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Happy Christmas DVD Review

Happy Christmas (2014) movie poster Happy Christmas

Theatrical Release: July 25, 2014 / Running Time: 82 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Joe Swanberg

Cast: Anna Kendrick (Jenny Spelling), Melanie Lynskey (Kelly Spelling), Mark Webber (Kevin), Lena Dunham (Carson), Jeff Swanberg (Jeff Spelling), Jude Swanberg (Jude Spelling), Mr. Schneider (Mr. Pants/Stanley)

Buy Happy Christmas from Amazon.com: DVD Instant Video

Joe Swanberg has been making movies for a decade, but his formidable filmmaking chops became widely known on the acclaimed 2013 indie Drinking Buddies. A year later, the 33-year-old writer-director is back with Happy Christmas.
Though the title suggests this could be some family-friendly holiday movie, there are a number of reasons to know better, such as the R rating, a July theatrical release (that followed a month of Internet availability), that Drinking Buddies was a misleading title, and, most significantly, the fact that Mumblecore icon Swanberg has shown little interest in making movies for mass consumption.

As on Drinking, Swanberg has attracted some in-demand actors to Happy, including Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick, celebrated indie stalwart Melanie Lynskey, and HBO's "Girls" creator and general press magnet Lena Dunham. Such on-camera talent should prevent the film from immediate obscurity, but it wasn't enough to get Magnolia Pictures to expand its theatrical engagement as summer counterprogramming any wider than nine theaters.

Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) share a laugh in "Happy Christmas."

Happy is primarily set in the house of Jeff (Swanberg, giving himself a much bigger role than his last film) and Kelly (Lynskey, getting to use her native New Zealand accent for once), a working class 30-something Chicago married couple with an adorable, barely vocal 2-year-old son named Jude (Jude Swanberg, the director's child). Shortly before Christmas, film editor Jeff and novelist-turned-stay-at-home mom Kelly open their home to Jenny (Kendrick), Jeff's younger sister.

Jenny, who recently broke up with her boyfriend and has no real plan as far as finding a job or her own place, makes a poor first impression when she is so intoxicated she needs to be driven home from a party. Kelly worries that the hard-drinking, pot-smoking, basement-dwelling 27-year-old houseguest might be too irresponsible to watch the infant. Meanwhile, Kelly asks Jeff for a Christmas present: time and place to work on writing a second novel. Jenny talks the mom into trying her hand at an erotic novel for a quick, easy and substantial payday. Between Jenny's familiarity with the genre and Kelly's writing expertise, the two have high hopes for their spitball collaboration to which Jenny's friend Carson (Dunham) also chips in.

Like Swanberg's previous films, 2014 Sundance selection Happy Christmas is heavily improvised and noticeably so. His screenplay credit may refer to little more than an outline of character and scene descriptions, because in just about every scene, actors look like they're coming up with dialogue on the spot. That might sound terrifying to those who do not have Groundlings or "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" on their resumes, but it yields many real, raw, unpredictable moments. While pacing is all over the place and at least one composition seems spontaneous and precarious, characters gladly have their own distinct voices and talk and behave like people do and not just how one independent screenwriter thinks they do.

Irresponsible houseguest Jenny (Anna Kendrick) begins hanging out with Kevin (Mark Webber), her nephew's sometime babysitter.

The downside to this design is that many viewers will not be willing to get on board with it. Critics get excited when films offer the slightest departure from formula and convention. The typical viewer, on the other hand, may value those conventions and lament their absence.
In fairness, Happy absolutely is aimless at times in spite of being a very short movie. End credits begin rolling just 76 minutes in and we need a long during/post-credits tag to reach the still below-average 82-minute runtime. The obvious reason for the occasional sluggishness is that neither Swanberg nor his cast seem to know exactly how or how long scenes will play out. The upside to that is anything can happen and there is no way to anticipate what is in store for characters and the narrative.

The small principal cast is up to the challenge, whether or not they've done it before. Happy does not pack the impact of Drinking Buddies, because its character study doesn't have as many layers or places to go. Ultimately, it's a pretty mixed bag and one that many won't love. I definitely didn't love it, but I did find a number of things to appreciate about the fruits of these unconventional labors.

Though released theatrically by Magnolia, Happy Christmas hits DVD this week from Paramount Home Media Distribution. The bad part of that arrangement is that Paramount isn't bothering with a Blu-ray release as Magnolia surely would. Other than that, I wish this did not appear to be an isolated occurrence, because Paramount, one of the oldest major studios and one of the most dependable home video distributors, releases very few movies and very few movie discs these days. In addition, they have practically given up on small and medium-sized movies, producing instead a few big ones with branding and franchise potential. (Their indie label, Paramount Vantage, is essentially retired and now trotted out for just one prestige movie a year.) Thus, independent movies and the studio both seem to benefit from such a licensing deal, like the one that will see Paramount handling the winter home video release of IFC's acclaimed Best Picture hopeful Boyhood. For now, these two releases appear to be anomalies, but perhaps they could pave the way for other such deals.

Happy Christmas DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 11, 2014
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

You know that Happy Christmas must have been shot on a shoestring budget. Even so, the DVD's grungy 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation still surprises. It is really grainy at times and often underlit, a bit like an indie '90s movie might look on a new VHS. The grain cannot be accidental, but it does result in a lack of detail and clarity. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is more standard and agreeable. Subtitles are included in three languages and you'll also find a Spanish dub.

The Set Up menu features a Christmas card-ready photo of the Spellings and their friend Kevin.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Another downside to Paramount distribution is that Happy Christmas contains no extras whatsoever on DVD.
That seems more a reflection of the studio, which currently makes all bonus features for new movies Blu-ray-exclusives, than of Swanberg, whose Drinking Buddies was accompanied by an audio commentary, cast interviews, a wealth of deleted scenes and outtakes, and the film's trailer.

The disc opens with menu-inaccessible trailers for Ivory Tower and Boyhood. The lack of even Magnolia's Happy Christmas theatrical trailer disappoints.

The static, silent menus adapt the cover art and its Christmas color scheme. No inserts or slipcover join the eco-friendly keepcase holding the bland gray disc.

Over a drink at the basement Tiki bar, Carson (Lena Dunham) and Jenny (Anna Kendrick) discuss Kelly's (Melanie Lynskey) literary career.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Happy Christmas certainly won't be to everyone's liking and will disappoint those wanting a more traditional holiday comedy. But this mostly improvised indie film has value in the character study it develops organically on its own whims and terms. There's enough to recommend a rental and Paramount's barebones, unpicturesque DVD doesn't lend to any more than that until it hits a bargain bin.

Buy Happy Christmas from Amazon.com: DVD / Instant Video

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Anna Kendrick: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World | Melanie Lynskey: Win Win Away We Go Sweet Home Alabama | Mark Webber: 13 Sins
Jeff, Who Lives at Home All Is Bright Frances Ha Celeste and Jesse Forever A.C.O.D. Love Streams
New: Begin Again The Calling Are You Here Northpole Third Person A Belle for Christmas Space Station 76

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Reviewed November 9, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2014 Tiki Bar Films, Lucky Coffee Productions, Magnolia Pictures, and Paramount Home Media Distribution.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.