that the best and worst of this year's Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are the same movie: Karen Kingsbury's The Bridge.

I'll begin with why it's the best: The story is actually believable. Well, mostly. Way more than usual.

The story begins with Faith Ford and Ted McGinley (I'm just using the actors' names) meeting as a young couple in a bookstore. They fall in love and get married, but then lose their first baby in a late-term miscarriage. Unable to have more children, they start a bookstore in a fine old house, with hopes that it can be a bridge in people's lives -- a bridge between people, a bridge between past and future. So it is named The Bridge.

Here's the single most unbelievable thing. While Faith Ford and Ted McGinley are very charming and talented actors, and their performances are way above average for Hallmark Christmas movies, there is no concealing their age.

If either of them has had "work" done, they have kept it within bounds, so nobody has that horrible windswept or deformed-lips look that makes it unbearable to see Goldie Hawn or Meg Ryan these days.

But that means that there are unconcealed lines on their faces, so you just have to pretend that you believe that they're as young as their characters are supposed to be at the beginning of the movie. Before too long, enough years have passed that they're believable in their roles.

Because the main story of The Bridge is about Molly, played by Katie Findlay, and Ryan, played by Wyatt Nash. And without a qualm, I can say that while there's some competition for this title, Findlay and Nash are the two best actors in any Hallmark Christmas movie, ever.

No, I'll go further. Findlay has already had recurring and then leading roles in various TV series. While she is not classically beautiful, she is engaging in an effortless way. Many actresses in romantic movies rely on cute-girl shtick, but Findlay never does. She makes her character seem real, so we care about whether she's happy or not.

And that's no mean trick, because her character is the daughter of a rich media mogul who is trying to control her life. She loves him because he raised her alone after her mother died (yes, this is a Christmas movie, and her mother is beloved dead person #1), but his desire to control her is pathological. And her willingness to let him makes her seem, at times, spineless.

Molly leaves Seattle and goes to school in Tennessee, near Nashville, where she keeps running into Ryan, a would-be country singer who has decided to be realistic about his future. He isn't going to break into professional performance, so he's going to get a college degree and teach high school.

They become study partners, always at the bookstore, because Molly has to keep Ryan from visiting the off-campus house her father rented for her -- since both employees at the house are, in effect, spies for her father to make sure she doesn't get into bad stuff, like liquor, drugs, or having any boyfriend at all.

You see, Daddy has already picked out her husband, Preston Millington III (Carey Feehan), and expects Molly to marry him and then both of them to work for him until he's ready to hand over the company to Molly. Though it's hard to imagine that a man this controlling will ever let her actually make any decisions when she "takes over."

The father is controlling to such a degree that it might have made the movie unbelievable -- except I know a shocking number of parents who think they have a right to choose what college their kids will go to, and what they'll major in. These control freaks think that they know best what will make their little darlings happy.

This is because they don't understand that no one can be happy when their lives are shaped entirely by decisions that other people made. At some point, they're going to blow up and do what they want to do, even if it's already too late to make the choices they wanted most.

In Molly's case, though, while she knows she doesn't want to marry Millington or work for Daddy, she has no idea what she does want to do.

Until she figures out that what she wants is Ryan.

Ryan, for his part, is on a "break" from his girlfriend, Kristen (Andrea Brooks), whom he has been close to since they were both eleven. Kristen is neither written nor acted as a monster; in fact, you can believe that she and Ryan have been close, and her heartbreak when he breaks up with her wins our sympathy. It's a good thing Molly is played so beautifully by Katie Findlay that we don't start wishing Kristen could end up with Ryan.

Wyatt Nash, playing Ryan, is (of course) pretty enough to please any Hallmark Channel viewer. But along with his looks, Nash brings a powerful talent, making weak lines strong and good lines better. I can only compare him to a young Robert Redford -- remember when he played the angel of death in a Twilight Zone episode? -- and if he gets a few more excellent roles, he may end up with a Redford-like career. He has the talent for it.

Along with all these fine performances and decent dialogue, let's add in the fact that either the original book's author or the screenwriter actually know the book business. The problems faced by the owners of The Bridge are real problems, and the solutions they reach for are the ones that have seemed like viable strategies to real bookstore owners and managers.

Not only that, but the "charming characters" that populate the bookstore really are charming! And the owners' interactions with them are believable and endearing.

In short, there's nothing idiotic about the story, the characters, or the writing. I never cringed once. By the standards of this genre, that makes The Bridge a masterpiece. I give it the maximum grade of three stars.

Definitely the best Hallmark Christmas movie I've ever seen. Until it suddenly becomes the absolute worst.

Because it isn't a Christmas movie. It's a Christmas miniseries. And the concluding segment won't come until Christmas 2016.

Yeah, you read that right. This two-hour "movie" ends on a cliffhanger, and we have a year to wait for the two-hour resolution.

Of course I've already ordered the book, because this movie made me care, and I'm not going to wait to find out how it all comes out, not if I don't have to.

So ... if you want to see a Hallmark Christmas movie that is so good that you wish they'd bring all the others up to this standard, watch The Bridge. But if you want a finished, satisfying story, don't watch it till next Christmas season, when they'll rerun it constantly in order to build up expectations for the conclusion.

-- Hats Off to Christmas ** -- Haylie Duff is delightful as single-mom Mia, a trusted employee of the retail store called Hats Off to Christmas. Her son, Scott, is in a wheelchair in the aftermath of the traffic accident that killed his father, and Mia is thrilled when the corporate accountant retires and she becomes his temporary replacement. Surely she'll be hired for the permanent position.

But no. Hats Off is a family-run business, and the owner has dragged his son, Nick, home from the world of high finance to save the business. When Nick was growing up in this town, he was the darling of the high school. He won every contest and everyone is thrilled that he's back. Except Mia -- because his financial expertise allows him, and only him, to realize that the business is not viable. The only sensible plan is to join with the bank in closing it down and throwing all the employees out of work.

But his dad, played with astonishing awfulness by Jay Brazeau, doesn't know of this plan. He insists that Nick work in the retail store to learn the family business, and Mia is assigned to teach him to work the store. And because Nick falls for her almost at once, he ends up hanging around, helping Mia's son to prepare for a jack-o-lantern carving contest and then a soap-box derby.

Of course love is in the air, and after a very short time we are quite enthusiastic about the two of them getting together. Other questions remain: Will young Scott work up the spunk to resume physical therapy and re-learn how to walk, as his doctor is convinced he can? Will Jay Brazeau stay off the screen so we can stand to watch the movie to the end?

But the biggest question of all is never addressed: How does a business that consists of one retail store that sells nothing but Christmas hats do enough business to support a year-round top-heavy corporate structure? Yes, they sell to other stores and their shipping department is always busy. But considering that cheap little Santa hats can be made for a penny each in Malaysia, why is Hats Off to Christmas in business at all?

This movie is the opposite of The Bridge, with its clear understanding of the actual bookstore business. The business model of Hats Off is ludicrous, and considering how much of the plot hinges on our believing that characters in the movie know anything about business, it's a miracle that it's watchable.

But it is watchable. Just don't get the stupid idea of opening a Santa-hat retail store. In our non-hat-wearing culture, it's less believable than the stories that make Santa Claus "real."

-- Finding Christmas ** -- is another holiday house-swapping comedy. This time, hotshot designer Sean Tucker (Mark Lutz), for reasons passing understanding, swaps his Manhattan apartment for the southern country home of Owen Harrison (J.T. Hodges), an aspiring country singer.

Naturally, Owen falls for Sean's delightful assistant, Mia (Cristina Rosato), while to Sean's surprise, Owen's sister, single-mom Ryan (Tricia Helfer), is the omnicompetent handyman who quickly wins his heart.

Mia has a boyfriend, but of course he isn't spontaneous and he won't sing her favorite Christmas song, "Silent Night." Country-singer Owen wins this contest almost without trying -- especially because J.T. Hodges has a warm voice that melts our hearts. But when he walks into a restaurant and starts singing "Silent Night" as he ambles toward Mia, try not to flash on Rick Moranis's a capella version of "Close to You" from Parenthood.

Much of this movie is pro forma, yet the actors don't phone it in -- they make it work. With one exception: Tricia Helfer as Ryan. Not because she's bad. She isn't. She far and away the best performer in this movie. But that's the problem.

Helfer has the kind of fire that made her completely believable as heartless spymaster Carla in Burn Notice. She blows everybody else off the screen. Poor Mark Lutz can't catch a break -- without even trying to, she chews him up and spits him out. We barely notice he's in the movie.

Yes, it is possible for somebody to be so much better than the rest of the cast that it weakens the believability of the story.

But heck, I still enjoyed the movie. Hence its two stars.

-- One Starry Christmas ** -- is another country-boy, city-girl romance. This time, the girl is astronomer Holly Jensen, played by Sarah Carter. She would be convincing if the writer had had even the slightest clue about what university-professor astronomers actually do. But he doesn't. So we're supposed to believe she has this marvelous career ahead of her, when her doctoral dissertation is on a topic that might win a high school science fair.

Meanwhile, the guy she falls for -- her accidental busride companion Luke Shelton (Damon Runyan) -- is a real-life cowboy. His brother's a rodeo star, but Luke really works with cattle, and he is charmed by Holly's love for the stars, while she is overcome by his earthiness and sincerity.

Naturally, her boyfriend, businessman Adam, proposes to her in a public place, and the rivalry between Luke and Adam is epic, or at least epic-adjacent. No surprise about how it comes out; but along the way, the cowboys (yeah, the brother shows up, too) and Holly's very genuine family win our hearts as well as Holly's.

-- Christmas Incorporated * -- Once again, charming actors and adequate dialogue make a really dumb movie watchable. Riley Vance has a non-ivy-league business degree and can't get hired in Manhattan, until she's swept into a job as the personal assistant to William Young (Steve Lund), who just inherited the top position at a big corporation from his father.

Once she has impressed Young by her spunkiness when she speaks up at a board meeting (what? A job applicant is even in the room?) and has the job, it's too late to point out that the interviewer got her resume mixed up with that of a different Riley V. So, even though she is, in fact, committing fraud, however inadvertently it began, she goes ahead of him to a small town where the company's original toy factory is no longer profitable.

Young is supposed to prove to the board that he's man enough to fill his father's shoes by laying everybody off and closing the toy factory right before Christmas. And since Young has no patience with Christmas decorations and spirit, he's all set to destroy both Christmas and the town's economy ... until Riley reintroduces him to the Christmas spirit.

Love! They fall in love! And you would, too, because Shenae Grimes-Beech, as Riley, is way more likable than her unpronounceable name. (Say it three times fast, if you can.) And Steve Lund is so pretty that it makes you want to have a daughter just so she can marry him.

The whole cast is good, so that the absolute impossibility of the way they "save" everybody's jobs can be ignored.

OK, well, it can't, but you pretend it can because you're having such a good time rooting for the young lovers to find their way through the maze of evil businessmen and heartless reporters.

-- Love at the Thanksgiving Parade ** -- This movie wants so badly to be Miracle on 34th Street that no decent person would have the heartlessness to tell the filmmakers that they failed.

Henry Williams (Antonio Cupo) is the hotshot consultant that the city of Chicago hired to analyze the finances of the annual Thanksgiving Day parade and decide whether it's worth the expense to put it on.

Naturally, this puts him at odds with Autumn Reeser (Emily Jones), the executive who actually organizes the parade. Gradually, though, she is able to show him how important the parade is, if not to the budget, then to the spirit of Chicago.

In this project she is aided by the fact that the parade already means more to him than she could possibly know, and when she finds out why, both the parade and their romance are fated to live forever.

That wasn't a spoiler. If it were going to end any other way, it wouldn't be a Hallmark Christmas movie. But it earns its moments of awww.

-- Northpole ** and Northpole: Open for Christmas ** -- These two movies are driven by the pixie-like Bailee Madison as the permanently thirteen-year-old elf Clementine.

Each movie has a vaguely sci-fi premise about how the Christmas spirit has to be saved in a particular place or all of Christmas is in jeopardy. And, of course, since everything is at stake, they send a particularly young and inexperienced elf to deal with it all.

The most interesting innovation in both movies is that Santa's workshop and residence are not at the actual North Pole. Instead, they are located in a town called Northpole in a mountain-ringed valley, where a series of miraculously unfrozen and completely purposeless canals block thru traffic and probably lead to many accidental drownings throughout the town.

But the town looks great, and Bailee Madison manages the incredible feat of making the hyper-energetic Clementine likeable and not annoying. Much.

The first movie, Northpole, has Clementine fly on a one-horse version of Santa's sleigh to help a kid save Christmas. I liked the second movie, Northpole: Open for Christmas, largely because of Dermot Mulroney, a superb actor who has never been given a role that would unlock his full potential.

The premise of Open for Christmas is that Mackenzie (Lori Loughlin) inherits an old inn from her beloved aunt. Of course she has to sell it because there's no way she could give up her blossoming career and move to an obscure northern town in order to run a rundown hotel.

Until she finds that Dermot Mulroney is the handyman and that magical creatures are all set to help her make the inn financially successful despite the fact that it clearly needs a million dollars in remodeling and renovation. The absurdity of it all is in good fun, and Loughlin and Mulroney make a wonderful romantic couple.

-- All I Want for Christmas * -- With the same premise as Sleepless in Seattle, when Sara Armstrong's son submits a video to a contest, saying that all he wants for Christmas is a husband for his mom, you can imagine that he ends up either dead or orphaned, because nobody could survive the embarrassment.

Only this is a Hallmark Christmas movie, and so instead the mom (Gail O'Grady) finds herself roped into ever-increasing pressure from the contest's sponsors to accept one of the suitors they arrange for her to date.

Instead, she finds that the corporate guy who is sent around to manage all these dates is falling for her, and she likes him, too. But when the corporation embraces their romance and tries to exploit it for publicity, it wrecks everything.

Especially because Sara already has a next-door neighbor who has been her son's real father figure for years, and if she'd finally realize that he is the husband she wants and needs, all this corporate bushwa could go away.

That's not a spoiler, because this is completely obvious to everyone but Sara from about three minutes into the movie. But hey, it's not unrealistic for real people not to recognize true love even when it's staring them in the face. Happens all the time.

-- Baby's First Christmas * -- Feuding colleagues Kyle (Casper Van Dien) and Jenna (Rachel Wilson) are thrown together because their siblings fall in love and get married. When their nephew-to-be is in contention to be the prize-winning Christmas baby (first kid born on Christmas this year), all sorts of madcap adventures ensue. Everybody ends up loving all the right people, and a good time is had by all -- especially viewers who are not expecting high art but are content to go along for the ride.

-- Matchmaker Santa ** -- An awful lot of women end up dating really Wrong Guys, just because they have money and are really good looking and treat their women with just the right amount of over-control mixed with disdain.

Lacey Chabert, whose career has been seriously hampered by looking just a little too much like Jennifer Love Hewitt, plays Melanie, who wished, as a little girl, that she could find true love like her parents' lasting affection.

Maybe her true love is rich-and-handsome CEO Justin (Thad Luckinbill), who invites her to spend the holidays at his family's lake house so she can meet his mother. But naturally the CEO is way too busy to travel with her; that falls to his assistant, Dean (Adam Mayfield), who secretly is bonkers over his boss's girlfriend.

But Santa Claus is involved in this! There's a wish to fulfil, and Justin just isn't qualified. (You always want your mate chosen by the guy who keeps the naughty-or-nice list.) So a series of mishaps keep Dean and Melanie away from the lake house -- and stuck with each other in the charming little snowed-in town where the real Santa, apparently, spends the run-up to Christmas every year.

It's always so hard for these women to realize they don't really love the rich guy. What always passes through my mind is my mother telling me, when I was young, that when she was a mere lass, her Uncle Byron often said to her, "Now remember, Peggy, it's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one."

I could never figure out why this advice stuck with my mom, considering that she married the guy who flew model planes, took pictures of everything, painted signs, and eventually became a college teacher. Was she bragging to me that she didn't follow Uncle Byron's advice? Or urging me to follow it? Or reminding me that if I wanted to marry a smart woman, I better get some pelf together?

One thing for sure: I did not marry the kind of woman who counts a man's money before she falls in love. And, fortunately for the audience's happiness in Matchmaker Santa, Melanie shows that she has no sense about finance or financial security, either, because she blows off the CEO and his mother.

Then again, Adam Mayfield's good looks are a perfectly adequate explanation for Melanie's decision. What woman doesn't aspire to have incredibly good-looking children?

-- The Christmas Spirit * -- Charlotte Hart (Nicollette Sheridan) becomes active in leading her town's opposition to a big developer who is offering to buy up every business in the downtown in order to revitalize the place. However, the developer, Daniel Huntslar (Bart Johnson), is hoping to strike up a relationship -- especially because he knows her opposition is pointless.

But when one of them collides with the other at an intersection with a broken semaphore (both directions show green), they end up in the hospital in a coma.

In this universe, people in comas can wander around like the spirits of the dead. They run into Olympia Dukakis, who sees dead people and does a delightful job of (a) trying to ignore them and (b) explaining the rules of changing the world while your body is tubed up in a hospital bed.

During this idyllic coma-time, of course they fall deeply in love, and he helps lead her to the evidence that will completely block the re-development (and destruction) of the downtown. When they revive from their comas, they remember everything, and love is in blossom -- while all those people who could have used a lucrative retirement from the sale of their failing businesses now have to keep on being picturesque and impoverished.

-- Moonlight & Mistletoe * -- Let me tell you right from the start: Tom Arnold is in this movie, and in a big part. He runs a tatty Christmas theme park that, surprisingly, isn't making a lot of money. And, unsurprisingly, his adult daughter (Candace Cameron Bure), having grown up immersed in Christmas, is sick sick sick of the place and the holiday.

But when she realizes that Santaville is in danger of going bankrupt, she returns home from her job as a toy company sales executive to try to save her dad's business.

Her dad is an idiot, of course (did I mention ... played by Tom Arnold?), but instead of recognizing that the best way to save the place is to keep people from meeting Tom Arnold, ever, anywhere on the grounds, she recognizes that a handyman who works at Santaville is really good at making the kind of crafts that any moron can make, but which suddenly have so much value that selling a few of them will pay off Santaville's debt.

Who wants Candace Cameron Bure to marry the talented handyman? Show of hands?

-- Come Dance with Me (alias A Christmas Dance) ** -- Did you like the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez movie Shall We Dance? Yes? Well, see it again, this time with Andrew McCarthy in the Richard Gere role.

No, no, not exactly the same. Andrew McCarthy plays Jack, who is desperate to impress his boss, Drew, especially because he's dating the fabulously shallow Demi -- Drew's daughter.

When Jack finds out that at the company's traditional Christmas ball at the country club everyone will be expected to waltz competently, Jack signs up for lessons with dance instructor Christine (Michelle Nolden).

Naturally, Jack's breakthrough deal, the one that impresses Drew, involves financing a huge development that is using eminent domain to acquire and then tear down the entire city block that includes Christine's dance studio.

And no, she can't just relocate, because this is the studio where her father taught and danced and died. Besides, until now she never worried about rent because her father had worked it out with the building's owner. But the owner is dead now, and his heirs have no idea what the deal was, so ...

So naturally she asks for Jack's financial advice, and he simultaneously is finishing up the deal that will destroy her building and trying to help her find a way to block the very deal that his future depends on.

Does he dance well at the big company ball? Is there some totally effective way to block the sale and the redevelopment, despite all the new jobs and the facelift it would have brought to a depressed part of town? Does she find out that the dance student who's helping her is the guy who put the whole deal together in the first place? Will they kiss?

What actually matters is: Chemistry is present. The learning-to-dance is convincing. If you like ballroom dance movies, this is one.

-- Crown for Christmas ** -- After I explained that Christmas movies with royalty in them are down there with zombie and vampire movies for me, one of my friends turned around in choir practice and told me that A Crown for Christmas was really good.

Look, I'm willing to learn, and Sandra's got brains as well as beauty. So I decided to give the movie fifteen minutes.

I ended up giving it the whole two hours, because it was a sweet story with good advice in it.

But first, let me point out the abysmal stupidity of the writers. Although young and conveniently widowed King Maximilian (Rupert Penry-Jones) rules an imaginary kingdom "near Luxembourg," where everyone would speak either French or German, or something in between, it was clear they were trying to imitate the customs surrounding the English royal family.

The mountain peaks surrounding the palace cannot be "near Luxembourg," which has no mountain peaks. That would be "near Lichtenstein." But they just can't leave Luxembourg alone. At one point, Maximilian is supposed to have dealings with Lady Whatever "of Luxembourg." This is not possible. Luxembourg is a duchy, and therefore only the wife of the Duke of Luxembourg -- the head of state -- is entitled to style herself "of Luxembourg."

But it's so much worse. Everyone addresses King Maximilian as "your highness," but a king is "your majesty." Only princes and princesses are called "your highness." People stupidly speak of eligible brides within the kingdom as being from "royal" families -- but what they mean is they're from noble or armiger families, who are eligible to marry royals.

"Royal" only means people so close in blood to the king that he couldn't marry anybody in their families without violating the incest taboo. (Ancient Egyptians and Targaryens aren't bothered by that, but people who don't want genetically challenged offspring take it seriously.)

Naturally, despite a long-promised wedding with Celia, an eminently qualified candidate, King Maximilian is fated to fall in love with ... his beloved daughter's governess.

Here's how this royal family picks governesses. Even though the daughter, Princess Theodora (Ellie Botterill), is still back in their imaginary kingdom, the king decides he must find a new governess for her in New York, and because hotel maid Allie Evans (Danica McKellar) is very deserving and pretty, she gets the job.

It is hard to imagine anyone less qualified. The job of governess to a royal daughter is to prepare her to take her place in proper society, while Allie has no clue. About anything. Her only virtue is that when Theodora plays pranks on her, she doesn't go into a tailspin. Oh, and she likes to go horseback riding with King Max in the predawn hours.

Incredibly, the king's butler is taken along with him on his diplomatic trip to America, and it's the butler who is delegated to offer the job to Allie. Haven't these writers ever heard of a "valet"? Don't they know that the butler's job is tied to the household, so it's absurd for him to travel with the king?

Never mind. The writers did their only research by watching The Sound of Music, so the "royals" all behave like the household of an Austrian sea captain of armiger blood. Poor Theodora has to be all the von Trapp children rolled into one, but without the singing, praise the Lord. ("Adieu. Adieu. To ieu and ieu and ieu.")

Too bad Allie wasn't convent-trained, or she might have been able to tell the difference between a palace and a castle. But it's OK -- nobody else in the movie knows the difference, either.

Look, if you aren't a history buff, none of these quibbles will matter. How does the love story work out? Very well, thank you. Penry-Jones is quite convincing as a royal -- he has the dignity, even if everybody else keeps insulting him by using the wrong term of address.

Most important, we buy the relationship between Allie and Princess Theodora. So when Celia brings up the exact same "solutions" to the "child problem" that the countess resorted to in Sound of Music, we really don't want Theodora to go. (Whereas I completely agreed with the countess that the Von Trapp children had to be hustled off to boarding school -- in Sweden, preferably, or Singapore.)

Best moment in the movie: when Allie pipes up with her formula for good fathering, which includes, "Kiss your children good-night every night, even if they're already asleep." Naturally, this advice is scorned by the ignorant -- but it makes Maximilian absolutely sure he wants to engage Allie as stepmother for Theodora rather than as governess.

I enjoyed this movie, even including the awkward snowball fights.

I will doubtless see more Christmas movies before the season is over, but I probably won't review them here. So I now offer you my list of three-, two-, and one-star Hallmark Christmas movies:

Angels Sing ***

Karen Kingsbury's The Bridge ***

The Nine Lives of Christmas ***

A Very Merry Mix-up ***

A Boyfriend for Christmas **

Charming Christmas **

Come Dance with Me **

A Crown for Christmas **

Finding Christmas **

Fir Crazy **

Ice Sculpture Christmas II **

I'm Not Ready for Christmas **

Let It Snow **

Love at the Thanksgiving Parade **

Matchmaker Santa **

Northpole **

Northpole: Open for Business **

Trading Christmas **

All I Want for Christmas *

Angel in the House *

Baby's First Christmas *

Call Me Mrs. Miracle *

Christmas Incorporated *

The Christmas Spirit *

Hats Off to Christmas *

Moonlight & Mistletoe *

One Starry Christmas *

Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus *

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