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.
Charlie (Michael Douglas) has been a mess for quite a while. A jazz musician who has battled schizophrenia and manic depression for years has spent the last couple living in a mental hospital. His 16-year-old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) has been living on her own in the family home (mom is long gone) having quit school and gone to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet. When Charlie is released and comes home the pair begins to tentatively rebuild their relationship. The good news is that Charlie is taking his meds and handling the real world reasonably well; the bad is that he’s developed an obsession with a legendary cache of Spanish gold doubloons reportedly buried near their dusty California home. When Charlie begins to convince Miranda that he really isn’t crazy--at least when it comes to the treasure--together they begin a Don Quixote-like journey that cements their fractured relationship back together. Forget Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko the ultra-smooth Wall Street guy or as dashing Jack Colton of Romancing the Stone fame. These days Douglas now 62 has said he needs a really good reason to leave his family so this role where he can play a scraggly bearded wild-eyed edge-of-nuts guy is just the ticket. Douglas gives one of his best performances ever as Charlie striking just the right balance of intellect insanity and inherent love for his no-longer-little girl. Plus the man whose on-screen persona has often been all about male vanity is anything but that in King of California. He’s a scrawny whippet of a guy rather than a hunky leading man and it’s a transformation that just may get him another Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile 20-year-old Evan Rachel Wood proves that she really is an acting force to be reckoned with giving a gently nuanced performance as a girl who has had to grow up way too soon yet still completely loves the father who has struggled to care for her as he struggles with his personal demons. First-time writer/director Mike Cahill has done a first-rate job of bringing this quirky funny and slightly poignant story to the screen. Perhaps the reason he’s been so successful is in the company he keeps. A film-school friend of Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (Sideways About Schmidt) Cahill enlisted his producing help for his film along with Payne’s Sideways partner Michael London. King of California bears Cahill’s own stamp however--a combination of terrific visuals that often make wry satiric statements deftly melded with an assortment of memorable characters and situations. Perhaps his biggest strength is in the casting of the film in his choice of the two talented actors who bring a believability and sense of real family ties to their roles. With King of California Cahill begins what looks to be a long and beautiful friendship with moviegoers who love to be transported to interesting and funny places.
Extreme Ops should be a James Bond movie. Then at least we'd expect the ridiculous plot--plus we'd see some sex. Alas the film takes itself too seriously and those wacky opportunities are simply missed. As it stands a crew of commercial filmmakers--director Ian (Rufus Sewell) producer Jeffrey (Rupert Graves) coordinator Mark (Heino Ferch) and cameraman Will (Devon Sawa)--known for going that extra mile to get extreme action shots are hired to shoot a commercial for a Japanese digital video camera. Their idea is to take three skiers to the Austrian Karawanken Range bordering Yugoslavia and have them outrun an avalanche. No sweat. Up for the task are Chloe (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) a downhill gold medal winner; wild-child snowboarder Kittie (Jana Pallaske); and all-around adrenaline junkie Silo (Joe Absolom). They make it to Austria and shack up in an unfinished resort nestled in the mountains (you were expecting a warm chalet?) where a band of Serbian terrorists led by war criminal Pavle (Klaus Lowitsch) has also happened to make its base camp. Seems this group of not-so-happy campers has a master plan involving world destruction which the hapless filmmakers uncover. Darn the luck. It's going to take some fancy-schmancy stunts to foil these bad guys--but our motley crew of extremists is up to the task.
This is one of those times you wonder what initially convinced good actors such as Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale) and Rupert Graves (The Madness of King George) to make this film. Maybe they thought they could improve it along the way. Or maybe the extreme stunts tempted them to have a little fun in the Austrian Alps. Regardless only Sewell rises above the mire every once in a while; the rest of the cast wallows in it. Newcomers Pallaske and Absolom have very limited range and do better when they simply stand around getting snow in their hair while Sawa (Slackers) seems sorely out of place. Wilson-Sampras has some potential as an actress (her performance breaking up with Matthew McConaughey on their wedding day in The Wedding Planner comes to mind) but an awful script and a bunch of second-rate actors bring her down. The only exceptions are her scenes with Sewell. As for the villains it seems Hollywood has a new bad guy of choice. It used to be the Russians but these Serbs are mighty vicious and suitably over the top. It's their job to make the heroes look good and they do it adequately.
Putting aside a weak plot and bad acting the point to this movie would be the opportunity to see some amazing stunts right? Crazy snowboarders outrunning avalanches attack dogs and evil terrorists all while leaping off snow-capped cliffs and outmaneuvering other perilous terrain. This can make a movie worthwhile if done correctly but sadly that is not the case with Extreme Ops. Director Christian Duguay (The Art of War) manages to mess up even this simple task. The first few shots of the skiers shooting down the hill with the snow tumbling after them are pretty spectacular yet after about the eighth time you see this same shot it starts to get a little boring. On top of that there are some extraordinarily bad blue-screen moments when it's clear the actors are standing in front of a fake background. In this CGI age audiences have high expectations and are very unforgiving of shoddy filmmaking. The worst of the movie's offenses however happens in the editing room. With all the good guys bad guys skiing helicopters and running through snow you're never quite sure who's who or what's what.