A Merry Friggin’ Christmas


Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

(2014) Holiday Comedy (Phase 4) Joel McHale, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, Clark Duke, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor (voice), Amir Arison, Steele Gagnon, J.J. Jones, Gene Jones, Matt Jones, Barak Hardley, William Sanderson, Karan Kendrick. Directed by Tristram Shapeero

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family, no matter who that family is. Sometimes we’re about as happy to spend time as family as we are to be serving a stretch of hard time in San Quentin. Not all families do all that well together.

Boyd Mitchler (McHale) is a successful hedge fund manager in Chicago. He has a loving wife Luann (Graham) and a couple of pretty great kids, daughter Vera (Wood) who is riding into teen hormone-land on a white horse and son Douglas (P. Gagnon) who at seven still believes in Santa Claus despite beginning to suspect he’s fake. Boyd wants him to believe as long as possible as his own father, Mitch (Williams) tore all his fantasies down when Boyd was just five.

Boyd and Mitch don’t get along, so much so that they haven’t been in the same room for seven years. When Boyd’s brother Nelson (Duke) calls and tells him that he’s a dad and wants Boyd to be godfather to his son at the christening, Boyd is honored – but when he discovers that the christening is on the 24th of December, he’s horrified – for that will entail spending Christmas with his family. Luann however prevails on her reluctant husband to go to Wisconsin and be with his family.

His mom Donna (Bergen) is overjoyed to see him, his father not so much. He’s a mean curmudgeon who owns a port-a-potty business and quite frankly isn’t a nice person to be around, particularly when he’s drinking, Even when he’s not, he can be an S.O.B. – while the rest of the family is served chicken for Christmas Eve dinner, Boyd gets squirrel filled with buckshot. Like I said, an S.O.B.

When Boyd discovers that through mis-communication with his wife his son’s presents, from Santa, have been left behind in Chicago, he means to drive back home, pick them up and return before dawn. Car troubles force Boyd to rely on his dad to bail him out and the two must make the long drive to and from. On the way they’ll have to deal with a persistent state trooper, an unexpected stowaway and a drunken Santa (Platt). Either the two will re-connect or kill each other. Neither one is a safe bet.

Williams completed this movie before his untimely passing and it was the first of the three that were in the can to be released. It didn’t get any critical love as you can see by the scores below, but it wasn’t as bad as all that. Williams always dominates the screen whenever he’s in a movie and this is no different. For sure this isn’t one of his better performances but it’s good enough to carry the movie over a pretty impressive cast.

What bugs me about the movie is that it tries way too hard to make the family eccentric. Along for the ride is Heidecker as Boyd’s redneck brother-in-law who has a son (Lee) training to be a competitive eater while his wife (McLendon-Covey) – Boyd’s sister – goes through therapy . Nelson has PTSD despite having been discharged from the military without going into combat. And of course, there’s the dysfunctional Mitch himself.

The writer really tries to force the eccentricities until the family doesn’t feel real. I suppose there’s some irony in rooting for a hedge fund manager who are not renowned as being the nicest people ever, but that’s beside the point. The humor also feels forced at times, a kind of desperation to make the audience laugh that fools nobody that it’s anything other than what it is.

However, I did find some humor here, particularly with Williams, and there were enough of those to make this worth watching. It is a little bit on the dark side, tonally speaking and the Christmas-y happy ending doesn’t quite fit in quite well with the rest of the movie, but you can’t go wrong with Robin Williams – ok, you can but not often and not here – and everything else in the film doesn’t quite measure up to him, it is at least a bit better than you might expect if you read the reviews.

REASONS TO GO: Robin Williams as always does stellar work. There are moments when the comedy works.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard to make the family eccentric. Doesn’t really offer any sort of insight into family dynamics.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of foul language and crude humor throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Christmas film Robin Williams was credited for (he was in Noel but in an uncredited role).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa
FINAL RATING: 6/19
NEXT: Fracture

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Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!