When James Cameron changed the landscape of 3D stereoscopic filmmaking with his groundbreaking blockbuster Avatar I'm sure he still had misgivings about the final product. He couldn't include a scene in which eggs are thrown towards camera. There was no moment where Jake smokes marijuana and blows it off screen. Not a single character pleasured themselves and released out into the audience. Maybe in the sequel.
Thankfully for those looking for that immersive corporeal experience there is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas a foul hilarious and surprisingly heartwarming holiday experience that utilizes its eye-popping technology to take gross out humor to a new level. If you're not already on board with the previous stoner antics of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) from White Castle and Escape from Guantanamo Bay it's safe to say that 3D Christmas won't be roping you back into the series but for fans the movie steps up the franchise's game. Writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg take the three years since the last film into consideration putting the duo on opposite ends of the maturity spectrum only to have them reunite for a zany Christmas adventure. The results are rather touching.
We pick up with Harold now a suit-wearing Wall Street type bending over backwards to make Christmas perfect for his ball-busting father-in-law (Danny Trejo). Adding to the stress are his wife Maria who is anxious to have a baby despite the couple's inability to do so and his next door neighbor Todd (Tom Lennon) who would do anything to be Harold's best friend. Kumar is his antithesis—burnt out baked and broken up over the termination of his relationship with Vanessa. When a mysterious package addressed to Harold lands on Kumar's door (he hasn't lived there in years) the medical school dropout takes a ride to his former cohort's white picket fence house. The package is exactly what you'd expect: an enormous joint. Admitting he doesn't smoke any more Harold throws the weed away—only to see it magically return and burn down his father-in-law's Christmas tree.
Like its predecessors Harold & Kumar 3D takes off from its wacky catalyst and shoots directly (and without regret) into outer space. Without hesitation Harold and Kumar's quest for a Christmas tree takes them from a terrifying tree yard run by RZA a coked-out Christmas party thrown by the teenage kids of New York's deadliest gangster and a holiday stage show starring—you guessed it—Neil Patrick Harris. The movie piles on gags and inside jokes (the movie winks at the camera with Star Trek and White House cracks) but few fall short thanks to their clever execution and two characters Cho and Penn help us give a damn about. Even in its lamest moments—Todd's baby finding her way into a variety of drugs is one of the movie's running gags—Harold & Kumar 3D still pops. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson squeezes every bit of silliness out the movie's various scenarios adding a dash of nostalgia for fans and making the entry worthy of the original. Even Harris outdoes himself (and the man road a unicorn in movie #2) riffing off his own homosexuality which we learn is really just a play to get more woman to take their clothes off. Obviously.
If the traditional holiday classics haven't been quite your style Harold & Kumar 3D is a more-than-worthy addition to the Christmas movie pantheon delivering on warm and fuzzy friendship cliches while filtering it through bathroom humor and bong water. By the time Harold and Kumar trip and turn themselves into claymation you'll either be cackling with laughter or on the way out of the theater. Me? I was high on it.
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.
In the summer of 1990 after graduating from Emory University with grades good enough to get into Harvard Law upper-middle-class 22-year-old Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) gave his $24 000 life savings to Oxfam and hit the open road. Christening himself Alexander Supertramp the idealistic McCandless proceeded to wander the country's highways and byways for two years before striking out alone into the wilds of Alaska. Anyone who's read the Jon Krakauer book knows what happened then but those who are new to McCandless' story will be holding their breath as his journey progresses toward its sadly inevitable end. The beauty of director Sean Penn's film is the route it takes to get there introducing viewers to the people Chris touched during his travels and making it clear what he learned about love and forgiveness along the way. The success of a movie like Into the Wild depends disproportionately on the talents of its star. Luckily Hirsch doesn't disappoint. Simultaneously charismatic and aloof he makes Chris both an enigma and an Everyman. Whether he's exulting in a panoramic view of the Alaskan wilderness shooting roiling river rapids (impressively no stunt doubles were used) or learning how to operate a combine machine Chris/Alex is completely aware--and appreciative--of every new experience life brings him. His quest for truth and authenticity affects everyone he meets from hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) to fast-talking entrepreneur Wayne (Vince Vaughn) and lonely leather worker Ron Frazer (Hal Holbrook). Meanwhile representing Chris' abandoned conflict-ridden homefront Jena Malone provides heartfelt nuanced voice-over narration as Chris' sister Carine. Filming Into the Wild was a labor of love for Penn and his affection for the material shows in every frame. Like Chris Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier rhapsodize over sweeping vistas and pristine countryside lingering on the way sunlight glints on water droplets and the beauty of a freshly harvested field. Penn is in no hurry to tell Chris' tale; he lets it unfold naturally its rhythm matching the ebbs and flows of Chris' journey. Aiding him every step of the way is the film's powerful soundtrack which features original music by Eddie Vedder. Whether building momentum or accompanying Chris in moments of quiet contemplation the film's music is the traveling companion Chris doesn't realize he needs until it's too late. Blending sympathy for Chris' motives with regret for his tragic end; Into the Wild is a thoughtful biopic that's both inspiring and chastening.
How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog is the story of acerbic curmudgeonly Peter McGowan's enlightenment a renowned critically acclaimed playwright fallen on hard times. Having knocked out a trio of Broadway blockbusters during the 1980s he is going through a dry spell though he is still considered the movie capital's most dynamic (and perhaps only) playwright. McGowan's beautiful wife exacerbates his problems putting real pressure on Peter to have children which he couldn't care less about. (He also has to deal with living with his rapidly declining mother-in-law.) And McGowan's attempts to fix up his latest production (directed by a maniacal young savant who favors old show tunes as a means of communication) are being jeopardized by his new neighbor's noisy dog which is keeping him awake at night. Ultimately Peter learns to like children thanks to the neighbor's mildly handicapped daughter fixes his play and the dog is dealt with--though not by Peter.
Kenneth Branagh playing a wordsmith is given too many words to say in the film. Most are funny some are not but Branagh is the film's comedic center and he performs that function more than adequately. Robin Wright Penn is fine as Branagh's wife/foil though she isn't given too much to do other than be happy or sad--there seems to be no in-between for her. Other actors shine brighter: David Krumholtz is hysterical as the loony director of Branagh's new play Jared Harris is too funny as Branagh's modern-day Falstaff and Suzi Hofrichter who plays the cerebral palsy-stricken Amy is a real find. (Unfortunately the laconic Peter Riegert and dumbfounded Jonathan Schaech are underused.) The highlight of the film however is Peri Gilpin's performance as the vapid TV talk show host-turned-Mike Wallace who gets her comeuppance from Branagh. Simply brilliant acting by both Gilpin and Branagh or....
...is it more wonderful writing and directing by writer/director Michael Kalesniko? That interview scene with Gilpin and Branagh is just one instance of the skillful stylized parody he uses to tell the story of a man's life in the theater in a highly theatrical style. During the course of blaming McGowan's slump on anyone but McGowan Kalesniko skewers the usual suspects: nagging wives troublesome in-laws TV news shows neurotic intellectuals lovable bums insane co-workers cynical doctors and of course the ubiquitous barking dog living next door. As Kalesniko allows McGowan to grow closer to his adorable troubled neighbor Amy the movie almost edges into predictability. Fortunately the mostly witty dialogue saves the film from too saccharine an ending rendering it a potent comedy. Ah if only Kalesniko had found someone to edit the film a little more to make it sharper and more biting.