‘Twas the night before Christmas and all...hell is about to break loose! It starts when a snowstorm grounds all planes at Chicago’s fictional Hoover International Airport. Nobody’s happy to be potentially spending Xmas at an airport but least of all are the Davenport siblings Spencer (Dyllan Christopher) and his little sis Katherine (Dominique Saldana) as well as airport security boss Oliver (Lewis Black). The two kids are escorted to the airport’s “Unaccompanied Minors Lounge ” where kids run wild and terrorize pushover Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama) who acts as chief airport babysitter. One look at the madness is all it takes for Spencer and Katherine to bust out along with fellow kiddie anarchists Charlie (Tyler James Williams) Timothy (Brett Kelly) Donna (Quinn Shephard) and Grace (Gina Mantegna). They embark on a pratfall-heavy game of cat and mouse with Oliver who is the Grinch to their collective Santa Clause as they try and salvage Christmas--and their families. Unaccompanied Minors makes some odd but admirable choices when it comes to the cast with virtually every single actor attempting a “Frat Pack” mutiny--Daily Show mainstay Black is joined by “correspondent” Rob Corddry as the Davenports’ Hummer-hating dad not to mention parts from The Office’s B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling Arrested Development’s Tony Hale and Jessica Walter SNL’s Rob Riggle and Kristen Wiig Paget Brewster David Koechner and a rare Kids in the friggin’ Hall (Kevin McDonald Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney) sighting. But the “Who’s that?” cameos aside the screen time is hogged by Black Valderrama and the children. Black the notoriously vulgar curmudgeon of a comedian shows great range and skill by dulling his shtick down but not so much that the kids watching won’t crack up while Valderrama’s performance is the same as his role--that of a bumbling easily overmatched lackey. With all the proverbial child actors in the mix it can seem a little Star Search-y but Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) steals most scenes with his amazing overall talent while Mantegna (Joe’s daughter) fares well too. Kelly (the bullied kid in Bad Santa) is exploited for his physicality and Christopher will likely go on to be a great actor even if he seems too seasoned at such a young age. The reason for the off-the-beaten-path cast is simple: director Paul Feig. The occasional actor has in the past directed episodes of The Office and the late Arrested Development Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks. It also might explain why he fell for a script--by Jacob Meszaros and Mya Stark--that takes a few stabs at grown-up comedy (i.e. Corddry’s character has a car that runs on vegetable oil). Such jokes will be lost on the exclusively preadolescent audience but almost all else will reel them in. Feig also seems adept at making the oft-unfunny (physical pratfalls) somewhat funny and he does so with little mention of bodily functions. Of course he stays true to the formula but all kid flicks are the ultimate exercises in contrivance--Feig just chooses to treat the viewers like kids instead of idiots.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.
After the death of their parents Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) and his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) have to fend for themselves. Trying not to think about his pending high school graduation Rashad works as a janitor for his stingy uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and hangs out with his friends practicing for the Skate Wars competition at their local roller rink. Ant however approaches life differently after he hooks up with Marcus (Big Boi) a big-time drug dealer in the area. Marcus recruits Ant to do his dirty work and the kid gets himself tangled up in the harsh world of drugs money and violence. It’s up to his older brother to get him out of it and finally steer him in the right direction. ATL proves some rapper-turned-actors can indeed be in a movie not based on their real lives. Known as “The King of the South” in the rap world T.I. displays some notable acting skills. Born and raised in the ATL (that’s Atlanta to us lay folk) his southern slang and cool demeanor lend credibility. As well Big Boi (half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group OutKast) does a nice job giving his drug lord character multi-layers. He plays it smooth recruiting high school kids and promising them more money then they have ever seen. When they don’t pay up he then turns on a dime and becomes quite menacing. And watch out for Evan Ross the youngest son of the legendary Diana Ross. In his debut performance as Ant he tugs at your heart even when you’re hoping Rashad will smack him for the bad choices he makes. Music video director Chris Robinson makes his feature directing debut with ATL a story loosely based on ATL producers Dallas Austin and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ (of TLC fame) experiences growing up in Atlanta. With many of the hottest hip-hop artists coming out of Atlanta Robinson--along with first-time screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism--impressively incorporates the music without focusing on it. Sure the soundtrack crunks it up but this is not a film about a wannabe rapper trying to make it out of the ‘hood and into the spotlight. There aren’t any lengthy shootouts and no one dies. Instead ATL interweaves compelling themes of family dynamics rich vs. poor--and even a roller skating motif which seems to come out of left field but provides some fun moments. ATL is a breath of fresh air for a hip-hop movie that isn't about hip-hop.
Dave Chappelle is a Hollywood anomaly. Not only because the comedian felt his soul was worth more than $50 million (the reported amount he walked away from when he left his Chappelle's Show) but also because he lives worlds apart from the place--literally and figuratively. In Block Party not a moment is spent trying to go deep inside the man behind the comedy yet that much is ascertainable. The documentary tells instead of his September 2004 mission to organize a rap/R&B block party/concert in Brooklyn and hand out the event’s "golden tickets" at random to people in his Dayton Ohio community. It cuts back and forth between concert footage with his standup and the often-funny events that precipitated it. Those hoping for some sort of mea culpa will be disappointed (and should be ashamed); rather it's Chappelle's show seemingly the way he wanted Chappelle's Show. While Block Party obviously contains no acting there is a bevy of performers. The catalyst of course is Chappelle and as he did so well on his show he turns mundane observations into knee-slapping hilarity—thanks in no small part to his infectious laugh that follows everything he says. He also plays the part of hip-hop goodwill ambassador both reuniting groups and diversifying the lineup. His tastes and schoolboy enthusiasm might even be enough to endear the hip-hop naysayer. See he prefers artists who are progressive--artists who say something punctuated by actual live music! Acts like The Roots Kanye West Common Erykah Badu Jill Scott Mos Def Talib Kweli Dead Prez and a reunited Fugees--the film’s climax if you will--make theater dancing all but unavoidable and massacre stereotypes. And they're all Chappelle-approved for an extra layer of authenticity. Block Party perfectly pairs subject with director. Michel Gondry--best known as director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--has a voyeur’s curiosity an artist’s eye for aesthetics and an ear for left-of-center music (he is also an acclaimed music-video director). He is not interested in somehow exposing Chappelle to his legions of fans and few detractors but he does touch on something that might surprise: Chappelle with his genuine benevolence seems just as content to get a smile as he does a laugh. Such is the case when he invites an entire college band to come play at his block party and pays their way; or when he pleases the crowd by assembling the aforementioned eclectic mix of musical acts groups which might’ve gone their careers without appearing together. But what Gondry captures best is this freak of nature who’s so maddeningly candid in front of a camera.
Maid in Manhattan is yet another take on the Cinderella story. There are very few surprises but the film is still somewhat enjoyable despite its predictable setup. Cinderella aka Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) is a hardworking no-nonsense single mom who loves her son Ty (Tyler Posey) and dreams of breaking out of her job as a maid at a five-star hotel in Manhattan. Her Fairy Godmother aka co-worker Stephanie (Marissa Matrone) unwittingly gives her that chance when she convinces Marisa to try on some expensive clothes left in a suite by the Evil Stepsister aka spoiled socialite Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson) while they're cleaning. In walks Prince Charming aka Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes) an incredibly handsome U.S. senator candidate and the city's most eligible bachelor and Boom! sparks fly. Chris thinks Marisa is the expensive suite's occupant--and she's too overwhelmed by the domino effect that happens to tell him different. Ah what a tangled web love at first sight can weave. Marisa spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up her error in judgment while also becoming increasingly drawn to her prince. Will he find out who she really is? Of course. Will it matter in the end? Of course not.
This may have been created as another vehicle to help further propel the career of actress/singer/designer/fiancee to Ben Affleck J. Lo but unexpectedly someone else comes out of the film looking better--Fiennes. It's little hard even for Jenny on the Block to outshine an Oscar-nominated actor. He elevates the formulaic subject matter and portrays a pretty down-to-earth Prince Charming without us ever seeing a forced move. I'm curious as to why such a high-caliber actor would choose such a run-of-the-mill project like this but whatever the reason he makes it work--at least for his part. Lopez doesn't do anything out of the ordinary. In fact it looks like she may have simply cloned the same expressions she put on in her other successful romantic comedy The Wedding Planner. And unfortunately Lopez and Fiennes don't share the same kind of heat she shared in that film with Matthew McConaughey or even George Clooney in Out of Sight (still her best performance to date). Yet they manage to convey a fair amount of good feelings to make the movie palatable. Richardson has a blast playing the rich bitch Caroline while Matrone making her film debut just comes off as annoying and pushy even if she thinks she's doing the right thing. Thank goodness she is because if things had turned out badly it would be in Marisa's best interest to go out and shoot her. Stanley Tucci as Christopher's watchdog campaign manager and Bob Hoskins as a senior-level butler at the hotel both do the best they can with silly parts.
Maid in Manhattan relies so heavily on the been-there-done-that Cinderella formula it becomes one of those romantic comedies you'll end up waiting to watch on cable one Saturday night rather than paying to see in a movie theater. It's really a shame because director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) had some interesting elements to play with and lots of acting talent to back it up. Perhaps Lopez could have played Marisa more wacky than so serious maybe try to show some comic ability. It would be a nice change of pace to think out of the box for once--what if the lovestruck pair didn't get together in the end? (I know the film would have fallen flat on its face.) But instead Maid wallows in predictability and implausibility. Christopher falls a little too hard and a little too fast for reality. Also it's hard to believe a maid would have access to all the hotel's amenities as Marisa does--borrowing a Harry Winston diamond necklace from the hotel jewelry store for the gala event? Unlikely to say the least. The only aspect of the film that stands out is the sneak peek you get into the inner workings of a top-notch hotel. It's definitely a world you don't get to see very often.