(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Reverend's Reviews: Naughty & Nice New Christmas Movies

This perfectly horrible year is slithering to a close, thank God! Of course, the question on most children's minds this month is "Have you been naughty or nice?" We can ask the same question of some new holiday-themed movies available now via streaming services and a few theaters. Reverend watched them all and has ranked them below, with the naughtiest (in terms of content and/or production values) at the top of the list and the truly nicest at the base of this cinematic Christmas tree.

The Slutcracker (VOD 48-hour rental for $15.00 via Now in its 13th season, this racy burlesque adaptation of Tchaikovsky's famed ballet premiered in 2008 to sold out audiences at Somerville Theatre in Massachusetts. It has since been performed internationally at venues including Theatre St. Denis in Montreal in 2010. Additionally, the creators of the event were invited to the Czech Republic to record with Brno Philharmonic conductor, Mikel Toms (currently the resident conductor of the National Orchestra of India) where The Slutcracker soundtrack was recorded live. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, this year’s edition of The Slutcracker has been moved to an online streaming platform.

Choreographed and directed by Vanessa White, the production brings together ballerinas, hula hoopers, belly dancers and other performers with interests in flamenco, hip hop, pole, acting and myriad dance forms. White specializes in creating dance-theater stage shows, typically with a political/feminist bent and which embrace diversity including race, gender, genre and body type.

This is a feature-length filmed presentation of The Slutcracker's 2019 show. Compiled from several performances, the film version includes footage from 2 casts, blended together into one seamless narrative. It is an adults-only, queer-feminist, body-positive and sex-positive parody of Tchaikovsky's beloved masterpiece. The dancers' abilities vary but White's is a generally impressive vision. Scantily-clad men as well as women are on display, and nutracker-maker Drosselmyer has been conceived of as a Nee Nee Wilkes-like housewife. He employs an illuminated dildo to make the first act's central Christmas tree "grow," and there is later a giant candy cane dong that "ejaculates"! Also featured are a full-figured Sugar Plum Fairy, a stylish bondage sequence and an African-American Nutcracker in sparkly attire. It's definitely naughty, but enjoyably so.

Cup of Cheer (VOD via Tubi, Amazon Prime and Vudu): I didn't realize how much I missed the wacky, absurdist style of such comedy classics as Airplane!, Top Secret! and The Naked Gun series until I watched this similarly-conceived spoof of Hallmark Christmas movies. Like those earlier films, some scenes and gags go on too long but many are downright hilarious.

Mary (a game performance by Storm Steenson) is a harried reporter living in "the Big City" who unexpectedly finds herself assigned to write a story about Christmas in her midwestern hometown, Snowy Heights. "Goodbye, ethnic diversity!" Mary cheerfully exclaims as she heads home, where she quickly – and literally – bumps into Chris (cute Canadian actor Alexander Oliver), a harried barista at Cup of Cheer, Snowy Heights' famed hot cocoa emporium. They are obviously attracted to one another even as they are required by their Hallmark predecessors to have animosity toward each other. As Mary bitchily says to Chris at one point: "I'd rather be small-town hot than low-budget-Christmas-movie-leading-man handsome."

Director and co-writer Jake Horowitz has obviously studied both the collected cinematic works of the Zucker brothers and the Hallmark holiday oeuvre. He is aided and abetted by fellow scripter Andy Lewis, as well as the festive cinematography of Daniel Everitt-Lock. True to its comedic inspirations, there are Christmas decorations to be found in odd places, an unhealthily flatulent ex-boyfriend of Mary's, a sweet but foul-mouthed old biddy and Chris's younger brother who works as Santa's elf at the local mall but doubles as a pole dancer.

There are also obvious but funny lines like "Christmas Eve? Why, that's the day before Christmas!," not to mention multiple costume and make-up changes during the same scene plus hats worn under other hats. And there's a running joke about mothers who are punished for sneezing in church. Did I mention the numerous gay and lesbian nods/mentions? There are plenty, notably a displaced 19th-century British prince, Sir Arthur, who fawns over Chris and most of the other males in the cast. He also shoots a child, amusingly so, while game hunting. Cup of Cheer is just that kind of naughty but welcome, lol movie!

The Hallmark Channel and Paramount Network have actually broken some long-overdue ground this year with their new gay-centric holiday movies, respectively, The Christmas Setup and Dashing in December. So has Hulu, which recently premiered the lesbian dramedy Happiest Season by actress turned director Clea DuVall.

Twilight Saga alumna and out bisexual Kristen Stewart heads the impressive cast as Abby, who has been dating girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) for nearly a year. As they prepare to mark their first Christmas together, it is revealed that Abby lost the holiday spirit when her parents died several years before whereas Harper is a crazy Christmas fan. Harper takes the significant step of inviting Abby to her parents' home with her this Christmas. What Harper doesn't reveal until they nearly arrive at the house is that her parents (played by always-welcome gay actor Victor Garber and Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen) are anti-LGBTQ conservatives whom she has yet to come out to!

Happiest Season is dated and clich├ęd in many ways, but DuVall incorporates enough offbeat touches to help offset the familiar tropes. Among these are Harper's delightfully neurotic sister Jane (the delightful Mary Holland), an overly-aggressive shopping mall security guard and a gay bar Christmas celebration dominated by singing drag queens. There is also Emmy Award winner Dan Levy of Schitt's Creek fame as Abby's gay BF. As he hilariously tells her after Abby shares her temporarily closeted condition: "There's nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves."

When it comes to LGBTQ-affirming holiday movies, I prefer the 2005 studio pic The Family Stone and Rob Williams' cute 2009 indie Make the Yuletide Gay (both of which are available for streaming). The ladies, however, will likely prefer DuVall's somewhat familiar yet undeniably sincere film.

I recently came across The Unattainably Perfect Gay Christmas while scrolling through my Amazon Prime recommendations. The title was good and it was listed as a new, 2020 release. While watching it, though, parts of it seemed familiar. A little research revealed that it is actually a 2013 production originally titled Red Lodge. I consider the movie naughty in this deceptive marketing regard, but it isn't half bad whatever it's called.

Boyfriends Jordan and Dave have been together for two years (incidentally, they are an interracial couple when such relationships were still relatively rare on the big screen). While en route to the home of Jordan's adoptive Auntie for Christmas, Jordan proposes to Dave and is disappointed when Dave rejects him. Perhaps needless to say, this sets things up for a less than ideal holiday in the otherwise picturesque town of Red Lodge (hence the film's original title).

Quirky supporting characters abound. Auntie is an alcoholic and has no physical boundaries nor verbal filter. Hilarious MADtv veteran Stephnie Weir plays a local online psychic Jordan goes to for advice. Dave, meanwhile, meets a frisky young ski instructor, Heath, and soon finds himself naked with him and Jordan in Heath's hot tub. Finally, there is Jordan's mandolin-playing sister, Lisa, with her boyfriend in tow.

The plot plays out fairly predictably and some elements are dated a mere seven years later. But lead actors Joseph Lim Kim (as Jordan) and Richard Pierre-Louis (as Dave) are appealing and Dan Steadman's direction is admirably naturalistic. God knows there are worse gay-themed, indie Christmas movies out there. I'm primarily thinking of 2012's Scrooge & Marley and previously sent a lump of coal, critically speaking, to its creators.

The downright nicest, sweetest, most Christmas-positive new movie this season is Dana Nachman's lovable documentary Dear Santa (now in theatrical release and on VOD courtesy of IFC Films). It provides a thorough and heartwarming examination of the United States Postal Service's Operation Santa. Begun in 1907, it has been processing children's annual letters to Santa Claus and responding to the most needy or worthy among them for over a century now. I had no idea.

Primarily filmed during the three weeks before Christmas of 2019, the doc crisscrosses the US and focuses on a diverse selection of children and their wish lists. Among them are an aspiring veterinarian who wants a dutch bunny (ideally 10 of them), a 12-year old boy in the Bronx who wants a limo ride for himself and his family, and children displaced by California wildfires asking for replacements for beloved toys and furniture that burned. Santa receives letters from adults too, as well as at least one cat! Most notably, and touchingly, a gay-identifying child writes Santa to ask if he supports the LGBTQ community.

In several cities, Operation Santa employs an army of "elves" to read and respond to letters. Some requests get forwarded to a number of non-profit groups dedicated to fulfilling wishes. "Adopter elves" can then choose the wishes that touch them most and provide the requested gift(s). Among these special people revealed by the film are a lesbian couple who present a rescued puppy to a family on behalf of Santa, as well as a gay man who mobilizes his friends to respond to the gay boy noted above. There is also a teacher in New Jersey who uses each year's letters to Santa to teach both reading and empathy to her elementary students before the class adopts a child. Who knew?

Dear Santa is a beautiful illustration of what Christmas should be, even in the midst of our current COVID crisis. Many of the letters read in the film serve as windows into numerous families' pre-pandemic struggles. The movie's final 20 minutes provide nothing short of sheer joy as gifts are delivered and kids are made happy. They serve as confirmation that Santa Claus does indeed exist today.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Slutcracker: B
Cup of Cheer: B+
Happiest Season: C+
The Unattainably Perfect Gay Christmas (a.k.a. Red Lodge): B
Dear Santa: A-

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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