Saving Christmas

saving christmas

Kirk Cameron, the erstwhile child star turned evangelical poster boy/man, adopts the guise of Uncle Kirk at the start of the film Saving Christmas. The actor snuggles into a comfy chair next to a blazing fireplace and proceeds to wax lyrical about his love for the holiday. He gazes into the camera and right into the living rooms of his audience, who presumably are also snuggled into comfy chairs next to their own fireplaces. Things get dark real fast though; after opining on his winter beard, Uncle Kirk warns of the threat to Christmas. But rather than directing his condescension to the godless heathens who would tear down your inflatable nativity and stuff it into an underground bunker in Area 52 – oh, it’s true, he gears up for a lecture to his fellow Christians who would strip Christmas of snow globes, hot chocolate, and tinsel.

Cameron proceeds to give a symbolic dressing down to his onscreen brother-in-law (writer-director-producer Darren Doane), aptly named Christian, when the latter slumps off to his car in the midst of his wife’s eggnog and fudge-fueled Christmas fete. He is upset that the real reason for the season is being buried beneath a pile of forgotten toys and cheap decorations, even imploring us to think about the number of wells that could be built, presumably for poor children in Africa.

The result is not so much a plot-driven story of revelation and reconciliation as it is a series of lectures by Cameron on the holy union between baubles and baby Jesus. Christian is particularly incensed about Santa, Christmas trees, presents, and the actual date of Jesus’ birth, but thankfully Cameron rebuts with his snide grad student manner and explains that all these things have their origins in Christian tradition. Among his more creative deductive acrobatics are that Christmas trees are just unused crosses and that your glittering pile of gifts represents the Bethlehem skyline. He also reasons, if you want to call it that, that whether or not Christians coopted the pagan celebration of winter solstice, well, God made winter solstice, so…

It’s unclear and ultimately immaterial whether Cameron is playing himself or some version of. Those inclined towards his brand of faith-based entertainment may welcome this forceful endorsement of favorite holiday traditions, but if we’re going to use actual film criteria as a judge, then Saving Christmas barely qualifies as a movie. Its general lack of plot and character development along with its deceptive marketing as a holiday comedy make the whole project feel like a scam, or a Sunday sermon chastising the faithful for the unbelief. Neither are good reasons to watch, nor is the presence of a very token black friend named D’Andre who wants to preserve crazy shirt Fridays and does spoken word rants on the war on Christmas. If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself if you really want to watch something that mentions “elf worship.”

Released: 2014
Prod: Darren Doane, Raphi Henly, Amanda Rosser, David Shannon
Dir: Darren Doane
Writer: Darren Doane, Cheston Hervey
Cast: Kirk Cameron, Darren Doane, Bridgette Ridenour
Time: 79 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Walking Across Egypt

Walking Across Egypt

Things don’t look good for elderly widow Mattie Rigsbee (Ellen Burstyn). She gets wedged into her rocking chair and can’t come undone until the dogcatcher Lamar (Mark Hamill) drops in three hours later. That’s when she learns that his orphaned nephew Wesley (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is holed up in a nearby juvenile detention center for stealing a car. Prompted by a Sunday sermon to help the least of her brethren, Mattie decides to visit Wesley, bringing him a slice of her famous pound cake and tea.

That, folks, is how beautiful friendships begin, though Mattie’s two children think otherwise. They’ve learned to get on without their mother. Elaine (Gail O’Grady) suggests with syrupy tones that Mattie look into a retirement community, an idea Robert (Judge Reinhold) rejects. But neither are keen on her new acquaintance, who sneaks out of confinement and sweet talks his way into staying over. Mattie’s neighbors (Gwen Verdon, Harve Presnell) are also convinced she’s set herself up for murder.

Of course everyone’s overreacting because the troubled youth in question is played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, whose grittiest role to date is Simba in The Lion King. How threatening can the witty middle kid from Home Improvement be? Not very. Thomas tries like a teacher’s pet to be a menacing delinquent. He slings swear words with abandon and struts around like a slinky. If the part was written for a snuggly Lifetime marathon, he’d get an A. It’s not, but Thomas is skilled in the adorable kid department and pulls enough heartstrings to be effective. (I confess residual teenage affections for JTT.)

The film glides over the reality of juvenile crime and life as a ward of the state by masking those troubles in Southern charm. When Mattie’s quirky neighbors learn that Wesley is staying over for lunch, the couple, concerned for their friend’s safety, park their folding trays and meal in the middle of their front walkway and arm themselves with giant hunting binoculars and a rifle. Wesley’s greatest transgression though is failing to pray before stuffing his face with macaroni salad. A harsher depiction of his experiences in detention or with his family would have made his relationship with Mattie more rewarding to watch, but the filmmakers weren’t really aiming for American History X. No one is ever in danger, even when they seem to be in danger, and that allows Mattie’s story room to breathe.

Burstyn is excellent as an aging woman who is not so much reflecting and regretting her life as she is lonely. Her grasp on reality – that she is not in a position to care for a dog much less a teenager, that her lavender funeral dress beautifully complements the cream lining of the coffin she’s chosen – give her conflicted feelings about Wesley an honesty and depth not always afforded to older characters. It’s a movie about two people who need and find each other, but this is really Burstyn’s show.

Released: 1999
Prod: Lance Tendler, Stan Tendler
Dir: Arthur Allan Seidenman
Writer: Paul Tamasy
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Mark Hamill, Gail O’Grady, Judge Reinhold, Gwen Verdon, Harve Presnell, Pat Corley, Edward Hermann, Dana Ivey
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014

The Nativity Story

nativity story

There are plenty of films about Christmas but surprisingly few about the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus Christ. And while The Nativity Story is not that bright, brilliant star in the night, it does adequately fill a seasonal void and add some dimension to the familiar tale. Nevertheless, it suffers at times from the overwhelming reverence that has smothered many a Biblical film.

The movie, bathed in washed out browns and olives, is dusty and dirty. The filmmakers are eager to emphasize that their Nazareth and Bethlehem are not those of brightly hued Renaissance paintings or gold embossed Christmas cards. Rather, the humble origins of the Messiah are to be found amongst the workers in the fields; this Jesus is one whose people lived in sparse, humble huts and who walked alongside beasts of burden. The earthy tones only go so far to make the story more “real” though. Even as King Herod (Ciarán Hinds) surveys the templeworks in a cloud of dust, the audience feels like it is watching a movie while wearing sunglasses.

The visual drabness of the picture is unfortunately mirrored in Keisha Castle-Hughes’s portrayal of Mary. Although her teenaged Mary laughs with friends, hustles off to sell some cheese, and is kind of peeved that her parents are marrying her off to to a vague acquaintance she has no feelings for, these moments are fleeting. More often she is ordinary to the point of dullness, passively reacting to situations rather than acting on her own. Castle-Hughes seems unsure of how to balance Mary’s youth and innocence with the popular and perhaps expected hagiographic image of her. Mary is bewildered by her miraculous pregnancy but does not convey deep concern – not for her parents, her husband, her impending motherhood, nor her own safety. She defers steadfastly to her faith in God, which is how the faithful might imagine her but which also diminishes everyone’s understanding of the mother of God (or Jesus, to avoid theological arguments).

Conversely, those around her find themselves stepping into the foreground of the nativity story. Shohreh Aghdashloo radiates maternal joy as Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, whom she visits after she discovers she is pregnant. Elizabeth is overwhelmed that she has conceived in her old age but she also shares her happiness with her young cousin, choosing trust in God over condemnation. Hiam Abbass and Shaun Toub also ground the story as Mary’s firm but loving parents, Anne and Joachim, who find their faith tested by their daughter’s news.

The emotional heart of this Christmas story, however, rests on Joseph and Oscar Isaac’s affecting portrayal of Mary’s oft ignored husband. (For what it’s worth, Joseph is my favorite saint and Oscar Isaac is one of my favorite actors. No bias.) Isaac rescues his character from the popular image of a graying, sleepy man clutching a shepherd’s staff and breathes life into the man who raised Jesus. The Bible says that Joseph was righteous, which is shown when he decides not to condemn Mary and saves her from being stoned. But Isaac reveals much about Joseph that is not written – the initial anger and confusion at his wife’s pregnancy, the subsequent excitement with which he greets his new responsibility, the tenderness with which he treats Mary when they journey to Bethlehem. One of his most moving scenes is when a heavily pregnant Mary says, over the protestations of her mother, that she will join her husband on the 100+ mile trek. Joseph tries to suppress a smile, heartened that his wife has finally warmed to him.

A few more familiar characters round out the nativity story. Ciarán Hinds dons eyeliner and permed facial hair to play the paranoid, power hungry King Herod. His murder of the innocents is the film’s starting point. Additionally, the three wise men appear not only to put the Christ child’s birth in context but also to provide the movie’s few moments of humor. Overall, the film is not a great change of pace; it hews closely to the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke while adding a few imaginative flourishes. You won’t be wrong to enjoy it during Christmastime.

Released: 2006
Prod: Toby Emmerich, Catherine Hardwicke
Dir: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Mike Rich
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend, Ciarán Hinds, Shaun Toub, Hiam Abbass, Alessandro Giuggioli, Alexander Siddig
Time: 101 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014