family films

A Christmas Star (2017)

To reach A Christmas Star’s sweet center, you have to overcome certain flaws in narrative and character development, which may not be worth the trouble to some. Noelle (Erin Galway-Kendrick), the main character, is an eleven year old girl with miraculous powers, a perk of having been born in a barn under the Christmas star on Christmas Day. Unfortunately her powers are limited to one type of miracle – stopping arguments, and this particular skill set isn’t integrated into the story in any logical way. Instead, it’s more of a nice character quirk, something that occasionally sets her apart from others but that is talked about far more than it is used. No one except her best friend Spud-Bob (James Stockdale) knows about her powers despite their jarring and very noticeable effects.

It’s an unnecessary distraction from the rest of the story, which is propped up by one cliché after another but at least makes sense. The Northern Irish town of Pottersglen is in need of some saving. Its signature nativity snow globes aren’t selling anymore, and the pottery that makes them and that employs most of the town is facing ruin. Enter cartoonish villains, Mr. Shepherd (Pierce Brosnan) and Pat McKerrod (Robert James-Collier), the American owners. Well, McKerrod is originally from Pottersglen but left after some drama involving smashed snow globes and a rejected proposal to Noelle’s mom (Bronagh Waugh). This maybe explains his ropey American accent? Anyway, McKerrod hopes to turn mow down the pottery and most of the town and replace it with his own Christmas Kingdom, a premiere hotel-casino-golf-course destination but presumably with a holiday touch.

James-Collier already proved his slimeball bonafides in Downton Abbey as downstairs scoundrel Thomas Barrow. He’s moved upstairs now but still looks like the kind of guy who would enjoy ruining your life. The movie falls just short of an exaggerated kids’ movie though, and it doesn’t need a greedy bad guy rubbing his gloved hands together while cooking up his next scheme. The presence of a son makes things even more awkward. McKerrod keeps barking at Junior (John Moan) to “man up.” I wasn’t aware this was a 1950s sitcom and “Junior” was still a thing, and it’s not clear why McKerrod is stringing his detested preteen son along on a major business trip.

Noelle’s father (Richard Clements) is another confusing figure. A respectable, kind, and even clumsy person, he is also prone to lashing out at his daughter. Some of these fits of rage merit a trip to anger management, but the casual way with which his wife and Noelle dismiss them make me think that this is not really a part of his character. I understand freaking out about your daughter nearly getting crunched by a motorbike, but no need to get apoplectic about her claiming to have powers, especially when people always seem to stop mid-argument around her.

So what is this sweet center that I love about A Christmas Star? Kids. Galway-Kendrick and Stockdale in particular. For two young actors with few credits to their name, they capably light up the whole film, filling me with warm feelings long after I’d finished watching. Each radiates a childlike wonder that is equal parts innocence, confidence, and hope. Together though Noelle and Spud-Bob share a beautiful friendship. They are funny, like when they try to test her miracle powers by multiplying loaves, and honest, like when they talk about feeling different (Stockdale is physically disabled). Their vulnerability with one another touched me in a way that even Noelle’s relationship with her parents did not. I will always love it when young people want to see the good in others, and this movie, for all its faults, aims for that optimism. I will also love it when a movie supports young people in arts, and this production from the youth film charity, Cinemagic, does just that.

Released: 2017
Prod: Joan Burney Keatings
Dir: Richard Elson
Writer: Maire Campbell, Richard Elson
Cast: Rob James-Collier, Suranne Jones, Bronagh Waugh, Erin Galway-Kendrick, Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Richard Clements, Philip Rafferty, James Stockdale, Roma Tomelty
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

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The Christmas Star (1986)

The Christmas Star is a pleasant alternative if you’ve exhausted the usual holiday hits and don’t feel like one of Hallmark or Lifetime’s repetitive offerings. It’s a story that’s been told before in one form or another but that benefits from affecting performances by Ed Asner as a conman Santa and the child actors who play the gullible kids. Asner is a perfect fit for Horace, the grumpy, bearded prisoner who escapes prison during a Christmas party. Decked out in his stolen Santa suit, he makes his way into the city and hides in the apartment basement of the Jameson family. Siblings Billy (Nicholas Van Burek) and Trudy (Vicki Wauchope) think he’s the real Santa, and word soon gets round to all the neighborhood kids that Mr. Claus has come to town.

Horace is eager to recover the loot from the crime that got him sent to prison. He knows it’s hidden among the Christmas decorations used by a large department store, but there are a lot of decorations. Also, he can’t go popping off reindeer heads in plain view of the public and police officers, though he tries. Being the resourceful criminal he is, he manipulates Billy, Trudy, and some of their friends into helping him find his money. At least this is his plan.

There’s some Christmas magic in watching the cynical, selfish loner transform into a repentant do-gooder. Horace doesn’t lose his rough edges, but he surprises himself by empathizing with the Jamesons when Mr. Sumner (Rene Auberjonois), their severe landlord, threatens to turn out the family. Sumner’s cruelty extends to his own son, John (Zachary Ansley), whom he bullies relentlessly, and Horace makes a quick calculation, deciding that he must intervene even if it means surfacing from his hiding place. For the first time in a long while, he finds himself in a position to do something positive and meaningful that isn’t also self-serving.

The child actors bring a lot of wonder to this film and keep the story honest. I loved the innocence of wide-eyed Wauchope while Van Burek also gives his character a sensitivity that is very endearing. The camera catches some candid moments that add personality to the city block and the people living there, like one shot of the girls playing with dolls and a crate on their porch step. The simplicity of a scene where Horace gives in and plays Santa to a group of children huddled in the basement was moving as well. There aren’t many Christmas movies that show the beauty and hope of poor kids, all of them whispering their most secret wishes to a person they believe can truly bring them happiness on Christmas Day.

Everyone in this film is searching for something to believe in, and they find it for the most part, which is why the ending is a bit out of sync. It channels some ghosts of Christmas past in order to help Horace tie up some of his criminal loose ends. There’s no need to rely on the supernatural though when the rest of the movie generates enough magic on its own.

Released: 1986
Dir: Alan Shapiro
Writer: Alan Shapiro
Cast: Edward Asner, Rene Auberjonois, Jim Metzler, Susan Tyrrell, Karen Landry, Alan North, Phillip Bruns, Nicholas Van Burek, Vicki Wauchope, Zachary Ansley
Time: 94 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2018

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Many a film, television show, and book has been deemed “great,” and some have even earned that qualifier. My greatest of the greats would include Great Expectations, The Great Train Robbery (2013), Great Performances, The Great British Bake-Off, of course. The Great Muppet Caper? Not so great. Plain old Muppet Caper would have sufficed because while this is a pleasant film, it’s never as zany or clever or joyful as my favorite Muppet adventure, The Muppets. No qualifier needed.

Instead, the movie is like a TV special for kids who just want a silly heist or those who still get the nearly forty-year-old pop culture references. It’s a fun romp and keeps your attention with plenty of songs and scene changes, but the story moves almost too quickly. In making sure the caper ticks along, the writers seem to have forgotten the heart of the Muppet franchise – its characters.

When twins Kermit and Fozzie and their friend Gonzo, all journalists at The Daily Chronicle, fail to report on a major jewel theft, they try to save their jobs by going directly to London to investigate. However, Kermit mistakes receptionist Miss Piggy for the victim, designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), and doesn’t realize what he’s done until after they’ve gone on a date and she is framed for a second theft. The reporters, along with their new Muppet friends at the Happiness Hotel, must thwart a third heist of the Fabulous Baseball Diamond at Mallory Gallery in order to save Miss Piggy from prison.

The city adds some visual flair, and Kermit and the gang take a memorable bike ride through Battersea Park. I would have liked to have seen more of London, a complement to the otherwise boxed-in set pieces. The movie features a few jazzier numbers that harken back to studio classics, several of which include Miss Piggy. Besides starring in her own Esther Williams water fantasia, she gets to sing and dance her little piggy heart out with a chorus line of men in tails and top hats. The songs, however, are not particularly memorable.

It’s easier to forgive bland songwriting than it is scriptwriting, and the Muppets are in need of personality. Sure, they are cute and clever and take every opportunity to break the fourth wall, but I felt like most of the Muppets could have been easily swapped out with any similarly furry, kid-friendly franchise, The Great Paw Patrol Caper, perhaps. Okay, maybe not, but among the non-humans, only Kermit and Miss Piggy really come into their own. Kermit’s eagerness to do good and Miss Piggy’s vanity and insecurity make it easier than ever to identify with a frog and an oinker, but the others seem to be there to serve up jokes and plot points. Having seen just two Muppet movies, and thereby forfeiting my 80s-kid card, I thought Caper hewed closer to the lackluster Muppets Most Wanted, a tightly plotted film but one that sprints by on cameos.

“Hey a Movie!” by Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo:

“Happiness Hotel” by the Muppets:

“Steppin’ Out with a Star” by Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo:

“Night Life” by Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem:

“The First Time It Happens” by Kermit and Miss Piggy:

“Couldn’t We Ride” by the Muppets:

“Piggy’s Fantasy”:

“Finale: Hey a Movie!” by the Muppets:

Released: 1981
Prod: David Lazer, Frank Oz
Dir: Jim Henson
Writer: Jerry Juhl, Tom Pachett, Jack Rose, Jay Tarses
Cast: Diana Rigg, Charles Grodin, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After years of neglecting this Christmas classic, I finally found time to enjoy the movie the way it was meant to be enjoyed – alone and nursing bowls of mac and cheese and popcorn. I was pretty disappointed, however, to find that Miracle on 34th Street was about as festive as my holiday snack, and I’m still working out why a film so tedious remains beloved by so many. The plot relies heavily on a court case and a tangle of psychiatric evaluations, none of which scream Christmas fun. It’s not exactly the family-friendly entertainment I was led to believe, and I want my money, or at least my two hours, back.

I’ll also take the 1994 adaptation because while that remake is not on my annual Christmas must-see list, it at least has touches of great tenderness and joy. I still remember Santa signing with the deaf girl and little Susan’s surprise when she tugs his beard. Also there’s dreamy, dreamy Dylan McDermott. None of the characters in the original have the same emotional pull even though the two stories are similar.

The multi-Oscar-winning 1947 film also follows skeptical Susan (Natalie Wood), her reality-based mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), and Doris’s suitor, lawyer and neighbor Fred (John Payne). Doris’s last-minute hiring of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace drunk Santa at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade proves to be a fortuitous move. He looks the part and converses in a language kids understand, Dutch in one case, but more importantly, he gives helpful shopping tips to parents. Sometimes that means directing them to Macy’s competitor, Gimbels, a tactic that unwittingly earns Macy’s greater goodwill and customer loyalty.

Of the two main conflicts, Susan’s wavering disbelief strikes a merrier tune. Wood easily won me over with her hopefulness and measured cynicism. While she might give Santa a mean side-eye, she has a child’s vulnerability, an inclination towards wonder and magic. That’s what I want out of a Christmas movie, but it’s something the adults in her orbit fail to convey. Payne is indistinguishable from the other suited white men, and I was turned off by Fred’s initial admission that he was using Susan to get close to her mother. That’s creepy and very un-Dylan-McDermott-like, even if he does encourage Susan to believe in Santa. Doris, meanwhile, doesn’t give a damn what your criticisms are so long as you keep your ideas about fake old men away from her daughter. In the 1994 version, Elizabeth Perkins shows off this character’s frosty side too, but it seems motivated by some deep hurt, as if sticking to what is real and tangible will keep her from experiencing the rest of life’s disappointment. O’Hara’s interpretation is less forgiving; Doris just doesn’t believe.

Miracle is about more than a little girl who meets Santa Claus though, and the story takes a long, dull turn when it becomes a debate over Kris Kringle’s sanity. Doris insists he go in for a psychological examination when he lists his reindeer as his next of kin, a good show of humor if you ask me. A disgruntled doctor’s report, however, results in a court hearing over Kris’s mental state. I’m not saying that existential questions have no place in a Christmas movie, and actually the holidays are a great time to ponder deeply, but the story dries up when it moves too far away from Susan and her youthful enthusiasm.

Um, *spoiler alert*. “Susan believes” clip:

Released: 1947
Dir: George Seaton
Writer: George Seaton
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Harry Antrim
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

A Country Christmas Story (2013)

A Country Christmas Story has very little to do with Christmas save a few carols, but that hardly matters because Dolly Parton guest stars and she is a treasure. Whether you love country music or hate it, the legend radiates a love and generosity that is right for this or any season. She cameos as herself in this sweet and surprising movie, sponsoring a singing contest to find a new young country star. The competition catches the eye of Grace (Desiree Ross), a biracial girl from Tennessee, whose mother is not so keen on her daughter’s musical pursuits. Jenny (Megyn Price) knows that it’s a difficult path, which is why she’s no longer with her musician ex, Danny (Brian McKnight).

The basic story retreads old ground. A young teen tries to find her place in the world, and that means figuring out how she relates to her family and what she’s passionate about. When Grace saves her dad’s guitar from being chucked out by her mom, she starts using music to sort out her confused feelings and to connect with her family. She hopes that she can bring her mom around since she used to be a singer as well, but Jenny’s resistance means that Grace often has to turn to her grandmother (Mary Kay Place) for support.

This movie is special though because of its young subject. It doesn’t tiptoe around Grace’s race, and she and her father initially scoff at the idea of her entering a country music contest because who ever heard of a black country singer? Apparently her white church choir director (Ross McCall) because he schools her, and the audience, on black musicians’ many contributions to the genre. You didn’t know that Linda Martell was the first black woman to sing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1969 or that DeFord Bailey was one of its founding members? Well, now you do.

Grace is many an insular, slightly outcast teen with a creative bent, by which I mean I totally relate to her. However, I also think her character is so resonant because Ross is the star of tomorrow. I vote for her, singing contest or no. She radiates youth in all its beauty and frustration and hope and anxiety. When Grace confronts her mom about playing guitar or her father or Sarah’s past, she shoots her these looks that are full of adolescent contradiction. Ross captures all of Sarah, an exceptional young woman who bares her vulnerability and her strength.

I only wish the film was more generous with its musical performances. The three final contestants showcase a song, and Ross sings “Miss You, Miss Me,” which was penned and recorded by Parton. Another contestant also performs a Parton tune, the lively “Fiddlin’ Around.” I don’t know if it’s too greedy to want at least two more musical numbers though, one each from Parton and McKnight. The film already benefits from their presence, but here, more of a good thing is welcome.

“Miss You, Miss Me” by Desiree Ross:

“Fiddlin’ Around” by Camille Sanders:

Released: 2013
Dir: Eric Bross
Writer: Steven Peros
Cast: Desiree Ross, Megyn Price, Ross McCall, Brian McKnight, Mary Kay Place, Preston Bailey, Dolly Parton, Dillon James, Camille Sanders
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2018