In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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In a blanketed statement Luke Greenfield’s Something Borrowed attempts to explore lifelong friendships and the circumstances responsible for their ends. It’s billed as a romantic comedy which would be true if one choreographed dance to Salt N Pepa’s “Push It” and one instance where someone breaks their nose during a game of backgammon were the genre’s qualifiers. But deeper than that lies a message along the lines of “never defer to others ” or even one that’s more like “never give other people the opportunity to take what’s yours because they will.” However those morals get so completely muddled along the way that ultimately the film is downgraded to a chronicle of two best friends in love with the same man.
The film is told from the point of view of Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) who’s described as a successful lawyer at a top law firm (so “top ” in fact it’s never named). She is single mostly keeps to herself and is preoccupied with other people’s happiness but is lucky enough to have a very good friend in Darcy (Kate Hudson) who never misses a chance to talk about herself or steal the attention of an entire party by showing up in a pink boa. We learn Rachel and Darcy's friendship spans decades through a slide show that Darcy puts together for Rachel’s “surprise” 30th birthday party and during Darcy's toast to her best friend she talks about how excited she is to marry Dex (Colin Egglesfield) and how thankful she is to Rachel for introducing the two of them. However the truth is Rachel didn’t introduce them – what really happened was Darcy crashed Rachel and Dex’s date that was in honor of all the hard work they did together to prepare for a law school test. Rachel is saddened by the combination of turning 30 and listening to Darcy's excitement over her upcoming marriage to a man she doesn't deserve and after seeing the birthday girl's pout Dex suggests the fellow lawyers go get another drink together. Rachel casually admits to Dex that she’s had a crush on him since law school (which he claims to have never known) and during a shared cab ride to their separate apartments Dex kisses Rachel because it turns out he has had feelings for her all this time too. Thus begins the affair between Dex and Rachel even though Dex’s wedding to Darcy is only weeks away. Eventually Dex and Rachel both realize they love each other and Dex has to make a decision as to which woman is right for him.
Because the story is told from Rachel The Downtrodden's POV the filmmakers attempted to make Darcy the villain as she’s the opposite of Rachel and is someone who gets everything she wants without having to put forth any effort. In actuality Darcy is pretty easy to despise because she always talks about how she’s good-looking and the only obligations she has are towards partying and making incessant demands to Rachel about her wedding to a man she only halfheartedly loves. I suspect Greenfield decided to highlight the tremendous differences between Darcy and Rachel so as to emphasize the fervor and resilience of their bond (which would in turn make the affair between Rachel and Dex a bigger and more dangerous conflict). But it ends up being a disservice to the overall project because the characters themselves are so fundamentally flawed. The notion that one woman would WILLINGLY endure such bullying from someone who’s supposed to be her best friend is terribly unrealistic and so because the movie virtually revolves around this dysfunctional friendship between these two women means everything is painful to watch. There’s even a point where Rachel’s character becomes as unlikeable as Darcy in the way her utter obedience to Darcy makes her weak-minded a terrible heroine and essentially not worthy of our respect either. And what kind of a romantic comedy has us trying to figure out which woman we hate the most? (Exactly.)
John Krasinski saves the movie from being intolerable. He plays Ethan Rachel’s other best friend and (unlike Darcy) he genuinely cares about Rachel’s well-being. Rachel confides in him and he offers her advice and encouragement and Ethan does not like Darcy at all because he sees the way she treats Rachel and the way Rachel’s life halts every time Darcy has a demand. But his character is way more important than it appears to be because he’s the one who points out that both Rachel AND Darcy are flawed characters and he validates the audience’s disgust with both women. He does this by openly criticizing Darcy’s narcissism (which the audience notices within the first few minutes of the film) and also makes Rachel aware of how pathetic it is that she’s been at Darcy’s beck and call for 30 years. Ethan is arguably the only sane character in this movie and strategically he functions as its voice of reason. Even though Krasinski does not play a main character he’s so responsible for the humor that he is a true delight. Ginnifer Goodwin also does an excellent job playing the character who thinks she’s too ugly to ever get a handsome husband and Kate Hudson also deserves some recognition for embodying someone so self-righteous.
It's hard to criticize producers or a studio about what's wrong with a movie that was originally a book because neither the producers nor the studio are responsible for the story's fundamentals -- the author is. At the same time it’s impossible to hold an author responsible for how well his or her book was adapted into a film. That means both the filmmaker and the author must share credit for Something Borrowed but I have a feeling that in a few years neither party will want any.
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.
David Callaway (Robert De Niro) is having a tough time dealing with the apparent suicide of his wife (Amy Irving). His young daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) also has taken her mother's death very hard retreating into her own little world. As a psychologist David decides the only way to help Emily is to move from the big city to a house in the country. Sure that kind of thing usually works like a charm. Emily does perk up a bit when she finds a new "friend " Charlie who likes to have fun and play hide and seek with her. Of course we can't actually see this new friend but that's beside the point. The imaginary Charlie is still a powerful force in Emily's life instructing her not to talk about him much and hating pretty much everyone else in her life including her dad. In short order bad things start happening--yes the family pet gets whacked--which Emily blames on Charlie. This leaves David wondering how his little girl could have turned so psychotic. But wait. Maybe Charlie isn't imaginary after all but actually a flesh-and-blood malevolent presence. Oh god do you think so?
Why you may ask would an acting icon like Robert De Niro star of such classic movies as Raging Bull and Goodfellas choose such a cheesy film as Hide and Seek? Very good question. Maybe he was drawn into the project based on the premise like the rest of us without realizing how derivative the story would get as things progressed. Of course De Niro plays the confused father--dealing with what could possibly be a demonic child--with a fair amount of finesse. But he's a pro that's what he does. Fanning (I Am Sam) too does the best she can as the sunken-eyed pasty-faced Emily. She sulks around rarely smiles and draws scary pictures of people dying horrible deaths which has now become a prerequisite for any child in a scary movie. In the supporting roles Elisabeth Shue Famke Janssen and Dylan Baker are all pretty much wasted. Shue who hasn't acted in anything major since 2000's Hollow Man makes a brief appearance as a potential paramour for David. Janssen (X-Men) playing David's colleague and Emily's confidante thinks living in isolation is a bad idea (and she's right!). Veteran character actor Baker (Kinsey) takes on the predictable role of the hapless town sheriff who never quite gets he's about to be in a world of hurt.
It is always disappointing when the promise of something potentially creepy turns out to possess the same old tired plot points and scare tactics seen countless times before. Director John Polson--best known for helming Swimfan another predictable stalker-gone-mad thriller--and novice screenwriter Ari Schlossberg don't have the necessary skills to take Hide and Seek above and beyond its conventional trappings. To its small credit the film does build a bit of tension in the beginning as David and Emily skirt around each other trying to grasp onto some kind of normalcy. Then when Emily introduces Charlie you continue to hold out hope that somehow the filmmakers will channel some of M. Night Shyamalan's aura and start really scaring the bejesus out of you. But alas it isn't meant to be. Instead you're sitting there pretty much guessing every move the film is going to make before it happens. When the twist finally comes around--you knew there was a twist right?--it doesn't really surprise you whether you've guess it or not.