Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

This Christmas reviewed by Greg Wright

I will confess that I am an opening-credits junkie. I was raised in an era when audiences knew that the actual content of a film started as soon as the overture was concluded—and the title sequence began. It wasn’t like today, when audiences chatter and fiddle with their cell phones, missing (in admittedly now-rare cases) key aspects of a film because they’re not yet ready for “what happens first.”

This is significant, because a good opening sequence can really set the tone for a film. Think of Unforgiven, Silverado, DOA, Dances With Wolves, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and The Untouchables. Some effective openings use action; some use animation; some just use text and music. But they all grab you right from the film’s first frame—at least, the first frame after all the co-producing corporate logos—and immerse you into the feel of what follows.

Add This Christmas to my list of favorite openings.

thischristmasinsetThe titles are jazzy, languid, lush, and sensuous, overlaid by a complementary score. They take their time, savoring each note from the sax and each phrase from the singer. They let you know that you’re not going to feel rushed over the next two hours—as you might in a Ferrell, Vaughn, or Allen holiday offering. Instead, you’re going to be immersed in something more free-flowing, more improvisational—and yet controlled. Something with strong female voices.

The strongest female voice at the center of this story is Ma’Dere, the (secretly) divorced (if openly separated) matriarch of a clan of twenty- and thirty-something children. Some are married (some more happily—and some more secretly—than others), some have sparkling careers, some are struggling to make ends meet off the street. Some aspire to things of which Ma’Dere would not approve.

And Ma’Dere aspires to a marriage of which some of her children would not approve, for years pretending that she is not shacking up with her loving and loyal lover, Joe.

All of these familial dynamics collide when the clan convenes at the old family residence for Christmas. On top of it all, the story’s central conflict revolves around Lisa and Malcom’s plan to persuade Ma’Dere to sell the family business and home. Lisa’s siblings are none too wild about Malcom’s rather devious (and obvious) attempts to steer the family mini-mini-fortune into bigger real estate profits.

Also contributing a major plot complication is the arrival of Ma’Dere’s eldest child, Quentin, who’s been following in his daddy’s wayward tracks for years, following his musical muse over Ma’Dere’s very vocal objections. On the run from some bad debt in Chicago, he heads back to the family’s California digs seeking refuge, but his pursuers track him down (and stay for Christmas!)—and Quentin butts heads with Joe.

What this jazz-inspired mélange is about is pretty simple: the idea that you don’t get to choose family, and that blood is thicker than a lot of things.

What might make This Christmas enjoyable, if you’re in the mood, is the time that director Preston A. Whitmore II takes in letting us visit with the Whitfield family. This movie is not so much concerned with what happens next as it is with what’s happening onscreen at any given moment—and Whitmore’s camera spends a lot more time in every scene than we are accustomed to.

Whitmore’s aimless-feeling approach didn’t work too well for me in another of his features, Crossover. But it works well here, given that the focus is on family—and holidays—and not sports. Besides, there are a lot of appealing actors and characters here, particularly Delroy Lindo as Joe, the always-compelling Idris Elba as Quentin, Loretta Devine as Ma’Dere, and Regina King as Lisa.

I particularly enjoyed spending time with this family, and being around their dinner table. And the fact that they all looked different from me was a bonus. (See the movie; you’ll get the reference.)

This Christmas is available to stream online at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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