Talking Movies

December 4, 2019

From the Archives: Fred Claus

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Vince Vaughn’s getting no presents this Christmas. Despite being Santa Claus’ older brother Fred Claus is a self-centred jerk who spends the film being hostile to people and ruins Christmas for everyone by making the elves shirk their toy-making work so they can join him partying. Obviously this naughty boy needs to be taught that it’s bad to be so selfish, and about the true meaning of Christmas, and – wait…does the world really need another Santa film? Children just about recovering from the trauma inflicted by the dead eyes of the soulless characters in The Polar Express must be kept away from Fred Claus for the love of God. There is a problem with the elves… John Michael Higgins as Willie and Ludacris as DJ Donnie for some reason aren’t subjected to the clever tricks of set design and camera positions used on the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Oh no, someone thought it would be simpler to CGI their faces on to the bodies of smaller actors. The result is quite disturbing, as their faces don’t quite synch up with the rest of their heads.

Elizabeth Banks is gorgeous as Santa’s Little Helper and is given no character. Paul Giamatti is oddly anaemic as Santa Claus, as if he’s not entirely sure how he got roped into this movie, while Vince Vaughn is just not funny as Fred Claus. Reuniting with his Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin they fail to strike comedic sparks and he’s too abrasive for a kid’s film. There is an agreeably chaotic delivery of presents by Fred standing in for Santa but really it’s the Superman absurdities which keep you interested up to that point.

Superman action figures modelled on Brandon Routh are prominently displayed in the early scene where Vince Vaughn gets arrested, prompting his trip to the North Pole. He is picked up by Willie, who achieves amazing speed in his sleigh by the use of a team of what must be Krypto the Super-reindeer. Kevin Spacey aka Lex Luthor then arrives in a chopper to music very similar to his theme tune in Superman Returns. Why is his efficiency expert Clyde so evil? Because he topped the naughty list in 1968 and so didn’t get his Christmas wish for a Superman cape. His subsequent refusal to stop wearing glasses because Clark Kent wore glasses only prolonged his bullying and he became bitter and twisted, bent on punishing Santa someday. But damn it all if Clyde doesn’t have a Christmas miracle too and, finally donning the Superman cape, repents. All this and Roger Clinton, Frank Stallone and Stephen Balwdin alongside Fred at Siblings Anonymous too! It’s a pity that Vince Vaughan is so charmless that even his obligatory moral transformation is not enough to inject some real Christmas spirit.

2/5

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

November 17, 2009

A Proof: Keanu Can Act

This blog will now attempt the impossible and prove (though sadly not by the use of algebra or geometry) that Keanu Reeves can act. I know, you’re sceptical, but hear me out. If Keanu can’t act, as nearly every film critic on the planet has gone on the record at some point to allege, then everything he does in every film should be the exact same, because he never gets into any role, right? To quote Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, “WRONG!!!” I’m going to use the old classic ‘compare and contrast’ method to prove once and for all that Keanu Reeves can act and not only that but that he can be observed acting in the most minute character details that could be easily overlooked.

The films to be examined are Hardball (2001) and Constantine (2005). Hardball is a sappy sports drama in which our hard-living hero learns life-lessons from the ghetto kids he coaches at baseball and blah. Constantine is a highly stylised supernatural thriller loosely inspired by the comics of Alan Moore, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. In both films Keanu chain-smokes. But he chain-smokes in completely different ways in each film. Keanu’s John Constantine is a bad-ass, his soul has been marked for eternal damnation and he knows it, he’s cocky and arrogant because of what he knows about magic and demons and the terminal cancer in his lungs, he is a rake at the gates of hell to borrow one of the comics’ descriptions. Thus he lights his cigarettes in a very stylised ‘I’m too cool’ way, and smokes them slowly, enjoying the social taboo he’s breaking.

Keanu’s Conor in Hardball is a twitchy, nervy gambler, heavily in debt and facing a savage beating from at least two bookies if he doesn’t repay them an awful lot of money that he really doesn’t have and has little prospect of raising in time. He lights his cigarettes viciously fast, drags on them like he’s sucking in oxygen, and pulls them in and out of his mouth jerkily like he’s got endless caffeine causing spasms in his arms. This is not the lingering smoking of Constantine but a very character specific neurotic smoking.

Now an actor who can’t act could in no way have come up with two different ways of smoking to express his character’s feelings. Therefore people, Keanu Can Act: QED.

November 2, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney’s writing partner Grant Heslov directs his collaborator in an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, which, while consistently amusing, never becomes the laugh-riot we had hoped for concerning American military attempts to weaponise (non-existent) psychic powers.

Goats does though at times recall the Peter Cook sketch involving Lord Streebling who had been training ravens to fly underwater for decades but when asked by Dudley Moore’s reporter how many ravens he had actually successfully taught to fly underwater sheepishly replied ‘Ah, none’. Clooney as Lyn Cassady in 2003 Iraq endlessly talks up his awesome psychic powers to Ewan McGregor’s credulous newspaperman Bob Wilton then does something brutally violent before explaining how he just achieved his objective predominantly by mental means.

In flashbacks it’s another story entirely, as Wilton isn’t around to fact-check… These flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s contain by far the funniest sequences in the film as Cassady’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) bruised by his experiences in Vietnam, and a baffling near-death vision, investigates various New Age movements as a research mission and then tries to train an army unit to use their gentleness as a weapon – it’s like watching The Dude taking over David Mamet’s The Unit… Cassady joins Django’s unit and learns to dance, which (naturally) leads on to finding kidnap victims using remote viewing as his mind soars over the planet to the strains of Boston’s More Than a Feeling.

There are good gags dotted throughout the film like Wilton’s annoyed response to some training by Cassady: “‘Attack’ me” “What’s with the air-quotes, like you think I’m only capable of ‘ironic’ attack?” What’s most interesting though is that Heslov and Clooney have used Ronson’s book to make a film which is really about the American/capitalist tendency to militarise and/or crassly commercialise everything so that even positive discoveries invariably turn sinister or inauthentic. Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper represents this dark side of the force as an ambitious recruit to the unit who aspires to lead a full on psychic warrior division. Cassady, under pressure from Hooper, does in fact kill a goat by staring at it till he makes its heart stop but in doing so the Jedi Warriors (as the New Earth battalion are known – have a good laugh at McGregor being an ex-Jedi, now stop) turn to the dark side, and they are cursed from that moment on for having misused their powers.

The film’s insane finale in a secret army base in Iraq would feel at home in both MASH and Inglorious Basterds as it outrageously rewrites recent history with a more positive version of American liberty. It’s while watching this final sequence that it hits you Heslov’s point is really just Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 musing on “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon”. Amen to that.

3/5

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