When Michel Gondry was hired to helm Columbia Pictures’ The Green Hornet I became immediately more enthusiastic about the project than I was before. Even after all the publicized production woes I was sure that his avant-garde aesthetic and bittersweet style of storytelling would put a fresh spin on the standard superhero flick. However sandwiched between the frat-house comedic sensibilities of Seth Rogen and the energetic guidance of explosion-savvy producer Neal Moritz there just wasn’t enough room for the artist to conjure his movie magic.
That’s why the film though not frustratingly formulaic feels incredibly manufactured: more a product of convenience for its stars and studio than a standalone piece of entertainment. Perhaps it’s just because superhero cinema is so commonplace today I’m beginning to feel jaded about movies like this but while watching the film I wondered whether or not Rogen and Co. consciously adhered to the tried-and-true checklist of the genre’s conventions. Tragic motives for fighting crime? Check. Maniacal villain? Check. Flipping SUV’s? Check? Predictable plot? Unfortunately check. Every element of the movie from jokes to pacing is easy to foresee but that doesn’t mean it’s not somewhat entertaining.
Rogen who co-wrote the picture with his longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg will continue to amuse audiences with his every-man persona even when miscast as a billionaire playboy turned masked vigilante. The Green Hornet doesn’t sound like anything he has written before; the limitations of language in a broad blockbuster result in less laughs than the raunchy R-rated comedies he’s best known for but the delivery of the dialogue is his best weapon against tonal conformity. Still post-modern humor is abundant throughout the film with plenty of pop-culture references that are good for a grin or two.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Jay Chou. A hugely successful pop singer in his native Taiwan (as well as other Chinese-speaking regions of the world) his charisma transcends language barriers in the iconic role of Kato created by the legendary Bruce Lee. Though technically the sidekick Chou displays more depth than Rogen ever has and outshines his co-star in nearly every creative department. Christoph Waltz as the violent villain Chudnofsky doesn’t generate the electricity he did in his career-defining role in Inglourious Basterds but had significantly lower-brow material to work with. He goes through the motions with a smile on his face that suggests he’s not quite sure how (or why) he got into this picture in the first place. On the other hand I’m sure that Cameron Diaz knew exactly why she was hired to portray Britt Reid’s sexy secretary Lenore Case. Between her performances in 2010’s Knight and Day and this Ms. Diaz has hit a new career low. The only difference is that her character was central to the story in the Tom Cruise summer vehicle; here she’s nothing more than eye-candy.
As stated before if I’ve got one regret above all regarding The Green Hornet it’s that director Gondry wasn’t allowed to make the movie his own. His stamp is present in only a handful of sequences where visually inventive special effects serve the story and in many cases enhance it. He makes the most of the adequate 3D conversion in these select scenes (including a revelatory summation of the events that lead to the films climax and the closing credits both which are very cool) whereas in the rest of the picture it’s just unnecessary. I had hoped his involvement meant that the narrative was going down an unconventional path but in the end his contributions to the film amount to little more than rainbow sprinkles atop a very vanilla piece of cinema.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
A perfect husband a devoted father a loyal friend a successful architect—yes Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is the kind of flawless family man we only encounter in hankie-soaking Hollywood melodramas. He exists solely to be killed off just so his friends and family can become better people through their loss. So it comes as no surprise that Steven dies a Good Samaritan's death while on his way home—of course—from buying ice cream for his two kids. If that won’t get you crying nothing will. Steven’s death leaves his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) a mess. She can’t look after herself let alone her daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and son Dory (Micah Berry). Instead Audrey turns to Steven’s best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) for help. Not really the smartest choice—Audrey despises Jerry for squandering his life and career on drugs. But Audrey’s desperate for a shoulder to cry on so she inexplicably invites Jerry to stay at her home while he tries to clean up his act. Quicker than you can say “rest in peace ” Jerry’s dispensing words of wisdom to Steven’s kids and in a moment of unintentional hilarity spooning with the lonely Audrey in her bed. Audrey naturally comes to believe that Jerry isn’t the strung-out leech she’s considered him all these years. Still we can’t help but count down the minutes until Jerry slips back into his old habits. Or wonder how long it will take for Audrey to kick Jerry out of her house when the inevitable happens. Things We Lost in the Fire serves an important purpose: to make clear that Halle Berry’s performance in Monster's Ball wasn’t a happy accident. As a widow unable to function without her soul mate Berry shakes up the otherwise maudlin proceedings with a rage and intensity that’s honest and fearless. Never afraid to present Audrey as occasionally cold and unsympathetic especially in regards to her treatment of Jerry and her children Berry nevertheless always makes us feel Audrey’s burning love for Steven without resorting to Joan Crawford-like histrionics. Too bad Audrey is defined only by her role as a wife and mother—Berry never receives the chance to show that Audrey has a life outside her family. She does share a good rapport with the typically brooding Benicio Del Toro whose ravaged face reveals more about Jerry’s lifetime of self-inflicted pain and suffering than words ever could. But there is a slight spark to be found in Del Toro’s sleepy eyes which gives us the impression that Jerry has what it takes to live one day at time with the support of his new friends. David Duchovny doesn’t do much beyond smiling like he’s just been named Father of the Year for the 10th time. Not that Duchovny needs to exert himself to make Steven charming and likeable—Steven is as happy and uncomplicated as Duchovny’s Californication philanderer is as sad and screwed up. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry (no relation to his onscreen mother) nail the anguish confusion and profound sense of loss that comes with grieving for a dead parent without being annoyingly precocious. How disappointing it is to discover that not even the usually calm and collected Susanne Bier can turn Things... into something more than the standard Lifetime TV weepy of the week. The Danish director’s Hollywood debut is very much like her earlier character-driven dramas in that it is preoccupied with how established family dynamics shift in the wake of a life-altering event. After the Wedding and Brothers managed to be poignant without getting too gushy but Bier cannot keep Things... from drowning in its own sentimentality. The problem clearly lies with screenwriter Allan Loeb’s emotionally manipulative script which fails from the start to convince us Audrey would open her house to her late husband’s drug buddy. Ignoring Loeb’s hard-to-swallow premise Bier does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Audrey and Jerry. Theirs is a well-presented study in co-dependency which results in an insightful—though occasionally obvious—exploration of drug addiction the grieving process and the pursuit of personal redemption. Things... smartly avoids making much of its interracial marriage—it would only overcomplicate matters—or taking Audrey and Jerry down a path that would led to an ill-advised romance. If only Bier and Loeb showed some guts in the way they portray Steven. Surely he had at least one skeleton in his closet to make him seem more human. Everything we learn about Steven—especially about the fire referenced in the seemingly cryptic title—merely reinforces the notion that he was too good for this world. Or at least the world Hollywood thinks we live in.
Introducing the Dwights also known as Clubland overseas is the story of Jean (Brenda Blethyn) a comedienne at the end of her career. She desperately tries to get that one big break--and to keep her 21-year-old son Tim (Khan Chittenden) from becoming an adult. While Jean works her day job as a cook she relies on Tim to drive her to her standup gigs at small cabarets at night as well as take care of his disabled brother Mark (Richard Wilson). But then Tim meets and falls for Jill (Emma Booth) much to his mother's dismay. The budding romance is plagued not only by Jean but also by Tim's inexperience and Jill's insecurity. Jean also uses Mark to try to drive a wedge between the young lovers. But still the romance is blossoms while Jean's quest for an audition at the best and biggest club in the area is the goal that keeps her going. Brenda Blethyn (Pride & Prejudice Secrets & Lies) plays the alcoholic Jean as a domineering entertainer. The British veteran is marvelous portraying Jean’s narcissism as she cajoles seduces and berates everyone around her clinging to a fleeting dream of stardom while holding onto her sons for some stability. Blethyn's performance is astounding for both the venom and tenderness she brings to the character. As well newcomer Khan Chittenden is terrific as the shy and inexperienced Tim and he pairs up fabulously with another newcomer Emma Booth as Jill. Richard Wilson also does an amazing job as the mentally disabled Mark imbuing a keen sense of humor in his observations obviously inherited from his mother Jean. Cherie Nowlan is more known for her television directing in Australia but has definitely readied herself to embark on this new career path. She handles Keith Thompson's script with aplomb incorporating an almost documentary style of filmmaking when dealing with the relationships which makes for a visceral and engaging entry into the lives of these characters. The direction also complements what is a very realistic romance between two young people. When Tim is shy and awkward with Jill the up-close-and-personal style makes it sweetly uncomfortable. But then Nowlan switches gears and uses more traditional camera-work and lighting when Jean is onstage making it more clinical and otherworldly and setting the two worlds apart. Introducing the Dwights is a delightful gem.