A well-timed release could get "Christmas in the Clouds" off the ground, although distribs would have to move fast to shoehorn this delightful romantic comedy into its appropriate season. Gorgeously shot Western settings, memorably mismatched characters, and light-touch social commentary could generate a following for this warmhearted pic.

A well-timed release could get “Christmas in the Clouds” off the ground, although distribs would have to move fast to shoehorn this delightful romantic comedy into its appropriate season. Combo of gorgeously shot Western settings (mostly in snowbound Idaho), memorably mismatched characters, and light-touch social commentary could generate a following for this warmhearted pic.

The elements of this Native American comedy look cloying on paper, but first-time helmer-scripter Kate Montgomery has such a winning way with her adroitly assembled cast that these concerns don’t apply. In tale resembling an elaborate, mostly aboriginal episode of “Northern Exposure,” an elderly former chief (Sam Vlahos) carries on an intense pen-pal relationship with much younger, educated gal (MariAna Tosca) on a reserve in upstate New York. Meanwhile, his urbanized, overly materialistic son is worried about the survival of the upscale new resort he has built on tribal lands.

When the mysterious rep from a Zagat’s-like guide is due to arrive — armed with make-or-break cred for the place — everyone assumes it’s the elegant female New Yorker in town to anonymously check out her correspondent, but the real rep is actually a cranky old bigot played by the exquisitely debauched-looking M. Emmet Walsh. More confusions ensue, along with the expected uplift at finish line, but few of the twists turn out to be predictable, the romantic tenor is old-fashioned in the best sense, and the whole thing is carried off with high-spirited, humanistic elan.

Graham Greene has a standout (and perhaps too standalone) role as a vegetarian chef who keeps overpersonalizing the animals he serves to customers, whose own gills soon turn green. Also memorable is Sheila Tousey as a hotel administrator hooked on aboriginal-themed romance novels. Other quirky touches add character throughout, as does varied, Native-inflected music from Rita Coolidge, who also plays the New Yorker’s cynical older sister.

Christmas in the Clouds

Production

A Random Ventures production in association with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. (International sales: Clouds Prods., Redmond, Calif.) Produced by Mitch Stein, Kate Montgomery. Executive producers, Anthony Hsieh, Alfred Lin. Co-producers, Gerald T. Olson, Sheila Tousey, Brian Wescott. Directed, written by Kate Montgomery.

Crew

Camera (color), Steven Bernstein; editors, Maysie Hoy, Allan Baumgarten; music, Rita Coolidge; production designer, Mark Worthington; costume designer, Glenn Ralston; sound, Joshua Ashdown; assistant director, Denis L. Stewart; casting, Katie Wallin. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival, Oct. 3, 2001. (Also in Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Tim Vahle, MariAna Tosca, Sam Vlahos, Graham Greene, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheila Tousey, Rosalind Ayres, Jonathan Joss, Rita Coolidge, Lois Red Elk, Wes Studi, Shirley Cheechoo, Georgina Lightning, Karina Moeller, Kaesi Belen Soto, Larry Cesspooh, Heather Rae, Carla Plante, Patrick Shining Elk, Steve Sandalis, Jeff Pehrson, Mindy Lawson.
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