Show Tracker
Critic's Pick

'A Very Larry Christmas,' Bernie Madoff, 'Christmas Light Fight'

A black Santa, real-life Scrooge and houses decked for Christmas comprise Robert Lloyd's latest weekly picks

"A Very Larry Christmas" (BET, Tuesday). Without making any great claims for this minor yet notable Christmas film -- the first original holiday movie from BET -- it is easy to recommend, and to commend. To start with the obvious: With few exceptions, TV Christmas movies, as made mostly these days by Hallmark and ABC Family, tend to be about the problems of middle- to upper-class white people; this is perhaps even more the case when Santa Claus himself is part of the picture. And so there is something refreshing, even a little radical, about this movie's largely African American cast in which not only Santa's chief aides but his wife are black, as is Larry (DeRay Davis), the substitute Santa who will save Christmas -- imperiled once again, as if that could happen. (Larry is also imperiled, you might have expected, by his own lack of confidence and follow-through.) At the same time, race is not an issue, though Larry does worry that while "the world may have been ready for a black president," it may be less prepared for a black man sliding down its chimneys.

I also have a particular fondness for stories in which Santa Claus, for all his elfin superpowers, is just another guy: a guy who'll show up -- to Michigan! -- to accept a humanitarian award because his PR person (Tatyana Ali as Nicole) thinks it will raise his social-media profile; who's allergic to shrimp (Mrs. Claus carries an EpiPen); who votes, or says he does; who quotes Lao-Tzu; and who parties with his wife. Directed by Bille Woodruff ("Addicted") and written by Alyson Fouse ("The Wanda Sykes Show") and Greg D. Shelton ("Kenan & Kel"), the film is too predictable to provide any real tension -- everything turns out exactly as you would expect it to -- but suspense is less the point here than pleasure, and sweetness abounds. Even the picture's evidently modest budget and low-rent effects, its casual weirdness and occasional awkwardness work in its favor. As Larry, the easily distracted, Christmas-obsessed deliveryman given the job of replacing a laid-up Santa Claus -- we have come to that crossroads many times before -- comedian-actor Davis ("21 Jump Street"), a big guy with a soft voice and soft eyes, has a lovely presence. (He sounds as if he's ad-libbing a fair amount, in the modern comedy style.) Charles Dutton, a major American actor, puts on pointy ears and bends from the waist to play Santa's about-to-retire chief toymaker. Loretta Devine, a crush of this department's since "The PJs," is Mrs. Claus. And there is a slow-to-flower romance, as the season decrees, between Larry and Nicole, whose warmer-colder dynamic replays a Christian tradition at least as old as "Miracle on 34th Street."

"In God We Trust" (Al Jazeera America, Sunday and next Sunday). Ebenezer Scrooge may have been a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner, hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, but he wasn't a patch on Bernie Madoff, the irredeemable sociopathic faux financier who bilked thousands (while rewarding a few) in a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that ended back in the late aughts. (It seems so long ago, I know.) To mark the sixth anniversary of the week it all came tumbling down -- the emptiness of its glass-and-steel skyscraping shell revealed, ironically, in the general collapse of the stock market -- Al Jazeera America airs Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek's Madoff documentary, "In God We Trust." (It will be split in two, like a "Harry Potter" or "Hobbit" movie, to run on consecutive Sundays.) Their point person, secondary subject and quasi-collaborator is Madoff's secretary Eleanor Squillari, who was as close as could be to the action and yet somehow saw nothing; haunted by her ignorance, she becomes a kind of middle-aged Nancy Drew cum Erin Brokovich, posting clips and notes and photos on her "war room" wall as in a police procedural, aiding the FBI and working to recover the loot. While the directors follow the mechanics of the crime into its many dark corners, turning up tales of money laundering, Swiss-bank thuggery, Austrian political corruption and SEC regulators too dazzled by the trappings of success to see the con that supported them, it's the disillusioned but resolute Squillari -- once a ferry-riding working girl in the feathered-hair Melanie Griffith mold, now unemployable by association -- who makes their film vivid and the tragedy real. It's a little clumsy at times; some scenes and encounters, as when Squillari writes Madoff a letter or interviews a reporter, have the flavor of being staged for the camera. ("Maybe if I go back to the beginning it will help me figure this all out," she muses in voice-over.) It's highly compelling nevertheless, a monster movie for our times, a tale of soulless suits whose real-world effects are still shaking out: Five of Madoff's convicted co-conspirators are scheduled to be sentenced Monday, with more to come.

"The Great Christmas Light Fight" (Mondays, ABC). This incidental competition among homes decorated for Christmas -- incidental because the contestants would be doing this stuff even if ABC weren't dangling a fat check in front of them -- returns this week for a second season. As with the network's usual extreme-makeover series, the presentation is overexcited, with every sentimental point pushed past breaking, but the obsessiveness and the invention speak for themselves. (What I'm saying is, you could make a great straight documentary on this subject.) The displays themselves are pretty wonderful, often technically complicated and yet, happily, something less than slick -- they're all the better for being so evidently handmade, so full of their makers' personality and personal history. The results can be kitsch, for sure, but also folk art of a kind, mashing up old themes and familiar characters -- of one decorator's plethora of Disney figures, I would think that all that stands between him and a cease-and-desist order is the fact that Disney also owns this network -- into something original, authentic, rich and strange. Visions dance in their heads, and not just of sugarplums.

Robert Lloyd is not tucked all snug his bed, but may be found tweeting @LATimesTVLloyd

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
84°