It's refreshing to see a film full of African American actors who are college-educated and living an upscale middle-class life.
"The Best Man Holiday" is Malcolm D. Lee's reunion take on his 1999 hit "The Best Man." The same excellent ensemble cast is back, dealing with new problems that come with middle age.
Morris Chestnut plays a wealthy running back for the New York Giants. He and his wife decide to host a Christmas gala at their luxurious county estate for their old college pals. The occasion brings together a mixed group with old issues and new wrinkles.
Taye Diggs is excellent as a successful author in need of a new bestseller. Terrence Howard ("The Butler") holds forth as the snappy friend who keeps everyone moving forward. Lee throws in all the chatter, laughter, chaos and emotional whiplash that often comes with big family gatherings. He includes a tearjerker plot twist that creates several tissue moments.
Standard holiday fare abounds with friends, family, faith and hope in good measure. But the strong cast makes the film work with enough edge to keep it interesting.
In "The Book Thief," a little girl learns to read and endure in this well-meaning but sanitized vision of Nazi Germany.
Liesel, played by talented actress Sophie Nelisse, is a quiet child whose mother hands her over to adoptive parents in 1938, knowing her own life is in danger. Liesel immediately bonds with her new papa (a hammy Geoffrey Rush), but his stern wife (Emily Watson) seems only interested in the girl as an extra meal ration. Of course, we know this little girl soon will melt her heart.
It's all filmed so prettily as to make the horrors and deprivations less frightening. Could this really be how it all looked through this child's eyes? It's like a Hallmark version of "Schindler's List."
Despite all this, we come to care for Liesel with her growing love for words on a page. Her hunger for reading leads her to some risky behaviors (hence the title of the best-selling novel and this movie), but it also proves her salvation in bleak times.
"The Book Thief" isn't a bad movie, but why airbrush such a terrible time in history, especially as narrated by Death? One needs to show true evil (as done so well in "Pan's Labyrinth") to appreciate the pure and good.
Not since "The Sound of Music" have Nazis been less threatening.
JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator. SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a company in Irvine.