Almost Christmas


Danny Glover is never too old for this sh...stuff.

Danny Glover is never too old for this sh…stuff.

(2016) Holiday Comedy (Universal) Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Jessie T. Usher, John Michael Higgins, Gabrielle Union, Nadej Bailey, Alkoya Brunson, Marley Taylor, D.C. Young Fly, Keri Hilson, Gladys Knight, Chloe Spencer, Gregory Alan Williams, Tara Batesole, Jeff Rose, Tara Jones, Rachel Kylian. Directed by David E. Talbert

 

Christmas is a time for family. When a family member is taken from us, it can leave an awfully big hole. Sometimes trying to fill that hole can only make it deeper.

Walter Meyers (Glover) is the patriarch of the family and he is gathering his family together for Christmas, but it will be the first one without his wife Grace (Kylian), who passed away recently. She was the one who did most of the cooking and her box of recipes was filled with absolutely magical dishes, in particular the sweet potato pie that Walter adores. Sadly, nobody can find the box and so Walter is left to try to recreate the pie recipe with unfortunate results.

Still, the family does gather – divorced Rachel (Union) who is trying to put herself through law school but the financial means just aren’t there. She and her more successful sister Cheryl (Elise) can barely speak a civil word to one another, but Cheryl’s husband (Smoove) isn’t exactly a catch. Christian (Malco) is mounting a political campaign which keeps his cell phone twittering but also may require him to make compromises that will put him at odds with his father. Finally, there’s the youngest – Evan (Usher) – who’s a college football star. He’s just recovered from an injury in time to play in a holiday bowl game, but continues to take the pain meds he’s addicted to, partially to numb the pain of his mother’s loss.

Also present is Aunt May (Mo’Nique) who has made a career as a backup singer to some of the biggest stars in music but which has kept her on the road for too many Christmases. Now she’s trying to help Walter adjust by providing some exotic meals which the family isn’t quite prepared for, and by keeping the alcohol flowing.

Add to the mix Rachel’s old flame and next door neighbor Malachi (Epps) and a houseful of kids and you have a recipe for chaos. However, the rivalry between Rachel and Cheryl threatens to upend what good feelings there are there and tear the family apart. It would take a Christmas miracle to repair the damage.

In the 70s, we were treated to sitcoms about African-American families like Good Times and The Jeffersons and in a lot of ways this movie owes its pedigree to those pioneering shows; the former in vibe, the latter in layout. The family economic circumstance is (with the exception of Rachel) in the comfortable middle class.  The family is used to a heart-warming Christmas of lots of food, nice presents and a comfortably big home. It’s the kind of Christmas we all dream about.

Most of us want a heavy dose of heartwarming with our Christmas movies and Almost Christmas delivers on that front, thanks largely to Glover whose personality fits this role like a (‘scuse the pun) glove. It is also nice to see Mo’Nique onscreen. The Oscar winning actress is onscreen far less than I would like; she’s an amazingly gifted actress who elevates roles that could be campy and gives them heart, as she does here. While to my mind it is Danny Glover who makes the most of his role, the entire cast is top notch and takes each of their roles and run with them, even though there is an element of cliché to the film. Yes there are family squabbles and crises, but you just know it will end with the family pulling together. Nobody wants to see a Christmas film in which the family implodes.

I would have liked to have seen a little more background context, particularly to the Rachel/Cheryl feud which is never explained, for the most part we get fully fleshed-out characters which is something of a Christmas miracle given the size of the cast. Quite frankly, I expected this to be a rote Christmas movie with really no meat on the bones but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong on that score. No, this isn’t reinventing the genre to be sure but it does confirm the best aspects of it. For a lot of people this is going to be a perennial Christmas movie. Count me among those people.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of Glover’s best performances in years. This will definitely give you a case of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Very much a been-there done-that kind of movie. Some of the family dynamics shown here don’t really have any rhyme or reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third time Usher has played a football player onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gathering
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Office Christmas Party

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New Releases for the Week of November 11, 2016


MoonlightMOONLIGHT

(A24) Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland, Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome, Edson Jean, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jaden PinerDirected by Barry Jenkins

This highly acclaimed film focuses on a young African-American man at three different points in his life, his experiences with love and connection and how he handles his oncoming sexuality. The movie won a huge buzz at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and has been getting some legitimate Oscar buzz.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence and language throughout)

Almost Christmas

(Universal) Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Omar Epps, Mo’nique. The patriarch of an extended family is about to gather his family together for their first holiday season without their mother. His family is on the dysfunctional side and all he wants for Christmas is for them all to just get along for once. However if this family can pull itself together without tearing itself apart it would be a kind of Christmas miracle.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive material, drug content and language)

Arrival

(Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg. When ginormous spacecraft land on sites throughout the globe, a team of world-class scientists – including an expert linguist – are assembled to make contact with the aliens inside the craft. However, with the world teetering on the brink of global war, the linguist will take a chance to find the answers that might just keep humanity from destroying itself.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Come and Find Me

(Saban/Lionsgate) Aaron Paul, Annabelle Wallis, Garret Dillahunt, Zachary Knighton. An idyllic romance comes to a baffling halt when David’s girlfriend disappears without a trace. Frantic, he goes out searching for her, finding her trail to be increasingly perilous. Realizing that he didn’t know his girlfriend at all, he reaches a point where if he’s going to see her alive again, he’s going to have to take an enormous risk…but is she worth it?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Dog Eat Dog

(RLJ Entertainment) Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Louisa Krause. Based on the book by Eddie Bunker and directed by Paul Schrader, this movie follows a trio of ex-cons trying to eke out an existence in the underbelly of Los Angeles. They are hired by a Cleveland mobster to kidnap the baby of a rival. When they botch the kidnapping, they find themselves on the run from both the mobsters and the cops, vowing at every turn that they aren’t going back to jail.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Don’t Look Down

(Gravitas) Richard Branson, Eve Branson, Per Lindstrand, Mike Kendrick. Richard Branson is best-known as a billionaire who founded Virgin Records and later, Virgin Airlines. He is also a long-time hot air balloon enthusiast who has made his life goal to break world records on that front. This documentary follows his attempts to do just that.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Shut In

(EuropaCorp/Relativity) Naomi Watts, Oliver Platt, Charlie Heaton, Jacob Tremblay. A widowed child psychologist cares for her comatose son and a troubled young boy. When the patient turns up missing, the psychologist blames herself for his disappearance but soon begins to believe that his ghost is haunting her and her son. When a vicious storm traps her in her house, she must find a way to defend herself and her defenseless son from something she can’t explain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for terror and some violence/bloody images, nudity, thematic elements and brief strong language)

All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa