This African-American variation on The Family Stone subscribes to the notion that Christmas is not really the most wonderful time of the year when it comes to visiting relatives. So don't expect much peace and goodwill to be found when the Whitfields gather together for their first Christmas dinner in four years. The six siblings who spend the holidays at the California home of family matriarch Ma’Dere (Loretta Devine) all harbor a dark secret or a hidden agenda. Take Quentin (Idris Elba). He owes two very pissed-off bookies $25 000. Homemaker Lisa (Regina King) wants to sell the family business to fund her unappreciative husband's (Laz Alonso) latest get-rich-quick scheme. Kelli (Sharon Leal) doesn't want Lisa's no-good husband getting his grubby paws on Ma’Dere's hard-earned money. But what does this young professional want that Lisa has? A family of course. Claude (Columbus Short) spends his alone time on the phone to a mystery woman he’s nervous about introducing to Ma’Dere. Mel (Lauren London) doesn’t care what her family thinks of her boyfriend—she just wants to make out with him without being caught. Michael (Chris Brown) nicknamed Baby for obvious reasons fears that following his dream to be singer will break Ma’Dere's heart. She hasn't gotten over her ex-husband leaving her to pursue his music career. While it's down to Ma’Dere to keep the peace she has own her issues to resolve regarding Quentin and her loving relationship with longtime boyfriend Joe (Delroy Lindo). Yes Brown sings. Not once but twice as we treated to his Michael Jackson-flavored R&B. Don’t be surprised if his rendition of “This Christmas” ends up on holiday compilation CDs for decades to come. Brown's a natural on stage but he relies too much on his megawatt smile and undeniable charm when trying to hold his own against old pros Devine and Lindo. Still that's probably more than enough for the adoring fans who would love to "Kiss Kiss" Chris Brown under the mistletoe. Luckily This Christmas doesn't lean too heavily on Brown for director Preston A. Whitmore II's assembled a terrific cast of African-American actors Tyler Perry could only hope to snag for one of his trademark morality plays. Building upon his breakthrough role as a devoted father in Perry's Daddy's Little Girls Elba shows he's just as effective playing a imperfect son unable or unwilling to connect with his mother. He also proves to be a worthy adversary to Lindo who carries himself with quiet dignity during every family crisis. Devine is the very personification of motherly love—she never comes across as a shrill stereotype like Perry's no-nonsense Madea. There's plenty of fun to be had watching tough cookies King and Leal lock horns. And sparks fly between Leal and ER's Mekhi Phifer whose noble firefighter makes Kelli quickly forget she's all business and no pleasure. Saddled with a subplot with no significant payoff Short does the best he can under the worst of circumstances. Thanks to Whitmore's light but assured touch This Christmas makes a silky smooth transition from comedy to drama. Whitmore maintains the perfect balance between the humor and tension that makes dysfunctional family relationships both compelling and difficult to watch. He never lets things get too outrageously nasty; you don’t believe for a minute that the Whitfields—a very likable bunch to boot—won’t overcome their differences before Christmas dinner is served. When they do kiss and make up This Christmas thankfully doesn't get overly gushy. But Whitmore does take refuge in the obvious at times. You just know someone's dying to crack a “ho ho ho” joke about Kelli being wooed by a Santa-outfitted Phifer or that Lisa's going to go all Waiting to Exhale on her husband's Cadillac Escalade. At least the inevitable family dance off is a blast to watch. Too bad Whitmore the screenwriter also burdens Whitmore the director with too many characters to pay attention to and too many loose ends to tie up. Really who would miss Mel? And why is Claude so worried how his family will greet the love of his life when this purportedly taboo romance raises nothing more than eyebrows when all is revealed? Still for all its faults This Christmas remains a warm and engaging examination of family dynamics at a time of great stress and celebration. There are worse ways of spending the holidays than sitting down to Christmas dinner—or boogieing down to vintage Kool & the Gang—with the warring Whitfields.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!
Idealistic Jerome (Max Minghella) heads to the Strathmore Institute to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming the next great artist like his idol Picasso. He falls hard for the beautiful art class model Audrey (Sophia Myles) certain she’s the muse he’s always waited for. But Jerome also finds an unlikely nemesis--the clean-cut Jonah (Matt Keeslar)--whose painting style wows everyone including Audrey. Jerome has to find a way to get her attention and make a splash like Jonah. A subplot about a series of murders by “The Strathmore Strangler” hijacks the last third of the film and feels grafted on. Minghella is appropriately sullen as shy underdog Jerome but lights up whenever Audrey is around--and as his golden girl Myles is indeed captivating. But it’s Confidential’s supporting cast that is surprisingly high-profile. John Malkovich is a hoot as Jerome’s laid-back art professor who’s more concerned about getting his own works shown than nurturing young talent. Jim Broadbent rants effectively as a bitter alcoholic failed painter. Anjelica Huston is serene and above it all as an art history professor and Steve Buscemi is the colorful local whose cafe serves as a launching pad for Strathmore grads. Some of the biggest laughs are courtesy of Ethan Suplee (TV’s My Name Is Earl) as a Kevin Smith-esque filmmaking student whose films are funded by his grandfather anxious to see shoot ‘em ups. Director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes previously brought Clowes’ quirky comic Ghost World to the big screen--a terrific heartfelt film with a stellar star turn by Thora Birch. Now Clowes and Zwigoff are team up again to bring another Clowes’ comic Art School Confidential to life. They certainly capture the same tone as Ghost World telling the story with the same hip deadpan wit. But unfortunately Confidential pales in comparison. With a less than appealing protagonist the story just isn’t as engaging. It might be better to wait until Confidential comes out on DVD with all the fun extras.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.