Here's a surprise from Santa: a half decent Jennifer Aniston movie 

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    Office Christmas Party (15)

    Verdict: Modest festive fun

    Rating:

    The Birth Of A Nation 

    Verdict: Weighty history lesson 

    Rating:

    Nobody asks for answers on a postcard any more, which is a shame, because I’d love to know whether anyone out there, in 50 words or fewer, can explain one of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries: why are Jennifer Aniston films invariably so poor?

    When the dollar-printing, star-making machine that was Friends finally juddered to a halt (though it continues to make oodles of money for everyone involved), Aniston seemed likeliest of the gilded sixsome to forge a successful movie career.

    She was married to Brad Pitt at the time, which didn’t hurt. But more significantly, she was, and is, an adroit comic actress. The big screen doesn’t engulf her, as it does some TV stars.

    Season’s greetings: Jennifer Aniston (left) with the raucous cast of Office Christmas Party

    Elsewhere, very few office Christmas party cliches go unexplored, so there are high jinks around the photocopier and, of course, lustful trysts outside fire exits

    And at 47 she’s highly attractive, even if the eye is inexorably drawn these days to the allegedly cosmetically enhanced pout.

    Yet she’s been in so many stinkers that there are numerous online lists actually ranking them. Mother’s Day, The Bounty Hunter, The Break-Up, Picture Perfect and the disastrously titled He’s Just Not That Into You all vie for top spot, but there are plenty more.

    Aniston’s godfather, Telly Savalas, famously talked his way through a song called If. But ‘If Only’ better sums up her film career. If only she’d chosen better (and fewer) projects; if only she hadn’t made Horrible Bosses 2.

    Jason Bateman was her co-star in that and another turkey, 2010’s The Switch, which was directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck.

    Undaunted, the same pair (who in fairness do have one good film under their belts, the 2007 hit Blades Of Glory) have now made Office Christmas Party, again with Aniston and Bateman.

    So for all kinds of reasons, also extending to the clunky title and the ghastly faux-office knees-up in the cinema foyer, hosted with determined bonhomie by the PR team who organised the screening I went to, I was wincing even before the opening credits.

    But here’s a funny thing: Office Christmas Party is actually quite enjoyable. It emphatically does not merit a dishonourable place in any list of Aniston’s ten worst films. In fact, it may even sneak into her ten best.

    Which is not to say it’s good, exactly, but it has incalculably more to recommend it than last week’s release, Bad Santa 2. Mind you, so do haemorrhoids.

    The premise is straight- forwardly silly. A family-owned Chicago tech company is preparing for its lavish Christmas party and the usual round of bonuses until the ruthless group CEO, Carol (Aniston), marches in like a Grinch in heels and insists on no bonuses, no party and imminent, sweeping job cuts.

    The branch is run by Carol’s childlike brother Clay (T. J. Miller), but owes whatever limited efficiency it can muster to the calm stewardship of his right-hand man, Josh (Bateman).

    Aniston’s co-star Kate McKinnon: Office Christmas Party is actually quite enjoyable

    The film lacks any true seasonal warmth, but there’s an energy to it that I found somewhat bracing, like a snowball down the neck

    The only way they can save all the jobs Carol wants to axe is by landing a lucrative new contract before the holiday. Unfortunately, the potential customer they try to woo decides to take his business elsewhere, but they reason that if they get him to the office shindig, and show him a really good time, maybe he will change his mind.

    Needless to add, the resulting hooley gets spectacularly out of hand.

    As ALL this unfolds, there are some well-choreographed bursts of slapstick and a few decent one-liners, most of them delivered by Kate McKinnon as the prissy head of human resources, for whom, ever mindful of offending religious minorities, the do is ‘a non-denominational holiday mixer’.

    Elsewhere, very few office Christmas party cliches go unexplored, so there are high jinks around the photocopier and, of course, lustful trysts outside fire exits.

    The film lacks any true seasonal warmth, but there’s an energy to it that I found somewhat bracing, like a snowball down the neck. Not that it means that Aniston, who in fact doesn’t get as much screen time as her billing suggests, has turned the corner. She needs to be twice as discriminating if she is no longer to be the ‘if only’ movie star.

    Nate Parker’s debut feature, The Birth Of A Nation, is as weighty as Office Christmas Party is frivolous.

    Indeed, even the title is freighted with significance, since it is borrowed from D.W. Griffith’s silent 1915 epic which is rightly regarded as a great cinematic achievement, but in glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, is also rightly excoriated as racist. (It was, incidentally, the first American film to be screened at the White House.)

    Parker also wrote this film and takes the leading role.

    It is the true story of Nat Turner, who in 1831 in Virginia led a rebellion of his fellow slaves, killing around 60 of their white oppressors. White retribution was swift, bloody and, in the way of these things, disproportionate.

    It is a powerful and at times moving chronicle of real-life events in the antebellum South, slightly undermined by its own righteousness. Parker puts wise epigrams in the mouths of the slaves; oaths and threats in the mouths of the plantation owners.

    On one side of the racial divide there is only dignity; on the other, only cruelty. Which of course marks merely the slightest of tilts towards any kind of balance in the historic representation of blacks and whites in the movies. Nonetheless, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a more nuanced and better film.

    But The Birth Of A Nation does tell an important story, and perhaps a timely one in light of recent U.S. race riots, though the picture has flopped dismally over there.

    It shows how Nat is taught to read as a child (by the one vaguely sympathetic white character), and grows up to become a Baptist preacher. His master, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), played with him as a boy, and duly treats him leniently. But Samuel is a weak-willed drunk and struggling financially.

    He agrees to rent out his charismatic preacher to other owners worried about insurrection so that Nat, by citing the Bible, might teach their slaves obedience.

    In the event, after a series of increasingly intolerable degradations, including the brutal rape of his own wife, he does the precise opposite.

    None of which adds up to easy viewing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing.

     

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