Ghost Team


Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

(2016) Horror Comedy (The Orchard) Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Justin Long, Melonie Diaz, Amy Sedaris, Paul W. Downs, Tom Schiller, Joel Marsh Garland, Doug Drucker, Rob DeRosa, Martin Barabas, Clem McIntosh, Shane Velez, Vincenzo Vaccaro, Veronika Dash. Directed by Oliver Irving

 

For the most part, we’re all fascinated by the paranormal. Who doesn’t want to see proof of life after we pass on? The existence of ghosts certainly is one of those things that have fascinated us for centuries, and yet for the most part, ghosts still remain essentially mythical figures. That doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped searching for definitive proof of their existence.

Plenty of television programs have documented the search of paranormal investigation teams. One of the most well-known is Ghost Getters which copy store clerk Louis (Heder) watches religiously. When the team puts out the call for a new member, Louis is psyched to apply, but he wants to stand out – by conducting his own investigation.

It’s hard to do when one’s day is mostly spent printing Lost Dog fliers. However when a curmudgeonly old man looking to get some laminated No Trespassing signs printed up lets slip that the barn on his property is “probably haunted,” Louis realizes this is the break he’s been waiting for. He ropes in his sad-sack best friend Stan (Krumholtz) who was left at the altar and thinks the only explanation for it was that his bride-to-be was kidnapped by aliens. They need a computer whiz and happen to know one who works at Micro World, Zak (Downs). When a late night run to “borrow” some equipment from Micro World ends up in a confrontation with gung-ho security guard Ross (Long), the team has their security chief. They enlist phony baloney TV psychic Victoria (Sedaris) and to round out the team, Ellie (Diaz) who works as a beautician in the shop next door to Louis and whose job is to….well, crap, I’m not really sure.

The intrepid erstwhile paranormal investigators who have christened themselves the Ghost Team head out to the barn to conduct their audition but when they arrive, they realize they’ve stumbled onto something that they simply weren’t prepared for. Will the Ghost Team’s first case also be their last?

The field of paranormal investigation shows has been ripe for a comedy to be based on it (although some would say that the original Ghostbusters was kind of a preemptive strike in that general direction). Certainly the movie takes aim at shows like SyFy’s venerable Ghost Hunters, which the fictional Ghost Getters is essentially based on as are many other like-minded shows all over cable television.

But sadly, the movie devolves into a kind of live action Scooby Doo minus the talking dog although it does have a van not unlike the Mystery Machine. How it does that I will not tell you, but suffice to say that those who grew up on that show will undoubtedly make that connection. I don’t have an objection per se only that the tonal shift doesn’t work here; they needed a better transition.

Heder has always been a bit too laid-back for my taste as an actor but the more he moves away from his Napoleon Dynamite past the better I like him and this is certainly a step in that direction. Like most of the characters here, Louis isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he certainly means well and that’s the kind of thing that’s right in Heder’s wheelhouse. He gets some superb support from Sedaris as the fake psychic who can’t believe that anybody buys her particular brand of B.S. and Diaz as an atypical damsel in distress. Long is terribly miscast as a security guy who seems to be suffering from Roid Rage.

Inexplicably, the movie uses Gary Wright’s 70s synthpop hit “Dream Weaver” to almost annoying extent. It was one of my favorite songs growing up but let’s face it; it’s not the kind of song you need to hear more than once on any movie soundtrack. The most genuinely scary moment in the film is when the Ghost Team sings along to the music.

And therein lies the rub; for a horror film, there aren’t any scares; for a comedy there aren’t many laughs. It tries to be both and ends up being neither. Part of the problem is that the writer doesn’t appear to be sure just what he wants this movie to be and what it ends up feeling like is a bunch of zombies wandering around aimlessly, calling pathetically for brains and this is not a movie that has (or should have) a lot of them. All the right ingredients are here for a good little film, but sadly, it ends up tasting rather bland.

REASONS TO GO: A cross between Ghost Hunters and Scooby-Doo. Heder is at his most likable here.
REASONS TO STAY: Official overuse of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” on the soundtrack. It gets overly juvenile in places. The action sequences are unconvincing. There aren’t enough laughs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug material as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was available for streaming free on Google Play before it’s limited theatrical run. It will continue on Google until the end of August after which it will be available on other streaming sites.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team One
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Star Trek Beyond

Advertisements

Hail, Caesar!


Friends, Romans, Communists...

Friends, Romans, Communists…

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Alex Karpovsky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lambert, Ming Zhao. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Hollywood is often portrayed as a dream factory and during its golden age, it was just that. Massive studios cranked out classic films (and, to be fair, a lot of crap too) and created lasting images of a time that never really existed. We look back at that era fondly because in many ways it was a lie.

Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is the studio chief at Capital Pictures. He fixes things when they go wrong, be they a ditzy starlet posing for risqué pictures or a family musical star (Johansson) ho has gotten herself knocked up and needs a husband pronto. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, has been unaccountably put into a drawing room comedy lensed by the immortal British director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes). And the studio’s big budget production of Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ – looks to be a huge hit.

Except that Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the film’s star, has turned up missing. And not just missing, kidnapped by a group that calls itself The Future. This could be an absolute public relations disaster. Not only does Eddie have to get the ransom paid and his mercurial star back on the set in time to film the climactic speech, he also has to make sure it stays out of the gossip columns particularly via twin sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Swinton). However in the meantime he’ll have to oversee a Sailor’s musical starring an athletic dancer (Tatum), a Busby Berkeley-like mermaid spectacular, a singing cowboy Western as well as the aforementioned films.

This is equal part tribute to old Hollywood and spoof of it. Clearly the Coens have a good deal of affection and reverence for the old movies. They also have a sense of whimsy that has influenced people like Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman. That’s present here too, more than in recent Coen Brothers films and more subversive in a lot of ways.

The production designer does a wonderful job of capturing the 50s look and the big studio vibe. Bright colors, as you’d see in a Technicolor production of the time, dominate here. The costume design is also flawless. One of the things that is typical to Coen Brother period films is the attention to detail is generally very serious even if the films themselves are more comedic.

As with many Coen Brother pictures, the cast is impressive. Clooney plays the empty-headed star to the hilt, while Brolin gives Mannix – who as a real person on the MGM lot by the way although he is fictionalized here – the harried demeanor that you’d expect from a studio executive. While Brolin’s Mannix is a bit more quirky than the real one was (the real Mannix was rumored to have had mob ties), his Catholic need for regular confession and ability to juggle a number of different balls in the air give him more personality than other writer-directors might have given a character like his. Ehrenreich projects a good deal of likability which bodes well for his future career.

Some of the supporting roles are little more than cameos but the ones that caught my attention were Swinton as the imperious gossip columnist twins whose rivalry is as abiding as their twin noses for a story. Hill is low-key as a notary public, and Johansson has moxie as the knocked up mermaid. As is usual for the Coen Brothers, the absurdity of the characters and their situation is played deadpan which only heightens the absurdity.

The problem I have here is that there are certain scenes that drag a little bit and fall a little flat. The scenes where Whitlock is having philosophical discussions with his captors is a bit silly and a lot more uninteresting. I know Da Queen complained that she was bored with the movie and I’ve heard similar complaints from other friends, some of whom are Coen Brothers fans. I can’t say that I was bored but I can see why they were.

I get that the Coen Brothers are not for everybody. People who didn’t like The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example, are not likely to enjoy this either. There is a quirkiness to their work that is I grant you an acquired taste. From a personal standpoint, it’s a taste I’ve acquired but I recognize that isn’t necessarily the same for you – and that’s not a bad thing. Your taste is your taste.

Any Coen Brothers movie is worth seeing. In my book, they’ve yet to make a movie that had no redeeming qualities. And to be fair, this isn’t going to be considered one of their best I’m quite sure – I’d rank it right about the middle of their pack. But the middle of the Coen pack is better than the entire work of plenty of other directors out there.

REASONS TO GO: Typical Coen Brothers vibe. Captures the era and location nicely. Love the whimsy!
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: For the most part, pretty harmless although there’s some content that’s slightly racy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional Capitol Pictures Studios also appears in the previous period Coen Brothers film Barton Fink.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Where to Invade Next?

The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

This is the End


Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World's End is opening after their film.

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World’s End is opening after their film.

(2013) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Samantha Ressler, Jason Segel, Catherine Kim Poon, Anna Rekota. Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen   

 

This is the end

beautiful friend

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Of everything that stands, the end

Can you picture what will be

limitless and free

And all the children are insane.

                 – Jim Morrison

The apocalypse is very much on our minds this summer. Perhaps it was because the world was supposed to end last year (and maybe it did and nobody told the rest of us). Be that as it may, there are a bunch of movies out there (or about to come out) that have the end of days as a plot point.

This one comes from Pineapple Express co-writers Rogen and Goldberg (who in addition to co-directing this one also co-wrote it) who rope in fellow Express star Franco in a movie in which most of the actors are playing Bizarro-world versions of themselves.

Baruchel lands at LAX where he is met by good friend Rogen. Their friendship goes back to when they were both struggling comics in Canada. Baruchel is looking forward to a weekend hanging out with his good friend who supplies them both with copious video games on an HD 3D TV, all of Jay’s favorite snacks and of course ample amounts of weed.

Rogen drags a reluctant Baruchel to a housewarming party at Franco’s home which can best be described as a pretentious post-modern bunker. It turns out he has a creepy kind of friendship with Rogen, which Baruchel doesn’t appreciate. He also doesn’t like most of the people at the party, particularly Hill who seems sweet and giving (and whom everyone seems to adore) but for some reason Baruchel has real enmity towards.

There are plenty of celebrities there – a coke-snorting, butt-slapping Cera who Kaling wants to do the horizontal fandango with, a rapping Robinson who wears the name of his new rap song on a t-shirt and several other young stars, mostly from the comedy community. However, the party abruptly ends when a massive earthquake hits the L.A. area, opening fissures in the earth. Baruchel witnesses people ascending to the sky in a strange blue light but nobody believes him – Baruchel thinks it’s the apocalypse while the survivors who ran back into the house (after watching one of the stars get skewered by a street lamp and dragged down into the bowels of the earth) – Franco, Rogen, Hill, Robinson and Baruchel – scoff at his story. Me, I thought it was aliens to begin with.

They discover an uninvited McBride had been sleeping one off in Franco’s bathroom and had, unaware of what was happening outside, cooked almost all of their food for breakfast. As it turns out, Baruchel isn’t far off and in the world of hedonistic egos that is Hollywood, heaven isn’t an option. Or is it?

I had high hopes for this one coming in. Rogen can be hysterically funny as a writer and given all the talent involved, there was reason for optimism. The trailer rocked pretty hard too. Safe to say, this is a major disappointment.

For one thing, there’s an overreliance on dick and weed jokes. I’m no prude – trust me, I don’t mind crude, raunchy and drug humor – but after the same subject of jokes over and over and over again it gets old. Even stoners need a change of subject.

I’m not saying that the movie isn’t funny. There are some real laugh out loud moments (some of which weren’t even in the trailer) but I just expected more. High expectations (no pun intended) can sometimes shape a review, perhaps unfairly.

Yes, there is plenty of skewering of the self-centered and self-destructive behavior that Hollywood is notorious for, but do we really need another movie about that? I mean, it’s not as if this is some sort of new and revelatory information here.

It feels like a massive in-joke that maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get. I like these actors individually but this smacks too much of self-indulgence and just didn’t get me laughing enough to overcome the perception. While I’m fully aware that these “self-portraits” are characters loosely based on the celebrity involved (and in the case of Cera and I’m sure a few others, having nothing to do with the personality of the celebrity involved) it’s still not the point. The point is that the movie just isn’t as good as it should have been, nor did it tickle my funny bone the way it should have. I have no doubt that there are people who found this to be right in their wheelhouse – my good friend Adam has already proclaimed this the funniest movie of the year and the final scene set in the afterlife is certainly going to make my son cackle louder than a Who concert – but I’m just not going to be one of them. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: Really great cast and some nifty cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies way too much on dick and drug humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of crude humor, drug use, sexuality, quite a bit of foul language, some brief nudity, apocalyptic religious images and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the paintings in James Franco’s home were actually painted by James Franco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Man of Steel

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas


Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

(1988) Comedy (New Line) John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Danneel Harris, Tom Lennon, Danny Trejo, Elias Koteas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Neil Patrick Harris, Amir Blumenfeld, David Krumholtz, Patton Oswalt, RZA, Richard Riehle, Jake Johnson, Melissa Ordway. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family. For bonding with those friends who have been beside you the entire year. To have kindness and concern for others, to have peace and compassion on your mind.

This movie is about none of those things. Our heroes, following the events of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay have drifted apart. Kumar Patel (Penn) has left medical school after failing the drug test and lives in the same ratty apartment he once shared with Harold Lee (Cho), who has become a big-time Wall Street investor (and has protestors ringing his office). He is married to Maria (Garces) whom he is trying to get pregnant in order to impress his father-in-law (Trejo) who doesn’t impress easily.

Kumar has been dumped by Vanessa (Harris) who is pregnant with his rugrat. He’s also scored an impressive stash from a mall Santa (Oswalt) which he intends to spend Christmas smoking himself into sweet spliff oblivion. But he receives a package that is meant for Harold and decides to deliver it in person to his former best bud.

Harold though has problems of his own. His home has been invaded by his future family (who arrived by the busload) and his dad-in-law wants this Christmas to be perfect. To that end he’s brought a 12-foot Douglas Fir that he has spent the last eight years raising, making sure that the dimensions were just right, that the branches opened up just so. Once decorated, it is indeed a magnificent tree.

As he and his family go to celebrate Mass, Kumar comes by with the package which turns out to be a gigantic joint. As Harold no longer partakes, he tosses the massive thing out the door. Kumar, irritated, decides to light it up for himself but somehow, almost by magic, the joint floats back into the house and lights the tree on fire.

Harold is mortified. He has only a few hours to replace the tree and potentially save his marriage. Kumar, feeling a little guilty, decides to help out along with his friend Adrian (Blumenfeld) and Harold’s friend Todd (Lennon) and Todd’s toddler. In the course of the night, they will deal with Ukrainian mobsters, ghetto tree lot entrepreneurs, a coked-out infant, emergency surgery on the real Santa after they accidentally shoot him, and appearing in the chorus line of a Broadway musical starring Neil Patrick Harris which is a bit disconcerting to our intrepid heroes since he was killed in the last movie. Listen, he’s N.P. Freakin’ H, motherf****r so don’t be hatin’.

It’s been said in other places by finer writers than I that Harold and Kumar are essentially the Cheech and Chong for the 21st century. That’s cool by me; not being a stoner I don’t really get the humor as much but then there’s room for all sorts of movies and who am I to deny the Stoner Nation their due. I’ve seen the first and now this, the third, movie in the franchise and in all honesty, the first is a much better movie than this (to the surprise of no one). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s worthwhile moments however.

This is no Christmas movie for the entire family to gather around the flat screen for. There is a lot of sexual humor, some of it quite crude as well as plenty of nudity and drug use. While some will laugh out loud at some of the pretty consistently lowbrow humor (it wouldn’t hurt to fire one up before you fire up the Blu-Ray), I don’t think even those toasted out of their skulls are going to find this a laugh fest from start to finish.

I will say that Cho and Penn have an easy-going chemistry and I think it was a bit of a mistake to have them on the outs for most of the movie. Part of the charm of the first movie was the relationship between the two and that’s largely missing here until the end. However, one cannot discount the contributions of Neil Patrick Harris. Even though he’s essentially in one scene, it’s the best scene and illustrates why the man’s an icon, a credit to the human race and just a gosh-darned all around nice guy. While he’s no Dr. Horrible here, he constitutes one of the main reasons to see the film – or any film for that matter. Even if he’s not in it.

The 3D is pretty nifty although I suppose at this point it will largely depend on if your 3D set is nifty as well – I’ve found a pretty staggering range of quality in 3D televisions. The jokes are more or less uneven although I found some sequences (as one where they start hallucinating that they are Claymation figures) to be pretty worthwhile. This isn’t a family holiday movie by any stretch of the imagination – but I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing if there are a few out there that aren’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Three words: Neil. Patrick. Harris. Also, Cho and Penn still have good chemistry. Some nifty 3D effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is a bit tired and not all of it works.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of sexual content with occasional nudity and regular crudity, plenty of drug use, a boatload of foul language and a bit of violence. Just a bit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian calls Harold “Sulu” at one point. John Cho plays Sulu in the Star Trek reboot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Actor Tom Lennon rants about his fellow actors and the films in six separate interview segments and there’s also a bit on the brief Claymation sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.4M on a $19M production budget; the numbers were disappointing enough that a fourth Harold & Kumar movie isn’t on the radar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Holly & the Quill concludes!

The Santa Clause


The Santa Clause
You’d better not cry…

(1994) Family (Disney) Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenburg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Jayne Eastwood, Melissa King, Bradley Wentworth, Steve Vinovich. Directed by John Pasquin

 

Belief is a powerful thing. There are those among us who must have the evidence of the senses to believe in something – seeing is believing, after all. It also must be said that one of the most lovely thing about children is their ability to believe whole-heartedly in something without evidence – their innocence augments their faith.

Scott Calvin (Allen) is an executive at a toy company. He is divorced and a bit estranged from his son Charlie (Lloyd). His ex-wife Laura (Crewson) has since re-married to a psychiatrist named Dr. Neil Miler (Reinhold) who is a pretty decent fellow.

Charlie is staying over at Scott’s house for Christmas Eve, with the intention of sending him back to his mom’s for the big day itself. Charlie is beginning to have doubts about the existence of Santa Clause whom Scott tries to re-assure him is real but Scott really doesn’t believe himself so the attempt falls flat. Later that night, they are awakened by a commotion on the roof. When they go out to investigate, Scott startles a man dressed in red on his roof, who then falls to the ground and apparently breaks his neck. The man disappears mysteriously, but when Scott investigates he finds a business card in the pocket of the suit which says that someone needs to put on the suit and that the reindeer would then know what to do.

In order to please Charlie, Scott puts on the suit and ascends to the roof where to his astonishment find eight reindeer and a sleigh. The two of them get into the sleigh and start delivering toys from house to house, with Scott making a rather poor Santa although he is able to magically fit down chimneys or for homes without fireplaces, dryer vents and radiator vents.

The last stop is the North Pole where Scott is greeted by a rather officious elf named Bernard (Krumholtz) who informs Scott that by donning the suit he has activated the Santa Clause which requires him to become Santa. He has until Thanksgiving of the following year to wrap up his affairs, after which he’ll become Santa full time. Charlie is given a snow globe as a gift. The two go to sleep in the North Pole but wake up back at Scott’s house. Scott assumes it was just a crazy dream.

Strange things begin to happen to Scott. He begins to develop an insatiable desire for cookies and hot chocolate and begins to put on an embarrassing amount of weight. He starts growing a long beard which no matter how he tries to shave it off re-appears instantly. His hair turns white. He has an uncanny knack of knowing who is naughty and nice. Kids, unconsciously knowing he’s Santa begin giving him lists of gifts they want.

Neil and Laura, seeing the extent of Scott’s Santa obsession and of Charlie’s increasing insistence that his father is the Santa Claus, become concerned with Charlie’s well-being and seek to terminate Scott’s visitation rights. The petition turns out to be successful and Scott, now determined to be a better father, is devastated.

The events create doubt in Scott that he is the true Santa Clause but while visiting Charlie on Thanksgiving, Charlie’s pleas and faith reawaken the magic and Bernard with Charlie’s help whisk Scott away to the North Pole. Charlie, wanting to be with his father, goes along. Laura and Neil are certain that Charlie has been kidnapped against his will and a police investigation is launched, led by Detective Nunzio (Brandenburg). When Scott tries to deliver presents to Neil’s house on Christmas Eve, Scott is arrested. Can Christmas be saved?

At the time this film was made, Allen was best known for his “Home Improvement” hit series which was then in its third year. The movie increased his star power and led to his casting as Buzz Lightyear shortly thereafter. Two additional Santa Clause movies were also made in the succeeding years.

The movie is inventive and charming and a bit sticky sweet in places. It harkens back to the heyday of Disney live action family movies such as The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Three Lives of Tomasina. The blend of magic and physics makes this entertaining for adults as well as kids and the movie never forgets that while its target audience is children that their parents are going to have to be entertained as well.

Allen is at his best here and would have a solid career in family films for the Mouse House following this. He brings the right mix of cynicism and warm-heartedness to the role and the transformation of Scott as a career-oriented man to a devoted father is believable. The chemistry between him and Lloyd as his son Charlie seems genuine.

While the North Pole operation isn’t as impressive as shown in later films like The Polar Express and Fred Claus it was nifty at the time it was released and still is grand enough to get oohs and aahs from the younger set.

There are no villains in this movie – Neil and Laura act out of genuine concern for Charlie and that’s kind of refreshing. Some Scrooge-like critics grumbled about the custody issues bogging down the plot but quite frankly I disagree. The movie is about the difficulties created by Scott becoming Santa and in that sense the reaction of other adults to Scott’s transformation seems logical and believable to me. Even though there is a certain magic in the North Pole scenes, Scott’s coping with his physical transformation are for me the best scenes in the movie.

This is certainly not the best Christmas movie ever made but it has become a minor holiday classic. It is clever, good fun and essentially harmless. It could have used a little more edge and Santa breaking his neck early on might scar the more sensitive kids for life but other than that this is charming holiday viewing and definitely a movie I don’t mind seeing again and again.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and heartwarming in places, a worthy addition to Disney’s live action family film tradition. Allen proves he has big screen star power here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little sticky-sweet in places. Somewhat dated at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few moments of crude humor but not so crude that you wouldn’t want your kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally written with Bill Murray in mind, but he passed. Fellow SNL alumni Chevy Chase was also offered the part but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. Disney had a strict policy of not hiring ex-cons, but an exception was made in his case for the “Home Improvement” television show which was produced by Disney’s Touchstone arm and Allen went on to make movies not only in the Santa Clause franchise but several other family films as well the Toy Story series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD includes a feature hosted by Wolfgang Puck as he shows you how to make some of Santa’s favorite snacks, and there’s is also an interactive game called “Santa’s Helper.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $189.8M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a franchise-establishing blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill concludes!