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

Locke


Tom Hardy discovers that he can't go home again.

Tom Hardy discovers that he can’t go home again.

(2013) Drama (A24) Tom Hardy. Starring the voices of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner, Danny Webb, Alice Lowe, Silas Carson, Lee Ross, Kristy Dillon. Directed by Steven Knight

As we drive from point A to point B, we are in our own insulated little world in our cars, surrounded by other people in their own little worlds. Do you ever wonder what dramas are taking place in those other vehicles, what life and death struggles are happening as our tiny little environments of steel and glass hurtle down the concrete ribbons in the night, each bound for its own private destination.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) is in one such car. He has knocked off of work at a construction site in Birmingham, England where he is the manager of a major project. The next morning is a big day on his job – the pouring of concrete to lay the foundation for the tower he is building. It is going to be one of the largest concrete pours in European history and things have to go just right.

Except Locke won’t be there. He has an errand of his own, a personal one. He is driving from Birmingham to London where a woman is waiting for him in a hospital bed. The woman is not his wife. Rather, his wife and two sons are preparing to watch the local football  team in a crucial match. That’s football as in soccer, by the way. In any case, the boys are excited, mom has bought some sausages to grill up and has even finally consented to wear the team jersey that Ivan bought for her and has been nagging her to wear on game days. But Locke won’t be there either.

During the course of the night he will drive down British highways through varying degrees of rush hour traffic while talking on a hands free mobile phone built into the dashboard of his SUV. He will nursemaid his second in command through the necessary steps of preparing the construction site for the big pour. He will try to explain to his boss why he is acting the way he is, and the same to his wife while trying to at least maintain a veneer of normalcy for his sons. The longer the drive continues, the more that veneer cracks and threatens to fall apart.

This is not your usual sort of drama. Other than the opening scene in which we see other anonymous faceless construction workers leaving the job site, Hardy is the only person we ever see onscreen. He interacts with other actors on the phone, wispy spectral voices that question Ivan’s judgment and even his sanity.

Ivan Locke is a fastidious sort. Respected in his profession, a solid family man, he nevertheless has made a crucial error in his personal life and is now trying to make it right. In his mind at least he’s doing the right thing – viewers may disagree, but Ivan Locke, once his mind is made up, never wavers in his course. It separates him from his father, whom Ivan addresses in the car from time to time even though dear old dad, an alcoholic who abandoned his family, has been dead for some time. Ivan has never forgiven him however; he would love to dig up dear old dad just to desecrate his bones.

Hardy is best known for playing the masked terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. There he is behind a mask with his voice electronically modulated but still Bane is perhaps the best thing about the movie. Here, Hardy shows just how good an actor he is, something that those who saw Bronson already knew. While his ascendance to Hollywood stardom has left him with some fluffy roles as of late, he certainly has plenty of chops to carry this through.

And he does. We see Ivan’s facade slowly crumble. While his voice is even and calm with a Welsh accent adding color to the part, we see in Hardy’s eyes the depth of frustration and doubt that assaults him. Ivan Locke knows what he is doing will have consequences that will be bitter, but even so he insists on trying to apply logic and practicality to a situation that he is painfully unequipped to handle because one thing Ivan Locke doesn’t understand is human emotion. So he drives through the night, downing cold medicine and blowing his nose. This isn’t just business for its own sake as other critics have intimated; Hardy actually had a cold during filming so his illness was written into the script.

When his wife wails “You love your buildings more than me,” she isn’t far from the truth. Ivan waxes rhapsodic about concrete, of stealing a part of the sky for this new tower. When asked why he is doing it, he says “I’m doing it for my building. I’m doing it for the concrete.” Locke, whose childhood was apparently full of instability, relishes the permanence of a well-laid foundation.

This might sound like a boring picture but thanks to some clever cinematography and on the basis of Hardy’s searing performance it is anything but. My wife and I were immersed in the film from beginning to end. Some may look at the manner of storytelling as a gimmick and I have to admit that in most hands it certainly would have turned out that way. Here however thanks to the elements I mentioned the gimmick works and how often can you say that truly?

REASONS TO GO: Mesmerizing performance by Hardy. Compelling story and clever concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it gimmicky.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can get pretty raw. The themes are a little bit on the adult side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Hardy filmed his role in six days. The other actors were all in a hotel room and read their lines over the phone to Hardy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Godzilla