Why are Aussie Christmas films so bad?

Telemovies have dominated Christmas movies for 50 years – so why are the Aussie straight-to-streaming ones this bad?

Ari Mattes, University of Notre Dame Australia

For some, December 25 is a solemn day, key on the Christian calendar, involving important traditions to be treated with reverence. But for many, Christmas is a time for unbridled fun: Santa, presents, and the random grump next door who suddenly decorates his house in an overwhelmingly delirious light display. For a month, we embrace with childlike delight things that for the rest of the year we would dismiss as kitsch, tacky, too bright, too shiny.

Christmas films reflect these differing approaches to the season. There are the solemn, wholesome type, the model for which is Frank Capra’s marvellous It’s a Wonderful Life. There are cynical big budget comedies, trying to skewer the consumerism with which the holiday is now associated while maintaining a sentimental “Christmas cheer for all” ending, like Surviving Christmas and Christmas with the Kranks. And there are sweet comedies, films such as Elf and The Santa Clause, that cloak their gags in a more or less touching sense of wonder.

And often the best Christmas films aren’t “Christmassy” at all. They either go against the cliches – Black Christmas by Canadian auteur Bob Clark, who also made possibly the greatest Christmas film of all time, A Christmas Story – or are positioned tangentially in relation to the holiday (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon).

Straight to the small screen

The telemovie has dominated the genre for the past 50 years or so. Sometimes these are excellent. The House without a Christmas Tree, from 1972, is a fantastic film starring Jason Robards. But usually, like the Olivia Newton-John vehicle A Mom For Christmas, they offer, at best, pleasantly distracting images and sounds to have in the background while you wrap presents.

The reign of the Christmas telemovie (now the Christmas made-for-streaming movie) is partly the result of networks looking for cheap fodder to program in December. But there’s also something about the telemovie aesthetic – the plots ludicrous and maudlin, the low-budget design, the characters so cheerful you could scream – that fits the kitsch flavour of pop-Christmas.

Usually these films – with titles such as Trading Christmas, Christmas All Over Again, and The National Tree – feature hokey narratives, the endings mawkish to an extent unacceptable outside of the silly season, the aesthetic extremely low-rent.

Some deliberately play up their kitsch elements and explode into camp extravaganzas – like the inimitable (and limitlessly pleasurable) Santa with Muscles, in which Hulk Hogan dressed in a sleeveless Santa suit fights mad scientists in order to save an orphanage. Though Santa with Muscles was briefly released theatrically in the Unites States, it found its viewers through TV repeats.

Read: AACTA-nominated film A Savage Christmas hits Binge tomorrow

Netflix has made several made-for-TV Christmas movies in recent years, many of them unwatchable. For the ones that work, their success usually hinges upon the charm of the leads. Vanessa Hudgens in The Princess Switch, for example, is so infectiously likeable that we forget (or forgive) the absolute absurdity of the material.

There has been a slew of recent Australian Christmas movies made for Stan, including Christmas Ransom, Christmas on the Farm, and A Sunburnt Christmas, each sparkling about as much as a lump of coal in a stocking. This year’s new offering from Stan, Jones Family Christmas, doesn’t fare much better.

Jones Family Christmas

From the opening ditty – Clive Smith’s extremely irritating “It’s Christmas in Australia and I am upside down” – Jones Family Christmas’ deliberate Australian dagginess is pretty hard to stomach.

We get it. This is Australian Christmas. There are “redbacks” and “mates rates”, people are “happier than a pig in shit.”

The narrative is predictable but unassuming. Matriarch Heather Jones (Heather Mitchell in a low-key, oddly touching performance) tries to hold her family together over Christmas in the midst of interpersonal turmoil and bushfires encroaching on their rural Victorian property.

The film plods through such a plethora of dumb cliches – rusty tractors, joeys, laconic parents suppressing family tensions and tragedies – that it all feels terribly laboured. But the cinematography is effective and the acting solid, and the whole thing has enough charm balancing its silly humour to make a watchable if forgettable film, its schmaltzy, sentimental narrative bow appropriately wrapping it up.

In any case, one of the major redeeming features of these made-for-Stan Christmas movies is that they don’t imagine they’re doing anything more than they’re doing: providing some entertaining and cheerful Christmas pap.

A Savage Christmas

This year Binge is following Stan’s lead, securing the first rate Christmess, fresh from its cinema release, and the truly terrible A Savage Christmas, which fails to work across almost every element.

Writer-director Madeleine Dyer’s feature film debut, A Savage Christmas follows the children of rich Australian parents Brenda (Helen Thomson) and James (David Roberts) as they return to their family house for Christmas – mainly to secure their expected $10,000 Christmas cheque.

Read: Two Aussie Christmas films to release this year: Christmess and A Savage Christmas

Davina (Thea Raveneau), their trans daughter, hasn’t been home for three years. She drags her trans boyfriend Kane (Max Jahufer) in tow. Jimmy (Ryan Morgan), the Savage’s son, is an ex-cop-turned wannabe rapper who owes money to a gangster, and daughter Leia (Rekha Ryan) is an Instagram-style princess-mum whose life is secretly falling apart.

Past resentments predictably arise amid the simmering tension in occasionally funny but mainly uninteresting and off-putting ways.

Like Jones Family Christmas, the film fits firmly in the “families are messy, everyone has issues” Christmas sub-genre – think of The Family Stone or Christmas with the Coopers. But while those films were buoyed by excellent stars, solid writing and a style that big budgets can buy, A Savage Christmas is characterised by amateurish performances, uneven comedy, and a repellently smug tone.

Its point is so obvious – everyone is messed up in their own way and those who appear less messed up are often more so – it feels about as subtle as an axe to the face. It’s trying to be a mixture of fresh, cynical, wry and edgy, but feels empty and mean-spirited.

The comedy is mostly puerile – a major gag is a sweet potato carved like a phallus knocking the head off a Baby Jesus ornament – and there are no believable moments, no character touches, to sustain any emotion or sense of drama. It completely lacks the dramatic heft needed to make it feel like these characters are worth caring about in any capacity – and it seems to want you to care.

There are a handful of moments where the film allows you to breathe, where it ceases to feel like a heavy-handed discourse machine willing to suspend all verisimilitude in order to make its point, and Darren Gilshenan gives a beautifully unhinged performance as the deranged Uncle Dick.

The cinematography and production design are efficient – there’s nothing technically wrong with the film – but it fails hopelessly as both a comedy and as a feelgood film of a broken family beginning to heal. A Savage Christmas would give Crackers a run for its money as the worst Australian Christmas film to date.

Read: Anyone But You review: a rom-com with good laughs

If you feel like watching a new Australian Christmas film, Christmess is infinitely better than both A Savage Christmas and Jones Family Christmas, covering similar terrain with much more subtlety, intelligence, style and good humour. More evidence that a bigger budget does not necessarily equal a better film.

And if it’s simply Hallmark-style trash you’re after – true Christmas telemovies, warmly embracing the saccharine spirit of the holiday – there’s a plentiful supply of these across the major streaming services.The Conversation

Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.