Review: ‘Dear Santa’ (2020) starring Robin Gellman, Damion DiGrazia, Gail Branham, Ashley Jones, Jennifer Jones and Matt Beresh

December 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dear Santa” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Dear Santa” (2020)

Directed by Dana Nachman 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the family-friendly documentary “Dear Santa” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian and Hispanic) group of working-class and middle-class people discussing the U.S. Postal Service’s Operation Santa program that handles letters to Santa Claus.

Culture Clash: Letters to Santa Claus get written, but not all gift wishes can be granted.

Culture Audience: “Dear Santa” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a feel-good documentary about generosity and the spirit of Christmas.

Robin Gellman (second from left) with students in “Dear Santa” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

What happens to letters in the U.S. that get sent to Santa Claus? The heartwarming and delightful documentary “Dear Santa” gives an inside look at Operation Santa, the U.S. Postal Service program that takes care of these letters and often helps makes the wishes in these letters come true. It’s a movie that people of any generation can enjoy. And in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, there is no talk that will ruin anyone’s idea of Santa Claus, especially if anyone watching this movie believes that Santa Claus is real.

Directed by Dana Nachman, “Dear Santa” features a lot of adorable kids without being cloying. The children (who talk about Santa Claus and what they want for Christmas) are real, down-to-earth and relatable to a lot of families. These kids are obviously not “showbiz” types who see this movie as a stepping stone to a career in acting.

The adults in the documentary are either the children’s parents or they are involved in Operation Santa in some way. Many of the adults are volunteers or postal workers who call themselves “elves” in their mission to answer letters from children (especially underprivileged kids) and surprising them with gifts that were on their Christmas wish list. And the documentary shows some kids who are part of the Operation Santa program too.

According to the documentary, the U.S. Postal Service began receiving a great deal of letters to Santa Claus around the year 1907, although kids were no doubt writing to Santa for a long period of time before then. In 1912, the U.S. Postal Service officially authorized its workers and other people to begin answering the letters—and Operation Santa was born. Local post offices distribute the letters to several volunteer “elves,” many of whom work with or for non-profit charity organizations, churches and schools to coordinate giving gifts that are listed in the letters to Santa.

The way that “Dear Santa” is edited, the documentary jumps around and goes back and forth in different cities across the United States. They include New York City; Chicago; Detroit; Lansing, Michigan; Pearce, Arizona; and Chico, California. In each city, a select number of children’s letters are read on camera, and viewers get to see many of these children with their parents at home. Later in the movie, it’s shown whether or not these children get the items that they requested in their letters to Santa.

With few exceptions, everyone in the documentary is identified by their first names only. If someone’s last name is mentioned, it’s only because another person in the movie happened to verbally mention that person’s last name. The omission of last names is not just for privacy reasons, but it adds to the “mystique” when the “elf” adults talk about working with Santa.

A U.S. Postal Service worker named Greg, who’s identified in the movie as Operation Santa’s “lead elf,” talks about how different regions of the country can have different types of requests: “For instance, in New York, they’re much more into electronics than a lot of the country. You go to California—you guessed it—a lot more surfboards are being asked for. Most of the kids are just very, very polite when they ask Santa for their gifts.”

And what types of gifts are asked for in this documentary? In Lansing, a boy named Christopher is fascinated with dutch bunnies. In New York City, a 12-year-old boy named Bryan wishes he could take a limo ride around the city with his mother and other family members. In Chico, two girls (one named Victoria, the other named Lorelai) whose families lost their homes in the 2018 wildfire disaster in Paradise, California, ask for toys and household items that were lost in the fires.

Children aren’t the only ones who make gift requests to the Operation Santa program. The movie also shows adults making requests too, especially single mothers who are struggling financially. The requests are usually for children’s clothing and household items. For example, one mother asks for a new sofa. Another mother, who’s pregnant with her fifth child, asks for baby items. For many underprivileged people, food is often requested in letters to Santa.

The people who volunteer to personally handle the responsibility of giving the items requested in the letters have to go through a process of reading the letters they want to “adopt.” In 2017, Operation Rescue began digitizing the letters to make them easier to read and organize. A women named Janice, who is identified as Operation Santa’s “lead elf” in Chicago, has this to say about what people experience in the letter-reading “adoption” process: “Once they start reading, they can’t stop. We actually put tissues on the table because they cry.”

And there might be many tears shed while watching “Dear Santa,” not from sadness but from the poignant scenes of innocent children experiencing the joy of feeling wanted, loved and respected. The material gifts are just symbols of those feelings that they hope to get when they want Santa to answer their letters. And adults watching this documentary might feel nostalgic about what it was like to experience the Christmas holidays as children.

A woman named Jamie, who is identified as the lead elf in Chico, is one of the adults who unapologetically gets tearful when she does her Operation Santa work. Like many residents of Chico, she is a former resident of Paradise who lost her home in the fires. In the documentary, she says that she was making sure to be on a special lookout for Santa letters to help families who also lost their home.

The documentary shows the work of some groups that obtain, wrap and distribute the gifts for the Santa letters that they “adopt.” One of these groups is There Really Is a Santa Claus, a Chicago-based non-profit that was co-founded in 2006 by Ashley Jones, Jennifer Jones and Matt Beresh. Another non-profit is Santa’s Knights, based in New York City and founded in 2016 by Damion DiGrazia. And at P.S. 253 in New York City’s Brighton Beach district in Brooklyn, teacher Robin Gellman leads a group of students who are part of the school’s Pay It Forward program.

DiGrazia tells a poignant story about how the Operation Santa program had a profound impact on him as a child. When he was about 10 or 11 years old, his family was going through some personal hardships. His single mother was financially struggling to raise him and his two siblings.

He wrote a letter to Santa asking for an alarm clock and a radio. To his amazement and delight, he got an alarm clock radio. DiGrazia said he’ll never forget how he felt when he got that Christmas gift. And that’s the feeling he wants other kids to have when he does his work with Operation Santa, whose New York operations are headed by Gail Branham, another person who’s interviewed in the documentary.

“Dear Santa” has some scenes that look a bit contrived when DiGrazia scrambles to find enough donations so that he can fulfill the wishes of 25 letters that he “adopted.” He says he used up all his money and is “tapped out” from asking people in his network. He goes from retailer to retailer asking if they can donate items that are on the list, but he ends up empty-handed. And finally, with time running out, he has a fundraiser at a local bar. Did he get what he needed? Well, it wouldn’t be in the movie if he didn’t.

At P.S. 253 in Brooklyn, New York, the school’s Pay It Forward leader Gellman teaches kids how to evaluate requests based on what they have the budgets to buy. The students get to vote on which letters to “adopt.” And they are especially impressed with letters from kids who don’t ask for anything for themselves but for other people in their families.

Gellman comments on how Pay It Forward’s work with Operation Santa has an effect on the students who participate: “Most children don’t feel they have the power to make somebody’s dream come true like that … I think our students really develop some empathy, civic pride and an overall good feeling to be Santa and make somebody’s dreams come true.”

The documentary is inclusive of a diverse array of communities, including the LGBTQ community. In New York City, an openly gay man named Michael gets emotional when he talks about how he took a break from Operation Santa, but was motivated to start volunteering in the program again after he read a letter from a gay boy whose only wish was to get love and acceptance from Santa and God. A married lesbian couple in Detroit named Kelsey and Val, who are involved in animal rescues, are shown delivering a puppy to a family whose kids finally got their request for a dog after their mother refused for years to let them have a dog.

“Dear Santa” is not a religious movie, since the Operation Santa program is for everyone, regardless if people have a religion or not. One of the best things about the documentary is it shows how the joy of giving (without expecting anything in return) is contagious and that there’s nothing like seeing happy children. Only the most cold-hearted people won’t feel any emotions from watching “Dear Santa.” The movie will also make people think about how much they can give back to their communities—not just during the end-of-year holidays but throughout the entire year.

IFC Films released “Dear Santa” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Fatman,’ starring Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins

December 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mel Gibson in “Fatman” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Fatman”

Directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms

Culture Representation: Taking place in Alaska and other parts of the United States, the dark comedy film “Fatman” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class, working-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a 12-year-old bratty rich kid gets a lump of coal for Christmas, he hires a hit man to murder Santa Claus, who is a grouch dealing with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “Fatman” will appeal primarily to people who like movies that put a dark comedic twist on Christmas folklore, but the movie’s humor and action fall flat in too many scenes.

Walton Goggins in “Fatman” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Fatman” is a Christmas-themed film that tries to be inventive and funny, but just ends up being not inventive enough and not funny enough to be considered a great movie. The “Fatman” plot often wanders and gets very dull. It’s as if the filmmakers want this movie to be a cult classic like 2003’s “Bad Santa” (starring Billy Bob Thornton as the title character), but they couldn’t come up with enough clever ideas to make it happen.

Written and directed by brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms, “Fatman” is essentially one in a long list of Mel Gibson movies where he plays a grouch who can get violent if anyone tries to mess with him. In “Fatman,” Gibson portrays Chris Cringle, also known as Santa Claus, a crusty curmudgeon who’s experiencing a financial crisis. Because the world has become more cynical, there are less people in the world who believe in Santa Claus. And so, the demand for his services has plummeted.

In this particular Christmas season that takes place in “Fatman,” Chris and his loyal and loving British wife Ruth Cringle (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) have to decide whether or not to take a government subsidy to help offset the couple’s expenses, in order to keep the Cringles’ elf-populated factory in business. (Instead of the North Pole, the Cringles live in North Peak, Alaska.) The subsidy is to pay for the elves to make control panels for FJ63 fighter jets, and Chris is very reluctant to have his factory used for this type of military work. The subsidy also isn’t very appealing to Chris because it’s only half of what he and Ruth need to get them out of their financial hole.

This dilemma is a big part of the “Fatman” plot, but it takes a while to get to that point, because so much of the story is unfocused and wastes time during the first third of the movie. Expect to see a lot of scenes with Chris just walking around being stubborn and miserable. He’s the type of “anti-hero” Santa Claus who doesn’t wear the traditional red and white suit and hat, but instead looks more like a scruffy trucker in flannel shirts, jeans and ski caps.

Although he appears to be self-absorbed and short-tempered, Chris has a “psychic” side to him, because he has the ability to know everything about people’s lives without anyone telling him. And so, when he encounters people he’s never met before, Chris often likes to catch them off guard by telling them personal details about their lives that he would have no reason to know unless he had these “psychic” abilities. He also has the ability to self-heal quickly from physical wounds, which is an obvious sign that he’s not a “regular” human being.

As an example of his “psychic” abilities, one day Chris goes inside a bar where his platonic female friend Sandy (played by Susanne Sutchy) works as a bartender. Chris sees a trucker named Mike (played by John Tokatlidis) sexually flirting with Sandy, who expresses interest in meeting up with Mike later for a tryst. While Sandy goes in another part of the bar where she can’t see Chris, he approaches Mike, even though they’ve never met before, and tells him, “Hello, Mike, I hope Nicole and the kids are doing well.”

Mike is startled and asks Chris if they know each other. Chris won’t say, but he essentially shames Mike by informing him that he knows that Mike is married with kids and shouldn’t be trying to hook up with Sandy, who doesn’t know that Mike is married. Mike is so unnerved by how this stranger knows so much about him that he quickly leaves the bar.

When Sandy comes back to where Mike was sitting, she has no idea why Mike left, but she makes a comment about how something keeps going wrong with her “dates” whenever Chris is around. It’s an example of the clunky humor in the story. The “Fatman” filmmakers seem to want this Santa Claus to be a “badass” Santa, by making this movie geared to adults (there’s foul language and bloody violence), but there are many scenes in “Fatman” where this Santa Claus’ bark is a lot worse than his actual bite when it comes to confronting or scaring people.

On the one hand, “Fatman” wants to be a dark and edgy comedy. On the other hand, there’s a lot of corny and uninteresting dialogue in the film. For example, there’s a scene where Chris and Ruth are discussing the government’s offer to pay the subsidy.

Chris says, “We are a business. And don’t kid yourself, Ruth. Altruism is not a deductible on their bottom line.” Ruth replies, “Don’t put it all on them. You’ve changed too.”

Chris continues, “You might be right. Maybe I’m just like them.” In response, Ruth says in an encouraging tone of voice, “You’ve still got it.” Chris says in a world-weary tone, “All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten.”

And why is this movie called “Fatman,” even though this Santa Claus isn’t fat? Because that’s the derogatory name given to Chris by the people in the story who want him dead. One of those people is the eccentric and off-kilter assassin (played by Walton Goggins) who’s hired to murder Chris. The assassin is given the name Skinny Man in the movie’s credits (although no one actually calls him Skinny Man in the movie), and his real name is revealed toward the end of the film.

Skinny Man is one of those assassins who’s been seen in many types of dark comedies before: He’s cold as ice but he has unexpected quirks that show he has a soft spot for certain things. John Travolta’s Vincent Vega character from the 1994 classic film “Pulp Fiction” was an obvious influence for the Skinny Man character, who isn’t nearly as amusing or fun to watch as Vincent Vega.

One of the quirks that Skinny Man has is that when he drives his car, he likes to keep his pet mouse in the passenger seat. He will go to certain lengths to make sure that the mouse is comfortable. He also has a fixation on items that have a label that shows that it was made in Santa’s workshop. It’s explained later in the movie why Skinny Man is so attracted to these items.

Skinny Man was hired to kill Santa Claus by a sociopathic wealthy kid named Billy Wenan (played by Chance Hurstfield), who is 12 years old and lives in an unnamed part of the U.S. that isn’t Alaska. Billy is supposed to come across as a “poor little rich boy” because his workaholic single father is rarely at home and he neglects Billy. (Billy’s father is never seen in the movie. Billy’s mother is not seen or mentioned.) Even though Billy is essentially a loner who’s mostly ignored by his father, Billy is really just an entitled and vindictive brat who goes to extreme lengths to get what he wants.

Billy has a collection of Best of Show blue ribbons that he won in science fairs. He is so proud of these ribbons that he shows them off on the lapels of his suit blazers that he likes to wear, even around the house. Billy’s ailing grandmother Ann Marie (played by Deborah Grover) is his main caretaker. However, because of her physical condition (she has an oxygen tube and often uses a wheelchair), Anne Marie can’t keep track of all that Billy does, and she basically lets him do whatever he wants. Ann Marie also mistakenly thinks that Billy is a good and obedient child.

How cruel is Billy? When he comes in second place at a recent science fair, he publicly congratulates the winner—a fellow classmate named Christine Crawford (played by Ellison Grier Butler)—but privately, he plots his revenge. Billy ends up hiring Skinny Man to kidnap Christine, who is held captive and ordered by Billy to give up her winner’s title for the science fair. He concocts a plan for Christine to lie to the science fair authorities by making a false confession that she cheated in her winning science fair project. Billy figures that the authorities will then take the winner’s title away from Christine, and then Billy will be named the winner by default.

On Christmas Day, Billy’s father isn’t at home because he’s working somewhere. Billy is essentially alone when he unwraps his presents. And he finds that because Santa Claus knows that Billy has been “naughty,” Billy has received nothing but a lump of coal from Santa Claus. Billy is so angry that he goes outside in the snow and yells to the sky, “You just messed up big time, Fatman!”

When Billy hires Skinny Man to murder Santa Claus, they both use the name Fatman to describe Santa Claus. Billy steals some of his grandmother’s checks and forges her signature in order to pay the assassin. It’s very stupid to leave this kind of easily traced paper trail for an assassin payment—one of many unnecessary plot holes in this sloppily written movie. Ever hear about paying in cash? And the person whose checks were stolen can eventually find out about the stolen money through bank records.

“Fatman” isn’t even that much of an action movie, since the only real showdown happens in the last 20 minutes of the film. And even that confrontation is predictable and filmed in a very “by the numbers” formulaic way. And really, when the movie shows way in advance that Santa Claus has a supernatural ability to heal quickly from physical wounds, there’s no suspense in what will happen if he gets shot or injured in vital organs.

Goggins seems to be having some fun with his mysterious assassin character, but the rest of the cast members appear to be just going through the motions. There are supporting characters in the movie that come and go with no real purpose or have wasted potential, and the main characters are often one-note and predictable. For example, a U.S. military official named Captain Jacobs (played by Robert Bockstael) makes frequent visits to the Cringle home and factory. This character, which could have been hilarious or memorable, is as bland as bland can be.

At this point, Gibson has played so many gruff characters in movies, he can do it in his sleep. “Fatman” might offer some mild and occasional laughs to people with low expectations. Just like the bad gift that Billy gets in “Fatman,” the movie is like a Christmas present that looks enticing on the outside, but once you unwrap it, you find out it’s really just a disappointing and useless piece of coal.

Saban Films released “Fatman” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 24, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment will release “Fatman” on Blu-ray and DVD on January 26, 2021.