Three Made-for-TV Christmas Films: All I Want for Christmas (2013), A Royal Christmas (2014) and A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

What better time than January to cast our minds back to some of those delights of a December spent at least partially at home, sipping port or whatever is your tipple, and flicking through your TV channels? If you’re in the same place next year you might come across some of these titles.


There are, it seems to me, many different types of film one might talk about. The kinds of productions usually reviewed on this site tend towards the prestige and high-brow — film festival-friendly films, with the occasional popcorn-munching blockbuster towards one end and the frankly experimental/avant-garde at the other, as the feeling takes me. Other sites focus more on cult or genre films (I’m thinking horror and slasher films, as an example) which make up a sizeable but largely submerged world of filmmaking which rarely pokes its head above the middle-brow surface of the kind of cinema I tend to skim across. And then there are various national cinemas: I’ve been dipping my toe into Bollywood over the last year, but it and the other cinemas of the Asian continent have their own almost-entirely-separate ecosystems. So within this vaguely aquatic metaphor I’ve deployed, I don’t quite know where made-for-TV films live — somewhere down in the trenches where weird-looking brightly-coloured sea creatures live — nor do I know quite how heated the discussion around them is, but I’m guessing there must be at least someone enthusiastically poring over the latest Hallmark Channel offering.

Even within this context — and to be clear, we’re not talking the growing arena of TV where quality, high production values and big screen actors make their living (this isn’t Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake I’m talking about) — even within this corny, cardboard and strictly-no-longer-than-90-minute domain, Christmas movies have their own special place. There are cable channels dedicated to them. There’s a whole world of filmographies that seem to include only films with the word “Christmas” in the title. It’s a permanently frosted, be-tinselled and sparkling place of elven delight and gnomic repartee. (Okay, maybe not gnomic.) My point is mainly to say there’s not really much I can tell you about these films, though one of them is ostensibly a more prestige production, made for Netflix under the auspices of famous director Sofia Coppola and with cameos by actually-A-list celebrities, but I’ll get to that later. No, the bread and butter of this genre is often almost indistinguishable when flicking through plot summaries on your favoured service.

All I Want for Christmas (2013) is largely typical of what I’ve seen: it’s filmed in the ever-sunny Los Angeles, in a series of unremarkable (if not bland) office, home and retail settings, with capable actors who probably get a lot of work but aren’t exactly stretched by the demands of a script which credits at least three or four writers. There’s room for a Santa’s elf with magical powers, but this isn’t Bad Santa (2003), and Martin Klebba might in any case be the best actor in this film — that distinction certainly doesn’t go to Tom Arnold, who is beyond wooden as the boss of Melissa Sagemiller’s Elizabeth. Anyway, thanks to magic and some credulity-stretching plotting, she ends up with (or does she?… okay okay you can probably guess which) Brad Rowe’s executive Robert, whom she first meets cute when she cuts in front of him at a coffee shop, allowing for a bit of comedy grumpiness back and forth for, oh, more or less the film’s entire running time. Anyway, at least I think that’s the plot. It’s been a few months since I saw it, and it blends together a bit with all the other Christmas films I’ve ever seen (I have a friend who likes them, and anyway look, you just need to be in the right frame of mind, which needless to say is certainly aided by mulled wine).

A Royal Christmas (2014)

At a more competent level of quality (not even filmed in LA) is Hallmark’s 2014 production A Royal Christmas. To say it rips off elements of The Princess Diaries (2001, a film which in the context is a masterpiece) would be to deploy some pretty high-level diplomatic language, but for all that it passes by in exactly the kind of pleasing haze I hope the makers are happy to know they achieved. In comparison to Julie Andrews in that earlier work, Jane Seymour leans a little heavily on dismissive hauteur as the Queen of Cordinia, but Lacey Chabert has a goofy charm as seamstress Emily (yes, seamstress! her surname is Taylor!) who falls in love with normal guy-around-the-corner Leo (Stephen Hagan) who turns out to be… a Prince! Specifially, of the aforementioned Ruritanian kingdom, which luckily is English-speaking and looks like a pretty nice set. Once you have a sense of the contours of this genre, there’s really little point in saying very much more than that it’s performed with all the likeability that its programmatic plot allows.

And then there’s A Very Murray Christmas which is a film not dissimilar in its general effect — in fact, if anything it seems to be striving to be a pastiche of something the directors of the films above might have casually tossed off back in the ‘golden era’ of 50s US TV, and which has probably since been lost to time. It purports to present a seasonal live TV variety show hosted by Bill Murray, with the twist being that the hotel in NYC where he’s filming has been snowed in and none of the scheduled guest stars can get there, so it’s ironically distanced by showing the behind-the-scenes trauma of the staging, as a desultory Murray is consoled by his pianist Paul Shaffer and eventually co-opts some of the hotel’s other snowed-in residents (who are played by famous people, in any case). I admire its spirit of drink-sozzled cheer in the face of adversity, which eventually cedes to full-blown fantasia, but even over an hour-long running time it comes across a little uneven.


All I Want for Christmas film posterAll I Want for Christmas (2013)
Director Fred Olen Ray; Writers Michael Ciminera, Richard Gnolfo and Peter Sullivan; Cinematographer Theo Angell; Starring Melissa Sagemiller, Brad Rowe; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (streaming), London, Sunday 8 November 2015.

A Royal Christmas film posterA Royal Christmas (2014)
Director Alex Zamm; Writers Janeen Damian, Michael Damian, Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky; Cinematographer Viorel Sergovici; Starring Lacey Chabert, Jane Seymour, Stephen Hagan; Length c90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 28 December 2015.

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director Sofia Coppola; Writers Coppola, Mitch Glazer and Bill Murray; Cinematographer John Tanzer; Starring Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 7 December 2015.

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Tangerine (2015)

On the Wikipedia entry it states that director Sean Baker was inspired by films seen at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and I can empathise with this, as this was my main window into the world of cinema when I was at an impressionable age (my 20s). Low-budget New Zealand filmmakers really do work with nothing (I shared a flat with one for a few years), so working under pressure and improvising with what’s available is very much a necessity. That spirit of fvck-it-let’s-just-make-a-film comes across well in Tangerine, which to some is famous for being the ‘film shot on an iPhone’. More importantly, it’s a film which represents characters who don’t often make it to the mainstream multiplex, and does so in a sympathetic but rounded way. The transgender characters (and actors) portrayed here are neither saints nor villains, but just people, albeit ones who are marginalised in a city (Los Angeles) that, more than many, judges on appearances and is surely difficult to live in for those without money. And so it’s an LA not often seen in Hollywood cinema, of wide streets and seedy back alleyways, of indistinguishable chain restaurants and, in a surprising parallel plot, a regular working-class Armenian couple’s home. It’s also set at Christmas, perhaps for extra alienation, as certainly the Los Angeleno Christmas vibe is hardly what most people think of when that holiday is depicted (though perhaps it may put at least some viewers in mind of religious virtues of forgiveness and tolerance). In any case, it’s a bitter, cut-throat world of prostitution and drug deals, of bitter relationships forged in adversity, and — most noticeable — the film is, quite frequently, caustically funny. It may not be a polished film in any traditional sense, but it’s visually striking, and is made and acted with plenty of vigour that more than makes up for any longueurs.

Tangerine film posterCREDITS
Director Sean Baker [as Sean S. Baker]; Writers Baker and Chris Bergoch; Cinematographers Baker and Radium Cheung; Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 29 December 2015.

Love the Coopers (aka Christmas with the Coopers, 2015)

This may not be the worst movie this year, nor is it even the worst movie that my New Year’s Resolution has brought me to (that was probably Hot Pursuit), but it feels like the laziest. There are plenty of excellent actors involved in the large ensemble cast, but the whole enterprise is coated in a layer of treacly sentimentality so thick that it’s difficult to perceive some of the film’s likeable qualities (there are one or two amusing jokes, and I think there’s potential in the Olivia Wilde/Jake Lacy pairing), and by the end it had entirely squandered any goodwill I had towards it. Diane Keaton and John Goodman play the central couple, at whose home the traditional Christmas gathering is taking place, with stray members of the family travelling to get there. Everyone does the best they can, I suppose, but matching up Keaton with Marisa Tomei as her sister, or Alan Arkin with Amanda Seyfried as a (sort-of) love interest seem like bizarre choices. However, the worst choice was to have the film narrated by the family dog, voiced by a particularly unctuous Steve Martin. Not destined to be a holiday classic.

Love the Coopers film posterCREDITS
Director Jessie Nelson; Writer Steven Rogers; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Amanda Seyfried; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.

Black Nativity (2013)

I spoke in my review of Song One about what it is to watch movies on flights, and once again I find myself second-guessing my own response. Was I tired and emotional, did the altitude and atmosphere allow me to drop my critical guard? Because I really liked Black Nativity, and certainly outwardly it has a lot of elements that would usually ring major alarm bells. For a start, it’s unashamedly corny, but also unapologetically Christian — the title should make that much evident. It would be easy, in other words, to be cynical and dismissive. But however programmatic some of the character interactions may be — and this, being a morality play (and indeed, based on a play), leans heavily on allegorical characters grappling with moral choices — it frames them in such a way as to give them real force of conviction.

To a large extent, I think the film’s success is to do with the musical register (and I’m a sucker for a musical), a form which is very tolerant towards the melodramatic emotionalism the film strives for, as characters turn to song to work through their feelings. But it’s also to do with the performances, and you couldn’t really hope for a more accomplished company, both in terms of acting (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the central character’s estranged grandparents, a minister and his wife), and singing (Jennifer Hudson as the kid’s mother, and Mary J. Blige as a guardian angel), within which Jacob Latimore as troubled teen Langston holds his own very well. It hardly bears repeating the story, for as with many musicals (or indeed any opera), it cleaves to some fairly broad strokes: Langston and his mother Naima have been served with an eviction notice for their Baltimore flat, so Naima sends her son off to Harlem to stay with his grandparents, with whom she had severed contact when he was born for unclear reasons, the revelation of which is folded into the film’s denouement.

In pushing all its elements to a melismatic musical climax at the grandfather’s Harlem church, the film embraces the ideas of family, love, forgiveness, and just simple joy in boldly straightforward ways that had me caught up in tears, though I recognise that other responses may be available (especially if you are less forgiving of the story’s embrace of Christian spirituality). It also, not incidentally, testifies to a range of contemporary Black American experiences without lapsing into the overplayed cinematic terrain of gangs and violence, and celebrates a powerful history of cultural achievements — not least Langston Hughes, whose play the film is based upon, and after whom the central character is named (other characters’ names evoke Aretha Franklin, and Naima recalls for me John Coltrane’s standard of that name). Still, its critical reception seems to be largely middling to negative and that makes me wonder if we all saw the same film. The Black Nativity that I saw is a glorious achievement.


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kasi Lemmons (based on the play by Langston Hughes) | Cinematographer Anastas Michos | Starring Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson | Length 93 minutes || Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015

Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg makes films like this one, self-contained little scenarios based entirely around his actors’ improvisations. By comparison, the previous year’s Drinking Buddies was a big budget blowout (even if it contained remnants of his cinematic style), but this is closer to his roots I feel. Swanberg plays Jeff, a husband to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), whose settled domestic life with their infant son is disrupted by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who stays in their basement while she gets over some situation or other. It’s an intimate little family drama played out over the holiday season, though that’s never really a big part of the film. Mostly it’s about these people interacting with one another, as Kelly is at first wary of Jenny’s youth and lifestyle, before finding some common ground and allowing Jenny to coax her into redefining certain aspects of her relationship with Jeff. Even recounting this plot makes it sound somehow more melodramatic than it ends up being, and undoubtedly not all audiences will connect with this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, but it feels like something more natural, reflecting something of real lived experience. Hearing Lynskey’s native New Zealand accent is also somehow reassuring, and reminds me of the vibrant improvised film scene when I was growing up in that country. I hope to continue seeing films like this from Swanberg; it marks a refreshing change of pace from the usual diet of slicker cinematic releases.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg | Cinematographer Ben Richardson | Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015