Silent Night (15, 92 mins)
Verdict: Wrapping-paper thin
Boxing Day (12A, 109 mins)
Verdict: Love Actually rip-off
A Castle For Christmas (PG, 98 mins)
Verdict: A sleigh-crash
We’ve nudged into December, the traditional cue for film distributors to nudge Santa down the chimney and pretend it’s already Christmas.
And so, or possibly lo, as if borne by three wise men getting their journey times slightly wrong, there arrives this week a trio of Christmas films, none of which brings much comfort, still less joy.
Silent Night marks the debut of writer-director Camille Griffin, whose real-life son Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit) plays Art, a potty-mouthed child understandably alarmed by a forthcoming poison-cloud apocalypse and not wholly reassured by a Government-sponsored mass-suicide scheme designed to avoid unnecessary suffering (pills available from Exit.gov.co.uk).
Christmas: Silent Night marks the debut of writer-director Camille Griffin, whose real-life son Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit) plays Art, a child alarmed by a poison-cloud apocalypse
That’s the premise, with the added zinger that this global Armageddon arrives at Christmas, with Art’s parents Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) determined to make the most of their imminent demise by hosting a gathering of dear old chums in the grand country home lent by her mother (Trudie Styler, who gets a fleeting Zoom cameo).
Obviously, indeed rather too obviously, there are satirical messages in all this about our own pandemic, and about climate change. In fairness, a few good ideas pulsate gently at the heart of the film.
But it unfolds like an undergraduate revue sketch stretched well beyond its natural life, and the social/sexual politics of the middle-class house party are almost unbearably shallow and contrived, not to mention derivative, awakening queasy memories of Peter’s Friends (1992).
Silent Night is further undermined by characterisation thinner than cheap festive wrapping paper, as a bunch of caricatures tick diversity boxes of sexuality and ethnicity, and the kids swear like troopers (the cast includes young Roman’s even younger twin brothers) to tick a further box marked edginess.
Boxing Day, proclaimed as the UK’s first Christmas romcom with a mostly black cast, isn’t much better.
Festive: The Armageddon arrives at Christmas, with Art’s parents Nell (Keira Knightley – pictured) and Simon (Matthew Goode) determined to make the most of their demise
It, too, is a debut effort, with actor Aml Ameen not just writing and directing for the first time but also starring as Melvin, a wildly successful British novelist living in Los Angeles, who nervously brings his lovely American fiancée Lisa (Aja Naomi King) back to London to experience his Anglo-Caribbean family’s traditionally fraught Boxing Day gathering.
Soon, they are both plunged into an emotional melee caused by simmering family resentments and his own abrupt break-up with ex-girlfriend Georgia (Leigh-Anne Pinnock, of the girl band Little Mix), who now happens to be a terrifically famous pop star.
Inevitably, Lisa, without knowing Melvin’s romantic connection, is a huge fan. Perhaps especially for those of us faintly allergic to Love Actually (2003), which Boxing Day conspicuously echoes, none of this is particularly engaging.
There are some strong performances (notably by Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Melvin’s mother) and yet, even though the story is apparently semi-autobiographical, almost all the relationships seem synthetic, making both the comedy and the poignancy feel forced.
Still, Boxing Day and even Silent Night are true masterpieces alongside the Netflix film A Castle For Christmas, a sleigh-crash of bad acting, idiotic plotting and terrible dialogue, and the first cinematic turkey of the season.
Brooke Shields dishes up a great slab of over-boiled Christmas ham as Sophie Brown, a bestselling U.S.-based author (yup, another one) who somehow appears to have built a colossal fortune on the back of sentences such as ‘The well whispered a secret to her longing heart’.
Romance: Boxing Day, proclaimed as the UK’s first Christmas romcom, is Aml Ameen’s debut writing and directing. He also stars as Melvin, a successful British novelist living in Los Angeles
Anyway, eager to escape a hue and cry caused by her decision to kill off her romantic lead, Sophie legs it to the cutesy Aberdeenshire village from which her father sensibly emigrated decades earlier to find that the miserably bad-tempered but appealingly floppy-haired 12th Duke of Dunbar (Cary Elwes) is in dire financial straits and might be persuaded to sell his ancestral home.
Mary Lambert’s film, the kind of production that makes you weep for all the excellent projects that never get financing, cobbles together a flimsy theme park version of Scotland clearly intended to charm a not-very-discerning U.S. audience.
The whole thing is full of calculatedly eccentric locals (who, despite their porridge-oats Scottishness, sprinkle their sentences with convenient Americanisms such as ‘cellphone’ and ‘stick-shift’) and mock-jolly ceilidhs, as well as a dog called Hamish who, in truth, is one of the better actors on show.
The plot, like Shields herself, is as wooden as a caber.
Sophie and Myles (the irascible ‘dook’) can’t stand each other at first, then fall in love, then have an all-bets-are-off barney… and then, well, let’s just say that it’s all something of a Hamish’s breakfast — not so much Local Hero as Local Zero.
Silent Night and Boxing Day are in cinemas now; A Castle For Christmas is available to stream on Netflix.
Something ugly is stirring down in the bayou…
Blue Bayou (15, 117 mins)
Verdict: Drama about a real-life scandal
Encounter (15, 108 mins)
Verdict: Uneven thriller
Justin Chon’s drama Blue Bayou addresses a little-known scandal: the deportation of foreign-born people who were adopted into American families, sometimes as babies, even 40 years ago or more, but were never given formal U.S. citizen status.
Chon himself plays the Korean-born Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist raised in Louisiana and enjoying one of those poor-but-happy movie existences with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), raising her daughter Jessie as his own, much to the chagrin of Jessie’s dad Ace, a cop.
Drama: Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou addresses a little-known scandal: the deportation of foreign-born people who were adopted into US families. Pictured: Alicia Vikander as Kathy, Chon as Antonio LeBlanc and Sydney Kowalske as Jessie
The couple have a baby of their own on the way and, despite a rap sheet for stealing motorbikes making it hard for him to get a second job, all seems set fair for Antonio, until Ace’s meathead partner (think of all the crass racist-cop caricatures you’ve ever seen, then dumb them down, and you’ve got this guy), lands him in it with the immigration authorities.
Chon and Vikander are both splendid (for a Swede, she is remarkably convincing as a country girl from the Deep South) and the film, that two-dimensional cop notwithstanding, and despite some slightly laboured symbolism concerning Antonio’s Korean infanthood, is worth seeing.
So, on the whole, is Encounter, an uneven thriller in which the ever-marvellous Riz Ahmed excels as Malik Khan, a court-martialled former U.S. Marine who is aware — as few others seem to be, oddly enough — of an invasion by deadly alien insects which appear to have infected up to half the population.
Thriller: Encounter sees Riz Ahmed excel as Malik Khan (pictured with Lucian-River Chauhan), a former US Marine who is aware of an invasion by deadly alien insects
The film, by British director (and co-writer) Michael Pearce, is at its best in the first 40 minutes or so, after Malik abducts his own young sons from their mother and her new partner, taking them on a ‘fun’ road trip through the night.
At this point it feels like an affecting film about fatherhood, and it helps that the two young actors playing Ahmed’s sons, and his rapport with them, are so appealing.
Gradually, Encounter gets more overwrought and less likeable, but Ahmed is always worth watching, so too Octavia Spencer, in an underdeveloped supporting role.
Both films are in cinemas. Encounter is on Amazon Prime Video from December 10.
Poignant portrait of a couple facing the abyss
Hope (12A, 130 mins)
The Hand Of God (15, 130 mins)
Hope was Norway’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards, and fully deserved at least a nomination as best ‘international feature’.
It’s a beautifully acted drama, set between Christmas and New Year, about Anja (Andrea Braein Hovig), a feted choreographer, who finds that she has an incurable brain tumour.
This is devastating news for her and her older partner Tomas (the great Stellan Skarsgard).
Beautiful: Hope was Norway’s entry for the Academy Awards, and deserved a nomination as best ‘international feature’. Pictured: Stellan Skarsgard and Andrea Braein Hovig
He has three grown-up children with an ex-wife but they also have three children together, the youngest only ten, and neither of them knows how he will cope without her.
This, to be blunt, is standard cancer-drama fare, but what lifts Hope above most films of this type is that Anja and Tomas aren’t happy together and haven’t been for years.
All of which makes it sound unremittingly gloomy, but it’s actually a cleverly forensic study of a long-lasting but rather stale relationship, and the effect on it of terminal illness.
I saw The Hand Of God at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where director Paolo Sorrentino is revered.
Unsurprisingly, it was received with loud rapture, especially as it is inspired by Sorrentino’s real-life boyhood tragedy: at the age of 16, he arrived home from watching his beloved Diego Maradona playing football for Napoli to find both his parents dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.
So The Hand Of God, in this context, refers not to Maradona’s infamous antics against England, but to him indirectly saving Sorrentino’s life.
It’s a compelling story, for sure, but Sorrentino (with Filippo Scotti as his alter ego, Fabietto) has turned it into an overlong, self-consciously quirky film, undoubtedly absorbing at times, but with the feel of an open goal missed.
Hope is in selected cinemas from next week. The Hand Of God is in selected cinemas now and on Netflix from December 15.