Saturday, April 20, 2024

Notes of Autumn: A Hallmark Television Movie Review



It is a curious thing that out of the four Hallmark movies that I have seen so far, two of them have a gay love story given that the target audience for these films tend to be straight women. Do straight women like seeing movies about male same-sex romances? 

I do not think that people would accuse Hallmark movies of being deep or particularly good. They seem to be the television version of comfort food: something filling for the feelings. Notes of Autumn, my latest sojourn into this world of sappiness, makes me genuinely wonder why I put myself through all this. Poorly acted, poorly written, at times veering on cringey, Notes of Autumn is not so much a disaster as it is brain-melting.

Ellie Matthews (Ashley Williams) was once an aspiring pianist who now works as a flustered and somewhat frustrated events planner. Leo Carrington (Luke Macfarlane) is a highly successful writer of the Parkington Manor book series which, judging from the reenactments he sees, is a vaguely Regency-era romance series. Ellie just got fired from her latest job due to constant distractions and a scatterbrained manner. Leo is struggling with his latest Parkington Manor book, his fifteenth book in fifteen years.

As a side note, the dialogue states that Leo has written fifteen Parkington Manor books in 15 years. That makes it at least a book a year for a decade and a half. No wonder he's bereft of ideas. Moreover, I don't think even James Patterson can knock his books out that fast, though to be fair, Patterson does have coauthors, but I digress.

To get away from their troubles and find new sources of inspiration, lifelong BFFs Ellie and Leo decide to swap homes for two weeks. This will give Ellie a chance to recharge and reevaluate what she needs to do to move on. It will give Leo a chance for a long-delayed vacation from British Columbia and perhaps break his writer's block.

They cross paths ever so briefly at an airport, so briefly that they cannot let the other know about each other's living situations. In rural Pinewood, Leo fails to make clear to Ellie that she will be helping Sam Perkins (Marcus Rosner), a nature guide who is organizing the local Piano Ball. He needs help with both organizing the charity event as well as the amateur chamber quartet trying to learn Vivaldi's Autumn section of his Four Seasons concertos. Similarly, Ellie fails to make clear to Leo that she has let her friend Matt (Peter Porte) use her large kitchen as a testing ground for new dishes to interest investors for his hoped-for restaurant. In those two-plus weeks, Ellie & Sam and Leo & Matt will find inspiration and romance from and with each other.

After enduring Notes of Autumn, I had exactly one question: what the hell are gourds? Ellie goes on about gourds and their decorative powers for fall-themed events, but I simply kept wondering what gourds were.

Rick Garman's screenplay was hellbent on Ellie and Leo having mirror situations. I am not talking about the swapping homes situation. After all, Notes of Autumn relies on this as the engine that drives the plot forward.

I am talking about, instead, the dual couples having simultaneously similar situations that I think are among the television movie's many low points. For reasons I simply cannot fathom, both Ellie and Leo essentially have to break into each other's home where they will meet their love interest. Ellie cannot find the keys to Leo's lavish rustic retreat, so she tries to shimmy up to the second floor when Sam happens to pass by. Leo does have a key, but he sees that someone else is already inside, so he grabs a figure of a giraffe as protection against the probable burglar. Hilarity and hijinks are supposed to ensue.

These duo disasters rely on an implausible if not impossible set of circumstances. Not once does it occur to Ellie to let Leo know that she gave Matt permission to use her kitchen? Not once did Leo make clear that he was volunteering Ellie to be his substitute? This oddball situation is explained away by both having to share these vital pieces of information as they pass each other at their connecting airports. However, a more sensible thing would have been to talk about it with each other or even texted. The television film starts with them calling each other often, but that soon is forgotten and they rarely if ever check on each other until they again cross paths at the airport. 

Adding to the overall idiocy of Notes of Autumn is over why couldn't Matt use Ellie's kitchen. Leo tells Matt that he needs privacy to work. However, all Leo and Matt had to do was call Ellie or come to an agreement between them to where Matt could use the kitchen (which the owner already gave him permission to do) when Leo was out, say for a walk or a visit to whatever tourist trap the big city of Westerhaven had.

As a side note, the degree of ruralness between Westerhaven and Pinewood is almost nil. The latter looked the former's suburb. 

There is just so much that is astonishingly dumb about Notes of Autumn. While Ellie knows that Leo is gay (it is about a good ten minutes before we get a quick mention about him not having had a boyfriend in a while), she apparently didn't know Matt was. Either that, or she did know and never thought that the two gay guys she knows might hit it off. I think she did, but if so, why she never thought Leo and Matt could make a connection one can't figure out. 

Leo, newly inspired by his feelings for Matt, has started writing, but not the newest Parkington Manor novel that his editor Karen (Lucia Walters) wants. Instead, he submits the first three chapters of Cornerstones, about two male architects in love. Karen at first rejects it for unnamed reasons, but later tells Leo and Matt that she will push to publish Cornerstones. My question is, why can't he publish it under a pseudonym as J.K. Rowling has under her pen name of Robert Galbraith? Nothing prevents him from publishing Cornerstones, which sounds infinitely better than anything in the Parkington Manor series.

To be fair, this series led to probably the only intentional laugh I got from Notes of Autumn. Matt, vaguely aware of Leo's books, told him that Ellie had mentioned that Leo had written the "Parking Lot Mansion" books. I think Garman may have been inspired, unintentionally or not, by Misery. The Parkington Manor series reads like the fictional Misery books, and Matt tells Leo that his Italian mother may hold Leo hostage if he cannot finish another Parkington Manor book.

Truth be told, from the deliberately overacted sections of Leo's thwarted Parkington Manor: Part 16 book, they look like terrible reads. I understand two stars of Hallmark's When Calls the Heart series appear in the sepia-toned reenactments. I guess that is nice for Hallmark viewers, not so much for anyone unfortunate enough to give Notes of Autumn the time to watch.

Yes, I am probably overthinking all this. I had to do something to combat the boredom and mind-numbing stupidity of Notes of Autumn.

Ellie and Sam's story is no better. As played by Williams, Ellie comes across as a near-total idiot, mistaking perky for insipid. She comes across as irritating, dim, and the type of woman whom men should flee from. Rosner can best be described as "Hallmark hot": a bland character but an attractive man, complete with woodsman beard. Yes, we know that they will eventually fall in love. However, Notes of Autumn never makes the case as to why either would genuinely want to.

I do not know if coming out was the best career choice for Porte or Macfarlane. Good for them if they want to be open about their lives, but I wonder if they will ever play it straight, so to speak. Porte comes close to being a stereotype of a gay man. Macfarlane plays it straight (again, no pun intended), playing Leo as someone who does not even want a friendship with Matt, let alone see him as a potential love match. He is not so much closeted as he is detached. It is to where when Leo initially pulls away from Matt's effort to kiss him, it comes across as a straight man pulling away from a gay man's mistaken impression, not a gay man's overall reluctance at romance. 

Oddly, I saw things that Notes of Autumn may not have intended with some of the lesser characters. When meeting the quartet, Sam introduces each by name. "Beau is playing the violin," he says. I literally asked myself, "Was that a pun?" 

Beau is playing the violin. Bow is playing the violin. 

Maybe that is giving Notes of Autumn way too much credit.

Somehow, "Beau playing the violin" is one of the best parts in Notes of Autumn. His jazzier take on the fiddle reminded me of Nickle Creek. I'd rather follow a romance between Aidan Kahn's Beau and Kelsey Lopes' Wendy than either Ellie & Sam or Leo & Matt. 

The split stories did not mesh well. We get more of Ellie than of Leo, and the quartet does try to give each a personality. It might have worked better to split the stories into two separate films (Notes of Autumn and Notes of Autumn 2: Parkington Manor's Revenge).

I can forgive the "she doth protest too much" when the quartet keeps asking her to accompany them on piano. The television film needs this faux-conflict (faux-flict?) that will be resolved in the end. However, one would think that Ellie's almost incessant whining about how she can't do XYZ would drive Sam away from her. Again, as played by Williams, this woman is somewhat whiney and dim. He could do much better. Despite Sam's heterosexuality, Leo is a better prospect for him than Ellie.

It is curious that Sam mentions how he has to drag Leo to a nearby farmers' market when we see how Leo seems to actually be enjoying going to a farmers' market with Matt. OK, it might be due to a potential attraction. However, why did director Troy Scott not make Leo more reluctant to go to the farmers' market so as to show consistency. 

That simultaneously similar farmers' market visit, I might add, was before Leo found out that Matt was "single" when Matt mentions how Leo sounds like his ex-husband. For all the celebration Notes of Autumn and Hallmark gave themselves about representation, Leo could only say that Matt was "single". The film metaphorically went "don't say gay". Yet, I digress again.

Sam tells Ellie that Leo helped him craft beautiful words for his Pinewood Nature Tours brochure. However, when Sam and Ellie are at a Pinewood farmers' market and earlier on a nature hike, Sam was so eloquent by himself that Leo would have done better to walk in the woods with this hunky man than go off to the more cosmopolitan Westerhaven. The Matt & Leo romance felt forced. To be fair though, it is hard to make some of the dialogue sound anything less than cheesy.

"Ellie says it's because of me and I know it's because of you", Matt tells Leo about him sparking new life in him to pursue his dreams. Leo replies, "I think it's because of us". There might not have been great or even good acting in Notes of Autumn. However, no actor could work with such an awful script and make it sound anything other than laughable. 

To be honest, I can no longer remember if it was Matt who said that to Leo or vice versa. I don't think it really matters, it's still awful. 

Notes of Autumn, even by the surprisingly low standards of a Hallmark Television movie, is bad. Uninteresting characters poorly acted with a pair of at times flat-out stupid stories, it has nothing to offer viewers not addicted to the Hallmark formula.  

One last point about Notes of Autumn. Matt is the only major character to not have a last name. I do not know why that detail stuck out, but it did. 


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