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

The Night Before


Kickin' it, old school.

Kickin’ it, old school.

(2015) Holiday Comedy (Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, Heléne Yorke, Ilana Glazer, Aaron Hill, Tracy Morgan, Darrie Lawrence, Nathan Fielder, James Franco, Miley Cyrus, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Baron Davis, Jason Jones, Jason Mantzoukas, Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, Lorraine Toussaint, Theodora Woolley. Directed by Jonathan Levine

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas traditions, established when we are young, can sometimes last a lifetime but some of those traditions, particularly of the sort that most wouldn’t consider Christmas-y have a tendency to die out as we mature. When we reach a time in our lives in which we’re making a turning point into adulthood, traditions of all sorts change.

That seems to be happening for a trio of friends who have gone out every Christmas Eve ever since the funeral of Ethan’s (Gordon-Levitt) parents in 2001 when they died in a tragic car accident. His good friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) took Ethan out partying that night to get his mind off his grief, and it became a tradition of sorts; going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, hanging out in their favorite karaoke bar (and doing a killer rendition of ”Christmas in Hollis”) and searching for the legendary Nutcracka Ball, the Holy Grail of Christmas parties in New York.

Being that this is a Seth Rogen movie, there are also copious amounts of drugs, supplied in this case by Isaac’s wife Betsy (Bell), a good Catholic girl who is days away from giving birth and wants to reward her husband for having been “her rock” throughout the pregnancy by allowing him to have a good time with his buddies, no questions asked.

All three of the boys are on the cusp of becoming men as they hit their thirties; Isaac about to be a dad, Chris – now a pro football player – having the best season of his career although it is suspiciously late in said career….well, that leaves Ethan who is still struggling with adulthood. His failure to commit has cost him his longtime girlfriend Diana (Caplan) whom he runs into at the karaoke bar, partying with her friend Sarah (Kaling). While serving canapés dressed as an elf at a hoity toity Manhattan party, he runs across tickets to the Ball – and knowing that this is their last hurrah, the three intend to send their traditions out with a big bang.

There are celebrity cameos galore, including Rogen’s bromance buddy James Franco, playing himself (and Sarah’s date) sending dick pics to Sarah which Isaac gets to see since the two accidentally switched phones; Michael Shannon plays Mr. Green, a mysterious drug dealer who might be a whole lot more than he seems; former Daily Show regular Jason Jones also shows up as a semi-inebriated Santa who appears at a particularly low point in the evening for Ethan.

The movie is surprisingly heartwarming, and while allusion to Christmas tales like A Christmas Carol and Die Hard abound, this is definitely a Rogen movie (his regular writing partner Evan Goldberg is one of the four writers on the project) although to be fair, Isaac is more of a supporting character to Ethan who is the focus here.

The chemistry between the three leads is solid and you can believe their friendship is strong. Levine wisely uses the comedy to serve the story rather than the other way around which most comedies these days seem to do; there are some genuinely funny moments as the night becomes more and more surreal (it’s also nice to hear Tracy Morgan narrating and make a late onscreen appearance). Of course, being a Seth Rogen movie (as we’ve mentioned) the drug humor tends to go a little bit over-the-top and those who think Cheech and Chong are vulgar are likely to find this one so as well.

The good news is that the performances here are solid and the likeability of Gordon-Levitt gives the movie a whole lot of cred since the characters on the surface aren’t terribly likable. Hanging out with the immature can make for a trying cinematic experience but fortunately the fact that all three of the actors here are so genuinely likable and charismatic saves the movie from being a drudge and actually elevates it into maybe not Christmas classic status, but certainly a movie that might generate some holiday traditions of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Really, really funny. Some nice performances by Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Shannon.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the drug humor.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug humor, lots of profanity, some graphic nudity and a good deal of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and director Levine all worked together in the film 50/50.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas


Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

(2014) Holiday Comedy (Phase 4) Joel McHale, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, Clark Duke, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor (voice), Amir Arison, Steele Gagnon, J.J. Jones, Gene Jones, Matt Jones, Barak Hardley, William Sanderson, Karan Kendrick. Directed by Tristram Shapeero

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family, no matter who that family is. Sometimes we’re about as happy to spend time as family as we are to be serving a stretch of hard time in San Quentin. Not all families do all that well together.

Boyd Mitchler (McHale) is a successful hedge fund manager in Chicago. He has a loving wife Luann (Graham) and a couple of pretty great kids, daughter Vera (Wood) who is riding into teen hormone-land on a white horse and son Douglas (P. Gagnon) who at seven still believes in Santa Claus despite beginning to suspect he’s fake. Boyd wants him to believe as long as possible as his own father, Mitch (Williams) tore all his fantasies down when Boyd was just five.

Boyd and Mitch don’t get along, so much so that they haven’t been in the same room for seven years. When Boyd’s brother Nelson (Duke) calls and tells him that he’s a dad and wants Boyd to be godfather to his son at the christening, Boyd is honored – but when he discovers that the christening is on the 24th of December, he’s horrified – for that will entail spending Christmas with his family. Luann however prevails on her reluctant husband to go to Wisconsin and be with his family.

His mom Donna (Bergen) is overjoyed to see him, his father not so much. He’s a mean curmudgeon who owns a port-a-potty business and quite frankly isn’t a nice person to be around, particularly when he’s drinking, Even when he’s not, he can be an S.O.B. – while the rest of the family is served chicken for Christmas Eve dinner, Boyd gets squirrel filled with buckshot. Like I said, an S.O.B.

When Boyd discovers that through mis-communication with his wife his son’s presents, from Santa, have been left behind in Chicago, he means to drive back home, pick them up and return before dawn. Car troubles force Boyd to rely on his dad to bail him out and the two must make the long drive to and from. On the way they’ll have to deal with a persistent state trooper, an unexpected stowaway and a drunken Santa (Platt). Either the two will re-connect or kill each other. Neither one is a safe bet.

Williams completed this movie before his untimely passing and it was the first of the three that were in the can to be released. It didn’t get any critical love as you can see by the scores below, but it wasn’t as bad as all that. Williams always dominates the screen whenever he’s in a movie and this is no different. For sure this isn’t one of his better performances but it’s good enough to carry the movie over a pretty impressive cast.

What bugs me about the movie is that it tries way too hard to make the family eccentric. Along for the ride is Heidecker as Boyd’s redneck brother-in-law who has a son (Lee) training to be a competitive eater while his wife (McLendon-Covey) – Boyd’s sister – goes through therapy . Nelson has PTSD despite having been discharged from the military without going into combat. And of course, there’s the dysfunctional Mitch himself.

The writer really tries to force the eccentricities until the family doesn’t feel real. I suppose there’s some irony in rooting for a hedge fund manager who are not renowned as being the nicest people ever, but that’s beside the point. The humor also feels forced at times, a kind of desperation to make the audience laugh that fools nobody that it’s anything other than what it is.

However, I did find some humor here, particularly with Williams, and there were enough of those to make this worth watching. It is a little bit on the dark side, tonally speaking and the Christmas-y happy ending doesn’t quite fit in quite well with the rest of the movie, but you can’t go wrong with Robin Williams – ok, you can but not often and not here – and everything else in the film doesn’t quite measure up to him, it is at least a bit better than you might expect if you read the reviews.

REASONS TO GO: Robin Williams as always does stellar work. There are moments when the comedy works.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard to make the family eccentric. Doesn’t really offer any sort of insight into family dynamics.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of foul language and crude humor throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Christmas film Robin Williams was credited for (he was in Noel but in an uncredited role).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa
FINAL RATING: 6/19
NEXT: Fracture

Christmas in Compton


Sheryl Lee Ralph does Christmas Africa-style.

Sheryl Lee Ralph does Christmas Africa-style.

(2010) Holiday Comedy (Barnholtz Entertainment) Omar Gooding, Keith David, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Eric Roberts, Porscha Coleman, Miguel A. Nunez Jr., Orlando Brown, Edwin Hodge, Charles Kim,  Arif S. Kinchen, Charlotte Ayanna, Jayda Brown, Kristinia DeBarge, Melanie Comacho, Leslie Jones, Evan Rayner, Darryl Alan Reed, Emiliano Torres, Malin Yhr. Directed by David Raynr

hollynquill-2013

Having lived in Los Angeles for many years, I can say with certainty that the South Central community of Compton means different things to different people. Mainly populated by minorities (in particular African-Americans), the white community tends to view it with suspicion and perhaps a little fear. For the African-American community, Compton means something else entirely.

Big Earl (David) owns a Christmas tree lot that doubles as a flea market and community center. He is a well-respected member of the community, one who dispenses wisdom as well as Christmas cheer. However, his son Derek (Gooding) is a source of frustration. He wants his son to be a winner, successful as Big Earl himself is.

Derek though has other definitions of success. He dreams of being a music producer but Tommy Maxell (Roberts), the unscrupulous owner of a major record label, has stolen one of his acts and now has his greedy paws at the ready for his latest one, Sugar Stuff – a Destiny’s Child-like girl group. Derek is not real good about reading the fine print on contracts and is consistently getting screwed by those who write that fine print. Big Earl is anxious for Derek to give up what he considers to be unrealistic dreams and take over the Christmas tree lot, but Derek is reluctant.

Surrounding them are a cast of oddballs and hangers on like Steve Ho (Kim) who seems to relish being the token Korean, Squeaky (Kinchen) and Pookie (Hodge) who are kind of boys from the hood sorts, the beautiful single mom Kendra (Campbell) whom Derek becomes sweet on and her precocious 8-year-old daughter (Brown), and Abuta (Ralph) who has a love-hate relationship with Big Earl who looks upon her obsession with Kwanzaa as anti-Christmas and as such suspicious behavior. Abuta is kind of the surrogate mom for Derek since his own mom and Big Earl’s wife had passed on some years earlier.

Derek hates the thought of losing Sugar Stuff – they’re really his last shot at his dream – so he hatches a plan to steal some jewelry from Tommy and his wife and fence it with Delicious (Nunez), a fast-talking fence who constantly refers to himself in the third person, then use the money he gets to retain the rights to Sugar Stuff who are dazzled by the dollars being dangled by Maxell. Predictably, things don’t go as planned.

As plots go, this one is about as stale as a re-gifted fruit cake. It’s fairly standard for an urban comedy – think Barbershop and Friday for starters. Gooding doesn’t have the charisma and likability to really carry the movie – he comes off a bit bland. David, however, lends gravitas and genuine warmth which really makes up for it.

While not all the humor really appealed to me – keep in mind I’m not really the target audience for this film – there were some laugh-out-loud moments for me. Most of all though you want a Christmas movie to deliver heart and the warm fuzzies and Christmas in Compton does that. I don’t know that Compton in 2013 is anything like this – I suspect it isn’t all Kumbaya and neighborhood barbecues but the community spirit depicted here is at the core of what Compton is and was when I lived and worked there (just out of college I sold a subscription TV service there). Sure, there are problems there. Poverty will do that to a community, but there has always been a sense of togetherness that is enviable. I often wonder how much could be accomplished were the spirit of Compton a more universal thing.

In any case, despite the staleness of the plot, I actually found myself warming to Christmas in Compton which I didn’t honestly expect to. Sometimes a good heart can overcome an unremarkable script.

WHY RENT THIS: Nails the heartwarming aspect. Gives a sense of community.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there done that. Some of the jokes fall flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some sexuality and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gooding is the younger brother of Cuba Gooding Jr. and also has a thriving rap career as Big O.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a short film, Santa Better Do Me Right.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Man Holiday

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The last day of The Holly and the Quill 2013!

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation


Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates?

(1989) Holiday Comedy (Warner Brothers) Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mae Questel, Natalia Nogulich, Nicolette Scorsese. Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechnik

hollynquill-2013

We all have our ideas of what an ideal Christmas is – snow on the ground or fun in the sun. Most of our ideals however involve being surrounded by family. There’s nothing quite like a traditional family Christmas.

Clark Griswold (Chase) believes that with all his heart. He has become reasonably successful and provides well for his wife Ellen (D’Angelo), his daughter Audrey (Lewis) and his son Rusty (Galecki – yes that one). His gift to the family is a swimming pool and although the ground is too hard to start digging, he needs to put the deposit down for it before Christmas. He’s counting on his bonus at work to pay that bonus but it is late in arriving.

Clark is planning on having all the grandparents at his place this year – his own parents Clark Sr. (Randolph) and Nora (Ladd) as well as Ellen’s mom (Roberts) and dad (Marshall). Naturally the two sets of parents take to ceaseless bickering.

Add to the mix the unexpected arrival of cousin Eddie (Quaid) and his family in a dilapidated RV which it turns out the family is living in after Eddie lost his job and was forced to sell the family home. Clark offers to buy cousin Eddie’s Christmas presents this year which Eddie gratefully expects. With senile Aunt Bethany (Questel) and crotchety Uncle Lewis (Hickey), things descend into utter chaos.

With nothing going right, Clark loses it a little bit – all right, he loses it a lot, especially when he finds out that his bonus isn’t what he thought it was going to be. Power grids will be overloaded, sleds will fly as will flaming Santas and sewage will explode before Christmas comes to town.

The third movie in the Vacation franchise broke with formula a little bit. For one thing, the Griswolds weren’t fish out of water in some unfamiliar place – they were in their home base which was being invaded by others. Legendary director John Hughes wrote the screenplay based on his own short story which had been published in National Lampoon (the first movie in the franchise was also based on a short story in National Lampoon). Quite frankly this wasn’t his shining hour.

And yet it was a cut above the odious National Lampoon’s European Vacation. There are some terrifically funny moments (like Clark’s sled ride from hell) but not enough of them. However the funny moments are so hilarious it kind of makes up for it. There’s also a heartwarming element that’s present in most of the other Vacations but more so here than in any of the others.

There are those that consider this a “classic” Christmas movie. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it certainly is one of the more popular ones from the 80s. By this point in his career I was finding Chase less funny than he had been during his SNL days (and I think most people agree) and certainly less funny than he’d been in Caddyshack. Still while the Griswolds weren’t particularly subversive, they did strike a chord with the American public and for many people of a certain generation this is required Yuletide viewing. To each their own.

WHY RENT THIS: When it’s funny, it’s funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s not funny often enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some rude humor and sexuality, more than a bit of bad language and comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Mae Questel’s final film. She is best known as the voice of Betty Boop.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes in a Christmas tin with a Santa hat, coasters, an “I Survived a Griswold Family Christmas” button and a plastic cup. While no longer available in stores, you might try picking one up on E-Bay or Amazon. Otherwise you’ll just have to make do with the standard Blu-Ray or DVD which have the same features as this more expensive edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.3M on a $25M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Christmas With the Kranks

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: More of The Holly and The Quill!