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

Journey 2: Mysterious Island


Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

My name...is Michael Caine.

(2012) Family (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens, Luis Guzman, Kristin Davis, Anna Colwell, Stephen Caudill, Branscombe Richmond, Walter Bankson. Directed by Brad Peyton

 

Jules Verne was one of the great science fiction writers of all-time. Among the things he presaged in his works included submarines and space travel. His books are some of the most beloved ever written. They’ve been made into movies many times over, some of them becoming classics of cinema as well (I’m looking at you, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

This won’t be. In fact, there is almost nothing in common with Verne’s Mysterious Island other than the title and that they’re both set on an island. Billed as a sequel to 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (but only retaining Hutcherson from that cast), the movie starts out with Sean Anderson (Hutcherson) attempting to elude the police on his motorbike.

It turns out that the reason the cops were chasing him, other than for driving a motorbike, was that he’d broken into a satellite dish shack to boost the signal of a message he believes is from his grandfather, two years missing. Unfortunately, it’s in code so Sean can’t be sure.

Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with his mother (Davis, played by Jane Wheeler in the original) who has since remarried, to ex-Navy code breaker Hank (Johnson) who Sean is having trouble bonding with his well-muscled stepdad. That code breaking stint comes in handy as Hank helps Sean solve the code and locate Grandpa in the South Pacific. Sean is raring to go fetch.

However, like any sensible stepdad, he is willing to fly with his troubled stepson to Palau (close to where the signal originated from) to charter a helicopter to the island which apparently is in a stretch of ocean where nothing exists. Piloting the ‘copter is Gabato (Guzman), also known as plucky comedy relief and his comely daughter Kailani (Hudgens), also known as gratuitous tank top and Daisy Dukes wearer.

The four take off for the island that nobody thinks exists in a patch of ocean known for its extreme storms. Yeah, Hank’s parenting skills are right up there with the parents of Sparta; danger? Leave the weak ones in the snow to die.

Anyway, predictably the storms wreck the copter and the four are stranded on the island where elephants are the size of Chihuahuas and lizards are the size of city busses. After a run in with an angry mama lizard after a stroll through an egg field that the team of “Top Chef” could turn into an amazing omelet (complete with an attack from a grouchy lizard embryo), the castaways run into dear old Grandpa, Alexander Anderson (Caine) who has built himself a nice little treehouse and MacGyvered a radio out of a spoon and a watch…or something like that.

However, there’s a problem. The island is sinking and they have only a few days to get away before their real estate with an ocean view gets a whole lot closer to water – and on top of that those pesky Class 5 hurricanes (with fancy water spouts) are still hanging around the island. Their only hope may lie with a 150 year old vessel that may or may not exist.

Like the first movie, the environment is nearly all CGI as well as all of the critters both large and small. Given the tropical setting, it’s a little bit of “Lost” with a whole lot of Disney. While the mouse house isn’t responsible for any of this, there’s an element of theme park attraction here and in a good way. The movie has a sunny energy that takes your mind off of things for the hour and a half you’re watching it.

Much of the reason for that is Dwayne Johnson. He’s become a genuine movie star, elevating every movie he appears in, and this one is no exception. Johnson’s charm carries the movie – he even sings the old Sam Cooke chestnut “What a Wonderful World” while accompanying himself on the ukulele. Yes, the Rock sings. Deal with it.

Hutcherson hasn’t yet impressed me as a lead. He’s a bit on the wooden side and lacks the charisma to really take over a scene and make it his own and the colorless Hudgens generates no sparks with him. Caine plays a bit of the rascal here, which he does as well as anybody. His banter with Johnson make some of the movies best moments.

That said, the CGI can be a little weak and the conceit that the Island is the remains of Atlantis makes absolutely no sense – the island was supposed to be in the Atlantic ocean, not the South Pacific for one thing. Also, the set for Atlantis has a tile mural that says “Atlantis.” In English. Makes it look more like a Bahamian resort than an ancient civilization, dude.

Like the first movie, the intent is to go family first and adventure second. Therefore the critters – including giant bees, ants, centipedes and spiders – never feel too dangerous and the five never seem to be in too much danger. A little more tension might have made this a better movie.

Still it’s entertaining enough, with plenty of eye candy and lots of easy charm, mainly courtesy of Johnson. Like the movie’s predecessor it isn’t going to win a lot of kudos from Jules Verne’s fans but it is a movie likely to keep both young and old interested. Nothing wrong with that.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson is at his best here and Caine is always reliable. Some fairly whimsical moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Weak CGI in places and a real lack of imagination in the Atlantis scenes. Tried too hard to be family-friendly and wound up missing a real sense of jeopardy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few scenes with critters that might be too frightening for the impressionable, as well as a couple of mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Dwayne Johnson, who is the lead here, and Brendan Fraser, who was the lead in the first movie, played characters in The Mummy Returns and Caine played Captain Nemo (whose submarine the Nautilus makes an appearance here) in the 1997 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100. The reviews are fairly mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

JULES VERNE LOVERS: References three of his novels (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon) as well as being the sequel to a movie loosely based on a fourth (Journey to the Center of the Earth). The author himself appears photographically on the walls of Sean’s bedroom.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Vow

Couples Retreat


Malin Akerman (center) realizes her love scenes are with Vince Vaughn while her co-stars pretend not to notice her discomfort.

Malin Akerman (center) realizes her love scenes are with Vince Vaughn while her co-stars pretend not to notice her discomfort.

(Universal) Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Jean Reno, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk, Carlos Ponce, Peter Serafinowicz, Tasha Smith, Temuera Morrison, Jonna Walsh. Directed by Peter Billingsley

Relationships require a lot of work and even with that, none are ever perfect. Sometimes we have problems with our mates that we didn’t even know we had.

Dave (Vaughn) is a happily married video game salesman (specializing in Guitar Hero) who has a nice suburban Chicago home, two mostly well-behaved kids (although one has a tendency to use just about anything as his personal toilet) a stressful job that demands long hours, and a gorgeous, loving wife (Akerman) named Ronnie who is completely absorbed in remodeling their home. He is less enthusiastic about the project and this has brought some tension to the marriage.

His best buddy is Joey (Favreau), who married Lucy (Davis) just out of high school after he got her pregnant. They show a united front to the world, especially when their daughter Lacey (Walsh) attempts to leave the house in the middle of winter dressed like a hooker, but in reality they can’t stand each other and plan to divorce as soon as Lacey leaves for Stanford. In the meantime, they are cheating on each other as much as they can.

Shane (Love) is already divorced and dating Trudy (Hawk), a much younger model wannabe. He’s going through a big time midlife crisis, but is having some financial troubles after his wife Jennifer (Smith) soaked him in the divorce. He asks his buddy Dave to co-sign on a loan to buy a motorcycle, which Dave refuses at first but eventually gives in when Shane opens up and tells him how much he needs it on a personal level. Dave’s an enabler that way.

Finally there’s Jason (Bateman) and his wife Cynthia (Bell) who seem perfect for each other. So anal they make squeaking noises when they walk, they have had difficulty conceiving a child. This has caused strain so severe on their marriage they are considering a divorce, a fact they reveal to their friends in a PowerPoint presentation (squeak, squeak, squeak). They intend to give their marriage one last-ditch effort at the beautiful Eden resort in the South Pacific, where they will have the opportunity to jet ski and learn couples skill building at the same time.

The others aren’t so enthusiastic about going, although their interest is piqued when Jason and Cynthia promise them they don’t have to do any of the touchy-feely stuff. Dave’s objection is that he can’t really get away from work and that they couldn’t get anyone to watch the kids anyway, but when his kids beg him to go and even call his dad to babysit, Dave and Cynthia – who had skipped their honeymoon when Dave got a job offer – decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

Once there they fall under the ministrations of the smarmy concierge Sctanley (yes, that’s how he spells it) and the new age guru Marcel (Reno) who is something of a whiz kid at rescuing marriages. Once there, they realize that all the fun stuff is located in the singles side of the island to which they are forbidden to go, and that all of them had to partake of the skill building sessions. As they go through therapy, cracks in the facades of all their relationships begin to appear until it becomes evident that none of them may leave Problem Island with their marriages intact. 

Vaughn co-wrote and co-produced this epic with his buddy Favreau, and if you like either one of their onscreen personas in previous movies like Swingers and Wedding Crashers, you’ll want to see this. Vaughn gets most of the great one-liners (the advantage of being your own producer and writer) and he delivers them seamlessly, Vince Vaughn-style.

It seems odd that the three middle aged flabby guys all have super hot wives (Akerman, Bell and Davis all look pretty spectacular in bikinis) and Love, who is a bit of a behemoth, has essentially a 20-year-old supermodel doing the nasty with him in oh-so-nasty ways. However, this is Hollywood and I suppose anything is possible.

The cast is really solid and they all are given characters that give them at least something to latch onto as actors, and they’re all good enough to take advantage of it. It’s too bad the script couldn’t have given them a better story. While the concept is solid, the way they get from beginning to end is pretty weak. I think they would have benefited from a little more realism and maybe the knowledge that not every marriage works out okay should have been introduced. The whole notion of love conquering all is mainly a Hollywood invention and nobody really believes it anymore. While I’m sure studio executives were anxious for everyone to end up happy and in love, the movie would have been better if they hadn’t.

Filmed at the St. Regis resort in Bora Bora, one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s a great-looking film. The bottom line is whether or not it’s funny. The answer is, yeah for the most part. There are some moments that fall flat, and some of the writing seems a bit forced into making a Hollywood happy ending. The underlying message is that as long as the sex is good, so is the marriage which doesn’t really ring true. Still, there are enough laughs for me to recommend this slightly. It’s not as horrible as other critics are making it out to be; it’s just slightly better than okay. Not a ringing endorsement I know, but the sandal definitely fits.

REASONS TO GO: Jennifer Garner’s best performance to date augments an intriguing premise. The movie has a good deal of heart and has at least one genuinely moving moment.

REASONS TO STAY: The romantic comedy aspect doesn’t work as well as the satire. Too many cameos spoil the broth.

FAMILY VALUES: Some PG sexual situations and one scene in which some self-pleasuring is implied; nothing really overt but you may want to think twice before bringing kids who are less aware of sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Couples Retreat marks the fourth movie that both Vaughn and Favreau have been in together.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the lovely shots of Bora Bora look gorgeous on the big screen, it works as well on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Reader