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

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: Beowulf 3-D

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The warrior Beowulf arrives to kill the monster Grendel, who is terrorizing King Hrothgar’s court. Killing Grendel enrages his demon mother, who made a deal with the treacherous Hrothgar, and Beowulf’s actions unleash a dragon.

Robert Zemeckis’ film of the Old English epic poem is a visually amazing triumph, which you should see in 3-D for full impact. There is a tracking shot which turns into an outrageous pull-out from Hrothgar’s hall, across the landscape, to Grendel’s cave. Hilariously this is more or less a tale of violence caused by noisy neighbours, as Grendel’s super-hearing is driven wild by the raucous celebrations at Hrothgar’s feasting hall. This film provides a deep down and dirty portrayal of Dark Ages bawdiness, especially in the salacious songs of the warriors and Anthony Hopkins’s startling performance as the lecherous drunken King Hrothgar. All of which makes Beowulf radically unsuitable for children. Zemeckis is after all Spielberg’s protégé and takes equal delight in seeing just what he can and cannot get in to a 12A film. The motion capture technology Zemeckis used in The Polar Express has been vastly improved (characters’ eyes are no longer soulless) and Zemeckis, who was always visually inventive, wows with the physically impossible shots it allows him achieve.

Hrothgar’s call for a hero to kill Grendel is answered by the warrior Beowulf. Killing Grendel is the easy part though as Beowulf discovers that Hrothgar was Grendel’s father. He had been seduced by a temptress demon who now wants her way with Beowulf. That popping sound you hear is the noise made by the imploding heads of Professors of Old English the world over. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), who worked on the screenplay for nearly a decade, have based their script on the idea that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. Which it must be admitted is a compelling justification for re-telling a tale that dates from around the 8th century. Their version is filled, in the spirit of the original campfire telling, with over the top butch moments of heroism. Beowulf’s battles with sea-monsters and the climactic showdown with the dragon have moments which rival 300 for ridiculous machismo. The changes also tie together the three disconnected battles of the original in a more satisfying fashion while academics will be mollified by all Grendel’s dialogue being in Old English.

Crispin Glover’s portrayal of Grendel as a tortured half-demon, half-human outcast is quite touching and nicely counterpoints Ray Winstone’s cockney bellowing as Beowulf. Angelina Jolie appears, startlingly, full frontally nude but she’s a water demon and has some archly minimalist scales on her breasts so that’s okay. Hmmm, all I’ll say is that she’s suspiciously more photo-realistic than some other characters. This version of Beowulf was dogged by suspicions of style beating substance but Zemeckis justifies this approach by combining budget blowing spectacle (such as the dragon fight) with quiet moments between characters, and adhering to the poem’s spirit.

4/5

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