Reviews: ‘The Noel Diary’ stands out among holiday movies

‘The Noel Diary’

Based on a novel by the bestselling author Richard Paul Evans — a master of holiday tales, best known for “The Christmas Box” — the romantic melodrama “The Noel Diary” sets itself apart from other “love blooms in late December” movies with its depth of detail. Justin Hartley doesn’t just play “a writer.” He’s Jake Turner, a mega-successful spy novelist who is handsome, witty and stubbornly alone. And Barrett Doss isn’t some generic jolt of positivity, sent to shake up the protagonist. She’s Rachel, a woman searching for her birth mother, Noel, who was Jake’s nanny when he was a toddler.

Further complex wrinkles ensue, as Jake and Rachel take a Christmastime road trip to sort out some of their old business, all while reading the journal Noel left at the Turner house decades ago, before tragedy tore that family apart. Accomplished director Charles Shyer (who also co-wrote the script with Rebecca Connor and David Golden) lets this story and the people in it develop naturally, never forcing conflicts or overplaying the diary gimmick. For the most part, this is a down-to-Earth kind of holiday romance, about fundamentally good people who are just a little broken inside.

“The Noel Diary” does eventually succumb to convention, as Jake has an overdue reunion with his estranged father and Rachel reckons with how an inconvenient fiancé complicates her affection for Jake. But overall, this picture is a refreshing alternative to the synthetic, simplistic Christmas movies that proliferate this time of year. Ditch the mistletoe and holly and it would still be a well-crafted, well-balanced character sketch, following two lost souls as they discover what they’ve been missing.

‘The Noel Diary.’ TV-PG for mild themes. 1 hour, 40 minutes. Available on Netflix

‘Falling for Christmas’

There’s only one real reason to see the holiday rom-com “Falling for Christmas,” and it’s not the plot, which is an unimaginative retread of the “self-centered aristocrat gets humbled” premise, following a vain influencer who develops amnesia and relearns how to be a real person while regaining her memory. There’s no reason to watch it for the festive trappings either, given that the movie is set in the same kind of quaint wintry locale — a ski town, in this case — that provides a backdrop for most of these kinds of films.

No, “Falling for Christmas” is all about its star, Lindsay Lohan, who brings every bit of her earthy charisma to a rare leading role. She plays the influencer, Sierra, an heiress with an insipid boyfriend/manager, Tad (George Young). When the two of them tumble off a mountain during a picturesque, Instagram-ready engagement announcement, he ends up getting lost in the woods while she is found by Jake (Chord Overstreet), a widower who runs a small, old-fashioned lodge that has been struggling in the shadow of Sierra’s father’s nearby luxury hotel. Unable to recall who she is, she becomes Jake’s employee — and a mother-figure to his young daughter.

This picture is predictable even by the formulaic standard of Christmas movies, with the characters rushing through plot-points that borrow liberally from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” But the overall mood is warm and cheery, and Lohan brings a spontaneous sincerity to even the corniest scenes. The movie’s wrapping is shiny and plastic, but its star quality is genuine.

‘Falling for Christmas.’ TV-PG for fear. 1 hour, 35 minutes. Available on Netflix

‘Christmas With You’

Like most holiday-themed TV movies, “Christmas With You” has a laborious setup, with multiple plot contrivances working to dislodge the heroine from her rut and get her to the place where she can recover her Christmas spirit. Once the story really gets going, though, it’s a low-key charmer, aided immeasurably by the performances of Aimee Garcia as a soul-sick middle-aged pop star named Angelina and Freddie Prinze Jr. as Miguel, the small-town music teacher who helps her break her creative block and write a Christmas song.

Angelina finds her way to Miguel when his 15-year-old daughter Cristina (Deja Monique Cruz) covers one of her songs on a fan site. In need of an ego-boost, Angelina pays Cristina a visit, fleeing New York without telling her panicked record label or her needy ex-boyfriend. She winds up getting spiritually refreshed by spending time with a happy family — and reconnecting with her Latin roots.

“Christmas with You” tries too hard to create complications and to trot out one-dimensional villains, none of which are convincing. It’s obvious from the moment Angelina meets Miguel and Cristina that all of her problems — romantic, creative, career, you name it — have just been solved. Still, Garcia and Prinze are so likable that it’s satisfying to see them spend an hour or so of screen time figuring out what the audience knows right away.

‘Christmas with You’. TV-PG for substances. 1 hour, 30 minutes. Available on Netflix

Erinn Hayes and Peter Billingsley in the movie “A Christmas Story Christmas.”

(Yana Blajeva / Warner Bros.)

‘A Christmas Story Christmas’

The 1983 holiday classic “A Christmas Story” is a riotously entertaining yet hard-to-replicate stew of heartwarming nostalgia, gentle social satire and broad slapstick, drawn from the memories of wry radio humorist Jean Shepherd. The sequel “A Christmas Story Christmas” can’t hit the original’s highs — and at times tries too hard to repeat the shtick that worked the first time — but it is trying something unexpected by catching up with Ralphie Parker more than 30 years later, as a fumbling family man in the early 1970s.

Peter Billingsley (who also co-produced the film and co-wrote the story) returns as Ralphie, who is an unpublished, unemployed science-fiction author living in Chicago when he gets the call that his father has died, and that he needs to return to Hohman, Ind., to help his mom (Julie Hagerty). A lack of funds and a series of mishaps keeps Ralphie and his wife, Sandy (Erinn Hayes), from delivering their kids the perfect Christmas they’d planned, but with the help of his old Hohman friends — played by the same actors as in the 1983 film — he’s able to channel the spirit of his dad and make the best of what he has.

This sequel could’ve been more rooted in 1973, in the way that the original draws knowingly on the pop culture of 1940. But like its predecessor, it is enjoyably episodic, jumping from one comic vignette to another. Some of these connect, while others land with a thud. But so it goes with Christmas. Not every present is a winner.

‘A Christmas Story Christmas’ PG, for language and some rude material/behavior. 1 hour, 41 minutes. Available on HBO Max

‘Santa Camp’

When it comes to long-running fantasy characters — and especially those beloved by children — fans can be stubbornly resistant to any effort to modernize, reimagine or in any way make these icons more representative of the broader population. The documentary “Santa Camp” is partly about the controversy that arises whenever a mall or a public event books a Santa Claus who doesn’t have the “traditional” appearance: white, tubby, bearded, aged and male. But director Nick Sweeney really only covers that story tangentially, while focusing more on the efforts of one Santa-training agency to diversify its graduating class. Sometimes challenging and frequently moving, this movie considers the deeper reasons why Santa Claus inspires people — historically and now — while reminding viewers that the only reason traditions are traditions is because someone did them once and then did them again. We can always create new ones.

‘Santa Camp.’ TV-MA, for language. 1 hour, 32 minutes. Available on HBO Max

Also on VOD

“One Delicious Christmas” is part of an expanded slate of Discovery+ holiday movies featuring guest appearances by venerable HGTV and Food Network personalities. This one has basic cable staple Bobby Flay playing a restaurant critic, whose harsh opinion of a Vermont inn’s food causes problems for its new owner, Abby (Vanessa Marano), who inherited the business — and its old-fashioned menu — from her dearly departed dad. Available on Discovery+

Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

Three men seated in a commercial airplane in the movie "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles."

Bill Erwin, from left, Steve Martin and John Candy in the 1987 movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” directed by John Hughes.

(Paramount Pictures)

“Planes Trains & Automobiles” is one of the funniest, sweetest movies ever made about the holiday that pop culture often forgets: Thanksgiving, when people across America (like a fussy advertising executive played by Steve Martin and a gregarious traveling salesman played by John Candy) endure the nightmare of cross-country travel. The new Blu-ray edition includes deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes documentary and tributes to the late writer-director John Hughes. Paramount




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