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

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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!

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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

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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!

All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

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It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa