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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas
Paramount // R // November 11, 2014
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted November 16, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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It's Christmastime, and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are getting ready for the arrival of Jeff's sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who will be living in their basement until she can find a place of her own, as she recovers from a devastating break-up. The couple hopes that having Jenny around will make for a fun family holiday, and that Jenny might also be able to help with the couple's infant son Jude (Swanberg's actual son Jude), but on her first night in, she goes to a party and gets blackout drunk, forcing Jeff out of bed at 3am to come and drive her home. The incident leaves Kelly skeptical of Jenny's ability to be responsible and reliable, but Jeff convinces her to give his sister one more shot at being a positive presence around the household.

Happy Christmas is not a wild departure from Swanberg's other movies, which are part of the filmmaking style known as "mumblecore" -- very low-budget, mostly improvised films (the story is fleshed out but not the specific dialogue) without big dramatic arcs or overly complex plots. Both mumblecore and Swanberg himself are somewhat contentious subjects for movie fans, and Christmas doesn't reinvent or even retouch the wheel, Personally, mumblecore often feels like an evolution of the films by Jim Jarmusch, less jazzy but finding a similar humor or significance in quiet, intimate moments. Happy Christmas is a warmer picture than anything Jarmusch has ever made, but it too is punctuated by moments of low-key but very funny observational humor, centered around women bonding, and packed with excellent, natural performances (and not just Jude, either).

The film is driven by Kelly and Jenny's concurrent stories. Kelly is an author who put aside work on her second book to have Jude, and she expected to have free time to return to her work afterward. Instead, she's turned into a stay-at-home mom, a situation that raises some very conflicted feelings in her, simultaneously loving her child but also realizing that her ambition may be slipping away from her. Jenny is mostly fine, but the idea of a relationship with another man so soon after being dumped raises a storm of insecurity and self-doubt in her that drives her to make poor choices. The family's babysitter, Kevin (Mark Webber), turns out to be an unexpected suitor. He and Jenny meet after Jenny's first night, and she comes upstairs to find him watching Jude. They have obvious chemistry, but Jenny can't stop picking at it, like a scab, to see if it will bleed. Despite Kelly's initial doubts, she and Jenny get to know one another, and their relationship buoys both of them.

The backstory is brought to life by Lynskey and Kendrick, whose reactions to a comment or observation always hint at a complex mixture of emotions bubbling beneath the surface, as if every question or thought is a potentially loaded one. The nuances of each pause, trailing sentence, and note of sadness or joy feels profound because everything else about Swanberg's style is so sparse, but he never uses the characters' feelings as a gateway to big confrontation scenes or sweeping gestures. It's mostly so the audience has dramatic context for moments such as Jenny's abrupt decision to flee an increasingly intimate moment at Kevin's, or the way Kelly comments to Jeff that she'd like more time to write. Some of these moments are contextualized within the film, but others are inferred, hinting at details outside the scope of the film. He also lets scenes play out at a relaxed pace, spotlighting awkward moments like a half-noticed invitation to hug or the touchiness of a drunken conversation between Jenny, Kelly, and Jenny's friend Carson (Lena Dunham), and there's no shortage of adorable, authentic moments where Swanberg or the other actors interact with Jude. The film's most important scenes are snippets of natural, average conversations between Kelly and Jenny as they work on a project together, which are both funny and sweet, and radiate with screen chemistry.

Many will look at a movie like Happy Christmas and claim that almost nothing happens. It's not a film of big changes, but small yet significant ripples. It's observational, basking in the backward believability of a dog called "Mr. Pants" and a band called Stanley that's somehow named after the dog, or a guy marveling at a song while high in his mallard-filled tiki bar basement that was left behind by the previous owner. Swanberg captures the awkwardness, irritation, and eventual warmth of a woman and her sister-in-law bonding, a sensation that is very much in line with the cautious warmth of a family holiday. It's a simple movie, but a satisfying one, with a title that is unexpectedly and refreshingly non-ironic.

The thing that doesn't make sense about big heads and grids of photos is that it takes so little effort to create a cover art that contains an element of the story and still highlights the stars. Happy Christmas is a perfect example, with Melanie Lynskey's body language alluding to the film's story, in a photo that puts her and Anna Kendrick on a couch in front of a Christmas tree. Simple, straightforward. The back cover features another image that adds Mark Webber and Joe Swanberg, and the entire thing uses an eye-catching red-and-white color scheme.

The Video and Audio
The last three DVDs I've reviewed all prompted me to take special notice of the picture quality (or lack thereof). One featured such spectacular standard-def picture that it practically looked like a Blu-ray. The other two -- disappointingly, the two distributed by major studios -- are DVD-only releases (one from Sony, this one by Paramount). The former had some severe limitations, but sadly, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation may be even worse. Swanberg shot Happy Christmas on 16mm film, which has a similar texture to 35mm, but is far grainier, something that does not transfer well to standard-definition DVD. In the very first shot, obvious artifacting clumps around the opening credits, and the film looks overly noisy throughout as the disc struggles to manage the look of the grain. Color seems fine, and the soft details are natural for the format, but this is a film that honestly should've been Blu-ray only if the studio wanted to play format favoritism.

Sound is a perfectly adequate Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This is a captured-on-the-fly, extremely low-budget indie, with nothing really going on besides dialogue and a minimal amount of music, so there's not much for the surround to do. Spanish 5.1, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
None. Trailers for Ivory Tower and Boyhood play before the main menu. A real shame that Swanberg, Lynskey, and Kendrick couldn't have recorded an audio commentary.

Those who have already checked out mumblecore or Swanberg and were left cold will probably not have their minds changed, but Happy Christmas more than won me over with a surprising warmth and the impressive emotional complexity conveyed by Lynskey and Kendrick. Sadly, Paramount dropped the ball issuing this one on DVD (I'm not sure why the theatrical distributor of the film, magnolia, which also distributed Swanberg's previous film, was not in charge of the home video release), where the aesthetic qualities of 16mm prove to be a problem. Recommended on the strengths of the film, rather than the disc.

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