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

Top Five


Chris Rock, standin' around.

Chris Rock, standin’ around.

(2014) Dramedy (Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepard, Annaleigh Ashford, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Hassan Johnson, Leslie Jones, Luis Guzman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chris Rock

Fame is something we all kind of wish we had deep down. We want all the perks – admiration, adulation and wealth to name a few. The reality of fame though is far different than our perception of it, particularly among celebrities in the popular arts. The pressure to produce can be absolutely crushing and the availability of alcohol and drugs – and the encouragement to use them irresponsibly – also can add to a celebrity’s woes.

Andre Allen (Rock) is best-known as a stand-up comedian, considered by many to be one of the funniest men in America. His film career has spawned a lucrative franchise of a crime fighter in a bear suit. Now he’s trying to get up after hitting rock bottom after having gone through rehab and recovery. Sober a year and a half, he’s getting ready to marry Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, on a Bravo reality series. His new movie, Uprizing about the Haitian slave rebellion is about to come out, and through it he hopes to reinvent himself as a serious Actor. Note the capital.

But the film is going to bomb. Everyone knows it except for Andre. His agent (Hart) has arranged for New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) to follow Andre around for a day, which he’s not very pleased about. The Times’ film critic has repeatedly excoriated his performances, comparing them to “crimes against humanity.” However he needs the publicity for the movie so he grudgingly goes along with it.

In the course of the night she will witness him reconnect with old friends and family, undergo interviews of often the most insensitive and inert kind, endure heartbreak and disappointment and come out on the other side – maybe with a clear understanding of who he is, maybe not.

I have always blown hot and cold when it comes to Chris Rock. His genius is plain to see but it hasn’t always been showcased properly in movies. His skills are in being Chris Rock, to present his views through his experiences and make them funny and relatable. He is not really a character actor; he never did the SNL thing of developing characters with their own distinct personalities. While that may limit one on the stand-up stage, it is excellent preparation for a motion picture career and has stood many alumni of the show well.

Rock stands out here. He is cocky and vulnerable, arrogant and humble, forceful and lost. I can’t think of many movie characters with as many contradictions as Andre Allen – and yes, having contradictions in a character is a good thing. We get to see facets of Rock that he usually doesn’t reveal. I don’t know that Rock is particularly looking to reinvent himself but he comes close here.

The support crew is pretty outstanding as well, a who’s who of modern American stand-up as well as some pretty fine actors in their own right. Dawson is one of those ladies who has a devastating smile, one that can melt solid steel and turn a glacier into a puddle in just about five seconds flat and yet it is rare that a director has really utilized it to good effect. Rock does and when he is the focus of that smile, every man in the audience feels it. This is one of her best roles ever.

Union has the thankless job of playing the fame-addicted reality TV star with a huge heaping helping of control freak factored in. She doesn’t have very many scenes with Rock (most of their interaction is over the phone) and the part isn’t terribly sympathetic but she still manages to make it real. Although we still don’t like her character.

Most of the cameos are just that but Last Comic Standing host J.B. Smoove gets himself a meaty part as Andre’s boyhood chum and bodyguard/chauffeur/right-hand man and runs with it. He reminds me a little bit of Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. In any case, the part works.

The movie itself is a bit of a mixed back. There were times I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall in someone’s life, which is when the movie works best. There were also some times when it felt like I was watching something staged, like the reality show within the movie. That’s when the movie works least.

This probably won’t be contending for my year-end top ten list but it should likely make the Honorable Mention. It’s pretty dang good but not great. There’s a lot here that works, like when Andre is visiting with folks from his past in the old New York neighborhood. When the movie is pouring it on about the movie star, then it felt a little bit forced. I would have liked to have seen more of the New York Chris Rock than the Hollywood Chris Rock. So, I suspect, would a lot of you.

REASONS TO GO: Has moments where it really fires on all cylinders. Rock is always a fascinating study.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses focus occasionally and overdoes it.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity and strong sexual content, plenty of adult language, crude humor and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rock wrote the screenplay in his trailer while filming Grown-Ups 2 so at least something good came out of that movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stardust Memories
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!

Think Like a Man


The cast gets the box office figures for the film.

The cast gets the box office figures for the film.

(2012) Urban Romance (Screen Gems) Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence J., Jenifer Lewis, Romany Malco, Gary Owen, Gabrielle Union, La La Anthony, Chris Brown, Wendy Williams, Sheri Shepherd, Caleel Harris, Arielle Kebbel, Steve Harvey, Angela Gibbs, Tika Sumpter, J.B. Smoove, Keri Hilson. Directed by Tim Story

Navigating the waters of modern relationships is tricky at best. A woman can use all the help she can get frankly – even if it comes from a man.

Ostensibly based on comedian Steve Harvey’s self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man the film follows four different couples trying to make a go with it – the Dreamer vs. the Woman Who is Her Own Man pitting Dominic (Ealy), a struggling sous chef with ambitions of owning his own restaurant someday against Lauren (Henson), a self-made woman who has worked hard to make a success of herself.

Then there’s the Mama’s Boy vs. the Single Mom which pits Michael (J) whose life has been spent trying to please his mama (Lewis) against Candace (Hall) who finds her boyfriend’s mom an obstacle despite her best efforts to please her as well. There’s also The Non-Committer vs. The Girl Who Wants the Ring, which gives us Jeremy (Ferrara), a confirmed bachelor who is in no hurry to take the next step and his girlfriend Kristen (Union) who is and will go to whatever lengths necessary to push him into popping the question.

Finally there’s The Player vs. The 90-Day Rule Girl with Zeke (Malco) a smooth lady’s man who loves ’em and leaves ’em and doesn’t seem to mind against Mya (Good) who has a strict policy of never dating a guy for more than 90 days. Both of them find in each other the person they want to make the exception to their normal modus operandi.

I’ll be honest with you; when I saw the trailer for this I really wasn’t very interested in seeing the movie – it seemed to be just another rom-com with an attractive ensemble cast in which misperceptions and untruths put the characters in hot water, particularly situations that can be resolved with a single phone call in the real world. However, I was pleased to discover that the movie had much more going for it than cliché although it has its share of those.

The cast is certainly about as attractive as they come, and there’s a pretty good rapport among them. The chemistry within all four of the couples is pretty solid and there’s additional comic relief from Kevin Hart as a happily soon-to-be-divorced man and Gary Owen who offers the counterpoint as a happily married man. While there are a few too many coincidences, you can believe that these are actual friends trying to help each other find someone to spend their lives with.

The conceit of the movie is that all four of the women are using Harvey’s book to help them overcome the issues their men bring to the table and the guys find out about it and attempt to turn the tables on their girlfriends with predictably disastrous results. Like with most Hollywood movies the ending is what you’d expect it to be – who wants to go to a date movie to see a couple break up after all – but let’s face it, not only are you rooting for these couples to make it work as Tim Gunn might say, but you’re actually enjoying the time you spend with them…which is pretty good news for Screen Gems since they’re making a sequel which will be in theaters next Spring. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind catching the next installment in a theater next time instead of on home video if it’s going to be anywhere near as good as this.

WHY RENT THIS: Funnier than I expected. Explores the differences between how men and women think. Some pretty decent performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls into a lot of rom-com traps. Tries too hard to be inoffensive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a whole lot of innuendo and some blatantly sexual commentary, a fair amount of bad language and some brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Dominic discusses For Colored Girls with his pals and in particular the scene in which “the psycho drops his kids out the window.” Ealy, who plays Dominic, also played the role of that very psycho in the film version of For Colored Girls.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 5 minute gag reel is included but there is really not much in terms of extras on the DVD.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $12M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Why Did I Get Married?.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Europa Report

Hall Pass


Hall Pass

Life's a party when you have a Hall Pass.

(2011) Sex Comedy (New Line) Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Richard Jenkins, Christina Applegate, Alexandra Daddario, Stephen Merchant, Nicky Whelan, Larry Joe Campbell, Tyler Hoechlin, Joy Behar, J.B. Smoove, Alyssa Milano, Kathy Griffin. Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly

 

Hollywood has made a good profit off of the immaturity of men who are really adolescent boys in grown-up bodies. It plays into a female stereotype of men as being more or less lost and helpless without them, not to mention oversexed and a little bit ridiculous. Not that there isn’t any truth to this, mind you – where there’s smoke there’s fire – but definitely it’s a stereotype the movies have helped perpetuate.

Rick (Wilson) and Fred (Sudeikis) are best buddies, and their wives Maggie (Fischer) and Grace (Applegate) are likewise. Rick and Fred have a lot of things in common, not the least of which is possessing the names of the “I Love Lucy” husbands, but also they both possess a case of the Wandering Eye. You know; whenever a pretty girl walks by the two of them are compelled to stare. Fred is a little bit more subtle about it than Rick is but nonetheless both are caught out by their wives who are none too pleased by their propensity to girl-watch.

Finally fed up with their spouses behavior, the two women determine to give their fellas a hall pass. They agree to leave for a week on a Cape Cod vacation and whatever happens during that week is a freebie – they can do whatever they want without repercussion. The boys accept eagerly.

Of course, these guys – who have been married 15 years or more – have absolutely no game. They are as rusty as Newt Gingrich’s exercise equipment. They flounder around trying to pick up hot chicks – at Applebee’s. Meanwhile, their wives – far better looking physical specimens – are discovering that they have a Hall Pass of their own and are far more likely to cash in with the minor league baseball team whose manager is friends with Maggie’s dad (Jenkins).

Of course each member of this foursome will have their moment of truth and they may find out just what is important to them and who they are. At least, that’s the idea.

The Farrelly Brothers had the blessing/curse to make an iconic movie early on. Everything they’ve made since has been compared to There’s Something About Mary and let’s face it folks, not many movies are going to turn out that good. Hall Pass is nowhere near that level, which is disappointing but inevitable in some ways. There are some moments that are laugh out loud funny but the movie, like many comedies, is uneven to say the least.

Owen Wilson has made a career out of playing affable young men who have a good deal of charm, and he does it very well. Still, there are occasions when he breaks out of the mold a little bit and those tend to be his best movies. This won’t be remembered as one of those, however; that doesn’t mean he is any less capable in it. He pulls off his part with charm.

Sudeikis has shown some flashes of brilliance over his career and has been impressive in a number of films as of late. He plays the everyman with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and that again serves him well here although the part is not written as well as I might have liked. I get the sense that Sudeikis didn’t really get a handle on the character, although I may be wrong on that score – I certainly didn’t and that did make the movie less successful for me.

I enjoyed the parts with the wives more and not just because Applegate and Fischer are far easier on the eyes. It just seemed more realistic to me and less of a goof. I mean, yeah make the guys a little awkward in terms of their game but don’t turn them from horndogs into eunuchs. That seemed a little stereotypical – guys talking a good game but falling short when it came time to man up.

I’ll admit the male ego is easily bruised and has a tendency to overcompensate for our insecurities. I am also willing to admit that this is a legitimate source for humor and entire movies have been made – successfully – about this fact and this one could have been successful as well. It could have used less juvenile humor and a little more wit. I have nothing against dumb jokes but maybe my fragile male ego could have used a little less smacking around. I’d rather laugh with this movie than be laughed at by this movie in other words.

WHY RENT THIS: The girls are very hot. Jenkins, Smoove and Merchant are veteran scene-stealers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dumb and dumber. Too many gags fall flat. Too much sophomoric humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Well, there’s quite a bit of crude sexual humor, a little bit of drug use, some graphic nudity and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maggie’s father is played by longtime Boston Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans. The Farrelly Brothers are both sports fans, particularly of Boston-area sports teams and often have sports personality from that region cameo in their films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.2M on a $36M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Encounters at the End of the World