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.
It’s Halloween Eve in suburbia and while most of the neighborhood kids are gearing up for a candy extravaganza two young‘uns--DJ (voiced by Mitchell Musso) and Chowder (voiced by Sam Lerner)--are fretting and dreading. They’re convinced that the decrepit house across the street is in fact a monster house inhabited by an old hermit named Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi) that will lure kids in on Halloween night. But just as DJ’s parents who naturally don’t believe him to begin with leave for a vacation DJ inadvertently sends Nebbercracker to his death--or so he fears. Now DJ believes Nebbercracker’s monster house will seek revenge on him specifically and to make matters worse his negligent babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) won’t hear of his yapping. After DJ and Chowder are forced to take action they along with a girl peddling candy (voiced by Spencer Locke) discover how the monster came to be and just how unforgiving she is. When it comes to animation acting the main goal is to make audiences forget that the actors are giving their performances in a studio possibly dressed in their PJs and sans makeup. That goal’s usually achieved but Monster House takes a gamble in supposing that child actors comprising the lead characters will be able to wrap their still-expanding brains around the concept. Somehow Lerner and Musso grasp this despite sounding like they haven’t even been in this world very long! The two are surrounded by a fail-proof supporting cast: it takes a while to recognize Buscemi’s voice as Nebbercracker but once it hits it fits and Gyllenhaal as the babysitter is great if unpredictable casting. Quasi-cameos from Jason Lee as Gyllenhaal’s punk boyfriend Jon Heder as a video-game god and Kevin James and Nick Cannon as slow-moving and -thinking cops garner the most laughs. Not only does it help a film’s box office performance to have Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis onboard as executive producers it helps a film’s director--in this case a rookie director named Gil Kenan. (Zemeckis directed ‘04’s somewhat similar-looking The Polar Express.) While the animation doesn’t quite stand up to say Pixar’s earth-shattering visuals Kenan makes up for it with a fun-filled story (from scripters Dan Harmon Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler) and an overall lively involved effort--and it’s not like the movie doesn’t still look gorgeous. Besides sometimes it’s refreshing to not be so entranced by the CGI that you lose sight of the actual movie at hand. Kenan’s film is one of the scarier animated movies in a while but that still doesn’t exclude many age groups. What the first-time director thrives on is stopping just shy of true horror moments at which point he reverts to feel-good mode without ever being sappy.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
Nice guy Jerry (Matthew Lillard) is the same numbingly trite character we've seen in hundreds of other movies. He faces 30 with uncertainty. He doesn't know if he should propose to his beautiful girlfriend Denise (Bonnie Somerville). He just can't commit darn it! Oh life is so confusing! Meeting up with his best buds Tom "the rebel" (Dax Shepard) and Dan "the runt" (Seth Green) at the funeral of their dead friend Billy they reunite in the-what else?--tree house of their youth. There they discover a map of Billy's longtime obsession: The disappearance of hijacker D.B. Cooper with $200 000 cash. (Never mind that the real Cooper's flight took off in 1971 well before any of these characters would be born.) So these three friends set out on an expedition from the heart and learn a few valuable life lessons along the way. They embark on a canoe trip in the Pacific Northwest in search of Cooper's lost treasure with a very large bear and two even larger hillbillies in hot pursuit. Which is of course just a big excuse for some crazy hijinks in the woods the obligatory stoner sequence gorgeous but unshaven tree-huggers living atop a redwood a crazed mountain man the usual.
Lillard has an off-kilter charm that works in his supporting roles but not so much as the lead. One imagines the producers offering the role first to Adam Sandler and then to Vince Vaughn or Luke Wilson before finally settling on Lillard after they all refuse. His overbearing earnestness in the role recalls his work in SLC Punk straining for normalcy when something completely off-the-wall would work so much better. Shepard (from MTV's Punk'd) fares better he is amusingly annoying but at least he takes a side. Green is usually funnier than this but he doesn't usually have to lug an inhaler around with him as a prop or constantly stoop for laughs as the token scaredy cat. The three of them do have an easygoing chemistry that makes them good company. Burt Reynolds turns up with a foot-long beard as the mountain man who might know something about the treasure. It is certainly the most vanity free performance of Reynolds' career and while it doesn't amount to much it's a step in the right direction for a guy who could still be a great character actor if he could finally get over the fact that he is no longer Stroker Ace.
Steven Brill is best known as the director of the first Adam Sandler movie that didn't reach nine figures at the box office Little Nicky and he hasn't exactly advanced the art of screen comedy here. Nevertheless the pacing is brisk the timing is crisp and the repartee (credited to five writers) is snappy. Even the action comedy sequences mostly running away from the bear and the hillbillies are convincingly done. But make no mistake this is clearly the work of a man hell-bent on paying homage to The Goonies and for that miniscule target audience that not only saw The Goonies in the theater it can also differentiate the Coreys. Of course '80s music has been back in vogue for several years so it's inevitable that the '80s comedy embodied in this movie The Girl Next Door
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and others would return. But somebody had better make a good one soon or it will disappear faster than you can say Kajagoogoo.
Colin Farrell's Phone Booth sniped the competition by ringing in $15 million* and debuting at the top of the box office this weekend.
The hit-man thriller thwarted newcomers What a Girl Wants, which came in second with $12 million, and A Man Apart, which followed in third with $11.1 million.
The Chris Rock comedy Head of State, last week's No. 1 film, fell to fourth place with $8.8 million, while the Queen Latifah/Steve Martin laffer Bringing Down the House rounded out the Top Five with $8.5 million.
Box office numbers, however, were still down considerably from this time last year. It was the fourth straight weekend that revenues have shown a decline. And while studio executives blame the war in Iraq for the dwindling box office figures, analysts say movie choices this year have generally been weaker than the first part of 2002, when Ice Age, Blade II, John Q and The Panic Room opened to bigger numbers.
"The fact that it's down four weekends in a row, everybody says, hey, this has to do with the war and people's moods," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, told The Associated Press. "But no matter what the mood of the country, if there are good movies out there, people will want to go see them."
THE TOP TEN
Twentieth Century Fox's new R-rated sniper thriller Phone Booth shot to the top of the chart this weekend with an ESTIMATED $15 million at 2,481 theaters. Its $6,056 per theater average was the highest of any wide release playing this week.
The film revolves around a New York City media consultant who answers a ringing phone in a phone booth and finds himself trapped after being told by a caller--a serial killer with a sniper rifle--that he'll be shot dead if he hangs up.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, it stars Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker.
Warner Brother's PG rated 'tween pic What a Girl Wants debuted in second place with an ESTIMATED $12 million at 2,964 theaters ($4,069 per theater).
The film follows a young American girl who heads to London in hopes of meeting the father she's never known, a high-profile politician.
Directed by Dennie Gordon, it stars Amanda Bynes, Kelly Preston and Colin Firth.
New Line Cinema's new R-rated cop drama A Man Apart opened third with an ESTIMATED $11.5 million at 2,459 theaters ($4,534 per theater).
In the film, a U.S. narcotics cop takes on a Tijuana drug cartel to get retribution for the murder of his wife.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, it stars Vin Diesel and Larenz Tate.
DreamWorks' PG-13 political comedy Head of State fell from No. 1 to No. 4 in its second week of release with an ESTIMATED $8.8 million (-35%) at 2,155 theaters (+4 theaters, $4,084 per theater). Its cume is approximately $25.3 million.
Directed by and starring Chris Rock, the film also stars Bernie Mac, Lynn Whitfield, Robin Givens and Tamala Jones.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated jailbreak comedy Bringing Down the House dropped from second to fifth place in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $8.5 million (-32%) at 2,910 theaters (unchanged, $2,921 per theater). Its cume is approximately $111.3 million.
Directed by Adam Shankman, it stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 sci-fi thriller The Core, fell three notches to sixth place in its second week of release with an ESTIMATED $6.3 million (-48%) at 3,019 (+2 theaters, $2087 per theater). Its cume is approximately $20.9 million.
Directed by Jon Amiel, it stars Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, D.J. Qualls and Tcheky Karyo.
Sony Pictures' R-rated Basic dropped three pegs to seventh with an ESTIMATED $5.4 million (-53%) at 2,876 theaters (+ 2 theaters, $1,878 per theater). Its cume is approximately $20 million.
Directed by John McTiernan, it stars John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Connie Nielsen.
In its 15th week of release, Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago continued as a mainstay in the Top Ten, dropping from fifth to eighth place with an ESTIMATED $5.3 million (-26%) at 2,395 theaters (-306 theaters, $2,219 per theater). Its cume is approximately $152.1 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
MGM's PG-rated Agent Cody Banks fell from seventh to ninth place in its fourth week of release with an ESTIMATED $3.7 million (-42%) at 2,331 theaters (-455 theaters, $1,587 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $40 million.
Directed by Harald Zwart, it stars Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff and Angie Harmon.
Rounding out the Top Ten is Buena Vista's G-rated animated feature Piglet's Big Movie, which dropped two positions in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $3 million (-39%) at 2,084 theaters (-63 theaters, $1,484 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $17 million.
Directed by Francis Glebas, it features the voices of John Fiedler, James Cummings and Andre Stojka.
This weekend also saw the arrival of two limited-release films, Dysfunktional Family and The Good Thief.
Miramax's R-rated Dysfunktional Family opened with an ESTIMATED $1.1 million at 609 theaters with $1,827 per theater average.
The film is a stand-up-comedy concert film featuring Eddie Griffin that includes scenes from the comedian's personal life.
Directed by George Gallo, it stars Griffin.
Fox Searchlight's R-rated crime comedy The Good Thief, meanwhile, opened with an ESTIMATED $1,00,000 in six theaters, with a whopping $15,292 per theater average.
The film revolves around an aging gambler who assembles a team for a casino heist of a lifetime.
Directed by Neil Jordan, it stars Nick Nolte, Tcheky Karyo and Emir Kusturica.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $84 million, down 3.14 percent from last week when they totaled $86.7 million.
The Top 12 were also down 10.17 percent from last year when they totaled $93.5 million.
Last year, Sony's R-rated The Panic Room won the box office two weeks in a row with $18.2 million at 3,053 theaters ($5,969 per theater); Fox's R-rated High Crimes debuted in second with $14 million at 2,717 theaters ($5,155 per theater); and Fox's PG rated animated feature Ice Age came in third in its fourth week of release with $13.5 million at 3,200 theaters ($4,329 per theater).
Loosely based on the (rather lame) 1960 Rat Pack film dashing understated-but-cool thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) orchestrates the most sophisticated elaborate casino heist in history less than 24 hours after being released from jail. In one night Danny's handpicked 11-man crew of specialists--including an ace card sharp (Brad Pitt) a young-but-masterful pickpocket (Matt Damon) and a demolition genius (Don Cheadle)--will attempt to steal over $150 million from three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) the elegant ruthless entrepreneur who just happens to be dating Danny's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). To score the cash Danny will have to risk his life and risk his chance of ever reconciling with Tess. But if all goes according to his intricate nearly impossible plan Danny won't have to choose between his stake in the heist and his high-stakes reunion with Tess. Or will he?
The star wattage in this movie could solve all of California's electricity problems in one fell swoop. George Clooney easily passes himself off as suave mastermind Danny Ocean playing the role with understated class and elegance. Brad Pitt takes a similar arc as Rusty though he's slightly more dispassionate and professional than Clooney's visionary Ocean. Matt Damon is convincing as the inexperienced-but-talented pickpocket who's essential to getting in the vault. And Julia is simply Julia--glamorous and charming a smart cookie who is being wooed by the evil ruthless (and anal-retentive) casino mogul so elegantly portrayed by Andy Garcia. Affecting a Cockney accent and attitude Don Cheadle's portrayal of the demolition expert is a tour de force. Carl Reiner is absolutely hilarious as Saul Bloom an aging old-timer who comes out of retirement to infiltrate the casino as a debonair arms dealer. Elliott Gould Bernie Mac Scott Caan and Casey Affleck round out the cast nicely with inspired performances especially Gould's and Mac's.
Soderbergh cemented his reputation last year as a director of serious weight when both Traffic and Erin Brockovich were nominated for the Best Film Academy Award and garnered him two Best Director nominations---an unprecedented feat. Ocean's Eleven marks Soderbergh's departure from the serious to the seriously fun. This is one of the most stylish most elegantly filmed movies I have ever seen. Not only are all the actors beautiful but so are the locations clothes and shot selections. The speed and pacing of the flick belie the movie's length; Soderbergh clearly had fun making this movie. He shot this film very intimately often allowing the camera to stay close on the actors a tad longer than expected which lets their personas shine through--thus their personalities draw you into the movie as much as the caper itself. It's not often you see a movie where the direction has as much wit and cleverness as the plot itself. Ocean's Eleven makes no pretense to be something other than a jaunty cheeky exhilarating heist movie. So while the plot's not too deep all is forgiven considering the level of acting and direction.