By BRUCE DENNILL
Christmas Grace / Directed by Keith Perna / PG 2
Love’s Christmas Journey / Directed by David S Cass / PGV 6
Films with the word “Christmas” in the title are almost always terrible (Tim Burton gets a free pass for The Night Before…), which is unnecessary given that the original narrative is part of what was once titled – by cynical, money-grabbing Hollywood – as The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Two new releases show what shouldn’t and what can be done with the themes that must be included if you’re going to have titles like Christmas Grace and Love’s Christmas Journey.
Both are well-meant examinations of what the spirit of the season (or whatever other misleading term is being used at the moment) leads people to do and how the actions that result have positive effects on those around them.
Christmas Grace is hamstrung from the opening scene by awful, poorly thought through direction and the sort of acting excusable only if the cast is in the fifth grade and has only had three rehearsals. The plot involves Gary, a gentle, Christian toy shop owner who is challenged by Jim, a new, Scrooge-like competitor who opens a larger store across the street.
Gary has to survive as well as be a good witness to those who are expecting him to fight dirty to stay afloat. It’s a strong theme, but it’s hijacked by bad screen craft as well as a certain comfortable churchiness that undermines its message rather than supporting it.
The DVD cover for Christmas Grace is adorned with a number of crests proclaiming its success at various Christian film festivals. If this was one of the best pieces on offer, that sector of the industry is in grave trouble. Being a Christian doesn’t mean skimping on hard realities in the stories being told, and releasing films without production values comparable to what is being put out in the mainstream suggests that the filmmakers involved are relying rather too much on forgiveness from an audience who would benefit more from something more gutsy.
Love’s Christmas Journey is much better, a two-part mini-series set in a small frontier town in the American West back when the railways were being extended towards the promised land of California.
The town is hoping that one such railway will be routed through their settlement, as it will bring a much-needed boost to the economy. While that deal is being negotiated (by Lord Of The Rings man Sean Astin, a long way from the Shire), various characters go about their business, including a damaged family – the brother’s wife has died; the sister’s husband and daughter have been killed by what insurance companies would call, ahem, an “act of God” – who are trying to heal and move on with their lives.
The production values here are excellent, and though the script is hardly out of the top drawer (several scenes are quite obviously included to allow another subplot the necessary time to play out elsewhere), the cast, which includes the late Ernest Borgnine, know their stuff.
The first episode, in which the foundation for the tale and all of the areas of conflict are set up, is by far superior to the second, which feels more like a contractual obligation (“We asked for a mini-series! Stretch it out!) than a well-edited single tale.
Still, all’s well that ends well. And it does.