Almost Christmas

Posted on November 10, 2016 at 5:24 pm

Copyright Universal 2016

In “Almost Christmas,” Danny Glover plays Walter, a recent widower who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, trying over and over again to replicate his late wife’s legendary sweet potato pie. What he wants to replicate, of course, is the time when his family was all together, as shown in a heart-tugging, gracefully edited opening credit sequence, with the years melting into each other from 1971 to 2015. A young couple embraces on a mattress on the floor and, as it happens in life, an eye blink later they have three children, and then, as a bit of a late surprise, a fourth. The children are all adults now, coming home for the first Christmas since their mother died, and Walter wants it to be a time of reconnection. For that, he needs the sweet potato pie and it has to be just like hers.

Writer/director David Talbert (“Baggage Claim”) is trying for his own version of a sweet potato pie with this film, mixing in the standard ingredients for a Christmas family gathering comedy/drama movie. So, there are adult siblings with ongoing conflicts, a dad who is spending too much time on work, precocious kids (in this case, happily uploading every element of family dysfunction on social media), church, a guest star (though why you would put Gladys Knight in a film and not let her sing is beyond me), family traditions, a kitchen disaster, secrets to be revealed, a rekindled romance, a busted marriage, high maintenance in-laws, and, of course Christmas meaning and reconciliation magic and a lot of food. In other words, other than running into Gladys Knight, it is pretty much what goes on around the world at Christmas.

Talbert’s sweet potato pie of a movie has the right ingredients, and if they are not always combined just right, it still makes for a treat, with an exceptional cast and enough laughs to keep us going until the exact right moment for some tears.

Walter’s older son is Christian (Romany Malco), a husband and father of two who is running for Congress (none of this storyline makes any sense as Christmas is at least 11 months before the next election and the issue he gets caught up in is municipal, not federal, but okay). Malco is terrific in an unusually understated role. The look on his face as Walter asks him to speak at the homeless shelter his mother was devoted to shows endless tenderness and loss. His wife (an underused Nicole Ari Parker) is mostly there to remind him that he should not take time away from the family for his campaign. The youngest of Walter’s children is Evan (Jessie T. Usher), a college football player being scouted for the NFL draft, hiding an addiction to painkillers.

Their two sisters are Rachel (co-producer Gabrielle Union), a fiercely independent single mom and law student, and Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), a dentist married to a know-it-all former basketball player (J.B. Smoove), who is still a player, if you know what I mean.

Walter’s outspoken sister-in-law, a backup singer named May (Mo’Nique) arrives to wear a wild assortment of wigs and prepare an even wilder assortment of exotic foods that no one will touch. Rachel’s high school friend (Omar Epps) would like to renew their acquaintance. And Jasmine (Keri Hilson), Christian’s campaign manager (John Michael Higgins) and Evan’s friend (D.C. Young Fly) show up for various complications.

Like Walter’s pie, it’s not quite as good as the real thing. It would fit it well with Hallmark’s line-up of non-stop Christmas movies from Halloween through New Year’s Day. But there’s a reason those movies are so popular. They remind us of our own chaotic but still memorable holidays and our own difficult but still wonderful families.

Parents should know that this film includes some sexual references and a non-explicit situation, prescription drug abuse, sad offscreen death of a parent, offscreen car crash with injuries, gun, and some strong and explicit language.

Family discussion: What is your family’s favorite recipe? Why was it hard for the sisters to get along?

If you like this, try: “This Christmas”

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Comedy Drama Family Issues Holidays

Interview: David Talbert and Keri Hilson of “Almost Christmas”

Posted on November 10, 2016 at 3:32 pm

The producers of one of my favorite holiday movies, “Next Christmas,” are back with “Almost Christmas,” another story of the ups and downs of a family Christmas, this one starring Danny Glover, Mo’Nique, Gabrielle Union, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, and Omar Epps.

In an interview, writer/director David Talbert and actress Keri Hilson talked about their own favorite holiday memories. Talbert said that every year he and his brother would find the toys and unwrap them to see what they were getting before Christmas morning. “One Christmas my mother found out that we did that and she said she was taking all the toys back, ‘You boys aren’t getting anything.’ We were like, ‘Oh, man,’ and so she played that all the way up to Christmas morning. Then we go out and all the toys were there.”

He talked about the difficulty of reconciling the holidays we would like to have with what actually happens. “It’s always better in our minds than it is in reality. The holiday season is funny because it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year but it is one of the saddest times of the year, too. You’re thinking about family members that may not be with you anymore, relationships that may have been broken. We go through so many dysfunctions but it helps to remember that it is the most wonderful time of the year and family is the most important thing at the end of the day. That’s what this movie is about.”

In an all-star ensemble cast, Hilson’s challenge was to make her character vivid in the midst of the group. “That was my objective to show up, be prepared and don’t get lost in the sauce and I think I did a pretty good job. There were a couple of scenes where it was harder than others, one in particular where all of us are present and I had to make sure that I stayed there, stayed present in the moment, in the scene.” “Keri is a competitor,” Talbert added. “So she was going to make no one outdid her in the scene. In the big dinner scene which is a classic scene in this movie she is throwing lines and ad libs that we ended up keeping, that drives the comedy in the scene.” Working with so many talented comedic performers, Hilson was “just a sponge. It was a really good learning experience for me.”

Talbert praised Hilson’s performance. “Keri is such a strikingly beautiful woman. The sensuality just jumps out of the screen and we were able to do that. She did that effortlessly; she did not need any direction.”

A pioneer in taking his theatrical works to movie audiences, Talbert talked about the challenge of moving from the immediacy of plays to a more visual medium. “Writing theater it really is a hindrance as a playwright, a hindrance to directing film because it’s all about the words in theater, where it’s all about the pictures in film. So it took me a couple of years to really find a balance. But in both it’s really understanding the performance and understanding what is true and what is honest. Performance is really what helps me the most in film from a theater world because I can communicate to actors which is what theater is and that’s what I bring to it, I am comfortable communicating to actors and figuring out collaborating on what is the best path to get the best performance.”

As a director, Talbert also had the challenge of balancing all of the characters and moods of the story. “You just hold on. It’s kind of like a bucking bronco and you really hold on and try not to get your ass just kicked off of it because everyone has a specific point of view, everyone is bringing something to the table. And the smart thing as a director is get out of the way and let it happen. You know there was magic that was happening, Keri was bringing her character, she was totally in character, she wasn’t Keri Hilson anymore as she sat at that table, she was the character Jasmine who been invited to dinner, who is just happy to be here. And Mo’Nique wasn’t Mo’Nique; she was Aunt May. All the actors really locked into their characters. So then it was less about me trying to direct a movie, direct lines I had written, and it became about capturing this real life that was happening at the table. I think that’s why people can relate to it the most from Danny Glover down to the kids, everybody was bringing real life to the table and I was fortunate enough to have great camera men and DPs that captured it for me.”

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