Daddy’s Home 2


A boy’s night out isn’t necessarily meant for all boys.

(2017) Comedy (Paramount) Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, Owen Wilder Vaccaro, Scarlett Estevez, Didi Costine, John Cena, Andrea Anders, Kyle Tristan Wakefield, Hector Presedo, Yamilah Sarivong, Daniel DiMaggio, Matthew Delameter, Yimmy Yim, Bill Mootos, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Sylvia Barjolo. Directed by Sean Anders

 

In our modern age, children often have more than one father or more than one mother (and occasionally both). Marriages don’t last a lifetime as they did back in the day. Sometimes having more than one pair of hands can be helpful. More often though things just get confused.

Co-Dads Brad (Ferrell) and Dusty (Wahlberg) have patched up their differences and are humming along as a unit; Dusty has found his inner touchy-feely guy and Brad is still dangerous around power tools. Christmas is coming and rather than bounce from house to house, the two have decided to have one massive Christmas celebration, a “together Christmas.” The prospect is exciting but for the advent of…the granddaddies.

Dusty’s dad Kurt (Gibson) is a womanizing ex-astronaut who looks at his son’s new-found soft side about the same way a steak lover would look at maggots in his filet. He is convinced that Brad is emasculating his son and seeks to drive a wedge between the two of them. At the same time Brad’s dad Don (Lithgow) has arrived with his love of improv comedy and enough hugs to give Richard Simmons diabetes.

With the kids undergoing crises of their own and Sara (Cardellini) – Dusty’s ex and Brad’s current wife – showing justifiable jealousy over Dusty’s new girlfriend, the extremely sensuous best-selling author Karen (Ambrosio) and this family is a Christmas meltdown waiting to happen.

Like the first film, the comedy is strictly hit or miss with the edge going towards the latter. However, the sequences that work will induce plenty of laugh-out-loud guffaws in all but the most jaded of audiences. However, most audiences will also experience extended sequences of dead silence, possibly punctuated by an occasional groan or eye-roll.

The chemistry between Ferrell and Wahlberg remains pretty strong; adding the two veterans Gibson and Lithgow to the mix doesn’t appear to affect it much. Lithgow however is in top form, hitting a comedic stride that actors who specialize in comedic roles might envy. I found myself grinning every time Lithgow was onscreen; even though Don is a bit of a one-note character, Lithgow keeps that note fresh and sounding clear as a bell throughout.

Some critics have expressed absolute disgust that Gibson was cast at all. I have three words for them; Let. It. Go. You’re talking about events that happened 20 years ago when Gibson was a raging alcoholic. Yes, I get that he said some absolutely detestable things but his career was effectively derailed and by all accounts he’s sober at the moment. Do people have to pay for their mistakes the rest of their lives or do we forgive them and move on at some point?

The subplots involving the children seem to be aimed at an entirely different audience and the movie could have easily done without them. And not for nothing but the juvenile actors here give performances that can only be deemed as “excruciating.”

It also should be said that none of the women in the film – and there aren’t many – have any character development to speak of. All of that is reserved for the men. Make of that what you will but personally think the filmmakers could have spared a little bit of time to allow us to get to know Karen and Sara a little better.

Mainly this is adults behaving badly and at times the film descends into shtick and cliché. There are enough funny moments to balance that out for the most part but generally speaking, Daddy’s Home 2 left me with absolutely no desire to check out a third film. I suspect I’m not alone in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: Lithgow is hysterically funny here. There are some pretty decent laughs here and there.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the female characters are developed at all. The kids are extremely annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gibson plays Wahlberg’s father in the film, in reality Gibson is only 15 years older than his onscreen son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Camp
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Small Crimes

The Commune (Kollektivet)


A communal meal isn’t always a peaceful one.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm, Lars Ranthe, Julie Agnete Vang, Helene Reingaard Newmann, Ole Dupont, Lise Koefoed, Magnus Millang, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, Mads Reuther, Anne Gay Henningsen, Jytte Kvinesdal, Morten Rose, Rasmus Lind Rubin, Adam Fischer, Ida Maria Vinterberg. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

When we think of the 70s, what comes to mind is recreational drug use, long hair, bell bottoms, anti-war protests and free love. Although communes still exist, they are more like co-ops these days rather than all of the inhabitants sleeping with each other, although there are some like that to be sure.

Erik (Thomsen) is a somewhat stuffy professor of architecture at a University in Copenhagen. His wife Anna (Dyrholm) is a beautiful news reader working for the national broadcast network. When Erik inherits what is essentially a mansion from his father in a rural suburb of Copenhagen, he initially wants to sell it; their daughter Freja (Hansen) wants to move into it but it is Anna who comes up with the idea they eventually adopt – to invite friends and strangers to move in and create their own commune.

You see, Anna has become somewhat bored in her marriage and wants variety, but as they say, be careful what you wish for. She and Erik invite friends at first like Ole (Ranthe) who has a bit of a temper but soon they are inviting fascinating strangers and before too long there are a dozen or so adults and children living in the commune.

Things go pretty well at first but things begin to lose cohesion. One of the children who has a heart condition (and quite the crush on Freja) is taken to the hospital, scaring the whole community on Christmas Eve. But to make matters worse, Erik falls in love with Emma (Newmann), one of his students and invites her to join the Commune. At first, Anna is pretty sanguine about the whole situation but she begins to crack and soon the tension in the Commune becomes nearly unbearable.

I’m not so sure this is an indictment of free love and the sexual politics of the 70s as it is more or less simply presenting the pros and cons. In all honesty most of the couples in the commune stay fairly faithful to one another with the exception of Erik – and it must be said that Anna paved the way for that in many ways. Judging Erik by standards that are 40 years after the period depicted here isn’t really fair but by our standards he’s quite the jerk.

The performances here are top-notch; most of the actors are not well-known in the U.S. with the exception of Fares and to a lesser extent Thomsen. The prize though goes to Dyrholm who goes from a strong and confident woman to an absolute mess by the end of the film. Badly shaken not so much by Erik’s infidelity – I think she could have handled an affair so long as Erik still loved her but once it became a case where Erik loved Emma and not Anna she was absolutely destroyed.

The director manages to get the era right between the colloquialisms, the products and the overall attitude. The cinematography is a little bit on the washed out side for exterior day shots (and underlit for night shots both inside and out) which also gives the film a look of a film made in that era.

Despite the pathos and drama (and there’s a lot of the latter) there is some comedy as well that comes up at unexpected times. The Danish have a very quirky sense of humor and it shows here when its needed. What’s not needed is some of the pretentious dialogue – and I realize back in that decade people tended to talk like walking manifestos – and especially the soap opera aspects of the film which are also many. That detracts from a film which most of the rest of the way is serious and fascinating.

Still, human relationships are tricky things whether you’re talking about the 70s or the 2010s. We are complicated little monkeys and we do things sometimes that make no logical sense. It is said that being alone is perfection – you make all your decisions and do as you please when you please. Two is a compromise and three is a disaster. The more people you put at the same table, the more complex things get.

Vinterberg has some really great films to his credit including one of my all time Florida Film Festival favorites The Hunt. This is another strong movie on his filmography and he continues to be a director who hasn’t yet really gotten the credit he deserves here in the States. Then again, he hasn’t done a lot of English language films yet and I’m not sure he needs to. Still, he’s one of those directors whose name on the credits means I’m instantly interested in seeing his film. There are not many about whom I can say that.

REASONS TO GO: The sexual politics are captured nicely. The film is very evocative of its era. Thought-provoking, the movie manages to get in a little bit of comedy as well. The performances are strong all around.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, the movie sinks into soap opera a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you’ll find nudity, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a play Vinterberg wrote about his own experiences as a child growing up in a commune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Overnight
>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lady Macbeth

Carol


A different type of Christmas Carol.

A different type of Christmas Carol.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Amy Warner, Michael Haney, Wendy Lardin, Pamela Evans Haynes, Greg Violand, Michael Ward, Kay Geiger, Christine Dye. Directed by Todd Haynes

We sometimes look back at the 1950s as a kind of idyllic era, a time when America was the pre-eminent world power (although I’m sure the Soviet Union had a thing or two to say about that), when life was simple and the American way of life was at its peak. However, for all the affection we have for that time period, there were some undercurrents that were much more ugly than our collective memories would credit.

Carol is set in 1952 as America’s post-war paradise was in full flower. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, it can be said that the movie is about the relationship between shopgirl Therese (pronounced as if it rhymes with “caress”) Belivet (Mara) and well-to-do housewife Carol Aird (Blanchett). While Christmas shopping for her daughter, the elfin Therese catches the patrician Carol’s eye and things evolve from there. Unfortunately, the kind of relationship the two women have in mind is frowned upon in that era.

To make things more complicated, Carol is in the midst of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Chandler) who has already endured a Sapphic affair by his wife with her friend Abby (Paulson) although that, we learn, actually took place before he married her. The thought that his wife has been intimate with another woman apparently drives him a little bit batty, but he loves his wife and wants her to stay, but his problems with alcohol and rage make that impossible. Carol is trying to keep things low-key between her and Therese but left alone and needing to get out of town, the two women hop in a car and head vaguely West, not really with any specific destination in mind although once they get to Chicago they stay at the swanky Drake Hotel. However, the repercussions of Carol’s actions will force her to choose between her needs and her daughter.

This is exquisitely acted, with likely Oscar nominations coming to both Blanchett and Mara. While this is clearly not about Carol as much as it is about Therese, film title notwithstanding, Blanchett gives Carol an icy upper class veneer with a warm center when it comes to other women. She is graceful and a bit brassy; after a loud fight with her husband witnessed by (and to a large extent caused by) Therese, Carol in an exasperated tone exclaims  “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes!” It’s the type of line that would have been uttered by a Joan Crawford or a Rosalind Russell, but not nearly as well as Blanchett delivers it.

Mara’s naturally gamine features have gotten her comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, although she is somewhat more sophisticated an actress than Hepburn. She does have Hepburn’s charming youthful inexperience, but beneath that is a sexuality that lights up the screen, particularly later in the film when the relationship between the two women begins to get physical. Mara is very much desired by a good deal of men in the story, not the least of which is her boyfriend Richard Semco (Lacy) who very much wants her to be his wife a little further down the line. His earnest delivery is perfect for a character who is completely puzzled that his girl simply isn’t behaving the way she’s supposed to.

One of the characteristics of the era was its elegance and from the exquisite fashions to the furniture and settings, the movie gets it down pat. They capture the speech patterns of Manhattan sophisticates, which was more genteel than we’re used to hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an evocation of 1950s New York that captured as well as this one for a film not made in that era. I think that an Oscar nomination is very likely for costume designer Sandy Powell, whose fashions here are beautiful, simple, stylish and perfect for the time period.

And yet for all the praise I’m heaping on the movie, you’ll notice the rating doesn’t seem to match and here’s why. The movie takes a very long time to go a very short distance. The addendum at the end of the movie is nearly pointless, as by that time we’ve emotionally checked out of the film. Haynes has a definite case of the on-too-longs and the film would have benefitted from some judicious editing.

But let’s be clear about this – I’m very much in the minority when it comes to the critical opinion of the movie, which you can tell from the scores below, so do take my remarks with a grain of salt but the thing that really makes me wonder about the universal critical acclaim is this question; would the movie have received the same kind of praise if the couple at the center been heterosexual? I have a very disturbing feeling that it would not.

This is a beautifully shot movie with superb acting performances, and on that basis alone you should likely go see it. Certainly if you’re an Oscar buff, you’ll want to catch the lead performances which are likely to both be nominated. However, be aware that you may find some of the movie a bit tedious and mannered, which while it fits in with the era it’s set in, may indeed not necessarily fit in with modern moviegoing audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Blanchett and Mara deliver award-worthy performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is much too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, brief nudity and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Highsmith said she was inspired to write the novel after a chance encounter with a blonde woman wearing a fur coat in a department store in 1948.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far From Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tomboy

Krampus


Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker, Gideon Emery (voice), Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Leith Towers, Mark Atkin, Gareth Ruck, Trevor Bau, Felicity Hamill, Kelly Lily Marie, Ivy George, Sophie Gannon. Directed by Michael Dougherty

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family which can be a double-edge sword. Most of us love nearly all of our families, but there’s always that one uncle or cousin or aunt that drive us straight to the liquor cabinet. Sometimes, we’re the ones that drive our families there.

For Tom (Scott) and Sarah Engel (Collette), there are plenty of cabinets for that bus ride. The two are having a bit of a tough go; Tom is a workaholic dad who has been drifting away from his wife, who is a bit tightly wound to put it charitably. Neither one seem to notice that their son Max (Anthony) is having a hard time with believing in the Big Fat Man. Only Omi Engel (Stadler), Tom’s mother who speaks mostly German, seems to have bonded with the young boy. Teen daughter Beth (S.L. Owen) is more focused on her boyfriend Derek (Towers).

Making the mix even more volatile is the arrival of Sarah’s sister Linda (Tolman) and her Tea Party/NRA husband Howard (Koechner) and his bullying brood of Stevie (L. Owen) and Jordan (Samuel) as well as overeating Howard Jr. (Flack) and worst of all, abrasive Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell) whom Sarah would most fervently wish back to Oz.

After a dinner in which the tension around the table boils over, Max has had enough. He tears up his letter to Santa, which brings a strange and extreme weather front to town, snowing everyone in. However, that’s not the worst of it; the family is being stalked by Krampus (Hawker, voiced by Emery), a German folk tale who is a little more real than you might think. He’s after the naughty and the nice, and he has a bunch of minions, ranging from a serpentine Jack-in-the-Box monster to maniacal gingerbread men to a vicious angel and homicidal toys, to do his dirty work. A lump of coal simply won’t do when you’re Krampus.

This is a fun mix of terror and laughter which since the studio didn’t do press screenings and most of the press it has received is mostly negative actually surprised me. Of course, Dougherty directed the much underrated Trick ‘r Treat and that should have alerted me to the fact that this was a lot more than a cookie cutter holiday horror flick. Krampus is certainly far from that.

Part of what makes this better is that Scott and Collette make very relatable characters; in particular Scott is likable as all get out. You get the sense that he’s trying to be a great father and a good husband, but the responsibilities are just weighing him down. Similarly, Collette’s Sarah is going all out to make it a memorable Christmas, but is met with either indifference or intense criticism and she’s at her breaking point. Few actresses in Hollywood can play high-strung without getting shrill, but Collette manages that, skirting Bette Davis territory without entering it.

Most of the other characters are holiday comedy tropes; the drunken aunt with the foul mouth who essentially doesn’t give a fart about the kids, the horndog boyfriend, the naive daughter who doesn’t get that the boyfriend only wants to get into her panties, the overbearing oafish uncle, the henpecked aunt, the nightmarish cousins who could every one of them use a good kick in the most painful of places. Koechner, Ferrell and Tolman all do credible job but have little to hang their craft on.

Dougherty does a real good job balancing the humor and the gore – in fact, the gore is kept to a minimum, relying more on the creatures (mostly CGI) for the scares. Krampus himself is a woodcut come to life, looking terrifying and had I seen something of that as a child, my bladder control would have been shot for life. However, not all of the creatures fare as well, some being resolutely non-scary and others are too obviously CGI. The snake-like Jack-in-the-Box was the one that was the least successful, but the gingerbread men are absolutely non-threatening.

It must be said that the ending was a little bit convoluted and while I give Dougherty props for at least going a bit out of the box for it, I did find it unsatisfying and disappointing compare to the rest of the film, taking the rating down a notch in the process. Still in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this as entertainment and while this is no Bad Santa, it is definitely solid filmmaking that re-confirms Dougherty as a talented filmmaker who has bigger and better things in store for the moviegoing public. Certainly he’s the most promising horror film auteur you’ve never heard of, which is something of a shame because I find his movies as entertaining as anything else that is coming out in the genre over the past five years or so. Hopefully that will change after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Funny and/or scary when it needs to be. Scott and Collette are solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending’s a disappointment. Some of the creatures miss the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images, horror violence, foul language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bell ornaments that Krampus hands out say Gruss vom Krampus which translated means “Greetings from Krampus.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

documented

As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33

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

The Drop


What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

What are you gonna do? Fuhgeddabout it!

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov, Morgan Spector, Michael Esper, Ross Bickell, James Frecheville, Tobias Segal, Patricia Squire, Ann Dowd, Chris Sullivan, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Jeremy Bobb, James Colby, Erin Drake. Directed by Michael R. Roskam

In an environment where crime is rampant and vicious ethnic gangs control the everyday goings on in the neighborhood, looking the other way becomes a necessary survival skill. Some things however cannot be looked away from.

Bob Saginowski (Hardy) tends bar at a neighborhood Brooklyn joint called Cousin Marv’s. There is a Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) – who is actually Bob’s cousin as it turns out – who lets Bob do much of the work around the bar. Bob is an industrious sort but is a bit dim-witted and socially awkward, but he’s a lot more street smart than you’d think. He realizes that Cousin Marv doesn’t own the bar that bears his name – Chechnyan mobsters do. And the bar is sometimes used as a drop for their ill-gotten gains.

Shortly after Christmas, two things happen. A couple of losers try to rob the bar, which puts Marv in the hole $5,000 to Chovka (Aronov), the charming but vicious mobster whose father is in charge of the whole show. Marv and Bob need to find the guys that robbed the bar but fast; what happens if they fail to do so is demonstrated to them rather forcefully.

On his way home from work a couple of nights later, Bob finds a pit bull puppy that’s been badly beaten in the garbage can of his neighbor Nadia (Rapace). She holds onto the dog for a few days while Bob dithers whether or not to keep the dog; he ultimately decides to and as Nadia needs some extra cash, she agrees to watch the dog while Bob’s at work. An awkward, halting romance ensues.

Into the picture comes Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), a psychopath who rumor has it murdered a pothead named Glory Days about ten years earlier after he’d left Cousin Marv’s to score some weed (the film opens up with a ten-year memorial tribute to the guy by his friends who are regulars at the bar). He is the actual owner of the dog (and responsible for its injuries) and also happens to be Nadia’s ex.

There are a number of twists and turns involving a plan to take the mob’s money on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most profitable days of the year for illegal sports gambling, and Bob’s budding romance with Nadia. There’s also an inquisitive cop (Ortriz) who thinks there’s a lot more going on at Cousin Marv’s than an ordinary robbery and Deeds threatening Bob – he wants him to stay away from Nadia and give him back his dog, or at least pay him for it. It seems like all the walls are closing in on Bob and he’s caught in a dangerous situation where a wrong move can get him killed.

I get the sense that Roskam – who directed the fine Oscar-nominated drama Bullhead – was going for a vibe not unlike early Scorsese a la Mean Streets. You get the tight-knit aspect of the neighborhood quite nicely and you get the overwhelming influence of the criminal element on everyday life. People don’t talk to the cops around there, and they don’t trust them all that much either.

This is definitely an actor’s movie and all of the lead roles are in capable hands. Gandolfini hits it out of the park as  Cousin Marv, a man who once led his own crew and in his own words, “I was respected. I was feared. That meant something.” However, when the Chechnyans moved in, Marv in Bob’s words “blinked” and lost the bar, becoming Banquo’s ghost in his own establishment,  Gandolfini gets the seething resentment under the surface of the hangdog expression that is perpetually on Marv’s face – he’s not the sort who cracks a smile often or easily.

Rapace, who burst out of Sweden in the filmed versions of the Millennium trilogy, is still trying to break through to American audiences. She shows how talented she is as Nadia but it’s not a role that has a lot of meat on it; Nadia has been through far too much and bears too many scars to allow much to show. Rapace makes us believe that there’s a lot more to Nadia than we can see; it’s masterful work but it isn’t the kind of thing that gets one noticed in Hollywood.

Hardy, however, definitely is getting noticed. This is his second really amazing performance this year and the two roles are completely different. Although most people think of him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he is actually much more of a complete actor. When you look at the wide range of roles he’s undertaken in recent years – romantic comedy foil, quiet emotionally stunted businessman, charismatic criminal, rural gangster, MI-6 whistleblower – it’s a resume which gets more impressive with every movie he makes.

While the plot isn’t particularly astounding, the ending did grab me by surprise. I like also that Lehane and Roskam deliberately left things ambiguous at the end, which I think added a lot to the movie. There are a lot of subtle little touches too – the Schoenaerts character’s name is something of a clue to an important plot point and you won’t get it until after the movie’s over (I won’t spoil it by telling you how). And that dog is just so damned adorable.

It is the nature of all things to be circular; as one great performer leaves us, another emerges. The sting of the loss of James Gandolfini, who as Tony Soprano delivered one of the greatest characters  in television series history is mitigated somewhat in that his final performance, as this one is, may well be one of his finest. It is also comforting to know that as Mr. Gandolfini is gone, Tom Hardy is emerging to be one of the best actors in the world. With his performance here and in Locke he has cemented 2014 as his breakout year. This is a strong effort right up there with Mystic River, the movie Lehane is best known for  Hopefully you’ll get an opportunity to catch this while it’s in your local cinemas – it’s much better than most of the other films out there.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by the leads. Nice twist. The dog is adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a few Brooklyn cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language as well as violence, some of it pretty strong.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on Lehane’s own short story “Animal Shelter” (and was originally entitled that) from the Lehane collection Boston Noir. Like most of Lehane’s work, the short story was set in Boston but the setting was moved to Brooklyn.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last I Heard
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Tusk