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.

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Pride and Glory


Pride and Glory

Colin Farrell and Edward Norton have a contest for the best intense look.

(New Line) Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Noah Emmerich, Jennifer Ehle, Frank Grillo, Lake Bell, Ramon Rodriguez, Shea Wigham. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

The men and women of the New York Police Department have a particularly dangerous job to do. It’s a job that requires them to be exposed to the worst of human nature. Some rise above it and become something special. Others are infected by it and join in to that side of the coin. After all, these are human beings who have attributes both good and bad, just like the rest of us.

The Tierney clan – Frank Sr. (Voight), Frank “Frannie” Jr. (Emmerich), Ray (Norton) and in-law Jimmy Egan (Farrell) are all New York cops whose lives are irrevocably changed when four of their brother officers are gunned down in what appears to be an execution-style ambush.

At his father’s insistence, Ray is brought in to head the investigation. Once a promising detective, he has been in self-imposed exile after a Very Bad Incident, brooding on his father’s houseboat and separated from his wife. All four of the dead cops were under Frannie’s command and served with Jimmy.

As Ray digs deeper, he discovers that a notorious drug dealer named Angel Tezo (Rodriguez) is at the heart of the murders and that Jimmy is deeply involved. Frannie should well have been aware, but he is immersed in the impending death of his wife (Ehle) from cancer.

What we have here is an excellent cast elevating a mediocre movie. If you follow the plot line, there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been in a dozen movies just like it, from the Irish cop family to the corrupt Hispanic drug dealers. You can count on several angry confrontations, much soul-searching and a denouement in which there is at least a measure of redemption.

Norton, Voight and Farrell are all fine actors. Voight does a magnificent job as a father whose old school ideas of what a cop should be are rapidly fading into the past. He is sinking into a stupor of alcohol and moral high ground; a scene at the Thanksgiving table where he drunkenly addresses his children might very well be the best one in the film.

Norton plays the heavily conflicted Ray who knows that the further he digs the worse it’s going to be for his family. He has to weigh his family against justice, and his conscience is getting a workout that would do Bob and Jillian proud. Frannie is a man who realizes too late what is going on under his nose, but is a decent guy at heart.

Films like this have a tendency to over-romanticize the police force as war films tend to over-romanticize the military. The thing to remember about the police is that while yes there is some corruption and yes there are some boy scouts, most cops fall right in the middle. Most are just doing a job and the kind of grand concepts of pride and honor are really meaningless. Mostly, it’s just about coming home at the end of the day.

Still, I liked this movie mainly because of the performances. Farrell does his usual rough and tumble work while Norton is steady and layered. They are as opposite as you can get as actors and that juxtaposition really works, making their scenes together all the more magnetic.

This movie tries really hard to be gritty which isn’t a bad thing in my book. Movies about the mean streets of New York should be gritty. While it may not necessarily work as a police procedural, it sure does work as a character study. That’s enough for me.

WHY RENT THIS: A raw and gritty look at the NYPD, the stress of the job and the ease that corruption can set in to good men.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Romanticizes the Force to almost mythic proportions and the fawning gets a little too close to kissing ass for comfort. And yes, as a matter of fact, we have seen it all before.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty rough violence, even rougher language and a little bit of drug use add up to one for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nick Nolte was originally cast as Frank Tierney Sr., but an old knee injury flared up at the last minute and Nolte had to go in for surgery. Voight was cast as a replacement at the last minute.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Flame and Citron

September Dawn


September Dawn

You'd better be good or Jon Voight will go all Old Testament on your ass.

(Black Diamond) Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Gries, Taylor Handley, Huntley Ritter, Daniel Libman, Dean Cain, Lolita Davidovich, Shaun Johnston, Terence Stamp. Directed by Christopher Cain

So much pain, so much bloodshed has been perpetrated in the name of God and Christ. Even today, religious fanaticism and intolerance has led to the most heinous of acts.

In the late summer and early fall of 1857, the Fancher-Baker wagon train, led by the redoubtable Captain Fancher (Johnston) reaches Utah territory and the land of Bishop Samuelson (Voight) of the Mormon church. They are exhausted, and need food, supplies and rest before pushing over the rest of the Rockies to make it to California, where they are bringing Kentucky racehorses for the purpose of gambling. Samuelson’s sons, Jonathan (Ford) and Micah (Handley) meet the party with unfriendly distrust.

The Mormons had good reason to mistrust. They were on the verge of being invaded by the U.S. Army, as the American government was not too pleased with the idea of a religious theocracy developing on American soil. The prophet of the Mormons, Joseph Smith (Dean Cain) had been murdered at the hands of an angry Missouri mob, an event witnessed by Samuelson himself. However, he is the voice of hospitality as he tones down the boys’ unwelcoming and bids the settlers stay and rest awhile.

What he really wants to do is keep them close by while he can keep an eye on them and find out what they’re up to. What he thinks they’re up to is to sneak guns in to help murder Mormon citizens of Utah and pave the way for the U.S. military to wipe them all out. He is further disturbed by the sight of a woman, Nancy Dunlap (Davidovich) wearing pants, a no-no in Mormon culture…well in American culture pretty much of the time as well.

He means to punish the infidels or Mericats as the Mormons called them and praises God for delivering them into his hands for punishment, or more accurately retribution. Simultaneously, the Fancher party’s Reverend Hudson (Libman) is giving thanks to God for the party’s deliverance into hospitable hands.

Jonathan has fallen for the good Reverend’s spirited daughter Emily (Hope) who challenges him on an intellectual level that none of the local girls is able to do. However, to his horror, his father has ordered that the party be wiped out with the complicit support of Mormon leader Brigham Young (Stamp). Mormon leaders approach the local Paiute tribe to do their dirty work, warning the Native Americans that the party is out to take their land.

When the Paiutes fail to carry out the Mormon’s plan, John Lee (Gries), a militia leader for the Mormon Church, offers to escort the Fancher party to safety if they lay down their arms, which would appease the hostiles. Instead, on the morning of September 11, 1857 he leads them to the Mountain Meadows where the party is ambushed and massacred, with only the small children being allowed to live, taken to be raised as Mormons by Mormon families.

Most of the events above actually happened; the massacre did take place 144 years before the World Trade Center fell. In all fairness, there is no historical evidence that confirms that Brigham Young condoned or even knew about the attack; his deposition, which is recreated here, took place nearly a decade after the events occurred (the Civil War kept the United States a little busy before they could return and properly investigate the massacre). Only Lee was ever charged or convicted for the crime, and his execution is shown at the movie’s conclusion, in fairly graphic but accurate detail.

The Mormon Church has decried the movie, saying it is anti-Mormon and historically inaccurate and certainly there are plenty of inaccuracies here. However, it is widely believed that Young’s strident teachings created an atmosphere that allowed the massacre to take place. Certainly that Mormons took part in the crime is beyond doubt.

One doesn’t look to Hollywood for history lessons, and if you do, you do so at your own peril. Director Cain has been accused of making the film in order to derail the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a charge which is patently ridiculous (the writing and preparation for the film took place long before Romney announced his candidacy). Whether there is anti-Mormonism in the movie is a judgment call; I for one didn’t detect that it was particularly against the Church of Latter-Day Saints but certainly depicted individuals within that Church as fanatic and paranoid.

Voight is a tremendous actor, and he gets license to go over-the-top and he does so with a great deal of gusto. He wears his Old Testament beard like a genuine prophet, or at least a man believing himself to be. There are some nuances to his performance that I liked a great deal, as he portrays Bishop Samuelson as a man scarred by his own inability to save his wife or Joseph Smith, and a man enraged by the threat of the Gentiles, as the Mormons then referred non-Mormons as.

The romance between Jonathan and Emily simply doesn’t work for me. They get together mainly because the screenplay tells them to; I never got the impression that there was anything binding them together that was real or believable. Johnston is suitably heroic as Captain Fancher, and Handley suitably tormented as Micah. Most of the rest of the performances are of the movie-of-the-week variety.

I do like that a nearly-forgotten incident from American history has been brought to light for public debate. The details of the Massacre remain cloudy to this day. The crime remains a heinous one, even by modern standards; women and children were shot, sometimes at point-blank range. Their remains were left unburied to be consumed by animals and scattered by the elements. Witnesses who came to the site years later proclaimed it to be one of the most horrific things they’d ever seen.

This is a movie that may well have excited a certain amount of debate on the subject if only it had been a little bit better. Far too much emphasis was placed on the star-crossed romance that never occurred. A movie about the Massacre that focused on the people who were victimized by it as well as those who were complicit in its planning and execution might have made for far more gripping fare. Still, I was at least motivated to do further research on the event and learn a bit more, so some good did come of the movie as far as I’m concerned.

WHY RENT THIS: Brings to light a forgotten event in American history that shouldn’t be. Even though he’s chewing the scenery somewhat, Voight still manages to be compelling.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This certainly depicts the Mormons in a very unflattering light; some might be offended by it. The romance between Emily and Jonathan is less than scintillating.

FAMILY VALUES: The depiction of the massacre is pretty brutal and is not for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reverend Hudson and his daughter Emily actually left the wagon train before it reached Utah; also, Nancy Dunlap’s husband is said in the film to have died before the action takes place, but historically he perished in the massacre.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the historical aspects of the massacre which tend to support the theories of the filmmakers – take these with a grain of salt. Of more interest are interviews with the descendents of those who perished in the massacre, which lends some perspective on the events of the film. It may not be a bad idea to watch both of these features before viewing the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: How About You