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Christmas With a Capital C
Great Characters, Good Heart

Dan Reed, the embattled mayor of a small Alaska town, finds his leadership questioned as another Christmas approaches, when who should come back to town but his old high school nemesis Mitch Bright? And what could be worse than finding out that ol’ Mitch is now an atheist activist angling for Dan’s job as mayor… using the constitutionality of town-sponsored Christmas celebrations as a wedge with voters? For personal reasons alone, Dan would love to knock Mitch’s teeth out, and the added religious and political challenges grate heavily on Dan’s already strained nerves. The story itself—which, I must say, very very responsibly deals with the politics (and faith) of the season—is exceedingly well rendered; but the characters really bring it to life.

The Human Resources Manager
Darkly Subtle Humor

The film is set during precisely the season and year that I also made a visit to the same part of Romania. I saw the same post-Soviet cultural confusion and malaise that gripped the country, the same ironic desperation in the eyes of dirt-poor and shell-shocked citizens who had little and expected less. And there was a certain dark humor to it all. Yes, bribes were still in—but nobody really felt like much was at stake. Things just got slower if you resisted, that’s all. Clerks at four-star hotels the quality of a Motel 6 could just shrug off the inconsistency; after all, where else were you going to find hot and cold running water, and your own private WC? It’s gallows humor of a sort.

The Lamp
Surprisingly, It Works

The Lamp has a lot going against it. First is a vague title that really doesn’t clue us into what the film is about. Second, the storyline includes not just one but two examples of what my colleague Maurice Broaddus refers to as “The Magic Negro”—mystical black folks who are required by a script to step in and save white folks. Finally, is there any doubt what will happen with the storyline involving Josh? Naw. But there’s a lot going for this film, too, which captivated me in spite of its shortcomings. Best, Trost’s script—in all the ways that really matter—doesn’t really go where you expect it to. Let’s just say you’ve never seen a genie story resolved the way that this one is.

The Nocturnal Third
Make Of It What You Will

The technical qualities of the film are pretty uneven, ranging from inventive and intriguing to choppy and annoying. But the central performances of Kevin Maggard and Luke Weaver as Eli and his chief tormentor are very appealing. They bring an offbeat and youthful energy to the story that always keeps in involving. Most of the performances in the minor roles, however, are pretty rough. Still, director Benjamin Stark manages to keep a decent rein on the proceedings, and the film feels like it achieves the vast majority of what the production team intended. It’s smart, slightly obtuse in an arty sort of way, and remarkably restrained and mature for an indie thriller.

The Presence
How Do We Get From Here to Hereafter?

The Presenceis a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do. Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—and takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world. But it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter. It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption. If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence. You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.

The Captains
Unexpectedly Deep

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have, of late, been working through the newly-restored release of the original Star Trek series, available for streaming on Netflix. It’s been nice seeing the original episodes as they were intended to be seen—if in a far crisper presentation than the makeup artists ever envisioned they would be. And imagine my surprise, upon screening William Shatner’s documentary The Captains, in finding that Shatner himself has always been somewhat embarrassed by the whole, um, enterprise. Also imagine my surprise in discovering that the documentary is not only a thoughtful examination of Star Trek’s—and his own—legacy, but a probing and artful inquiry into the very notion of leadership.

Gently Profound

This is a simple film that asks big questions like: What would it really mean if God did exist? What does he have to gain from meddling in our lives? Or, better, what do we have to gain? Right off the bat, I was simultaneously intrigued and put off by the audacity and artificiality of the first act. (And the ubiquitous false eyelashes of star Jennifer Love Hewitt, who plays Claire.) But really: when a key character has lines from Shakespeare writ large on his forearm, you’ve got to ask, “If the Bard can do art hokey and overwrought and still do it well, why not allow others the same creative space?” And writer/director Marc Erlbaum comes through in spades, as far as I’m concerned.

Two Brothers
A Slice of Two Lives

The notion is that a life examined has far more potential than the usual quiet desperation, and for the last ten years Stevenson has followed a fairly large cadre of kids who are now young adults. Two Brothers is the first feature-length documentary fashioned from the footage gathered over that period. Ten years ago, Sam and Luke Nelson were pretty typical gradeschoolers. Luke was the scrappy little brother, Sam the older—who tended to bully his siblings. Then Stevenson stepped in and started his standard interviewing, plus probing inquiries regarding the relationship between the brothers. And a funny thing started to happen. As Sam and Luke both started seeing the contrast between the way things were and the way they wished things could be, their reality started changing.

More Than Diamonds
In the Rough

While Skellenger successfully assembles a completed film with his low-budget cast and sets—which is by no means an insignificant accomplishment, by the way—the end product never really develops a personality or rhythm. When the work on the pre-production end is unpolished, the product will likely be unpolished, too. Anyone remember the original version of Flywheel, for instance? Still, More Than Diamonds doesn’t demonstrate the same kind thematic potential that Flywheel did. In part, that’s because Skellenger is aiming for a light, quasi-comedic tone for this family film while the folks at Sherwood were aiming for profundity. Diamonds, by comparison, is a simple story about a family finding its way through the wake of tragedy… and about kids having fun with a mystery.

The Least of These
Worthy Calling

You can understand the appeal of the film’s story and script, as Isaiah Washington plays a priest with a suspect past… and has been reassigned to a boarding school with what we can only assumed is a history of pedophilia. The best part is that, without even having screened the film, you know it’s going to take seriously the problem of sexual abuse in the Church. And the film lives up to that expectation. Where the film missteps, though, is that it’s made primarily from an evangelical point of view while being set in a Catholic boarding school—which makes it kind of a case of the pot trying to be all serious and stuff about the kettle’s problems, if you know what I mean.

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