The Watch


 

The Watch

Ben Stiller finds another teen who thought Night at the Museum sucked.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Mel Rodriguez, Doug Jones, Erin Moriarty, Nicholas Braun, R. Lee Ermey, Joe Nunez, Liz Cackowski, Johnny Pemberton, Billy Crudup, Sharon Gee. Directed by Akiva Schaffer

 

There are things that define a neighborhood that we seem to have lost sight of for the most part in the 21st century. Neighborhoods were once places where neighbors looked out for one another; where we shared lives with those who lived around us. Those kinds of neighborhoods are becoming increasingly rare.

Not in Glenview, Ohio though and that’s why Evan (Stiller) loves it so much there. He and his wife Abby (DeWitt) emigrated from New York to escape the cold, impersonal big city life and find a place where they could raise their children the right way – not that they have any children quite yet but they’re working on it.

When a security guard (Nunez) is gruesomely murdered in the Costco that Evan is managing, that galvanizes Evan. He has already founded a running club and a Spanish club in his neighborhood; now it’s time for something a little more useful – a neighborhood watch. The police, in the person of Sgt. Bressman (Forte), are doing little to find the killer and in fact Bressman thinks Evan is a strong suspect.

However, his neighborhood is less enthusiastic – only three other guys show up to the meeting that he calls. Bob (Vaughn) is a contractor with an epic man-cave who sees the Watch as an opportunity to hang out with the guys and drink plenty of beer. Franklin (Hill) is a bit of a nutcase who failed the psychological tests in order to join the Glenview Police Department; he lives with his mom and longs for police-like action. Then there’s Jamarcus (Ayoade) who sees the Neighborhood Watch as a means to meet women. Not exactly the battalion of crime fighters Evan was looking for.

Still, they are at least willing to play along for the most part, although much of their crime work has beer involved, and much talk of male penises. Bob and Evan start to bond in an odd way; Evan confesses that the reason he and Abby haven’t been able to conceive a child is because he’s sterile; Bob expresses his frustration over his teenage daughter Chelsea’s (Moriarty) increasing infatuation for Jason (Braun), a super-arrogant teen with designs on just one thing – the thing most teenage boys have designs on.

In the meantime, their investigation is leading them to the killer – and that killer isn’t local. And by not local, I mean not of this earth. When their beloved Glenview looks to be ground zero for an alien invasion, can these four screw-ups suck it up and become earth’s last line of defense?

Veteran SNL director Schaffer has a script co-written by Seth Rogen to work from but this isn’t one of his better efforts. Mostly what the problem is here is the unevenness. The movie has some genuinely funny moments, but not of the sort that will leave you sore from laughter as the better comedies will. The sci-fi aspects are for the most part pretty cheesy; why does every alien have to have lime green goo dripping from them? Just saying.

In any case, the two don’t mix well. At times we have some pretty odd moments of a joke in the middle of a serious scene that cheapens the drama; at others, a more dramatic episode in the middle of some of the more really funny moments. The effect is to keep the audience off-balance and not in a good way.

Stiller, Hill, Ayoade and particularly Vaughn are some of the most talented comic actors on the planet and they actually perform pretty well here. Vaughn is memorable even though his shtick is pretty much the same one he usually uses – the loud and aggressive manly sort with a heart of gold – we see the latter most clearly in his relationship with his daughter which is, as most dad-teenage daughter relationships are is a bit on the love-hate side. However, the relationship is depicted here a bit simplistically.

And what’s the deal with all the phallic references? There are so many references to the male sex organ that you have to wonder if there’s some sort of fetish being played out here. Hey, I’m as proud of my equipment as the next guy but sheez, I don’t feel the need to mention it quite so often.

So what we have here is a sci-fi comedy with some talented people in it (and lest we forget, the very sexy DeWitt who has some nice moments here) and simply not living up to its own potential. As much as I like Vaughn, Stiller and company, I think that talent like theirs deserves more than just an onslaught of dick jokes to deliver. So do we.

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments. Vaughn is one of my favorite comic actors at the moment.  

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the humor feels forced. Serious and funny stuff don’t flow well, leading to some jarring moments.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sexual content and a bit of sci-fi violence. The language is universally foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Neighborhood Watch but the title was changed due to sensitivity over the Trayvon Martin shooting.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100. The reviews are uniformly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night at the Museum

COSTCO LOVERS: Evan is the manager at the Costco and the climax takes place there; as you might expect there are several jokes about bulk buying throughout the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Sympathy for Delicious

New Releases for the Week of July 27, 2012


July 27, 2012

THE WATCH

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Rosemarie DeWitt, Richard Ayoade, Will Forte, Billy Crudup, Doug Jones, Erin Moriarty, R. Lee Ermey. Directed by Akiva Schaffer

A group of bumbling neighborhood watch guys led by a paranoid homeowner who thinks aliens are invading stumble into a conspiracy theory that proves him right. The question is now how to protect their beloved suburbia from a race of extraterrestrials hell-bent on conquering them who have a technological superiority.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy

Rating: R (for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images)

Step Up Revolution

(Summit) Ryan Guzman, Kathryn McCormick, Misha Gabriel, Peter Gallagher. A Miami dance crew who specialize in elaborate well-choreographed flash mobs dreams of winning a contest for a major sponsorship opportunity but put those dreams on hold when they take on a businessman with plans to convert their neighborhood into a multi-million dollar development. In the midst of this, the daughter of the businessman falls in love with the leader of the flash mob.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive dancing and language) 

Your Sister’s Sister

(IFC) Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia. A young man is still grieving the loss of his brother a year earlier. His brother’s ex, who is heartbroken to see him like that, ships him off to her family’s lakeside vacation home to be alone and maybe get himself together or at least pick up some of the pieces. When he gets there he finds her sister who is undergoing a trauma of her own. After an evening of drinking tequila and the predictable results, the ex arrives unannounced, touching off unexpected revelations and shifting dynamics. This played the Florida Film Festival earlier this year.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

The Cell


The Cell

Jennifer Lopez is terrified of horny men.

(2000) Science Fiction (New Line) Jennifer Lopez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vince Vaughn, Dylan Walsh, James Gammon, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Musetta Vander, Colton James, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Tarsem Singh

Really, the more I see ex-music video directors (such as The Cell‘s Tarsem Singh) take on feature films, the more I realize how excruciatingly painful to watch a two-hour music video would be.

Catherine Deane (Lopez) is a social worker who by some strange pseudo-science can enter the minds of comatose patients. Of course, I’m sure Jennifer Lopez enters the minds of a lot of men, but we won’t go there. Currently, she’s attempting to help a young scion of a billionaire with somewhat unencouraging results.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, serial killer Carl Stargher (D’Onofrio) is happy as can be, having constructed a diabolical device that will automatically drown his young, nubile female victims without Carl even being present (naturally, a bank of video cameras capture every morbid moment of their final struggles). A marvel of modern technology, that.

He doesn’t realize how close the FBI, led by twitchy agent Peter Novak (Vaughn) is to him. When they finally break down his door, Carl is already face-down and – you guessed it – comatose, the victim of a schizoid virus or some other such babble. With a victim locked in Carl’s Infernal Machine at an unknown location, time ticking away, you can guess what happens next. Uh, huh; an excuse for Jennifer Lopez to wear a lot of striking, exotic costumes and more important to Tarsem, a chance for the director to show off his visual style honed in dozens of music videos, notably R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”.

Tarsem suffers from the “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome, a disease especially prevalent among ex-music video directors. “Art for art’s sake” may be MGM’s motto, but, pragmatically, it doesn’t work in movies. A movie isn’t just a series of images strung together; there has to be some sort of story, a reason for watching those images. If the story is mediocre, all the beautiful pictures in the world won’t save the film.

To make matters worse, the movie often violates its own internal logic – for example, as the social worker points out ad infinitum throughout the movie, it often takes a child months to build enough trust to let her in, but the serial killer only takes a single session! As we all know, serial killers are known for their trusting natures.

A trip inside Jennifer Lopez’s brain wouldn’t be as fruitful as the one we take here. Assuming there was enough room for anyone else in there, considering her ego, we’d be assaulted by letters 40 miles high in garish, blinking neon blaring “I’M ALL THAT & A BAG OF CHIPS.” Believe me, honey, you’re not. For his part, Vaughn showed most definitely that he was to become a star of the future. He has for the most part made good on that promise, largely because he’s learned to choose material where he has more to do than just smirk.

To Tarsem’s credit, some of the visuals and special effects are very nice indeed, but for the most part, its eye candy for its own sake. Frankly, Da Queen and I got more of a kick from the two guys in the row behind us discussing the philosophical implications of The Cell and its somewhat overbearing subtext of redemption and absolution when we saw this in a theater back in the day. Guys, you’re watching WAY too much of the Independent Film Channel.

By the way, what is up with film credits? Do we really need to see everyone’s name who is even vaguely connected with the movie? On the credits for The Cell you will see (I’m not making this up) the identities of the salad chef and of Jennifer Lopez’s bodyguard. I imagine the guy who cleaned up after the movie’s canine star will be graced with a poop wrangler credit next.

Roger Ebert, a voice I normally respect, did cartwheels over this movie which mystifies me to this day. The more I think about The Cell, the lower its rating goes, and if I don’t stop here, it’s going to get a zero rating, which really isn’t fair. It’s not completely without merit, but as fantastic as the visuals are, the movie is ultimately unsatisfying. Too many special effects and not enough solid writing, plot and characterization a dull movie makes – eye candy is tasty but doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Some amazing visuals and Jennifer Lopez’ exotic wardrobe.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A story that violates its own internal logic and falls apart over it’s own ponderous weight. A major case of “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is violence, sexuality, bad language, nudity, and bizarre images. Unless your kids are fetishists, you might want to steer them away from this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Scenes in the movie are inspired by artwork by such artists as Damien Hirst, Odd Nerdrum and H.R. Giger.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The two-disc Platinum Series edition includes an interactive map of the brain that gives more information than you probably want on the subject, as well as an empathy test that allows you to determine how you handle your emotions. Good, free therapy.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.2M on a $33M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Back-Up Plan

The Dilemma


The Dilemma

Jennifer Connelly is happy she isn't getting blamed for this mess.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah, Amy Morton, Chelcie Ross, Eduardo N. Martinez, Rance Howard, Clint Howard, Guy van Swearingen, Troy West. Directed by Ron Howard

The last place anyone wants to be in is in the middle of a friend’s marital issues, particularly if their friend is unaware of those issues. These things can not only affect your relationship with your friend, but your other relationships as well.

Ronnie Valentine (Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (James) are partners in a small Chicago engine design firm – Valentine is the sizzle and Brannen is the steak – but more than that, they’ve been best friends since college. Nick is married to Geneva (Ryder), who was friends with both of them back in the old school days. Their business and personal relationship works pretty well; Brannen is the engineer, the brilliant designer that is their chief asset. Valentine is the glib salesman, the man who makes the business run. In the way of old friends, they are comfortable with each other, knowing at all times how the other is going to react.

Ronnie, who has never really found the right girl, may have finally found one in Beth (Connelly). She is patient having put up with a gambling problem that Ronnie apparently has kicked over the past two years. However, he has balked at actually committing up to now. Nick and Geneva urge Ronnie to pop the question – a girl like Beth, gorgeous, sexy and smart (not to mention a top chef) – won’t wait around forever.

Ronnie and Nick are down to the bone on their business; they need a big deal or they’ll both go under, having mortgaged everything to keep the company afloat. However, help looks like it’s on the horizon – a meeting with a Chrysler VP (Ross) about a fuel-efficient motor with the sound and power of a V8 muscle car motor gets a tentative go-ahead…provided they can make it work. They are left to the tender mercies of a maverick executive (Latifah) who tries very hard to be one of the boys.

There’s plenty of pressure on Nick as the engineer and he has the ulcers to show for it. However, his little talk with Ronnie has prompted him to propose to Beth – and he has gone to the local arboretum to find the perfect spot to propose. While there, Ronnie spies Geneva with a strapping, tattooed young man – Zip (Tatum). They seem awfully cozy…and then when they begin passionately kissing, Ronnie is so startled he falls into a patch of highly toxic plants, causing his face to break out in itchy hives and for him to have “challenging” urination.

Ronnie wrestles with how to tell his friend about what he saw, but after practicing on his sister (Morton) who then gets the impression he was talking about her husband (Van Swearingen) he then confronts Geneva with what he knows. However, not only does she refuse to tell her husband about what’s going on, she threatens to spill the beans on a secret the two of them have been keeping since before she met Nick. Ronnie then resolves to inform Nick one way or another without telling him directly – and merriment (theoretically) ensues.

This is a movie with a terrific pedigree – an Oscar-winning director, two of the funniest comic actors in the business and two of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood. It has all the ingredients for a very successful comedy. It just isn’t very funny.

The filmmakers rely mostly on gags that put poor Vince Vaughn through the wringer, from having him getting beaten up (numerous times) to falling into poisonous plants to having him get bitched out by Geneva. I’m all for pratfalls and physical comedy, but if that’s all you got, well even the Keystone Kops had subtlety sometimes.

I’ve always liked James and Vaughn and they have enough genuine charisma and chemistry to carry things through to a certain extent – it’s just that they don’t have anything funny to do. That can be deadly if you’re making a comedy.

Now it can be argued that Howard never intended to make a comedy and an argument can be made that this is actually a relationship drama. If that’s the case, why establish expectations for a comedy by casting Vaughn and James…and then market it as a romantic comedy? You simply set up a movie for failure that way.

That aside, there are some interesting insights on relationship dynamics, particularly when it comes to honesty within a relationship. It isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering or even mildly so, but at least it tries to shed some light on the subject and I give the movie points for that.

Still, much of the movie falls flat and the attempts of humor don’t work. I just felt that the movie didn’t connect with me and I more or less passed time rather than enjoying it. That’s not really a recommendation for a movie at all.

REASONS TO GO: Connelly and Ryder are both very pleasing to the eye. Some insight into moral dilemmas.

REASONS TO STAY: The really funny parts are few and far between and mostly seen on the trailer. Vaughn’s character is so wishy-washy you end up wishing he’d just blurt it out and get it over with.

FAMILY VALUES: The entire plot has to do with sex and infidelity, although it’s never addressed in an overt manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While practicing for the “Shoot the Puck” scene at the United Center, Kevin James actually shot the puck into the net. While he didn’t win a trip to the NHL All-Star game, the extras all cheered “Chelsea Dagger” in his honor.  

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Legion

New Releases for the Week of January 14, 2011


January 14, 2011
Laugh at my jokes or my friend will shoot you.

THE GREEN HORNET

(Columbia) Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Tom Wilkinson, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour. Directed by Michel Gondry

Britt Reid, the son of a crusading publisher, has disappointed his father all his life. When his father is murdered, Britt’s aimless life takes focus. He wants to make a difference. As Britt Reid, ne’er do well and party animal, he is powerless. Aided by his father’s confidante Kato, Britt takes on the persona of the Green Hornet, a crime fighter armed with amazing weapons and cruising the town in the Black Beauty, a car that puts the Q Division to shame.

See the trailer, promos, interviews, featurettes, clips and a web-only animation here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D

Genre: Comic Book Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violent action, language, sensuality and drug content)

The Dilemma

(Universal) Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly. When a man sees his best friend’s wife cheating on him, he’s stuck with a terrible choice to make. Does he tell him and put him into a place of misery and pain? Or does he keep it to himself. The problem is the more he tries to make things better, the worse the situation gets.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements involving sexual conduct)

 

The Heart Specialist

(Freestyle) Zoe Saldana, Wood Harris, Brian White, Marla Gibbs. A group of first year residents discover the joys and perils of medicine at a shabby hospital in South Florida, learning not just about being a doctor but being a caretaker as well. All this happens under the aegis of a kindly Chief Resident, who has a skeleton in his closet that threatens to undo all the good he’s done.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Drama/Thriller/Comedy

Rating: R (for some sexual content and language)

Made in Dagenham

(Sony Classics) Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson. At the Ford Plant in Dagenham, England in the mid-60s, a group of spirited women decide that no longer are they going to accept less pay for equal work as the men. A one day walk-out turned into something a lot more important as the women go up against their union, their company, their community and ultimately the British government in their effort to get justice for all women in the workplace. Based on a true story.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama Based on a True Story

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

Rabbit Hole

(Lionsgate) Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard. In the new movie from acclaimed indie director John Cameron Mitchell, a couple is shattered when the worst thing that can happen to a family occurs. Neither one knows how to navigate their way back home from the labyrinth that is the rabbit hole. This won great acclaim at Toronto and was thought to be a leading Oscar contender this year, although the buzz has died down since then.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, some drug use and language)

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.

Fred Claus


Fred Claus

Elizabeth Banks stands out in any crowd but in THIS crowd...

(Warner Brothers) Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Bobb’e J. Thompson. Directed by David Dobkin

Although we love our brothers and sisters, our lives are one long game of “who’s better.” The term “sibling rivalry” takes on an additional dimension when one of the siblings is famous and successful.

Fred Claus (Vaughn) has a secret – he is the older brother of Nicholas Claus (Giamatti), better known as Santa. Nearly from birth his mother (Bates) made it clear which sibling was her favorite, with a barrage of “Why can’t you be more like your brother” remarks tossed Fred’s way. And to be truthful, Nicholas has a pretty long shadow to step out from. He is so filled with goodness that he becomes a living saint and as such, he and his family also become immortal (don’t ask me to explain it – just go with it and you’ll find your head aching less).

At an early age Fred learned to resent the attention his younger brother got and chose to turn away from his family. He lives in Chicago now, just skating by on charm and full of promises that he rarely keeps, driving his girlfriend Wanda (Weisz), who works as a meter maid, crazy.

When a misunderstanding with a group of Salvation Army Santas leads to a fight in a toy store, Fred has no choice but to turn to his little brother to bail him out of jail. He also needs cash to open an Off-Track Betting parlor directly across the street from the Chicago Mercantile and time is of the essence. In order to get the cash, Fred agrees to work for his brother as Christmas approaches.

Despite the misgivings of Annette (Richardson), Nicholas’ wife, Nicholas sends head elf Willie (Higgins) to fetch Fred via flying reindeer and sleigh. He arrives to find the situation in the North Pole not as hunky dory as you might expect. Longer wish lists and a population explosion of children have left the elves unable to keep up with demand very well. Nicholas copes with the stress by overeating and to make matters worse, the powers that be have sent Clyde Northcutt (Spacey) – an efficiency expert – to report on the state of things at Santa’s Workshop. If the report is bad enough, Clyde can shut the whole operation down…permanently.

Nicholas puts Fred to work in the Naughty/Nice department, making the determination which children get presents and which kids get nothing. In the meantime, he has to deal with a one-dimensional DJ (Ludacris) and an unrequited romance between Willie and Santa’s Little Helper, a tall and buxom number-cruncher named Charlene (Banks). To make matters worse, someone is actively trying to sabotage the operation and is using Fred as the fall guy. Can even a saint – or a saint’s brother – save Christmas?

This movie got scathing reviews when it was first released in 2007 and in some ways, I can see why. It advertised itself as a comedy (and with Vaughn in the cast, who could blame them?) and I think that might have been the original intentions of the filmmakers to produce one.

But this isn’t a comedy, and if you expect it to work as one, you’re going to dislike this movie intensely. What Fred Claus REALLY is, is a family holiday movie. Granted, there are some scenes that are actually funny (the Siblings Anonymous scene comes to mind off the bat) and the by-play between brothers Nicholas and Fred are pretty realistic and laugh-inducing, too.

What’s at the heart of this movie is the sibling rivalry between the two brothers, and Fred learning to grow beyond it. His life is empty without people in it and his relationship with his brother has informed all the other relationships in his life since. If Fred comes off as a bit of a huckster, well it’s more or less a defense mechanism. When he cynically informs Slam (Thompson), an orphan he has befriended, not to drink the Kool-Aid, it’s because he’s terrified of finding out the Kool-Aid actually tastes good.

There are a lot of good actors involved in this and production designer Allan Cameron has given them a gorgeous playground to work in. The North Pole sets are definite eye candy, particularly the magnificent Workshop that comes off as a cross between the Crystal Palace of London and a Rube Goldberg-designed factory.

There are some scenes that are genuinely heartwarming, and I really liked the Elf Ninjas who act as a kind of deranged Santa Secret Service. If you like either Giamatti or Vaughn, they are at the top of their games here and since I like both of them, it’s like getting an extra scoop of ice cream in your hot fudge sundae.

There comes a time in all our lives where we must assert our own identities and this movie is all about that. It took Fred centuries to learn that he was his own person and special in his own way; hopefully it won’t take most of us that long to get the same message.

WHY RENT THIS: The interplay between Vaughn and Giamatti is brotherly and fun. Some touching familial reconciliation tugs at the heartstrings. North Pole set design is off the hook.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes Vaughn gets a little bit out of control. If you’re expecting a comedy, this really isn’t one.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most Christmas movies, everything is fine for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Dean Morgan has an uncredited cameo as a parking ticket recipient who hits on Wanda.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition comes with a Ludacris music video as well as, oddly, a DVD games disc. There is also a featurette on sibling rivalry featuring several of the participants in the Siblings Anonymous scene.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

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

New Releases for the Week of October 9, 2009


Welcome to Problem Island!

Welcome to Problem Island!

COUPLES RETREAT

(Universal) Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Malin Akerman, Jean Reno, Faizon Love, Kristin Davis, Kristen Bell. Directed by Peter Billingsley

Four Midwestern couples descend on a couples-only retreat on an Eden-like South Pacific island. One of the couples is there to work on severe marital problems, the others to jet-ski, take spa treatments and have fun in the sun. When they get there, they discover that all of the couples must take part in the relationship building exercises or else enjoy none of the fun stuff. Suddenly, their group rate comes at a price as all of these couples discover the kind of issues that most real life relationships have to face. Given the presence of an impressive cast as well as one of the funniest trailers of the year, this may well be an autumn must-see.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content and language)

From Mexico With Love

(Roadside Attractions) Steven Bauer, Kuno Becker, Bruce McGill, Steve Billich. A migrant field worker illegally in this country dreams of a better life. Like his father before him, Hector has skills as a boxer and yearns to become a prize fighter but that dream seems impossibly far away. Sweltering in the hot Texas sun by day, Hector dons the boxing gloves by night in makeshift rings in barns and bars, where his skills can earn him more in a few rounds than he makes in several days as a field worker.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for sports violence, language, brief sensuality and drug references)

Seraphine

(Music Box) Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Genevieve Mnich. This is the true story of painter Seraphine Louis, better known by her nomme d’art Seraphine de Senlis. In a suburb of Paris in 1912, the self-taught painter’s visionary work catches the eye of her employer, German art dealer Wilhelm Uhde for whom she works as a domestic. He champions her work, leading to high-profile exhibitions in Paris and around the world. This movie won the Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Picture and the statuette for Best Actress for Moreau in the title role.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: Unrated