Dear Santa (2020)


We need a little Christmas right this very minute.

(2020) Documentary (IFCDamion DiGrazia, Orlando Mendez, Andrew Wallace, Gail Branham. Directed by Dana Nachman

More than ever this year, we need Christmas. Many folks I know put their decorations up early, and for once I can’t blame them. It has been a year with a global pandemic, a contentious American election that showed just how deeply divided this country is, of mistrust sowed for institutions once thought to be solid and sound, and overall of anger, vitriol and cruelty expressed online. We could all use a break.

One of the institutions that has taken a beating this year has been the United States Post Office as what was once a trusted, apolitical institution became deeply politicized. It is therefore mete that we also look at something the USPS got right: Operation Santa. This effort, started back in 1912, began as postal workers started opening letters to Santa and gradually grew. Efforts were made to help children get the presents they wanted. It has expanded massively until this year, when for the first time ever – due to the pandemic – it has become available everywhere in the United States.

Volunteer elves help Santa by opening letters of children, and seeing which children can be given the Christmas gift of their dreams. Oftentimes, folks like you and I are able to adopt entire families, making their Christmas day bright and joyful. The stories are often poignant, such as an older sister who wants nothing for herself but wants to get a puppy for her siblings, or the volunteer elf who had thought not to participate last year because he was burned out suddenly yanked back in by a letter from a child who only wanted to be able to accept that he was gay. Some of the letters are pure commercial greed, but many will tug at your heartstrings and make your cheeks a little moist and not from the eggnog you spilled, either.

You might think that a film like this might cause a reduction in belief of Santa Claus, but that isn’t the case; the way the film is constructed all those who believe will not be dissuaded. It’s important that the belief not be tampered with; it is, after all, a particularly precious part of childhood and in a year in which childhood innocence has taken some body blows, it is particularly important that we respect that now.

The final reel of Dear Santa may be the best moments you spend watching a movie this year; in fact, it might be the best moments you spend this year period. There’s no doubt that all of us – without exception, regardless of political affiliation – need something good, something inspirational after a year that has been anything but. It is wonderful to see people like these elves care enough to do something completely selfless. Yes, the film is chock full of adorable kids saying adorable things, but this is one of those rare instances in which the adults actually steal the show from the kids. Each one of those volunteer elves deserves admiration.

I hope everyone gets to see this movie. Heaven knows we all need it. If it moves you to join in and adopt a letter yourself, the web address is posted at the end of the film, or if you don’t want to wait you can click here and find out more information about Operation Santa.

Most documentaries are geared towards bringing our attention to issues and problems from climate change to the opioid crisis to rape culture to cultural genocide to corruption in the highest corridors of power, and well they should – we need to be informed. It is therefore rare that a documentary can leave you feeling good, and energized and proud to be a human being. This one does all that.

REASONS TO SEE: Does the soul a world of good to see people who still care for others. Occasionally inspirational, occasionally heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Children first started writing letters to Santa more than 150 years ago.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Truth is the Only Client

Casino Jack


Casino Jack

Even though Kevin Spacey is calling to verify, Barry Pepper looks skeptical that he’s got 250 pounds in that weight.

(2010) Biodrama (ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Conrad Pla, Christian Campbell, Yannick Bisson, Spencer Garrett, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, David Fraser, Graham Greene, Maury Chaykin, Stephen Chambers, Rachelle Lefevre. Directed by George Hickenlooper

We grew up thinking that American politics were relatively corruption-free, compared to other countries. That politicians would vote their conscience and while not necessarily paragons of virtue, were at least not for sale. How wrong we were.

Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was one o the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He had some of the most powerful men in the world on speed dial; he could get men elected or doom their campaigns. His alliance with Native American casinos helped liberalize the laws that allowed them to flourish. An orthodox Jew, he helped fund Jewish community centers and education facilities and was a pillar of his community.

Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) lived high on the hog, funneling the money from Indian casinos into the pockets of politicians, with a certain amount remaining for themselves in fees. But the two men get greedy, deciding to hire seedy Virginia businessman Adam Kidan (Lovitz) who has ties to mobster Big Tony (Chaykin) to further skim off the top.

When Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Lefevre) discovers he’s cheating on her, she starts talking to investigators about the wrongdoing that she’s fully aware of – things that the savvy Abramoff had warned him not to discuss with anyone. Big Tony becomes uneasy and orders a hit on Kidan which fails. Kidan also begins to talk – and the empire around Abramoff begins to crumble.

Director George Hickenlooper was best known for his documentaries – including the acclaimed Heart of Darkness which looked at the troubled production of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  He tells his tale here with admirable tautness, taking the brevity of the documentary form and mixing it with the richness of a narrative. Sadly, he passed away less than two months before the film opened in the United States.

This is very much Spacey’s film. For a time after American Beauty, he was perhaps the best actor in Hollywood  with a string of performances that were as good as any body of work for a comparable amount of time in the history of movies. Strong hyperbole I know but you can certainly make an argument for it. However after his Bobby Darin movie, he seemed to move away from the limelight deliberately, opting to spend more time on the stage and mostly confining himself to supporting roles over the past decade or so. This is his best performance in years, taking Abramoff – a very complex human being – and humanizing him. We see his manic, compulsive side and his tender, giving side sometimes within moments of one another. Kelly Preston plays his wife and the two have a pretty decent chemistry going.

One of the things that I really liked about this movie is that you really see how lobbying works in the political system. I also admire the courage of the filmmakers in naming names and pointing fingers. There are no punches pulled; those that were involved with Abramoff are portrayed here, either with actors or in documentary footage of the Senate hearing which is weaved in masterfully with the re-created footage. Spacey has a moment where he harangues the Senators passing judgment on him, reminding them that most of them took money from him for their campaigns. This all occurs in his head, of course – in reality Abramoff has been relatively charitable towards his accusers.

This makes a fine companion piece to the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money which portrays Abramoff in a less sympathetic light, preferring to opine that he was symptomatic of the corruption and arrogance in the Republican party. Hickenlooper doesn’t make such indications, pointing out that this is a political problem that doesn’t belong to a single party (which of course it doesn’t). The real Jack Abramoff actually is leading the fight against lobbying following his release from his prison sentence. Perhaps to atone for his own actions, he remains a zealot dedicated to changing how politics work.

This was characterized as the worst political scandal since Watergate and yet it passed through the American consciousness like a Kardashian sex tape. In fact, it would be fair to say the Kardashians got more notice than the Abramoff trial. It involved some of the top figures in the George W. Bush White House, resulted in the indictment and conviction of a U.S. Congressman (Bob Ney) and in Abramoff’s fall from grace. What it should have done was prompt a re-examination of the role of lobbyists in the political structure but it is business as usual in Washington. That’s perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sordid affair.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Spacey’s best performances in the last five years. A sobering look at how lobbyists are subverting the political process.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The foul language is pretty much non-stop. There is a bit of sexuality involved as well as a little nudity, and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed with the digital Red One Camera in Canada utilizing blue screen technology with characters filmed in Canada projected onto backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel but not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $12M production budget; this wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Colors

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT:More of the American Experience