Writer/director Nathan Weidner is a local teacher at Canal Winchester schools where he teaches video production and French. The 54-year-old has made two other movies before, both of which available on YouTube, but it’s clear that A Story for Winter is his passion project. The man wrote the first draft in 2009 and was rewriting it for over a decade. It’s inspired upon his own real-life family tragedy. Weidner’s daughter Meah was born in 1988 with cerebral palsy. She was non-verbal and Weidner said he always wondered what she could be imagining. The movie’s end is even dedicated to her with archival footage. Sadly, Meah was taken tragically when her mother’s new boyfriend shook her too violently (he is now serving a life sentence). In the summer of 2021, Weidner gathered former high school students, a budget of $3000, and his iPhone 12, and over the course of 15 August days he made his movie. Weidner was the photographer, editor, producer, and even wrote and performed a mournful song in the movie. A Story for Winter is currently available on Amazon and is a clear labor for love for Weidner and everyone involved wanting to see this through. Their intentions are pure and lovely. I wish the final movie was a bit more focused to better tap into its accessible emotions.
Dr. Owen Hughes (Adam Ashton Scott) is the new small-town Ohio doctor after his 80-year-old predecessor kicks the bucket. He’s chaffing under adapting to the new position, and he insists he will not see children for medical consultation. He freaks out when his newly eloped wife, Connie (Allison Kuck), even suggests they could have a child. His chilly stance begins to soften when he meets Winter (Chloe Gardner), an ailing child in town with cerebral palsy who was abandoned by her drug-addict parents. She’s being taken care of by the kindly Cora Preston (Cynthia Smith) who has opened her home to many foster children, most of whom have some form of special needs. She recognizes that Winter will not be long for this world but that doesn’t mean the life she has remaining cannot still have its rewards. As her condition worsens, Dr. Hughes opens himself up by telling allegorical fantasy stories to Winter about his own troubled family history.
The first thing you have to acknowledge with A Story for Winter are its technical and professional limitations. It’s unfair to complain too much about obvious limitations of time and budget. You’ll notice that there is very little editing coverage or camera movement in the movie. Until the late narration-heavy fantasies, just about every shot is stationary. Characters will often talk directly in front of one another and the edits primarily feature a shot-reverse shot rhythm that feels born out of necessity than creative vision. The excuse of the newly moved couple explains the sparse nature of the home furnishings. However, there are some budgetary choices that made me scratch my head that could have been avoided. The setting is around Christmas to slot the movie as one of those feel-good holiday movies, a thriving industry unto itself. There are some references to Christmas as a theme of giving and blessings but it’s more a superficial connection, so I think the story could have stood on its own minus the holly jolly. Regardless, it’s a snowy Christmas season that keeps several characters housebound. Considering the budget and that it was filmed in the summer, I would avoid anything that would give away the unreality of the season. This movie disagrees. We see obvious green screen shots of Dr. Hughes driving in the snow. Even more befuddling, there is a plurality of exterior shots of the home except it has been rendered as a completely CGI model. It is not subtle. I kept wondering why even bother with these shots. Does it make the movie more seasonal? If so, why not use affordable stock footage or, failing that, wait until actual winter in Ohio and record thirty seconds of an establishing exterior shot of the same house but now with real snow? So even with being considerate to the limitations at hand, there are creative decisions that seem iffy.
I think many fans of sweet Hallmark movies will find A Story for Winter to be heartwarming and be inspired from its message. Characters talk about the value of human life as well as the prospect of human suffering in familiar Christian terminology. I’ve never been a big fan of “this person exists to teach you how to be a better person” as a plot device, but I can understand and sympathize with the human impulse to find larger meaning in personal tragedy. However, where the movie feels more complete, for me, on a message front is that even those who have limited times on this planet are still of value and our compassion. I’m reminded of 2016’s Arrival that hinged on a twist ending that the (six-year-old spoilers ahead) flashbacks were actually flash-forwards, and Amy Adams wasn’t mourning a past daughter but knew ahead of time that her eventual daughter would tragically die at a young age, and yet she chose to have her. For that review, I wrote, “Knowing what is to come means that a child was brought into existence to die sadly as a teenager and will suffer, but she will also live and love and laugh for many days beforehand, and knowing the end provides a lens that incentivizes every moment spent together. Yes, she will die eventually but any one of us could be snatched from the world at any moment. At least she got to know love and life for so many years before it was taken away from her.” I thought it was very nice when the movie gives Winter her voice, granted it’s through dream sequences, which means it’s Dr. Hughes’ conception of what that voice could be. I wish the movie had given her more time to express herself rather than utilize her as the key to getting Dr. Hughes to finally reveal his own family drama, though also through the lens of fantasy.
My emotional investment was stalled because of two main factors: Dr. Hughes being a jerk and having far, far too many underdeveloped subplots competing for attention. Our protagonist is a prickly person, immediately dismissive and practically disdainful of his medical practice coworkers. He’s also a jerk to his wife and makes a snide comment whenever he feels she could have been doing more to settle their home. He keeps complaining about eating on disposable plates or Styrofoam containers. Hey, buddy, you can put dishes away too. They are recently married, eloped after a year of dating, and Connie’s extended family is not too happy about it. What better way to assure her than have her marital partner is the right person for her with him being a mean jerk? He’s also actively hiding his past and hastily establishes a cover story for not explaining to her that the town sheriff (Bryce Millikin) is his “uncle.” This should all be red flags to his wife, and how he treats her makes me dislike this man even more. For half of the movie, Dr. Hughes is a jerk, and then after the hour mark, he just spills his own personal history. There are short flashback clips peppered throughout of a young Owen with his distraught, inebriated, irritable mother and his younger sister suffering from an incurable illness. It’s enough to establish why a child with a terminal ailment would affect him so, never mind just general empathy. Now, beginning with a grumpy character and watching them transform is nothing new to storytelling. Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t exactly a nice guy either, although we got glimpses of his past self so we knew there was a core of decency that could possibly return.
The movie cannot be a character study of Dr. Hughes finding his way back from his grief and grievance. The character doesn’t have enough dimension to him because the movie is divided with so many subplots. Namely, in our 100 minutes of movie, we have: 1) fitting into a new town and sliding into the shoes of a beloved predecessor, 2) being newlyweds with his wife and the strain of their marriage, 3) caring for Winter and opening up to her, 4) the many lives of Aubrey House, 5) Connie’s family unexpectedly coming over for a Christmas gathering, 6) Dr. Hughes explaining Winter’s past through a fantasy allegory, 7) Dr. Hughes communicating with Winter through his lucid dreams, 8) Dr. Hughes sharing his own family tragedy through a fantasy allegory, and 9) Dr. Hughes coming to terms with his relationship with his mother and forgiving her. There are more aspects to each of these, and some are more prominent than others, but that’s A Story for Winter. It’s easy to see the connected tracks but the narrative could have benefited with some careful pruning to better emphasize its most essential moments.
I don’t think much is added by keeping Connie in the dark about her husband’s past. You can still dole out the truth over time, saving the full picture for the end of your movie. It’s not like she’s seriously second-guessing her marriage, or at least we are not given a scene that expresses this doubt. I also think little is gained through the first allegorical vehicle, using the realm of children’s fantasy to explain Winter’s own past to her. The character of Winter, again through the lens of Dr. Hughes’ subconscious mind, doesn’t seem too concerned about coming to terms with her own family’s faults. Perhaps she’s meant as the starter vehicle for Dr. Hughes to then come to terms, but why go through this process twice? Revealing Dr. Hughes’ backstory is also not a mystery that I was too desperate to uncover. The movie seems to think delaying the full information will provide more dramatic catharsis, but I’m not as certain. I think uncovering Winter’s past, then dealing with it through allegory, then doing the same with Dr. Hughes, is just making things too busy. Especially when Connie, her family, and everyone else is put on literal hold during these lengthy fantasy interludes, freezing them out from further development. The only two characters the movie really examines are Winter and Dr. Hughes, so why not consolidate? Too much feels ladled on to either pad the running time, make superficial connections to holiday film staples to satisfy its presumed audience, or reflect upon Owen’s emotional journey. If the world is cultivated to better bring one man to a change of heart, then let’s give enough room for that journey to feel well-developed and organic and satisfying.
The conclusion about acceptance and, more importantly, about forgiveness is sweet and still has some dramatic points that will hit plenty of viewers. Weidner knows how to craft a workable redemption story, though much of the comedy bits are a bit stale and hokey, though that could also be a selling point for fans of Hallmark movies that view hokey comedy as comfort food. My criticisms are directed at what could help make this the improved version of the screen story. Streamlining, being less precious with our protagonist back-story, and giving more consideration and depth to Connie would have benefited the overall emotional investment and uplift.
A Story for Winter is a nice movie made by people who really wanted to see the director’s vision become a reality, something so close to home and so personal. I won’t fault the limited budget, the bland editing and shot selections, or the amateur acting by the leads. However, creativity is not dependent on money. Even with its minuscule budget, I think Weidner could have made further judicious choices to maximize the characters and story he had on the page. There are interesting characters here but they are too defined by their circumstances, thus becoming static mouthpieces about their experiences and not enough about them in the present. Maybe I’m being a seasonal Grinch, as admittedly Christmas movies are not a salve for me, so take everything with whatever caution you’d heed. A Story for Winter feels a little too beholden to its message and its feel-good holiday genre trappings to really explore the human drama at its beating heart. It’s a commendable micro-budget DIY effort with all the right intentions, though some of its storytelling choices managed to hold back my full intrigue and investment.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s about time that gay people were better represented in holiday rom-coms (according to my girlfriend, 2020 was the first year Hallmark featured a gay protagonist in a Christmas movie, which is astounding). Why shouldn’t queer people be able to enjoy cute, low-key holiday fluff that also better represents their stories and perspectives? That’s the goal of Happiest Season, written and directed by Clea DuVall, an actress best known for her 90s output like The Faculty and But I’m a Cheerleader who has transitioned behind the camera. The story follows a lesbian couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), celebrating their first Christmas together. Harper invites her girlfriend to meet her family, however, she hasn’t come out to her conservative parents and sisters. Abby will have to pretend to only be the “roommate” and from there the movie sets us up farcical misunderstandings and comic mishap. The problem with Happiest Season is that everyone is a big jerk. Harper’s parents are jerks. Her overly competitive sister played by Alison Brie is a jerk. Even her young niece and nephew are jerks. Why would it be such a big deal for a conservative politician’s daughter to be gay… in 2020? Hell, Dick Cheney has a gay daughter and he’s done okay for himself. Why would Harper want her girlfriend to spend upwards of five days with these awful people and under the guise of having to hide who she is and their relationship? I think it’s because Harper is also a jerk. She dismisses Abby’s feelings and misgivings, ditches her to hang out with an old boyfriend, and doesn’t seem to recognize how uncomfortable any of this is making the woman she reportedly loves. And then it’s revealed that Harper outed her high school girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) and said she was obsessed with her in an effort to not be seen as gay when she was younger. That’s not endearing. This person doesn’t deserve Abby, and that’s the problem because when the happy ending and sweet kisses fortuitously come I wasn’t feeling joy but contempt. I kept yelling at turn after turn for Abby to leave this family to their own miserable devices. I wanted the movie to somehow transform into a separate story about the only people I genuinely liked, Dan Levy as Abby’s friend and Mary Holland as the youngest daughter, a sweet goofball, the only one in Harper’s family with a soul. The comedy bits run the gamut between cute and clumsy, though the escalations don’t rise to the farcical levels you would expect from compounded misunderstandings and secret-keeping. Happiest Season is an adequate holiday movie, and a boon for greater representation even in a genre with a low bar, but it would have been even better with characters you actually liked and wanted to spend the yuletide season with.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I implore all filmmakers to be cautious about titling your movies. When you use absolutes in your titles, it’s laying forth a claim that you better be able to back up, and when you also present easy-to-apply summations of your movie in the title, it’s another dare I hope you’re capable of meeting. Nobody should name their movie Waste of Time and make a pointless and lazy movie because you can already see the summary blurb that awaits. In the case of the new low-budget Ohio-made comedy Worst. Christmas. Ever., you better be plenty funny to avoid the obvious put-down, “Worst. Christmas. Movie. Ever.” Unfortunately, while this low-budget movie has energy and bad taste to spare, it’s woefully short on ideas, jokes, characterization, and fun.
It’s Christmas Eve in East Jesus, Ohio and Sophia (Raychael Lane) has learned that she is pregnant. Her loser boyfriend Trey (Leonardo Mancini) is the father, though he doesn’t seem like a good prospective parent as he’s shiftless and cheating on her with Madison Fatcheck (KateLynn Newberry). Sophia doesn’t know what to do and definitely can’t tell her mom and stepdad. We interact with different bizarre locals, drug dealers, trigger-happy cops, crazy relatives, and an ex-con mall Santa (Craig Brophy) who breaks into homes. Over the course of one long crazy night, Sophia must decide what she wants to do with her life and the possible new life inside her.
There is a grand tradition of the irreverent anti-Christmas comedy, a holiday setting brimming with sentimentality. Whether it’s A Christmas Story or Gremlins or Bad Santa, there’s something appealing about undercutting all that holiday good cheer with a little irreverent fun. The problem with Worst. Christmas. Ever. is that writer/director Johnny Chechitelli (a credited writer for FOX Sports and UFC fights) settles too often on the easiest joke, that is, when there are jokes. Sometimes it feels like the film has just gone on auto-pilot, like an improv session gone awry. That drifting, directionless feel pertains especially to the characters, which are uniformly boring. There are some strong archetypes that have potential, especially a lecherous Santa up to no good. There are just too many disposable characters cluttering this narrative that seem to exist in their own alternate universe movies with too few jokes. The world of East Jesus, Ohio feels wacky but without forethought. This is the kind of movie where a former overweight girl has the last name Fatcheck, and apparently this factor is what defines her character. There are small moments of satire but they’re never really honed into a more coherent or clever message. The stepfather plays a violent video game as an armed Jesus shooting Santa Claus to death. A rap song about a bad Santa seems to revel in gaudy cliches without providing commentary or entertaining contrasts. The treatment of African-American characters seems to play tragedy as cheap comedy, setting them up for traumatic police encounters that lack commentary on racism or ignorance. Sophia goes off on a team of carolers for their religious beliefs, but the movie seems too timid to go further with mocking Christmas rituals or religious hypocrisy. There are ideas here, not all of them good, but rarely do the ideas evolve into sustained plot beats or jokes.
Let’s analyze one scene in particular and why it doesn’t work from a comedy standpoint and what could have been done with a little more attention. Sophia and her pal Noah (Chase Crawford) go to her boyfriend’s house. Sophia is defending him but Noah says he’s likely just sitting around and getting high. When they peek through the window, they find Trey sitting around with marijuana, and Sophia tries to excuse it, not wanting to admit that Noah’s negative characterization was correct. Then he smokes a pipe and a scantily clad Madison Fatcheck comes in and nuzzles up beside him. Trey sees Sophia watching and freaks out. I ask you, dear reader, where was the joke? The fact that Trey is a loser is already assumed, so that reveal isn’t enough. What could have happened was Sophia’s pained attempts to continue denying the obvious reality. Rather than catch her bad boyfriend with drugs and then a new girl, this scene could have been extended to make things even more ridiculous. He had drugs, but Sophia was saying maybe he was just sorting it, and then he’s using the drugs, and Sophia says well at least it’s not hard stuff, and then he breaks out a hypodermic needle and she says, well maybe he just needs an insulin shot. It’s a comedy scenario that prospers from escalating desperation and absurdity. It could have been funny. Instead, we’re given maybe one joke, which is obvious, and little else. There is a lack of creativity when it comes to the comedy construction throughout Worst. Christmas. Ever.
There is a difference between a gross-out gag and something that is simply gross. Making your audience experience discomfort can be a useful resource for comedy, but you have to be aware of what the returns are for the indulgence. I’m reminded of a scene in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Days to Die in the West where Neil Patrick Harris defecates into a cowboy boot. He’s humiliated, it’s extended, and the joke lands, but then McFarlane cannot help himself and has to show a two-second insert shot of the messy feces inside the boot. The joke would have worked best without literally getting into the muck. Think back on Dumb and Dumber with Jeff Daniels and his epic diarrhea sequence atop that unfortunate toilet. It’s all in the performance and the cascading and noxious sound effects. The Farrelly Brothers didn’t need to put us in the bowl. This brings me to our Worst. Christmas. Ever. because I think its uses gross shock humor to cover for its poor comedy efforts. This happens early with Sophia throwing up in a Salvation Army collection bucket. That alone works as a joke, but then the director puts us in the vomit and uses this image to put his credit onscreen. There it is, he seems to say, I’m the guy responsible for this mess. There’s another scene where a character pees into a toilet and we just watch multiple seconds of a stream of urine and then on the floor as well. I kept thinking that maybe the movie would come back to this, that taking so much time to set up pee on the floor would lead to an accident later, but nothing happened. I guess just the sight of urine was supposed to be funny, just like the sight of vomit in a bucket was supposed to be funny. This lazy ethos pervades the movie and is dispiriting.
There are crude animated sequences in Act One that I initially had hopes for. It’s a stylistic touch to separate the movie but it could also have been a smart way around larger set pieces that would have been too expensive. These are mostly confined to Sophia’s flashbacks about her dead father and then this device is never seen again after the 20-minute mark. The six-minute segment about her bad drug addict father using the last of his money on drugs, then robbing a convenience store to also use on drugs is simply not a story demanding six minutes of our time. It’s not funny and it’s not informative and it gets tiresome and repetitive. This same information could have been conveyed with Sophia through a monologue of why she hates the holidays and it would have had a more immediate and lasting emotional impact than an animated interlude. The animated segments reminded me of MS Paint but with more detail. The style is fine but the purpose is questionable. The story we get through the animation isn’t necessary other than it provides an additional six-plus minutes of running time to desperately get us to a feature-length.
This brings me to the fact that this 80-minute movie is really only a scant 63 minutes long. The end credits begin shortly after the one-hour mark and from there we’re treated to short additional scenes for resolution and then bloopers and then an extended music video of our rapping Santa. The actual credits move at a snail’s pace to reach that magical 80-minute runtime. This is the problem with a scattershot narrative that doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere. One could argue that Worst. Christmas. Ever. is not the kind of movie beholden to character arcs and great strides in personal growth but you still need to do something with the time you have as a storyteller. For a comedy, we need more escalation than some dead bodies by the end. There needs to be amusing complications, there needs to be struggles, and there needs to be variation. Worst. Christmas. Ever. has the feeling of watching several short films that have been stitched together with minimal care. The consequences feel as throwaway as everything else in this movie. There is a dearth of satisfaction by the end because it’s missing all the important things like clear goals, meaningful character development, and culminating gags built around careful setups and escalation. I was a bit flabbergasted by the movie essentially giving up at 63 minutes but also grateful for the end.
It’s my duty to find some highlights to praise for Worst. Christmas. Ever. and I think the cast is generally a strong asset. Given the low-budget nature, not everyone is quite so polished, but the amateurism actually adds an authenticity to the proceedings of making a real small-town indie in Youngstown, Ohio. Lane (To See the Moon in the Morning Sky) has a wholesome appeal as our protagonist. Brophy creates a welcomed impression as a sleazy Santa, and his rap skills aren’t too shabby either. The entire rap video sequence is actually one of the best in the film. The song production is more accomplished than I would have expected given the low-budget. By far the actor I enjoyed the most was Wantatah (The Con) as the stepfather. His performance is the one where the actor melts into the character and you see the least amount of “acting.” He just is, and it’s entertaining to watch his grumpy incredulity and then inebriated disasters. I hope Wantatah can get even more work from here that takes advantage of his fine comedy instincts and commitment.
I’m not going to lie, Worst. Christmas. Ever. was a difficult movie for me to watch. Even at little over an hour, I struggled to keep my attention and I rarely laughed. More often I was befuddled at the sloppy attempts at comedy that too often settled on shock value and bad taste because it couldn’t be bothered to actually think about jokes. There’s a difference where poop is a funny joke and when it’s just gross, and this movie doesn’t quite comprehend that distinction. Frankly, there just isn’t enough going on here to merit your time. From a comedy standpoint, there’s little to leave you satisfied. I laughed more from Killer Raccoons 2. From a character standpoint, there are weirdos who get their individual scenes but the main character’s unplanned pregnancy feels like an afterthought for how little it pushes the other characters. Imagine Juno if nobody paid attention to Juno’s pregnancy. From a production standpoint, there are definitely limitations given the lower budget and the wintry Midwestern climate but this doesn’t lead to necessary creative ingenuity. This is more a premise and an attitude than it is a full-fledged movie. Worst. Christmas. Ever. peaks at its poster.
Nate’s Grade: D
The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.
Nate’s Grade: C
A comedy with no reason to exist is a lousy thing and it’s even worse when that comedy seems to know it, and thus is the pitiful state of Bad Santa 2, a sequel that feels far too stale. I wonder if the original movie was as enjoyable as I recall or if in the ensuing 13 years we’ve just become more inured to the casual vulgarity of these movies, but I was left bored by the overwhelming listlessness of this comedy. Billy Bob Thornton returns but he’s generally on autopilot. The loose plot involves another score, this time engineered by his mother (Kathy Bates), but really it’s mostly a hangout film with nasty characters insulting each other in painfully provocative ways. I was getting restless and the comic set pieces are to a whole poorly developed and routinely settle on the easiest joke, which is again witless shock value. There’s no range, no unexpected turns, so much of the comedy falls flat, the same smutty joke repeated with little variance. Stay tuned for a tepid end credits sequence that justifies the “graphic nudity” of the rating (hopefully Snapchat does not get any ideas for the tie-in). Without a stronger plot and characters, the shock value begets diminished returns, and even my preview audience was deadly silent for long stretches. I laughed about ten times total, not enough to justify a theatrical viewing but perhaps enough to keep it on TV while folding laundry. The strange thing about a dark comedy is that it feels like all the consequences from the plot were cut in editing as several storylines and their reasons to exist fail to fully manifest. There are payoffs you anticipate that never come and storylines that seem created entirely for reasons that never arise. The most consistent comic presence is Brett Kelly replaying his now grown-up simpleton from the first movie. Kelly is the only actor who plays a different note, providing a dose of unyielding optimism that befuddles. If you’re a big fan of the original and just looking for another fix perhaps Bad Santa 2 will provide enough nasty humor to satisfy. By the end I felt drained from this thoroughly pointless affair.
Nate’s Grade: C
Not quite funny enough and not quite scary enough, Krampus is a holiday antidote that wants to be a modern-day Gremlins but needed to be nastier, darker, or some variant with the suffix of –er. Writer/director Michael Dougherty has been down this holiday road before with Trick ‘r Treat, a superb horror anthology genre gem that was buoyed by a twisted sense of humor and a clever criss-crossing set of storylines that pollinated plenty of payoffs. Krampus begins with a brilliant opening credit sequence that sets a high bar o promise the movie will ultimately be unable to deliver, watching slow-mo stampeding shoppers fighting over Black Friday discounts set to a classic Bing Crosby yuletide tune. From there it’s more a Griswald dysfunctional family gathering until one of the young boys rips up his letter to Santa in disillusionment, calling forth Krampus and his minions. From there the family is terrorized and come closer together in struggle, trying to understand their predicament. There are a few great character designs for the minions, especially a jack-in-the-box whose face unhinges into a sarlac pit of teeth. The PG-13 rating keeps the film from getting too gory or too wicked, which also belies the fact that at heart it’s really an old-fashioned Christmas morality play about loving one another. I was ready to groan with what appeared to be the ending but Dougherty at least subverts the expected and makes sure that there are lasting consequences for bad behavior. This isn’t going to be remembered as a holiday classic but if you’re looking for a fun horror comedy, Krampus at least has something to offer before you feel left wanting.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Given the title, Kirk Cameron’s prominent placement, and a poster involving Cameron with a background explosion of holiday paraphernalia, one would assume Saving Christmas would concern itself with the oft-repeated “War on Christmas.” I was expecting Cameron to lament our use of “Happy Holidays” and the like. Perplexingly, Cameron’s war is not with those outside Christianity but those within. Saving Christmas is a shoddy evangelical sermon with shoddier theology, straining to fill out a running time, and ultimately being pro-materialism and anti-empathy. Come again?
At Kirk’s (Cameron) family Christmas party, his brother-in-law Christian (Darren Doane) is a Grinch. He complains that Christmas has been co-opted by secularism. Santa Claus and other symbols with pagan origins dwarf the nativity and baby Jesus. Christian removes himself from the party and sits in his car. Kirk won’t allow this to stand. He gets inside the car and proceeds to explain why Christian is wrong about Christmas.
To call this a film is to be more charitable than perhaps even Jesus would be. Saving Christmas (or Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas as listed in certain places) is a smug sermon presented by Kirk Cameron lecturing his “bro”-in-law in a car. The majority of the film takes place in a parked car. If that sounds deeply cinematic to you, then stick with me. The film shambles its way to 80-minutes, exasperating to fill out a minimum feature-length running time. There’s about ten minutes of “hilarious” bloopers. There’s a five-minute opening where Cameron speaks directly into the camera and sips from his mug of hot chocolate three separate times. There’s a five-minute, though it feels tortuously endless, “hip hop Christmas dance” performance by a bunch of white people (it is powerfully uncoordinated, like you’re watching someone’s home movie of their kids). You do get to watch Cameron effectively do the Worm, though (his finest acting moment onscreen, in my humble opinion). There’s also the occasional, very tin-eared comedy break with supporting characters that skirt the line into stereotypes. When it all comes together, there’s maybe a total of 40 minutes of an actual movie here, laboriously stretched out. And when I say “movie” I mean Cameron and Christian talking back and forth in a stationary car. This is not a movie. At all.
Director and co-writer Doane is one of the most inept filmmakers I’ve observed. This is a horrible looking movie with many clueless edits and strange visual compositions. His onscreen wife is always seen looking wary and in slow motion, like her face has frozen. There’s also the annoying habit of not properly framing his subjects, who will get caught behind a pot of hot chocolate or some poinsettias. This is just bad filmmaking. The lighting is amateurish or overdone, like when Kirk spends about five minutes standing back-lit, as to communicate his inherently angelic nature. Doane will also keep focusing on repeating scenes like he’s filling time. The film has a very rushed and patched-together feel, as if they had a weekend to film it at Cameron’s place with his friends and family. The “comedy relief” is also terribly executed, with two characters having a conversation holding mugs to their face, the better to disguise the fact that one of them is not actually speaking his lines. The pacing is also dead. The movie keeps faking you out when it’s going to end but then continues on, overstaying its welcome so Cameron can have yet another victory lap to hear himself talk.
Cameron and his producers seem to subscribe to an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to recognizing the malleable symbolism of cultural artifacts. Is there any harm in acknowledging the past connections of certain ceremonial customs and artifacts we use today? While the origins of the Christmas tree can go back to the pagans, Cameron seems to forget to mention that it was Martin Luther who took the Christmas tree as a German holiday tradition and gave it a Christian spin. Of course acknowledging such would indicate that the Christmas tree wasn’t always the same symbol. But who cares? History is a melting pot as far as cultures are concerned, and we pick up many customs that become passed down for various reasons, often expanding and adapting. Is there any implicit harm in simply admitting that a Christmas tree has an origin that predates Christianity? Today it is a different symbol commemorating a different holiday. Just because we know history doesn’t somehow devalue our customs and traditions. Cameron and his cronies seem to disagree, which is why he presents flimsy arguments to reclaim historical authority. What he’s really doing is treating the symbols of the season as metaphors, applying deeper meaning to them. That’s fine and good. If Cameron wants to see the Christmas tree as a representation of the cross, or the trees of the Garden of Eden, that’s fine. But he shouldn’t pretend that this interpretation is gospel. That’s the thing about metaphors; they’re subjective and pliable. They are not absolute.
Amazingly, Saving Christmas ends up becoming a misguided and ludicrous defense of materialism and the commercialism attached to Christmas. In Cameron’s very narrow perspective, anything associated with the holiday has to be positive. Yes, Cameron literally argues that all the material excess and spending actually honors God. Instead of looking at the presents under the tree as just that, look at them as the outline of a skyline of a new Jerusalem, Cameron offers in one of the more head-scratching moments. He conflates the spending of money with celebration, admonishing people to buy “the biggest ham, the richest butter” as long as they just don’t “max out their credit cards.” That’s the limit he sets, so everything below that must be agreeable. Just to hammer the message home further, Cameron says that materialism is good because “Christ was made material.” That sure is a slippery slope of ethics there. It’s not much of a leap to then justify greed or to equate spending the most money with being the godliest. Why would any film, let alone a Christian one, choose to defend unchecked materialism?
I know Christian is more a foil for Cameron to helpfully inform, a straw man who cannot articulate his intellectual rationale, but Christian is the worst skeptic of all time. If he truly believed what he does then he should be able to provide evidence to support his stance. It wouldn’t be hard. The historical record is loaded with stuff ready-made to counter-argue Kirk’s cherry picking of relevant theology. The very concept of late December existing as a pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice (Saturnalia) is backed up by a treasure-trove of sources, despite Cameron’s snide rejoinder that “last time I checked, God created the winter solstice.” The Romans would even exchange gifts on December 23 in celebration and feast. If Christian were a real skeptic, he’d at least have a cursory knowledge of this stuff before even approaching specifics. Instead he sputters and is proven to be a fraud, duped into believing these anti-Christmas thoughts. Every time Kirk finishes another of his rather unconvincing asides, Christian shakes his head, dumbfounded, and says he never looked at things like that. He is the most easily converted skeptic since the Spanish Inquisition.
I kept going back in my head to a vital point of Christian’s that is never referenced or challenged by Cameron: wouldn’t all this money better be spent helping the disadvantaged? Christian looks at the extravagant money spent on an ostentatious party and thinks of how many people could have been fed, how many wells could have been dug in villages. “You’re wrong,” Kirk says. “About everything. You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.” Even as Cameron bends over backwards to defend materialism, he never addresses Christian’s fundamental point, which is that the money can be better spent elsewhere. to the movie’s worldview, Christian is a “jerk” and he’s “terrorizing” (I kid you not, they specifically use the word “terrorize”) his family with his negativity. This is a guy who wants to put the “Christ back in Christmas” and he’s setup as the bad guy. He’s not storming the party, aggressively challenging people, calling them names. He sits to himself, eventually leaving the space for his car. It doesn’t sound like he’s terrorizing anyone and is rather considerate of others. No matter, no one is allowed to have a different opinion than Kirk Cameron and so he will not allow one man’s empathy to bring everyone else down as they spend lavishly to celebrate the birth of a poor carpenter.
And that’s what’s most distressing for me when it comes to this poorly made and poorly reasoned movie; I’m concerned that others will use Cameron’s distorted teaching as a justification for excess over empathy. Cameron seems to use the film as a defense of his affluent privilege. He uses the Bible to back up his lifestyle and to defend materialism. Did we forget that part where Jesus said to sell all your possessions and help the poor? The film is packaged as a comedy and a family movie with a spiritually uplifting message, but what’s so uplifting about saying “SPEND SPEND SPEND” is how you show love? Just because Cameron says a nutcracker is representative of King Herod’s foot soldiers prowling Jerusalem for the baby Jesus doesn’t make it strictly so. To call this a movie would be too charitable and I am not in the season of giving. Saving Christmas is a lump of coal disguised as a open-hearted message. Skip this movie and donate your money instead to some charity. At least that will do some actual good.
Nate’s Grade: D
I had no plans to watch this movie, let alone in a theater and on opening night. Then one fall weekend, my pal decided to raise the stakes on our fantasy football match-up, and then Ronnie Hillman couldn’t hold on to the ball, and I lost by four points. My punishment: seeing Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas in the theater. My friend and critic Ben Bailey has taken it upon himself to watch and review all the Madea films, so he was ready and planning to watch the latest. I accompanied him for one magical night of holiday messages bequeathed by a large man in drag pretending to be an old woman.
Madea (Tyler Perry) is called into action to help drive her sister Eileen (Ana Maria Horsford) to Alabama. Eileen wants to surprise her daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), for Christmas. Lacey is working in a small-town as a teacher. Her husband, Conner (Eric Lively), is trying to engineer a new strain of corn to help his hometown confront a water shortage. There’s just one problem. Eileen hasn’t told her mom she got married… and to a white man. Lacey is worried that the news would kill her mother since Eileen has a weak heart. So Conner has to pretend to be a farmhand while Eileen visits. Then, unexpectedly, Conner’s parents (Larry the Cable Guy, Kathy Najimy) arrive to spend Christmas with their family, but they too must get in on the act. The small town is also in trouble of losing lots of money if they cannot put together their annual Christmas Jubilee celebration. Lacey’s ex-boyfriend Oliver (JR Lemon) swoops in to offer a corporate savior, but there are strings to attached, and he’d certainly like to get closer to Lacey.
I am about to type a string of words I never thought could possibly be put together in the English language: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, also starring thespian Larry thy Cable Guy, is not altogether terrible. I feel like a weight has been lifted just admitting this. Oh, let there be no question that this is a bad movie in just about every way, but the simply bad and poorly executed outweighs the terrible. To be fair my expectations could not have been any lower, especially after suffering through my first Tyler Perry movie ever this year, the earlier 2013 film, Temptation. This was my first Madea film. Part of my other entertainment was observing my audience, the mostly full theater on opening night, and charting their reactions to Madea and my own differences in opinion. I can’t in good conscience suggest this is a reason for people to go see this movie, but there it is.
Every actor not named Perry or Cable Guy looks like they could sure use some more direction; they’re hungry for it. Actually, Najimy (The Guilt Trip) and Larry make a good team and you’re actually pleased when they enter the story, providing an alternative to Madea’s shenanigans. I’ll credit Perry with this twist: the redneck family is tolerant from day one and compassionate human beings and the conflict focuses on a black racist against white people. Although in the year 2013, inter-racial marriage seems like a strangely dated conflict to get so worked up over. This is also the least grating Larry the Cable guy has ever been in a movie, including the Pixar Cars franchise. But these are acting professionals. The rest of the cast is filled with Pretty Bland Young People, all of who look like they’d rather be on a TV soap. Sumpter (Sparkle) in particular comes across like discount Zoe Saldana. Hey, there is a former CW star involved in this too, Chad Michael Murray (TV’s un-canceable One Tree Hill, House of Wax) and while his character is dumb, the town’s chief redneck, he’s actually fine when you can make out what he’s saying. But the best actor in the whole movie turns out to be Alicia Witt (Urban Legends, 88 Minutes) as Murray’s put-upon wife. If there’s anything approaching subtlety in this mess, it’s through Witt’s graceful performance of a woman struggling against her husband for what she believes is best for her child.
The Madea character, Perry’s most famous alter ego, can have a numbing effect that mellows your judgment of an otherwise unlikable figure. Our introduction to the matriarch is her brief stint working at a retail store. She’s unfailingly rude to customers asking ordinary questions, she’s hostile, threatens violence readily, and then, when rightly fired, creates a scene and literally steals from the store. In mere minutes, I’m left with the impression that this elderly grandmother who looks like a linebacker is just a horrible human being and should be in jail. And this impression sticks for some time, that is, until you begin to adopt a Stockholm syndrome-like appreciation for her mean-spirited bickering and retaliation. As we sit and watch Eileen act like a horrible human being, so condescending and needlessly hurtful to her unknown in-laws, the balance of most terrible shifts, and we start to root for Madea because she’s the only one who cuts through the nonsense, the only one to speak truth to Eileen’s reproachful behavior. In the end, you may come to appreciate her being there to set people straight. I still think the whole Madea character is a large miscalculation on Perry’s part, a character that’s never as funny as he thinks it is (though eight movies in, so what do I know?). The constant string of malapropisms feels like the dying riffs of a deflated improv jag. There are several scenes that involve lines given off screen as if Perry is still experimenting with the scene. In the end credits bloopers, which are also not funny, it looks like Perry’s shooting style is just to turn the camera on and say whatever. This is a character born to be a supporting player if utilized at all. Though her best asset is when here happens to be a worse character onscreen to whom she can focus her ire. So as long as Madea keeps starring in movies alongside more horrible human beings, we should be fine.
Part of my forgiveness with several of the film’s sins goes back to its inception as a Christmas fable. You see these kinds of movies all the time on TV, where the threat of not having the small town’s Christmas ceremony is going to bankrupt the whole town in an impenetrable dark cloud of holiday misery. These are the movies where plots hinge on silly things given way too much significance, and where solutions can be pulled out of nowhere and the film’s family-friendly message tied up nicely in a bow. In other words, it’s a world not meant to remotely echo our own reality. And so I ended up giving A Madea Christmas more leeway during the many, many times its onscreen actions conflicted with credulity, because it doesn’t matter. So then…
Who cares if Conner is a college-educated scientist and doesn’t know the difference between male and female cows? Who cares if Conner conducts cutting-edge bio-engineering in an open barn with, what appears to be, doing little more than pouring different liquids into different vials? Who cares that the town lawyer is so incompetent he can’t be trusted to read a contract that is all of three pages? Who cares that catching a glimpse of a husband and wife in bed, with the husband under a sheet, is immediately interpreted as Klan membership, because what other possible explanations could there be? Who cares that there is a Klan meeting that Madea accidentally walks in on, and oh yes, they all happen to be in uniform? Who cares that the town’s chief redneck bullies the mayor into firing a teacher when I’m pretty sure that duty is not under the mayor’s direct powers? Who cares that for no reason there is a Naked Gun-style tracking shot that involves passing YouTube celebrities Sweet Brown (“Ain’t nobody got time for that”) and Antoine Dodson (“Hide your children and hide your wives…”)? Who cares if a character believes saying things in public over a microphone to shame a corporation into charitable giving is tantamount to an unbreakable oral agreement? Who cares about the wanton violation of the separation of church and state throughout the film?
Let me dig into that last one for just a bit. Perry takes up the “War on Christmas” mantle and dominates his conclusion with this non-conflict conflict. Turns out the company that is saving the town’s Christmas Jubilee festivity, thus saving jobs and keeping the beleaguered town afloat, has the audacity to request a secular ceremony. First off, this entire service is coordinated and produced by the local town’s government, on government property, and already a violation of the reach of government and religion. Even their classrooms have giant wooden crosses in them. What about anyone in this town who doesn’t happen to be Christian? I suppose anybody with differing religious beliefs is just not welcomed in this part of Alabama. But the most eye-rolling part is when characters screech that some vague omnipresent corporate or bureaucratic entity is taking away Christmas or stopping them from celebrating Christmas. NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU FROM CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS. Some of us just don’t believe that it’s government’s place to advocate or do so on government property, and the courts agree. Anyway, it’s an easy target for Perry and my crowd seemed to be nodding dutifully along to the whole “keep Christ in Christmas” message. It seems like a cheap way to unify the town, and it is.
Perry has been knocking out about two movies a year since he came onto the scene in 2005, and I still don’t know if he properly knows how to adapt his skills to the screen. The tone is uneven and the comedy usually falls flat, but there are just moments that make you shake your head in befuddlement. This is the SECOND Perry movie this year where a mother has been lying to her daughter for decades about her father being dead when he really ran out on them. Perry also decides to fill his holiday film with Christmas-related wipes. One second we’ll be watching some serious drama and then a giant animated Christmas tree will fly across the screen transitioning us to another. What? I’ve never seen this many wipes in a film short of a movie that had Star Wars in its title. From an acting standpoint, I still feel like Perry’s direction is more theatrical, trying to play to the people in the cheap seats. Too many scenes feel rudderless, with assorted actors just feeding more lines to Madea so she can continue on a longer improvisation before somebody remembers to pick up the plot again. The film also ends immediately following the climax, the solution to the town’s ails, without resolution. The camera pans up above the town and cue the end credits. It’s a bit abrupt.
Then again after directing over ten movies, many starring the Madea character, there is little incentive for Perry to change his style. His brand has made him one of the most lucrative entertainers in the industry, and he has a thriving studio of his own in Georgia, pumping out content and giving lots of African-American actors valuable experience and exposure with parts that don’t include Black Best Friend to the White Lead. Perry is a one-man industry and has legions of fans that will make any one of his movies a hit. They want what they want, and Perry is going to shovel it out to them. A Madea Christmas looks to be more of the same. It’s generally leaden in its comedy, filled with heavy-handed messages, a loose narrative built around propping up Madea improv riffs, and the character’s mean-spiritedness only really works when she’s attacking a deserving party. I’ll have to defer to Ben Bailey on where this ranks up there in the franchise (he said it may be the best), but for me, I was expecting terrible and was treated to mostly just bad. That’s a victory. Merry Christmas everyone! Hallelujer.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Surviving Christmas was originally supposed to be released, get this, a whole year ago for Christmas 2003. Paramount objected to the original release, saying it was too close to the release of their own Ben Affleck action flick, Paycheck (I doubt anything could have helped that turkey). So Dreamworks held onto it for another year and released it around the holidays. Halloween that is. The nation hasn’t even experienced Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, and we’re already getting a Christmas movie in our stocking. Given Affleck’s recent track record (the man hasn’t had a hit movie since 2002’s Sum of All Fears), audiences might not expect more than a lump of coal when his name’s above the title.
Drew (Affleck) is a cynical ad executive trying to figure out his plans for the approaching Christmas season. He gives his girlfriend tickets to Fiji, but she expected an engagement ring, so she dumps him right there claiming he doesn’t know what family life is. Drew finds his old family home now populated by the Valco family. He offers Papa Valco (James Gandolfini) $250,000 for him and his wife (Catherine O’Hara), son, and daughter (Christina Applegate) to be his family for Christmas. Papa Valco accepts. Drew is a stickler for family tradition, and mandates tree shopping, hat wearing, dinner script reading, and sleeping in his old room. The family’s hostility begins to wear down but things get even stickier when Drew falls for the Valco’s daughter, and then his ex-girlfriend shows up wanting to see his family.
The central flaw of the film is Affleck’s character. Drew is a jerk. That’s all there is to it. Somehow Affleck has become the go-to actor for arrogant, work obsessed men that desperately need to see that there’s more to life (Bounce, Jersey Girl, Forces of Nature). I think this is also the second or third time he’s played an ad executive. Surviving Christmas seems to exist in some weird dimension where a jerk shows us the true meaning of Christmas and family togetherness. What’s even worse is that Drew doesn’t change as a character, he doesn’t seem to grow, and the ending actually seems to reward him for his selfish, material, obnoxious ways.
I like Affleck, I really do. I like his work in Kevin Smith’s films, and he can make a good action hero if given the right material (Say a Sum of All Fears, and not so much a Paycheck). The man is charming, he’s eloquent, and he’s self-deprecating and constantly funny. He’s the kind of guy you want to buy a beer. Now, having said all this, Surviving Christmas is Affleck’s worst performance of his career. Affleck can do comedy, and not just in a Greek tragedy kind of way with his life in the tabloids. In Surviving Christmas, Affleck mugs like nothing is sacred. His eyes bug out. He exaggerates near any expression, from his smug grin to his childish fits. For a man who has Gigli, Reindeer Games, and Pearl Harbor to his credit, it’s something when it’s said that Surviving Christmas may be his acting low point.
Gandolfini seems to have been cast to play against type. He’s still got that flinty stare and slow simmer of anger, but he’s generally wasted. He’s the comic foil to Affleck’s jerk, and yet he still doesn’t come across that much better. His monstrous woolly beard is also mildly disturbing. Applegate brings more life to her love interest role than the role deserves. Her romance with Drew seems so spontaneous, especially given her natural hostility to him. The only actor that has any real moments to stretch and shine is O’Hara. A veteran of improv, O’Hara has some of the film?s funnier moments, like when she makes mini marshmallows with a butcher’s knife, or her wild photo shoot Drew arrangers for her.
Surviving Christmas is indeed a chore to sit through. The movie, at its gooey heart, doesn’t know what kind of holiday film it wants to be. A good example is the opening montage of holly jolly Christmas sequences. In between standard, saccharine moments of feeling, there?s an old grandmotherly woman who bakes a tray of gingerbread men, with frosted frowns, and then sticks her head in an oven. Huh? Surviving Christmas tries to have it both ways. It wants to lampoon Christmas sentiment with the occasional touch of dark humor, but then it plays into a feel-good holiday formula complete with sled rides, tree lighting, and hot cocoa. The result is a schizophrenic comedy that doesn’t work being dark or cuddly.
The whole wacky premise of Surviving Christmas screams sitcom, and the conventional proceedings and stock characters that follow guarantee it. The only way this could be more of a sitcom is if they drew a line down the middle of the house, the boss was coming over for dinner unexpectedly, and a pesky cat swallowed someone’s wedding ring. Surviving Christmas‘ relation to a sitcom is the only way I can explain why the film has stale jokes about internet porn (What, there’s porn on the Internet? When did this happen?). There’s even horny old men and wedgie jokes too! This is a movie in desperate need of a laugh track. I kept expecting everyone to turn their heads and go, “Dreeeeeeeeew” and then Affleck shrugs his shoulders, bugs his eyes out, smirks, and the studio audience goes wild.
It probably doesn’t help that Surviving Christmas is credited to over five writers and was directed by the director of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The comedy rarely hits its marks because it’s so frustratingly tied up in its identity. The film wants to make incest jokes, but then in the same breath it wants us to listen to some syrupy back story explaining why Drew is the lonely, socially challenged jerk he is. The laughs of Surviving Christmas are mostly limited to broad slapstick and the occasional inappropriate remark. The preview audience I watched the film with seemed to be rolling in the aisles while I mostly rolled my eyes.
There will be a section of the public that enjoys Surviving Christmas. Fans of Christmas cheer and broad PG-13 comedies may find laughs amongst the wreckage. Surviving Christmas doesn’t have the gusto to commit to black comedy like Bad Santa (a new Christmas classic), but it also doesn’t build its characters strongly enough for an audience to care about them. They’re all mainly jerks and twits. This is a Christmas movie that doesn’t know what stripes it is. How else to explain it coming out in late October.
Nate’s Grade: C
John Frankenheimer comes off from the heels of the incredibly exciting ‘Ronin’ with one of the best car chases ever to direct a muddled holiday thriller that should’ve checked its release date sooner on the calendar. Affleck plays a car thief mistaken for his prison cell mate and hijacked to teach a band of greasy diner clowns the ins and outs or casino theivin’. The performances are all adequate, though Gary Sinise as the bad trucker seems a little too Deliverance to me at times. The movie permeates with the feeling all the way through that something interesting is building and will pay off, and then it just gives up and goes for a ridiculous and cheap twist ending. Ehren Kruger, the man who threw pot holes of twists in Arlington Road and less effectively in Scream 3, writes like someone finishing a deadline paper for a college class – less about characters and conflicts and more about topsy-turvy twists and double crossings. There are some brief encounters with suspense and excitement (and forgive me but the Santa imagery is kinda’ nifty) but Reindeer Games can never build toward whatever potential it flashed.
Nate’s Grade: C