Monday, December 24, 2012


Over the past few years (as I'm sure I've said on this blog before), it has been difficult to find good Christmas movies.  The ones in theaters are all either bloated overdone kids movies (some OK, like ELF, some bad, like THE POLAR EXPRESS) or snarky plastic confections (the SANTA CLAUSE movies, CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS). The made-for-cable movies, which I’ve been reviewing on my blog for the past few years, are mostly sappy romances; they're watchable but forgettable. On my shelf of must-watch Christmas DVDs (about twenty), the most recent one is THE REF from 1994. It seems that now I must turn to independent Christian filmmakers for interesting Christmas movies. A few years ago I discovered a religious indie called NOELLE, which I reviewed on my other blog and which I liked very much. This year, I found MIDNIGHT CLEAR. It sat in my Netflix streaming queue for months, having two strikes against it: it was made by Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry B. Jenkins, the fundamentalist Christian co-author of the "Left Behind" series, and it stars a Baldwin brother other than Alec.  But I finally got around to watching it and am pleased to report that it has earned a place on my Christmas DVD shelf.

It takes place on Christmas Eve and focuses on the separate but related stories of five characters in a small Texas town. Lefty (Stephen Baldwin, pictured below)) has hit bottom: he's a divorced homeless alcoholic who has just been fired from a factory job and his ex-wife's lawyers are threatening to ban him from seeing his kids. Eva (K Callan (Clark Kent's mother on Lois & Clark) is an older woman who is alone at Christmas—though she has told people that she has family coming in—and is preparing to commit suicide with an overdose of prescription pills. Mary (Mary Thornton) is a wife and mother whose husband Rick suffered brain damage a year ago in a car accident and is in a long-term nursing facility; she's coping but is angry that so few members of the community have even tried to visit Rick, who is not in a coma but who is essentially non-communicative. Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis) was in the accident with Rick but not hurt badly; still, he misses his buddy's leadership with the church youth group of which he is now in charge, and is not happy that his pastor is making them go caroling, targeting folks who haven't been to church in a while. We don’t find out much about the fifth character Kirk (Kirk B.R. Woller) except that he runs a small gas station & convenience store outside of town and doesn't like his life very much—when folks come in and say "Merry Christmas" to him, his reply is an unenthusiastic "Yup." In the trend of recent indie films, most of the characters cross paths at some point. As Mary and her son are on the way out of town to spend Christmas with her family, her car breaks down in front of Kirk's shop and she tries to get him to help her out.  Mitch and the carolers wind up their unsuccessful evening of trying to get people back to church by calling on Eva. And so on. The stories have upbeat endings, even if they're not the endings that the characters would wish for.

Jenkins based this on a short film he made which itself was based on a short story by his father, and for all the unsubtle messages associated with writers of Rapture fiction, this (or at least this version of the original material) is surprisingly low-key. Though some of the characters are churchgoers, and the film's climax is set at Christmas Eve service, I don't recall Jesus being mentioned once. There are no angels, no fiery epiphanies, and no sermonizing (not even any snow, and very few seasonal decorations); and not all of the characters wind up at church in the end. As one critic noted, this is a very humanist Christmas story, all about making connections with people and the different ways in which a helping hand can be given (and received). Kirk's story has virtually no tie to the church, and Lefty's and Mary's only tangentially. The acting is good all around. That Callen can pluck your heartstrings with just a look and a pause is no surprise. Thornton is also very good; Jarvis (above left) has the least to do but is fine; Woller is, from start to finish, stuck in a very taciturn Gary Cooper-ish mold but he does what he can to hint at his character's inner feelings. The real surprise is how good Baldwin is. It's largely his movie to carry, at least in the first half, and he's excellent at conveying the emptiness and confusion inside Lefty which leads him, like Eva, to a suicide attempt which is the most powerful scene in the movie. We don’t know enough about his character to really sympathize with him—he seems to have brought on all of his problems himself—but we do empathize with his plight. Loneliness and/or loss are at the core of all the stories here, and somewhat predictably, it is someone else reaching out that helps the lonely people begin to heal. Still, despite the predictability of the outcomes, the way they all begin to rebound is sometimes surprising. The movie is not a comedy, but there are occasional light touches; at one point, when a seedy guy is very secretively selling Baldwin a gun in his garage, Baldwin says, "Why so dramatic? Are we on TV?"  I hate to oversell this, but at the least, it's a solid non-romance, non-kiddie Christmas story that should satisfy most fans of the season.  [DVD]

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