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

Love and Basketball

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

About eighty percent love and twenty percent basketball, this is a romance about two basketball-loving kids who go one-on-one in both games for almost twenty years before they get it right.

The movie is divided into quarters, like a basketball game. Monica moves next door to Quincy when they are both 11. He is so affronted by her skill at making baskets that he knocks her to the ground — and so impressed that he asks her to be his girl. They kiss for an agreed-upon five seconds, and then break up when they argue over whether he gets to be the boss.

Seven years later, they are seniors in high school, and both star players. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are friends, very aware of each other, but awkward at expressing their feelings. He is heavily recruited, but opportunities for girl players are more limited. At the last minute, she gets recruited, too. On the night of the prom, they acknowledge how they feel about each other and become intimate.

At USC, they each face challenges. Quincy learns that the father he respects has not been honest. Monica must deal with a demanding coach and with competition from teammates. They part, and Quincy drops out of school to play professional basketball. In the last quarter, they meet again, for one last chance at love and basketball.

Writer/director Gina Prince-Blythewood has crafted a nice, old-fashioned story. There are a few modern touches, like Monica’s independence in addressing the conflicts between her love for Quincy and her love for basketball, but it is surprisingly traditional in structure and outcome. For example, Quincy is permitted to have had many romantic encounters, but Monica, our heroine, is as hopelessly devoted to her one love as Olivia Newton-John was in “Grease.” And when she sees Quincy again, years after their college break-up, she apologizes to him for leaving him when he was upset so that she could get back to the dorm before her curfew. She says, “I should have been there for you. But I didn’t know how to do that and be all about ball.” There is also a “Star is Born” element as Monica becomes successful as Quincy is having difficulty.

Monica and Quincy must also resolve standard-issue family conflicts. Monica feels unappreciated by her mother (a criminally underused Alfre Woodard), who is happy to be a very traditional housewife and subordinate her life to her family. It turns out that Monica’s mother feels unappreciated too. Quincy’s father, a professional basketball player, turns out to be less than the hero Quincy thought he was. Quincy says to him, “How come you couldn’t be the man you kept trying to make me?” Both must learn to forgive their parents for not being perfect before they can truly become adults.

It is especially nice to see a movie with a primarily black cast that has a genuine feel for the culture but avoids the usual clichés. Monica and Quincy live in an upper middle class neighborhood and each has two loving parents.

Parents should know that the movie has strong sexuality for a PG-13, including descriptions of some sexually aggressive women, a strip basketball game and a scene of Monica and Quincy having sex that has no nudity but is fairly explicit. (It also includes the use of a condom.) A character is accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. Quincy’s father admits that he married Quincy’s mother because she was pregnant. A character gets drunk when she finds out that her husband has been unfaithful. A mother slaps a grown child.

Families who see this movie should talk about how people reconcile the demands of love, family, and career, and why it is that Monica and Quincy had so much trouble telling each other how they felt. Teenagers may also want to talk about the different views Monica and Quincy had of their relationship at different ages, and how the key element linking them through all of them was not basketball but friendship.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy a very different basketball movie, “Hoosiers,” about a 1950’s championship high school team, and a very different romantic movie, “Claudine.”

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Romance Sports
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