Deck the Halls


A Christmas guilty pleasure.

A Christmas guilty pleasure.

(2006) Holiday Comedy (20th Century Fox) Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Jorge Garcia, Fred Armisen, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin, Sean O’Bryan, SuChin Pak, Jackie Burroughs, Garry Chalk, Nicola Peltz, Zak Santiago, Jill Morrison, Brenda M. Crichlow, Eliza Norbury. Directed by John Whitesell

The Holly and the Quill

There comes a time in all our lives when we laugh at something we know we shouldn’t laugh at. We know it’s wrong, we know we shouldn’t do it but we still do it anyway. When it happens in a movie, we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Dr. Steve Finch (Broderick) is a mild-mannered optometrist in one of those picture postcard perfect Massachusetts towns that looks like it sprung fully formed from a Currier and Ives print. He’s also the Christmas guy around town, the one who decorates his home tastefully but noticeably, the guy who’s in charge of the Christmas pageant, the one who buys his family matching ugly Christmas sweaters. His children Madison (Shawkat) and Carter (Blue) are somewhat disinterested in their father’s regimented, traditional Christmas that allows no deviation from the norm. Although his wife Kelly (Davis) wishes that her husband was less rigid, she tolerates the situation because being obsessed with Christmas is way better than being obsessed with Internet porn, right?

Then across the street moves in used car salesman Buddy Hall (DeVito) with his…ummmm, statuesque wife Tia (Chenoweth)  and his buxom blonde twin daughters Ashley (K. Aldridge) and Emily (S. Aldridge). Buddy is going through an epic midlife crisis. He has never really attained any sort of real success and is living in a house he really can’t afford. The neighborly Finches invite his family over for dinner and Buddy’s inferiority complex is deepened when he discovers that the satellite locating website MyEarth (which is Google Earth without paying Google the big bucks for using their name) shows his neighbor’s house just fine but his is too small to be seen from space. Then it hits him – what if he put up a Christmas display so bright that it can be seen from space?

This puts Buddy in a frenzy of light buying and Christmas pageantry which doesn’t sit well with Dr. Steve who is threatened by a usurper for his title of the Christmas guy around town. He sets off to sabotage Buddy’s efforts which he sees as garish and lurid. The two begin a series of escalating pranks on one another, culminating in both their wives taking their children out of the house and staying elsewhere, leaving the two obsessed Christmas porn lovers to duke it out between themselves. Will Buddy win and get his wish to be noticed, to accomplish something monumental? Or will Steve win and get his wish for a traditional Christmas?

Critics savaged the movie when it came out and in a lot of ways I can’t really blame them. The humor often falls flat and is generally crude, the script preposterous, the plot outlandish and the acting mainly phoned in. Broderick, whose character is covered at one point with camel spit and sheep doo-doo from a living nativity that Buddy throws up, was heard to mutter on the set “I’ve hit rock bottom” on a regular basis and DeVito literally flew in on the days he was scheduled to shoot, acted his scenes and left without interacting with any of the cast. Supposedly everyone on set was fully aware they were cooking up a turkey.

And yet…and yet…I still find myself strangely drawn to the movie. In some demented way, it appeals to me. I think deep down it is supposed to be a commentary on how we’ve warped Christmas in this country with rampant consumerism and a terminally competitive attitude towards showing how much Christmas spirit we have (We’ve got spirit – yes we do! We’ve got spirit – how ’bout YOU?!?) particularly in decorating our homes. Not that saying we’ve lost our way in terms of the season is anything new or earth-shattering – Miracle on 34th Street was making the same point 59 years earlier – but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s brightest stars and who always impresses when she gets a movie to work on, is one of the highlights. She’s the blonde bimbo who turns out to be a bit smarter than anyone gives her credit for, seeing her husband for what he is and loving him anyway although when his excesses threaten the family stability, she exhibits a lot more strength than you’d imagine she has. Maybe I have a critic-crush on the woman, but she’d make reading the phone book an interesting movie.

I mentioned the humor earlier but I neglected to mention how mean-spirited it is. For example, Buddy and Steve are watching the Christmas pageant and a trio of scantily dressed young women come out and do a provocative dance. Both men cheer and call out “Who’s your daddy?!” repeatedly until the girls turn around – and it’s their daughters. They run to the nearest Catholic church and wash out their eyes with Holy Water. That doesn’t sound like it should be appealing but remember how I mentioned laughing at things you shouldn’t? There ya go.

Sure, the ending is a bit treacly and has that timeless Christmas movie trope of healing all wounds with the singing of carols but somehow those things still work even though you know they’re coming. I guess I’m just a sucker for Christmas spirit, neighbors looking out for each other and Currier and Ives New England villages. Here in Florida, Christmas is a whole different thing where we get milder weather (although we can get heatwaves from time to time) and almost never see any snowfall. My wife longs for a White Christmas which is something I haven’t experienced since I was a little boy in Connecticut which was so long ago that dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then. Okay, not really but you get the (snow) drift.

This might not be your cup of cocoa and I respect that but if you’re looking for guilty pleasure Christmas entertainment, you can do much worse (Santa Claus vs. the Martians anyone?) and you might, like I did, get suckered in by the sticky sweet ending. Christmas can do funny things to a person.

WHY RENT THIS: A primer in tacky Christmas displays. Chenoweth is always a pleasure.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Disagreeable leads. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor and brief bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production used LED lights on the house that allowed programmable effects and was installed by Color Kinetics of Boston. The nodes used just 7,150 watts of energy or the equivalent of four hair-dryers, and 126 amps which is the average for 1 1/3 homes.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel as well as interviews with young actor Dylan Blue. Featurettes on filming a Christmas movie in July, the design of Buddy’s Christmas light display and the building of the house sets are also included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.2M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (streaming only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jingle All the Way
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (Talk about a Christmas gift…)
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill concludes

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The Polar Express


THe Polar Express

All aboard the Polar Express!

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Phil Fondacaro, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There comes a time in all our lives, it is said, that we must put aside childish things. That is the first step in becoming an adult. There are those who say that it is the first step in losing something irreplacable and vital, something that makes us better people.

Hero Boy (Hanks, voiced by Sabara) is at that time. He has begun to question his childhood faith in the existence of Santa Claus as fact after overwhelming fact begins to dispute that such a person ever existed. It is bedtime on Christmas Eve and he is listening intently for the bells of Santa’s sleigh, certain that he will never hear them.

Suddenly the room begins to rumble and shake then is filled with a great light. Startled, Hero Boy runs outside in his bathrobe to see a mighty train waiting there for him. A conductor (Hanks) cries “Alllllll aboooooooard” and after some hesitation, Hero Boy takes him up on it. This is, after all, the Polar Express, headed straight to the North Pole where one of the lucky children on board will be the recipient of the first present of Christmas, given to them by Santa himself.

On board is a Know It All (Deezen) and a quiet young Girl (Gaye), as well as a Lonely Boy (Scolari) who comes on board last and sits by himself in the last car. While a group of Dancing Waiters serve up piping hot chocolate to the kids in the passenger car, the Girl sets a cup aside for the Lonely Boy. As she and the Conductor take the steaming beverage back to the Lonely Boy, the Hero Boy notices that the Girl has left her unpunched ticket on her seat. As he steps outside to cross to the back car to give her the ticket, it flies out of his hand, apparently lost. The stern conductor orders the Girl to come with him.

The Hero Boy finds the ticket, which wasn’t lost after all, and runs to the back car to take it to her, fearful that she will be thrown off the train, but neither the conductor nor the Girl are there. The Lonely Boy tells him that they are on the top of the train headed toward the front. The Hero Boy decides to follow them and climbs to the top of the train. There, he meets the Hobo (Hanks) who questions the Hero Boy on his stance vis-à-vis the existence of Santa but nonetheless helps him reach the Engine car where he finds, to his surprise, the Girl driving the train while the engineers, Smoker and Steamer (both played by the late Michael Jeter, for whom this was his last movie before his death) changing a light bulb on the front of the train.

They brake just in time to avoid running into a gigantic herd of caribou, which brings the Conductor forward to scold them. The caribou are at length moved out of the way so the Express can continue on its way to the North Pole, but the train runs into some iced over tracks, barely able to navigate back onto the tracks while the ice cracks beneath them.

Eventually they reach the North Pole and the three friends manage to get lost in the vast city of Santa’s workshop, but they nevertheless make it to the town square just in time for the festivities to begin. But is there a Santa? What will it take for the Hero Boy to believe?

This was the first movie to be filmed entirely in motion capture technology (Zemeckis’ own Beowulf and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were also filmed in this way) and looks dazzling. While it is essentially an animated feature, the use of live actors to perform give the human and elf characters more life than a simple CGI feature can generate. It looks realistic, despite the fantasy setting.

Hanks gives a marvelous performance in multiple roles, including that of Santa and the Hero Boy’s father. Each character sounds, looks and acts differently as Hanks gives each its own unique look and facial expressions. It is compelling work.

The heart of the movie, however, is the story about the role of belief in our lives. Author Chris Van Allsburg has written a classic Christmas tale, perhaps the best since The Night Before Christmas or even since Dickens, and the story makes excellent cinema. I was completely entranced by the movie, even down to the songs (Josh Groban’s Believe is one of the best new Christmas songs of the last decade) which is unusual for me.

This is in every sense of the word a Christmas classic, one which I have no trouble watching every year at Christmas time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. If you have, I hope you see it again – I discover something new about it every time I see it. That’s my definition of a classic.

WHY RENT THIS: This is the best Christmas movie to come along in 50 years. Believe is one of the better Christmas songs to come along the pike in ages. Hanks gives some terrific performances in multiple roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some find the story a bit treacly. The technology may soon become outdated as Avatar sets the bar higher but it was still ahead of its time when released.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address called out by the Conductor near the end of the film of “11344 Edbrooke” is the address of director Zemeckis’ childhood home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some games and a clip of Josh Groban performing at the Greek Theater in the kid-centric DVD edition. The best feature is the one on author Chris Van Allsburg, who penned the children’s story this is based on. There is also a 3D edition (that comes with glasses) and a Blu-Ray edition that has more extra features than the DVD.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes

Elf


Elf

Buddy and Santa must work together to save Christmas in Central Park.

(New Line) Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Tay, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lang. Directed by Jon Favreau

Not everyone can be an elf. These small creatures are industrious, cheerful and limber, making them the perfect workforce for Santa. Nearly all of them, anyway.

Buddy (Ferrell) is an elf who isn’t an elf. He’s a human, an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas and hitched a ride all the way to the North Pole. Santa (Asner), unwilling to send him back to the orphanage, leaves him in the charge of Papa Elf (Newhart) who wanted a family of his own but never had the time to go get one.

As time goes by, it becomes very apparent that Ferrell doesn’t fit into the elfin world – literally. He’s big and clumsy compared to the other elves and while his heart is in the right place, he just doesn’t have the skills. Finally, Santa takes pity on him and tells him where he can find his birth father – in New York City. Unfortunately, Buddy’s birth mother had passed away some time before.

Said birth father, Walter (Caan) is a hard man, a publisher of children’s books who doesn’t have any child in him, unless he happened to eat one at lunch. He greets the possibility of an out-of-wedlock son in a green tunic and yellow tights with all the enthusiasm of an agoraphobic forced to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

Once Buddy name-drops his birth mother’s name, Walter realizes that there might be something to the whacko’s story and hustles him down to the family doctor for the world’s fastest genetic test and in no-time, is welcomed to the family by Walter’s saint of a wife Emily (Steenburgen) and plucky son Michael (Tay).

Of course, Buddy gets into trouble, working in the mail room at Walter’s publishing house and at Gimbel’s, a department store that used to be the chief rival of Macy’s but has been closed for quite awhile, even before this movie was made. There, he meets Jovie (Deschanel), a cute-as-a-button seasonal worker who likes to sing in the shower and might be a match made in Macy’s for the love-struck Buddy – or would have been if it hadn’t been at Gimbel’s.

The movie serves notice that it’s going to be irreverent from the opening, when Elves are shown fleeing an unfortunate fire in the Keebler tree, and it is throughout – Dinklage makes an impressive cameo as the world’s nastiest-tempered children’s book author, whom Walter is courting in a last-ditch effort to save his job at the publishing firm.

Favreau, who would go on to direct Iron Man, has a deft comedic touch and a good understanding of special effects. Many of the effects that have to do with Buddy towering over the elves are done with an old camera trick called forced perspective, where Ferrell stands closer to the camera to appear larger than those in the background.

He has also assembled an impressive cast, led by Ferrell who is at his best here. Ferrell can be an amiable sort when he isn’t dumbing down (as he does in Step-Brothers) and he plays Buddy with a lot of heart and a sweet tooth the size of Mt. Everest. The supporting cast is magnificent as well. Getting to see veterans like Asner, Newhart and Caan together is always a treat, and Steenburgen adds a touch of class.

Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses and she does shine here to a certain extent, although there are times that she is just so darn hip and cool that it overwhelms her cuteness and makes it seem like she’s in another indie film instead of a major studio family event movie. That can be mildly distracting at times, as well as the bashing over our heads of the fish out of water thing with Buddy in New York. I realize he’s supposed to be naïve, but there’s a difference between naïve and outright stupid and it crosses the line of stupid every so often.

Still, these are essentially minor complaints and this is a marvelous Christmas holiday movie. It’s funny enough to rival Saturday Night Live in some places, and charming enough to fill you full of holiday cheer. That’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving, don’t you think?

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet-natured film. Indie darling Deschanel slums on a major studio release and nearly steals it. Any movie that has Newhart, Asner and Caan in it is worth seeing regardless of the subject. Dinklage’s cameo is hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is dumb in some places. Deschanel is so cool and hip she’s almost in a different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Definitely a kid favorite.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the names on Santa’s nice list that he shows to Michael are members of the film crew.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes in an Infinifilm version, with regular opportunities to stop the movie and watch a feature pertaining to what is onscreen. Da Queen and I love Infinifilm. The Blu-Ray comes with something similar. There are some games and such on the DVD which are oddly missing on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues

Disney’s A Christmas Carol


Disney's A Christmas Carol

Jim Carey is haunting...himself.

(Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Carey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Ryan Ochoa, Jacquie Barnbrook, Lesley Manville, Molly C. Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan, Leslie Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

No matter how badly we behave, no matter how heinous the acts we have done in our lives, there is always a possibility of a second chance. It is one of the most wonderful things about being human.

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Carey) is a miserly fellow, bitter and curmudgeonly. He is feared and despised by the citizens of London circa 1842. After his partner Jacob Marley (Oldman) dies on a Christmas Eve in 1835, Scrooge continues to operate his counting house, bullying his clerk Bob Cratchit (Oldman again). Scrooge saves particular vitriol for Christmas, which he proclaims as “humbug.”

Scrooge is visited that Christmas Eve first by his nephew Fred (Firth) who patiently invites his uncle to Christmas dinner, which is refused. Fred is puzzled as to why his uncle despises him so, but it seems to be tied to his marriage. Later, a pair of businessmen collecting for charitable donations receives Scrooge’s distinctive philosophy on life (the famous quote “Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) but no cash.

Upon returning home, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley who warns Scrooge he is to be visited by three ghosts; the Ghost of Christmas Past (Carey), the Ghost of Christmas Present (ditto) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (you got it). At stake his Scrooge’s soul, and the life of Cratchit’s son Tim (Ochoa).

This is one of the most beloved and best-known stories on the planet and director Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) has the tall order of making a story so known to many seem fresh and new. Most of us can quote Charles Dickens’ original story word for word and know the story backwards and forwards. With so many already-filmed versions to choose from, the public can afford to be choosy and set high standards for any new films. Making one that stands out from the crowd is no easy task.

Most versions of A Christmas Carol depend heavily on the performance of the actor playing Scrooge. Actors have generally been classically trained English thespians, but from time to time comedians (Bill Murray comes to mind) have also tackled the role. Carey is perhaps the most unusual choice for the iconic miser. I’m not particularly fond of Carey – he tends to mug around a bit in my opinion – but one can’t deny the talent. He tackles the roles of Scrooge in all his iterations, as well as all three of the ghosts. For the most part, he restrains himself but from time to time Ace Ventura shines through.

The supporting cast is pretty good. Hoskins displays bonhomie as Fezziwig, while Penn is solid in the dual roles of Belle, Scrooge’s love interest and Fanny, his sister. Better still is Oldman, whose portrayal of Bob Cratchit (complete with Cockney accent) is superb. His scene during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence mourning his son is incredibly moving.

After a great start with The Polar Express, motion capture hasn’t really lived up to its promise. The visuals are spectacular, eye-popping really. Zemeckis has a terrific visual sense and crafts a movie that captures the imagination. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the heart (except for the Cratchit scene mentioned above). There’s far more emphasis on spectacle than there is on the story, and some fairly important vignettes are glossed over or cut out entirely and yet Zemeckis conducts an extended hearse chase scene that is striking to look at but ultimately feels more like a placeholder for a future theme park attraction. That gives the movie a rushed feeling that I found unsettling.

The animation isn’t perfect. Cratchit’s head is disproportionate, and his daughter Martha towers over him by what appears to be about a foot and a half or more. It looks unsettling. Also, while the faces and movements are lifelike, there is a curious lifelessness to the eyes that makes the characters look a little bit like zombies. In many ways, the more clear-cut animation of Pixar and DreamWorks is preferable because it’s more consistent; you know it’s an animation so there’s a standard for realism or its lack thereof. Here, you’re expecting a more life-like quality and frankly the technology isn’t quite there yet.

People who love Jim Carey are going to enjoy this movie because you get a whole lot of him here. People who love the original Dickens tale are going to be a bit more critical and may find this a difficult pill to swallow. The 3D effects are terrific (the snow falling is particularly nice) and definitely enhance the movie nicely. However, I can’t recommend this unreservedly. All in all, the package comes in gaudy wrapping paper with an elaborate bow, but all the pretty paper in the world can’t conceal that what’s inside is a bit empty and light.

REASONS TO GO: There are some amazing visuals here, particularly the ghosts. Zemeckis puts the story on its biggest and boldest canvas ever. Oldman gives a moving performance, particularly in the Christmas Yet to Come sequence.

REASONS TO STAY: Zemeckis sacrifices story for spectacle in several instances. Some of the figures, particularly Cratchit and his daughter Martha seem to be disproportionate. The hearse chase scene is completely unnecessary and seems to be there only to provide the inspiration for an eventual theme park ride. A little Carey goes a long way.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the ghost sequences, particularly Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come might be a bit too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The earliest known filmed version of Dickens tale was made in 1901 by British film pioneer Robert Paul and was under three and a half minutes long. It can be seen in its entirety on the British Film Institute YouTube channel.

HOME OR THEATER: The dazzling visuals should be experienced on the big screen, preferably in the 3D presentation (and IMAX if you can get to an IMAX theater).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Tale of Despereaux