Christmas in the Clouds (2001) is an old-fashioned romantic comedy, well written & genuinely funny, with the added interest of being dominated by a very talented Native American cast.
Joe Clouds On Fire (Sam Vlahos) has a penpal, Christina Littlehawk, never mentioning in his sexy letters that he's an aged Apache. As she was a widow he just assumed she was an older woman, but the topic never arose, & they never sent photos of each other with their letters.
Christina sets out on a journey to meet her pan pal. She wants to do so secretly in case he's not as exciting in person as he has been in his letters. She arrives at the Indian-run mountain resort incognito, only to mistake Joe's hunky son Ray Clouds On Fire for her pen pal.
For his part, Ray has mistaken Christina for a New York restaurant guide critic he knew was coming, but had no idea who it would be. Ray manages the resort's restaurant. If he could get a five-star review, the place would be able to draw in customers even when there's no snow & no skiers. As it stands, it's hard to make ends meet with just the ski season business.
The actual food critic is Stu (M. Emmet Walsh). He arrives unnoticed & is not being wined & dined as Ray & his crew had planned. And when he runs out of his room screaming with annoyance clad only in a towel, he gets the rude treatment from an Indian mom who doesn't like anything about a fat naked white man cussing in front her her child.
He's a crabby old guy depressed because of his estrangement from his daughter, wishing he could visit his grandchildren. Expelled from the fantasy through mutual pride, all he can do is drink himself blotto, & write horrible things about restaurants just to take his unhappiness out on others.
His funniest moment is when he encounters the escaped pet mouse. Katie (Kaesi Belen Soto) has glued a bright feather to the head of Warrior Mouse, & as it crosses Stu's path, he isn't certain he's not suffering from delirium tremons.
By odd turns of event the unhappy critic is befriended by Joe Clouds on Fire & have a scary adventure when lost in a blizzard, a transformative experience for the critic.
Meanwhile love sparks fly between Ray & Christine, spoilt when revelations & misunderstandings of mistaken idenities explode. But as a lighthearted film it'll all work out in the end.
Along the way we get a couple side-performances by favorite actors of mine, who I wish had been the actual stars.
The restaurant's cook is Earl (Graham Greene, probably forever doomed to be best known as "Chief" in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). He studied cookery in Europe & is a first-rate vegetarian cook, but Ray, a pushy boss, demands that Earl create a meat-oriented menu because otherwise they'll lose the hunters whose patronage the restaurant needs.
Graham mugs his way through this role with great charm, weeping tears of sorrow for the animals he prepares. He presents these meals to diners complete with a little biography of each poor creature's life before cooking, so that everyone feels so sorry for the animals & cannot finish their meals. Slowly Earl impinges his own vegetarian menu on the place, which will be to the better.
The other wonderful actor is Wes Studi with an even smaller presence playhing himself as guest caller at bingo.
By comparison to Wes & Graham & Vlahos, the main stars of this otherwise perfect little film are kind of tepid. Tim Vahle as Ray & Mariana Tosca as Christine are such standard leading-man & leading-lady types, they scarsely register as Native Americans. Indeed, Christina is passing for Caucasian throughout & even Indians can't tell she's an Indian.
Given the high percentage of fully "absorbed" native peoples everywhere in America, this is merely realistic, but it does mean great "character actors" surrounding this whitebread couple show up the leads as comparatively bland actors.
Fortunately Sam Vlahos' role is large & for me his story of friendship with Stu is the real heart of the film. The only thing that could've made it better would've been a more substantial story for Graham Greene, not restricting him to comedy relief from the comedy.
Generally speaking I'm no big fan of lighthearted romantic comedies, but this one was so good-of-kind that I was extremely pleased to have seen it.
Because of my preference for thrills & heroics over sweet li'l love stories, very likely my favorite Graham Greene film is Clearcut (1991).
For once he's not the alcoholic indian, not the strong silent indian called "chief," not the comic relief indian, not the pitiful last of his tribe on display in a museum, not the decorative indian in the background of a white cowboy story. Rather, he's the wrath of God.
Now I'm not deriding his many "safe for white consumption" roles. Graham's a great actor & has never permitted himself to be reduced to an Indian stepinfetchit. But for such a big gorgeous studly man, he's rarely given the sexy dangerous roles some of us are most thrilled to see.
His character Arthur embodies Native American myth & power, with more than a little justified anger & vengeance in him. He's a harsh character, capable of outright viciousness without losing his capacity for smart-aleck mouthing off.
He befriends Peter (Ron Lea) a milquetoast honky attorney who has been doing his great-white-burden part on behalf of Native Americans. Unfortunately he just isn't good enough or aggressive enough to win a court case to protect Native American lands.
His clients wonder if their trust in him was misplaced, & he feels his loss in court very deeply, since it should've been a slam-dunk if justice were ever possible.
His failure, despite the overt harm & obvious wrong being done to Native land by out-of-control logging interests, makes Peter so angry that he just sort of "conjures up" something of an alter ego capable of all the kick-ass aggression his own personality lacks.
We're not permitted to know until his final exorcism of Trickster whether Arthur really is the Coyote in human form, or just a dangerously cool guy whose charisma massively shifts the attorney's sense of reality.
Arthur's capacity for criminality & brutality is orchestrated to embolden the milquetoast attorney in a forced march through threatened wilderness.
His acts are not necessarily in the ultimate service of good, as Trickster is spookier than he is predictable. When he does harm, the outcome might be to the better, or it might just increase injury to everyone.
Having the devil for a friend is in itself a wonderful fantasy. And if one has already tried all the legal mechanisms & protests & pleadings to the white powers-that-be, a buddy who pretty much just wants to grab a villain, tie him up, & torture him to death, has enormous fantasy appeal. Peter is not likely to be difficult to push down that slope of vigilante revenge.
Superficially this is a film about revenge for the environment, but really it goes deeper into something spiritual. It is a bargain with the devil; or the devil's bid for the soul of innocence.
To me Clearcut most resembles Curtis Hanson's Bad Influence (1990) in which Rob Lowe (ambiguously the Devil) begins granting the wishes of James Spader the unutterable nurd. How to preserve one's soul, without returning to the ranks of pathetic losers, becomes the real goal of such a story.
There's power just in casting against expectation. Graham has the face of gentleness & calm, & is stupendous in the role of psycho killer.
This is in part "nothing but" a little exploitation film upraised by its artfulness & especially by Graham Greene's brilliance as a performer. Any greater "meaning" is less important than the fact of its entertainment value. I happen to prefer to imagine a little profundity in it too.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl