The Christmas Chronicles


He sees you when you’re sleeping…

(2018) Holiday (Netflix) Kurt Russell, Darby Camp, Judah Lewis, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Steven van Zandt, Oliver Hudson, Vella Lovell, Jameson Kraemer, Solla Park, Seth Mohan, Kayla Lakhani, Glen McDonald, Danielle Bourgon, Tony Nappo, Martin Roach, Lamorne Morris, Marc Ribler, Jeff Teravainen, Elizabeth Phoenix Caro, JaQuita May. Directed by Clay Kaytis

 

Every year at Christmas time there is a plethora of made-for-TV Christmas films that generally are barely tolerable. Once upon a time though, major studios made Christmas films that were heartwarming, sent a positive message and were actually entertaining but frankly, there hasn’t been one like that in the multiplexes since Elf.

Netflix has the last couple of years looked to fill that gap, with this being the crown jewel in this year’s crop of four or five Christmas releases. It has a big star, a well-known name in family filmmaking behind the camera (producer Chris Columbus) and a fairly big budget for effects and such. Does this have the makings of a Christmas perennial?

Through a series of home movies we are introduced to the Pierce family. Doug (Hudson), a firefighter, is one of those guys who puts a ton of effort into Christmas. His kids adore him and his wife is head over heels for him. Firefighting is, sadly, a very dangerous occupation and one year Dad is not there at Christmas. His wife Claire (Williams-Paisley) works in the local Emergency Room and on Christmas Eve she’s called in to cover a shift. Times being what they are – single moms need to work all the shifts they can, particularly at Christmas – she puts teen Teddy (Lewis) in charge of moppet Kate (Camp) and off sh goes to earn a living.

Kate still believes in Santa Claus which Teddy finds to be an eye-rolling mess. Teddy has fallen in with a bad crowd and is doing some underage drinking and worse, stealing cars. Kate clings to Dad’s massively outdated camcorder like Linus clings to his security blanket. She manages to convince Teddy – who against all odds decides to stay and babysit rather than go out with his friends as he’d planned to – to set up the camera to catch Santa in the act. To Teddy’s absolute shock, they do.

Going outside to get a better look at the magical sleigh, the two are accidentally taken along when Santa (Russell) takes off for his next destination. When he discovers the stowaways, he is taken by surprise and in the process loses his magic hat (which allows him to deliver presents at lightning sped), his sack of presents, the flying reindeer and the sleigh itself which crashes to Earth – in Chicago. Had Alex Jones made this movie, Santa would have had to be packing in order to make it out alive.

In any case the two kids responsible for Santa’s nightmare have to help him reclaim all his items and deliver the presents before dawn or else Christmas spirit would be drained from the world. The last time that happened, Santa tells us, the Dark Ages ensued. Somebody needs to tell Santa that there’s a good chance that the Second Dark Ages have already begun.

On the way to rescuing Christmas Santa gets arrested (!) and performs a blues musical number with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in the jailhouse (!!) while Kate scrambles to find the elves who turn out to be Minion-like merchandising opportunities creatures who speak in an unintelligible language. But can these two kids help Santa save Christmas – and can Santa save this family in crisis? Duh – it’s Christmas!

Russell was an inspired choice for St. Nick. He’s not the jolly old geezer that we’ve seen in past films, nor the hot mess that Tim Allen made him to be. This Santa is a straight shooter, a bit rough around the edges and well, some female reviewers have taken to calling him “hot Santa” which was enough to curl the mistletoe in my home.

As a counterpoint though are the two children. The performers are okay but they needed to be more than that to carry this film, which ends up being a Kurt Russell-fest because of it. Not that it’s a bad thing mind you but the film spends a lot of time following the kids and quite frankly you don’t want to spend a lot of time with them after the first few minutes. Kate’s actions imperil Christmas but there are no repercussions, no remorse really on her end; it’s just “they made a mess and it got cleaned up so everything’s copacetic.” Worse, there are absolutely no consequences for Teddy’s crimes which is criminal for a family film, and in fact Santa participates in a carjacking himself! It’s enough to make an elf burst into tears.

The special effects lack the wow factor of previous Santa-themed Christmas films and the stock aerial footage looks outdated. Much of the action is fairly predictable and rote and while the blues number seems a bit against the grain, it’s actually one of the best moments in the film overall – Russell really brings it. Still, it really doesn’t hold up to the Christmas movies that we tend to watch year after year. This one might get an occasional viewing once you’ve seen it once but even the least discerning Netflix viewers will probably think twice about a second streaming session but Russell’s performance is worth viewing at least once.

REASONS TO GO: Russell makes for a terrific Santa.
REASONS TO STAY: Parents might want to consider the message the film is sending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and kid mischief.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kurt Russell grew his beard out for the role; that’s actually his hair and beard he’s wearing as Santa, not an appliance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Santa Clause
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lasso

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Bang! The Bert Berns Story


This is what producing a classic rock track looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Steven van Zandt (narrator), Paul McCartney, Doug Morris, Keith Richards, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Carmen de Noia, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Goldstein, Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, Joel Selvin, Robin Levine, Ilene Berns, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison, Jerry Leiber, Ahmet Ertegun, Solomon Burke, Brenda Reid, Cissy Houston. Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles

 

We know who the great performers of the rock and roll/R&B era are. We know their faces, we know their music. The people who are behind the scenes may not necessarily be as well known other than a few like Phil Spector and George Martin.

Chances are that very few of you reading this have ever heard of Bert Berns, but you certainly know his music as both a songwriter and producer. He’s responsible for such classic songs as “Twist and Shout,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “I Want Candy” and “Piece of My Heart.” His career spanned a mere eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image.

Berns was a Jewish kid from the Bronx and the last guy you’d think of as a one of the movers and shakers of soul music in the 60s, but truth is a strange motha. He was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy and his heart was severely damaged. He spent most of his convalescence learning to play guitar and piano. His doctors warned his parents that it was unlikely he would survive past his teens; they were proven wrong but not by much.

In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo. He brought that love of Latin rhythms into his music. He sort of slid into the music business sideways, working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm. He wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay, including the novelty hit “A Little Bit of Soap.” He eventually was brought to the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music. One of the first songs he wrote while employed by them was “Twist and Shout.” It was brought to Phil Spector who did a version that ended up somewhat lame. Horrified, Berns determined to produce the records made of his songs. He took the Isley Brothers into the studio and did the song up right. A legend was born.

The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.

We get to hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. She pulls no punches and gets emotional talking about certain aspects of his life. She has a take-no-crap attitude that isn’t uncommon among true New Yorkers and compared to some of the others interviewed who are more circumspect, her testimony is rather refreshing.

The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. His friendship with Carmen de Noia was helpful to his career; while de Noia wasn’t a made man he was the sort of guy who knew a guy, if you get my meaning. Ilene had danced in a club owned by Morris Levy, not just the chief of Roulette Records but the front of the mob in the music business. Bert wasn’t uncomfortable rubbing elbows with these sorts. De Noia also is interviewed for the film and other than Ilene is the most interesting tale-teller of the lot.

Berns died way too young, his heart finally giving out on December 30, 1967 at the age of 38. It’s always the brightest flames that burn out the soonest. Moreover, he knew that his life would end prematurely – he beat the odds in surviving as long as he did. In fact, “Piece of My Heart” is actually about his heart condition, but there’s no need to feel sorry for him. In his time, he nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records; he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.

His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it. It’s music that made the music of today what it is. You may not know the name of Bert Berns but you know his music and chances are, you love it. One viewing of this film and you won’t forget his name anytime soon. I guarantee you won’t want to.

REASONS TO GO: A soundtrack that is absolutely stellar. One of the forgotten geniuses of rock and roll finally gets his due.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is basically a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and lots and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Berns-written hit “I Want Candy” got its title from a risqué book by Terry Southern.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Circus Kid