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!

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Scrooged


Tiny bubbles...

Tiny bubbles…

(1988) Comedy (Paramount) Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, Mabel King, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, John Houseman, Buddy Hackett, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray. Directed by Richard Donner

 The Holly and the Quill

Some Christmas tales are so timeless, so meaningful that they can survive being twisted, pulled, yanked out of shape and modified into something quite different and still be meaningful and timeless.

Frank Cross (Murray) is the programming VP at the IBS network and he’s the youngest in the industry. He’s the golden boy, the one who has the eye of network head Preston Rhinelander (Mitchum). It’s Christmastime and Cross has an ace up his sleeve for the Yule season – a live broadcast of Scrooge from various locations, with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, John Houseman narrating and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one.

The people who work around Frank could use all the blessings they can manage. Frank is a world-class a-hole with a mean streak wider than the Long Island Expressway. This live show is crucial to his career; if it succeeds he is on the fast track to Rhinelander’s job. If it fails, he’s on the fast track to unemployment, where he has already put nebbish assistant Eliot Loudermilk (Goldthwait). He tries to keep his long-suffering assistant Grace Cooley (Woodard) working late, preventing her from taking her mute son Calvin (Phillips) to a needed doctor’s appointment.

But if you think Frank is callous in his professional life, you should see his personal life. He spurns his brother Earl’s (Doyle-Murray) invitation to dinner. He is as alone as alone can be. That wasn’t always the case. He was once deeply in love with the pretty community activist Claire Phillips (Allen) but that was from a long time ago. He’s barely thought about her over the years…well, that’s what he’d have you think anyway.

Frank is on a one-way trip to the hot seat but there are those who think he has something inside him worth saving – one being his mentor Lew Hayward (Forsythe), who pays Frank a visit on Christmas eve to try and reason with him. Never mind that Lew’s been dead for years; he’s really got Frank’s best interests at heart. He sure doesn’t want his protégé to end up like him – a rotting corpse doomed to walk the earth for eternity. To help the reluctant Frank along, Lew’s sending three ghosts to show him the way – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Johansen), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kane) and…you get the picture.

This was a much ballyhooed remake of the Dickens classic that Murray, who had last tasted success with Ghostbusters four years earlier, had his imprint all over. SNL compatriots Michael O’Donoghue and Mitch Glaser co-wrote it and many of Murray’s cronies from SNL and from his other movies, as well as all of his brothers, were in the film. The film is very much set around Murray and his style of humor, so if you don’t like him much you’re not going to find a lot of reasons to see the film.

Still, if you do like him, this is one of his most iconic performances, one that will live with most of his classic performances in Stripes and the aforementioned Ghostbusters. The movie didn’t resonate with the critics very much – at the movie’s conclusion, Murray delivers a speech about the true meaning of Christmas which some felt was treacly and not heartfelt (although I beg to differ).

The ghosts are all amazing and fun, particularly Kane who beats the snot out of Murray (in one scene she pulled his lip so hard that filming had to be halted for several days while he recovered). The special effects are fun and if they are a little dated by modern standards (the movie will turn 25 next year) they still hold up pretty well.

The movie remains if not a Christmas classic at least a Christmas perennial. It runs regularly on cable this time of year and is easily available on streaming or for rent. It is perhaps less serious than most other Christmas movies but it has edgier laughs and that’s certainly worth something.

WHY RENT THIS: Kane, Forsythe and Johansen make some terrific ghosts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems like an overly long SNL skit at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scary images and some bad language. A little rude humor to tide you over as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tiny Tim-like character Calvin Cooley was named for former President Calvin Coolidge who was known for being taciturn.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on an unknown production budget; in its time the movie was a big box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

It’s a Wonderful Life


It's a Wonderful Life
George Bailey once caught a fish that was THISSSS big!!

(1946) Holiday Fantasy (RKO Radio) Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Tom Karns. Directed by Frank Capra

There are a lot of movies that are designated as classics, and they get that kind of acclaim for a variety of reasons. Some transcend time and place, bring into focus our basic humanity and reaffirm the basic goodness that is inside all of us, even though we sometimes seem more like the greedy banker than the noble George Bailey.

The aforementioned George Bailey (Stewart) wants nothing more than to see the world, but events conspire against him. His father’s building and loan in the picturesque town of Bedford Falls is the only alternative for people to build homes as opposed to live in the squalid shacks built by the town’s greedy, grasping Mr. Potter (Barrymore), one of  filmdom’s all time nastiest villains. Time after time, just when it seems that George is going to get his dream, something happens to frustrate him.

Most of us know the basics of the story. When George hits rock bottom, his business short by several thousand dollars on Christmas Eve just when the auditor arrives and it seems as if he is going to go to jail and his family rocked by scandal, he wishes he had never been born. His somewhat bedraggled guardian angel Clarence (Travers) grants him his wish and he gets to see what the world would be like without him.

The message is that a single person can make a huge difference on the lives of those around them is perhaps not an unusual one but few films have ever delivered it as effectively as this one. A perennial Christmas favorite, the redemption of George Bailey is recognized as the redemption of us all. Like George Bailey, we often don’t recognize what we have right in front of us.

This may very well be Jimmy Stewart’s most defining role. He made a career of playing an unassuming everyman, none more basically good than George Bailey. He’s a good man doing the best he can in trying circumstances; we can all see a little bit of ourselves in George, and in his devoted wife Mary (Reed). The love between them is genuine and uplifting, and much more passionate than movies of the time were generally.

Barrymore, one of the great actors of his generation, plays mean Mr. Potter note-perfectly as a man obsessed with power and possession and in doing so creates one of the most memorable movie villains ever. George Bailey compares him to a spider and so he is, sitting in his web, spinning his plans with a worldview that is cynical, believing the people are basically corrupt and unworthy. It is the difference between Bailey and Potter that represents the two opposing views of the nature of man. We like to believe that we are more like George Bailey, even though oftentimes we act more like Mr. Potter – in our own self-interest with little regard for the world behind us. I do believe he would have found our world very much to his liking.

And yet we still believe in George Bailey. Seeing this movie always brings to mind that we are, at heart, yearning to be George Bailey, wishing that the world worked the way it does here where the good are surrounded by friends who rush to the rescue in our darkest hour. It’s a world where angels get wings whenever a bell rings, where decrepit houses can become homes and where daddies can fix broken flowers with a little bit of glue and a lot of love. It’s a world where prayers are answered and guardian angels walk among us. It is a better world. It is our world, or at least it could be.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a heartwarming classic that uplifts the spirit no matter how depressed you may be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You have the soul of Mr. Potter.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a family classic that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Film Institute has named this movie the #1 most inspirational film of all time, the #1 most powerful film of all time, the #3 Fantasy film of all time and the #20 film overall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include a making of documentary hosted by the late Tom Bosley and Frank Capra Jr. hosts a featurette entitled “A Personal Remembrance.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Formosa Betrayed

How the Grinch Stole Christmas


How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Jim Carrey makes a point about Taylor Momsen’s hairstyle; it’s a bit too drab.

(2000) Holiday Fantasy (Universal) Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Bill Irwin, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard, Mindy Sterling, Anthony Hopkins (voice). Directed by Ron Howard

Family movies, particularly those concerning the holidays, have become increasingly marketing-oriented, substituting toys and corporate tie-ins for good storytelling and meaningful lessons. It’s ironic that this live-action remake of a beloved animated classic that espouses the feeling behind Christmas over the commercialism that Christmas has become should be marketed so aggressively – with toys and corporate tie-ins.

Irony aside, most of us who aren’t named Ebeneezer Scrooge know the story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” A mean-spirited, cold-hearted (that heart being two sizes too small) creature known as the Grinch (Carrey) sits in his mountain lair, dreading the coming of Christmas, a holiday loathed by the green-furred curmudgeon. Taking solace by playing mean-spirited pranks on his Christmas-obsessed neighbors down in Whoville (known as Whos, creatures with off-the-wall haircuts and upwardly mobile noses), the Grinch is eventually goaded into a dastardly scheme. He means to eradicate every vestige of Christmas from Whoville while the unsuspecting Whos slumber amid the splendors of pine and light.

With the reluctant help of his adorable mutt Max, the Grinch devises a Santa suit and a rather unlikely-looking sleigh to carry out his nefarious deed. Of course, we all know how it ends – so there’s no need to discuss that here.

Director Ron Howard goes deeper into the background story of the Grinch, exploring the reasons behind his hate affair with the Yuletide, and adds numerous subplots, turning tiny Cindy Lou Who (Momsen) into a central character, whose non-judgmental belief in the goodness of the Grinch proves to be the linchpin the story revolves around. Writer Jeffrey Price adds a love interest (Baranski), a pompous mayor (Tambor) and Cindy Lou’s simple but eventually steadfast dad (Irwin).

The onscreen Whoville appears just as the late Theodore Geisel drew it, only in greater detail. Methinks the film’s designers spent a lot of time examining Seuss Landing at Universal’s Islands of Adventure; the set bears a striking resemblance to the theme park. Much like Never-Never Land in “Hook,” Whoville and the Mount Crumpit Grinch Cave become pivotal to the movie’s success, becoming places that are real and that we want to visit. Whoville may not be the star of the show, but it’s certainly an important cast member.

In one of his most physically demanding roles, Carrey brings the Grinch to life and though he can’t resist the over-the-top mugging that keeps me from being a big fan of his work, I am nonetheless impressed with his commitment to the character. Young Momsen makes a charming Cindy Lou Who, and though it probably wasn’t a wise idea to let her sing, she at least is off-key with heart. Boris Karloff is no longer with us to narrate, but Hopkins is the best person for filling those shoes that we have today, Christopher Lee notwithstanding.

This is a family movie that is actually for the whole family. Young ‘uns will appreciate the simple story, the physical comedy and the wonderful eye candy. Adults (most of us who grew up with Dr. Seuss or reading it to someone who did) will find comfort in the nostalgia that is evoked, and delight in seeing Whoville brought to life.

Add “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to the list of timeless holiday classics that we’ll want to revisit again and again through the years. It’s a marvelous treat for the entire family or share with a date, or even just experience by yourself. Da Queen gave this one sentimental hankie, and for once, I think she underrated it.

WHY RENT THIS: The dazzling Whoville set brings Dr. Seuss to life. Certainly there are moments in the movie when the Christmas spirit really shows through.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey has a tendency to overdo it at times.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a little crude but otherwise this is a holiday classic fit for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Whoville set was built behind the Psycho house on the Universal lot in California. Sometimes during breaks in filming, Carrey would run out of the house while wearing a dress and brandishing a knife, startling the tourists taking the Backlot Tram Tour but nobody ever recognized him.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video of Faith Hill’s performance of “Where Are You Christmas” (the song Momsen sings, sorta, in the film) and some interesting featurettes on translating Dr. Seuss’ world to the screen as well as the instructions that went to the extras on how to be Whos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $345.1M on a $123M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes with the review of a Holiday Classic and a special Christmas story.

A Christmas Story


A Christmas Story
How could you deny this face a Daisy Red Rider BB Gun?

(1983) Holiday Comedy (MGM) Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Zack Ward, Yano Anaya, Jeff Gillen, Jean Shepherd (voice). Directed by Bob Clark

The Christmases of our childhood are special and priceless. Sometimes a single Christmas can be defined by the things we get, but sometimes what we get is more than the presents we’re given.

Ralphie Parker (Billingsley) lives in an Indiana town in 1940; a very Norman Rockwell kind of place with department stores, middle schools and Chinese restaurants. Ralphie is a pretty normal kid who wants just one thing for Christmas; a Daisy Red Rider BB Gun. He knows exactly the one he wants; it has a compass in the stock as well as a sundial; he even knows the serial number.

Unfortunately, no adult in their right mind is willing to get that kind of gift for him. He could shoot his eye out with that thing. So he does what he can to convince those in charge that he deserves the gift of his dreams and will use it safely. Unfortunately, he has to contend with a whole lot of things, like the school bully Scut Farkas (Ward) and his minion Grover Dill (Anaya). On his side is his little brother Randy (Petrella) and his friend Flick (Schwartz) who is foolish enough to affix his tongue to a frozen metal post with predictable results.

He has a mom (Dillon) with the patience of a saint but a firm and steadfast refusal to let him get the BB gun. His old man (McGavin) is far too busy dealing with the neighbor’s mutts who drive him crazy, as well as the anticipation of the arrival of a major award, which turns out to be a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg with a fishnet stocking on it. He sticks it in the front window, mortifying Ralphie’s mom.

When Ralphie gives one final try to see if the big man – Santa (Gillen) will come through but when he goes to the local department store to ask the Man in the Suit for his beloved BB gun, the response is “You’ll shoot your eye out with one of those things, kid. Ho ho ho” followed by a shove by his jolly boot. With Christmas days away and nowhere left to turn, how could this be anything but the worst Christmas ever?

This has become a modern classic of the holiday movie genre and the most bizarre part is that it was directed by the man best known for directing Porky’s. If two movies on the same filmography could be more diametrically opposed, I can’t think of any. While A Christmas Story has a feeling of Americana (courtesy of Jean Shepherd, who wrote the collection of short stories the movie is based on and also narrates), the other is raunchy and outrageous at times, a precursor to things like American Pie.

McGavin and Dillon are perfectly cast in this. Dillon, who was cast based on her work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is much more of an idealized American mom here. She is patient (for the most part – don’t think of cursing in front of her though) and nurturing although there are times her patience grows thin. McGavin, who was mostly known as Carl Kolchak on the “Night Stalker”  television series, was cast when Jack Nicholson turned down the role and the movie benefitted I think. McGavin is equal parts loving dad, bumbling husband and antagonized neighbor. He mutters vague expletives that the movie serves to keep from being specific, which makes it actually funnier.

Billingsley is not the most talented child actor that ever came down the pike, but he does a decent job here. Most of the child actors here are by modern standards somewhat wooden, but they were more or less equal to the standards of the time. It helps that Shepherd moves much of the plot along with his narration, leaving the kids less to do.

Shepherd was the kind of writer who inspired people like Garrison Keillor and Spalding Gray; he was quite a raconteur and left behind a body of work that is as impressive as any 20th century author, but it will be this movie he will most be remembered for. Like Charles Dickens, his insights into human nature and the power of Christmas to make things better are timeless and needed. Sometimes things just come into confluence as if guided by fate, unseen hands or whatever – this is one of those things. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, y’know?

WHY RENT THIS: One of those timeless movies of Americana that have to do with family, love and Daisy Red Rider BB Guns.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor may be a bit too dry for some..

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and swearing, although there are allusions to much worse language than is actually used onscreen.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was featured in the exterior shots was actually in Cleveland, not in Indiana where the movie is set. A fan of the film bought the home in 2005, refurbishing the interior to match the movie. It opened in 2006, along with a gift shop and museum dedicated to the movie in the house next door which the fan also purchased. You can learn more about the house and the movie at their website here.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Because the movie is a classic and has gone through several DVD releases, there are a plethora of features out there in the various iterations. While the original DVD just contains the film and the trailer, the Blu-Ray and Special Edition include a couple of games, a fascinating featurette on the Daisy Red Rider BB Gun, Jean Shepherd reading two of his stories for a radio show, an 18-minute “Another Christmas Story” which features the now-adult members of the cast reminiscing about their time filming the movie and its impact on their lives and a funny featurette known as “The Leg Lamp: Shining Light of Freedom.” The Ultimate edition contains all of these and the scripted “Flash Gordon” scene that was eventually cut from the film, as well as a recipe book, cookie cutters and an apron (it comes in a cookie tin).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20.6M on an unreported production budget; although it’s likely that the movie broke even at best during its theatrical run, it has more than earned its keep on cable and home video.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!

Four Christmases


Four Christmases
Merry Christmas times four.

(2008) Holiday Comedy (New Line) Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, Katy Mixon, Patrick van Horn. Directed by Seth Gordon

Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year for families that are even in the best of circumstances. When you take two sets of divorced parents, and a couple that are resisting the urge to get married because of it, you can get some interesting situations.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have what seems to be a really good relationship. They’re both successful people, well-organized and care deeply about each other. They do have a quirk however; they don’t like spending Christmas with their families. They make up elaborate lies every year to avoid spending any time with their four sets of families (both Brad and Kate are the products of divorced parents, several of whom have since remarried). They then take a well-deserved vacation in some tropical paradise – in this case, Fiji.

However, this is the year when most of their plans are going to go awry. Fog at San Francisco’s airport kills their flight; when they are put on television to comment on the situation, the jig is up. There’s nothing for it but to spend some time with each of their four parents.

First up is Brad’s dad, the irascible Howard (Duvall) who would live in a double wide if he was just a little bit less well-heeled. His other sons Denver (Favreau) and Dallas (McGraw), each of them named for the city they were conceived in (Brad’s birth name is Orlando), are a little bit shall we say steroid-enhanced. Would-be wrestlers, they take every opportunity to beat the crap out of Brad in a semi-playful manner that doesn’t hide so well their underlying rage. Dallas’ wife Susan (Mixon) is the queen of seven-layer cuisine. An attempt to hook up satellite TV for Howard ends in complete disaster.

Next up is Kate’s mom (Steenburgen), a man-hungry cougar who has set her sights on Pastor Phil (Yoakam). She is surrounded by fellow cougars and children with kids, her sister Courtney (Chenoweth) in particular with a baby that is a living, breathing, projectile vomiting machine. Kate and Brad are recruited to star in the church Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, which affords Brad an opportunity to access his inner Vince Vaughn.

Brad’s mom (Spacek) is next on the list, and Brad has a real problem with her. You see, she’s married Brad’s childhood friend (van Horn). Can we say awkward? I knew we could. All along Kate and Brad are finding out more about each other than they’ve ever known – when one reinvents oneself, one sometimes leaves past indiscretions behind one.

Finally, we end up with Kate’s Dad (Voight) where things come to a head. Kate and Brad will have to decide if they are really ready to step up and make it official or else let the things between them remain between them.

I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were tasked with making an outrageous comedy with a holiday theme, and then studio execs kept asking them to tone it down. The movie is replete with screenwriting 101 clichés, characters who are artificially outrageous for no other reason than to provide something for Vaughn and Witherspoon to work off of.

Actually, what I really mean here is Vaughn. While he pretty much sticks to his regular shtick, his comedic persona is so well-developed that he can do it in his sleep. Much of the movie is improvised which is right up Vaughn’s alley and when Vaughn is riffing, there are very few who can keep up with them. Witherspoon is a capable comic actress, but she’s dealing with a force of nature and wisely keeps herself to the background.

The parents are all Oscar winners and you would think with this kind of cast that there would be some depth to the movie. Nope, that’s a big negatory. This is really meant to be mindless entertainment and for the most part, the impressive cast just show up, collect their paychecks and move on to bigger and better things. Only Voight has a really magic moment, a one-on-one conversation with Witherspoon that injects some of the badly needed holiday spirit into the movie.

The movie got the equivalent of a thermonuclear blasting from critics upon release back in 2008, which still makes me scratch my head. No, this isn’t the greatest Christmas movie ever but it is mostly inoffensive and pretty mindless entertainment. While the tiny Witherspoon and tall Vaughn present a framing challenge, they have enough chemistry together to make the movie work. If you need something to put you in a holiday frame of mine, you could do worse.

WHY RENT THIS: An astonishing cast, with four Oscar winners (playing each of the parents) as well as two country stars. Vaughn is at the top of his game here, and Witherspoon is always charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to get a bit unfocused in places and the reliance on improvisation gives the movie a choppy feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is on the sexy side, and there is a little bit of foul language but not enough to get steamed up over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Wiebe makes a cameo playing Donkey Kong in the movie. Wiebe was the subject of Gordon’s excellent documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing on the DVD version (grrrrr!) there is an hysterical gag reel on the Blu-Ray version as well as a well-intentioned but poorly executed comedy cooking show with Mixon and celebrity chef Paula Deen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.