Christmas is a time of abundance on VOD and streaming, with holiday-themed movies in a variety of genres competing for audiences in festive moods. Here’s a look at some of this year’s Christmas VOD releases, featuring talking dogs, malevolent demons, and matchmaking party hosts all aiming to deliver holiday cheer.
Christmas vs. The Walters (VOD; DVD December 14): Apparently it doesn’t take much for Christmas to defeat the Walters, the world’s most blandly dysfunctional family. Shawnee Smith brings grounded emotion to harried mother Diane Walters, who’s about to pop out her third kid right before Christmas. She’s trying to hold her family together while her husband Brian (30 Rock’s Dean Winters) is consumed with his Big Presentation at work that could be his chance to Make Partner. She has a rebellious teenage daughter whose most serious transgression is adopting a stray dog, and she’s still processing some Christmas-related childhood trauma that keeps her estranged from her sister. None of her problems warrant the level of comedic mania and dramatic weight that director and co-writer Peter A. D’Amato imparts to them, and the Walters come off as whiny and histrionic rather than flawed but lovable. Chris Elliott bulldozes through a few scenes as Diane’s eccentric singing gynecologist, imported from a more creative and interesting movie. Grade: C
The Advent Calendar (Shudder): An advent calendar seems like such an obvious horror-movie gimmick that it’s surprising no one has used it before. This French film from writer-director Patrick Ridremont follows a familiar Final Destination-ish template, as paraplegic ex-dancer Eva (Eugénie Derouand) receives a creepy antique German advent calendar as a gift and suffers dire consequences if she breaks any of its stringent rules. Each day leading up to Christmas, the calendar reveals another malevolent treat, candies and other objects that bring benefits to Eva but require sacrifices from the people in her life. It’s the kind of story that could easily result in a Blumhouse-style mediocrity, but Derouand lends meaningful anguish and sorrow to her portrayal of Eva, and Ridremont effectively mixes serious themes about regret and retribution in with the silly plot and gory kills. The more rules the movie throws in, the less sense it makes, but it’s entertaining and stylish enough to ignore the mounting inconsistencies. Grade: B
Pups Alone (VOD, DVD and select theaters): For a movie about cute talking dogs foiling Home Alone-style bumbling robbers at Christmastime, Pups Alone has an unnecessarily dense and convoluted plot—which is delivered via massive chunks of narration over animated segments that seem to stand in for sequences beyond the movie’s budgetary capacity to shoot. The intricate corporate machinations that motivate the nefarious Victor Von Manure (Dolph Lundgren) to stage a break-in at the home of his co-worker will certainly be lost on the target audience of kids, and will prove only tedious for any parents stuck watching along. The overqualified voice actors include Jerry O’Connell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Danny Trejo, Malcolm McDowell and Rob Schneider (voicing a chihuahua named Jose, so you can imagine how that sounds). The movie uses actual animals, who just stand there looking confused while bored celebrities deliver their listless lines. Fittingly, the height of the slapstick humor involves a device that flings dog excrement. Grade: D
See You Next Christmas (VOD): Set at the same Christmas party each year over the course of six years, this low-key romantic comedy features engaging characters, sweet humor and gentle but pointed observations about growing older. Elizabeth Guest and AJ Meijer have appealing chemistry as the central romantic pair, who banter and bicker, hook up and break up, on a predictable but endearing arc. Writer-director Christine Weatherup also devotes plenty of time to the married couple who host the annual party (played by Vin Vescio and Weatherup herself), whose relationship is less dramatic but equally rewarding. Weatherup refreshes her limited locations (mainly just two different homes) by cycling through various supporting characters each year, with brief appearances from comedy ringers Janet Varney and Marc Evan Jackson. Weatherup underplays the kind of revelations that would make for overblown confrontations in mainstream rom-coms, allowing for more honest moments of connection between the characters. When everything turns out exactly as expected, it still feels genuine. Grade: B+
Twas the Night (VOD and select theaters): Writer-directors Chris Rodriguez and Grant Rosado strenuously avoid any actual darkness in this theoretically dark comedy, about a couple trying to hide the dead body of a street-corner charity Santa Claus while their parents are visiting for Christmas. The movie goes out of its way to establish the festively named Holly (Nicole Pringle) and Nick (David Steven Perez) as good people before a costumed Santa named Jesus (Abel Rosario) suffers a fatal accident in their house. The filmmakers also strain to come up with a plausible reason why these upstanding people don’t immediately call the police, straining through the subsequent comedy of errors as Holly and Nick attempt to keep their respective parents from discovering the Christmas corpse. The repetitive single-location farce struggles to fill out the 81-minute runtime, and the acting is awkward and stilted, whether the characters are behaving frantically or sentimentally. Grade: C-