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A California Christmas: City Lights 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
No snow. No cable-knit sweaters. No roaring fires and no steaming mugs of cocoa. In many ways Netflix’s “A California Christmas” doesn’t fit the typical holiday movie profile, but that didn’t stop the genre’s enthusiasts from turning the film into a big hit.
The movie, about an arrogant playboy who poses as a ranch hand to get the property’s owner to sell, arrived as a surprise gift last December and debuted at No. 1 on the streaming service. (Critics were decidedly less enthusiastic, giving the film a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Now, a sequel titled “A California Christmas: City Lights” picks up the original’s story with a twist — and a touch more seasonal flair. The new movie, directed by Shaun Piccinine, premieres Thursday, Dec. 16, on Netflix.
Lauren Swickard, who wrote both films and stars in them with real-life husband Josh Swickard, says the intent for the first installment wasn’t to create something with the typical holiday movie trappings, but rather to provide a fun, much-needed reprieve for viewers.
“People needed feel-good uplifting content (during the pandemic),” Lauren said during a recent video call with The Chronicle from her home in Los Angeles, where she was joined by her husband and the couple’s 8-month-old daughter, Savannah. The film’s producer and co-star Ali Afshar also joined the call from another location in the city.
Instead of snowy landscapes and sleigh rides, the first “California Christmas” delivers a dreamy love letter to Northern California. Shot during the COVID-19 lockdown on a ranch owned by Afshar, a longtime Petaluma resident, the film showcases the region’s idyllic farmland, dairies and vineyards.
In the film, Joseph (Josh Swickard) is a city boy out of his comfort zone amid the rural setting’s chickens and cows; even with an assist from his butler, Leo (Afshar), and the property’s real ranch hand, Manny (David Del Rio). Joseph’s resolve to get the family to sell weakens when he falls for owner Callie (Lauren Swickard) and learns that her mother, Wendy (Amanda Detmer), is sick with cancer. Throughout, viewers get plenty of shots of Josh Swickard’s shirtless abs and Lauren Swickard’s legs in Daisy Dukes. The film is big on scenic charm, if not holiday motifs, coming in on the “Die Hard” end of the Christmas movie spectrum.
That vibe wasn’t exactly intentional. “Halfway through (making the first film) we realized there wasn’t a ton of Christmas in this movie,” Lauren Swickard said with a laugh. “Then it came out and everyone’s talking about the Christmas movie that’s not really a Christmas movie. ”Josh Swickard said he thinks that’s part of its appeal. “I like that it’s not as if Christmas has thrown up everywhere in the movie,” he said.
The sequel drops viewers back into Callie and Joseph’s world a year after the events of the first film. Now engaged, their relationship is challenged when Joseph is summoned back to San Francisco for business and decides to bring Callie home with him, flipping on the original’s country mouse/city mouse story line. For the premise, Lauren Swickard imagined a story in which Callie and Joseph have grown together, shaped by loss, love and learning. The challenge was in not letting herself get caught up in the original’s success. “We had to not put too much pressure on ourselves because the first one did so weirdly well,” she said. “It was important to go in with a clean slate (because) it’s such a neat opportunity to be able to do a second film.”
Before taking on either film, she said she wasn’t a big holiday film connoisseur. “I never used to watch them, but ‘A California Christmas’ forced me to fall in love with the genre,” she said. “Now I’m very happy to be a part of it.” Although fans will see more December sparkle in this film, Lauren Swickard added that, like its predecessor, this is really a film about relationships dressed up in Santa’s clothing. And its location is just as important as any character or story line.
“(Both) movies are cool because they really show the two different aspects of Northern California in a really pretty way from a cinematography point of view,” Josh Swickard said. Afshar agreed. Whether it’s his Petaluma ranch in the first film or iconic shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and other San Francisco landmarks in the sequel, the movies highlight the beauty of their locales. “I like Northern California living,” he said. “Petaluma is my backyard; I’ve been here for 27 years now, and I love (filming) here.”
Although there’s already buzz for a third “California Christmas” chapter, all involved say they hope fans will just settle in to enjoy the latest chapter in their story. “We want people to grab their family to watch,” Josh Swickard said. “Get together and laugh and build community.” “A California Christmas: City Lights” (PG-13) premieres Thursday, Dec. 16 on Netflix.