February is the perfect time to be watching "Christmas in the Clouds."
All the gaudy Christmas excess has receded into memory, so this simple romantic comedy can be appreciated for the appealing little film that it is, free from the ghosts of terrible Christmas movies past. It's far enough past December that a scene of gifts being opened actually warms the heart, and "Silent Night" sung in an Inuit language is strangely haunting and beautiful. It's also still the dead of winter and easy to appreciate the beautiful mountain scenery around Robert Redford's Sundance Lodge, where the movie was filmed. (This is reportedly the first movie Redford has allowed to be filmed on his property since "Jeremiah Johnson.")
"Christmas in the Clouds" isn't a great film. It gets off to a slow start, the acting and writing are uneven, and the story is predictable. But it's a cute film, a nice film, an endearing film about an Indian tribe running a struggling ski resort in the mountains and hoping to wow an undercover critic from the Worthington Travel Guide. At the same time, the resort manager's father awaits his first visit from his widowed pen pal. It has an irresistible warmth and unsophisticated charm and a few hilarious lines that struck me as so funny, I was still laughing a day later.
Kate Montgomery wrote and directed this comedy of errors and has a definite talent for making familiar material seem fresh.
The movie plays out a joke about mistaken identity for all it's worth, and then some. Choctaw actor Tim Vahle, in his film debut, holds his own as Ray Clouds on Fire, who has recently returned from the city to manage the struggling resort. He falls for beautiful guest Tina, played by the striking Mariana Tosca, but has qualms about pursuing her, believing her to be the travel guide critic.
J. Emmet Walsh is a hoot as grumpy, drunken resort guest Stu O'Malley. Graham Greene stars as vegetarian chef Earl, who prepares meat under protest and enjoys informing patrons about the life history of the entrees. There's a darling little girl who loses her even more darling mouse. Romances multiply like rabbits. Along with snow, love is in the air.
Wes Studi plays himself, as a celebrity announcer at the reservation bingo game, announcing the winning numbers for a new truck.
Sam Vlahos steals the show as Joe Clouds on Fire, an aging Romeo. The old rascal is so desperate to win the truck at the reservation bingo game that he hitches a ride with the obviously inebriated O'Malley for a wild trip around the mountain. The scene at the bingo hall is grand fun.
This is no "Smoke Signals." But the ties that bind the tribe together in this silly romantic comedy project a warmth that is hugely appealing. "Christmas in the Clouds" adds a little sunshine to a winter day.
3 stars (out of 4)
CHRISTMAS IN THE CLOUDS
STARRING: Tim Vahle, Mariana Tosca, M. Emmet Walsh, Sam Vlahos
DIRECTOR: Kate Montgomery
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
RATING: PG for mild sexual content and some language.
THE LOWDOWN: The manager of a struggling Native American ski resort falls for a guest he believes is the anonymous critic for an elite travel guide.