Forget Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s real crowning performance is to be found in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached in which director Ivan Reitman asks her to convey sincere unqualified affection for Ashton Kutcher. Portman much to her credit gamely complies and though she may not have the emaciated figure bloody nails and bandaged ankles to tell of her labors the psychic scars must no doubt be just as severe.
Exhibiting strong chick-flick leanings and a rambunctious soft-R comic tone (i.e. lots of F-bombs some menstrual humor and a few shots of Kutcher’s naked ass) No Strings Attached is built around a basic relationship role-reversal: The dude Adam (Kutcher) longs for a deeper lasting commitment; the chick Emma (Portman) insists on keeping matters purely physical. Emma’s motive is a practical one: As a doctor-to-be her busy residency schedule with its 80-hour work weeks and intensive exam preparations precludes a serious relationship. But alas a woman has certain needs (foreplay apparently not being among them) and who better to fulfill them than Kutcher’s non-threatening boy-toy?
Thus a “friends with benefits” arrangement is cemented whereupon the ripcord is to be pulled on the occasion that either of them develops stronger feelings. This does not last long for soon Adam is cloyingly lobbying for escalation. Emma demurs – not out of disinterest we are told but because she’s intimacy-averse and afraid of a broken heart. Why else would she resist a more permanent attachment to someone like Adam?
Perhaps it’s because Adam as played by Kutcher is about as interesting as cabbage. And yet No Strings Attached would have us believe he’s some kind of floppy-haired Albert Schweitzer. This despite the fact that his greatest aspiration in life is to join the writing staff of a High School Musical-esque television series the shallow inanity of which is one of the film’s recurring jokes. In vain support of his cause the filmmakers decorate Adam’s apartment with various props – vintage posters books about 1920s movies a guitar that is occasionally picked up but never actually played – that hint at a depth that Kutcher himself never manifests.
Still Portman sells us on Adam and Emma’s inevitable union with every ounce of her not inconsiderable talent. (And her comic chops are legit – as those who’ve glimpsed her appearances on SNL and Funny or Die can attest.) But she asks too much. And Elizabeth Meriweather’s script while witty and stocked with some keen observations on the evolving nature of relationships in the modern age becomes weighed down by sentiment unbecoming an R-rated comedy not directed by Judd Apatow. In the end Kutcher seals the increasingly contrived deal with the climactic line “I’m warning you: Come one step closer and I’m never letting you go ” (I’m paraphrasing but not loosely) by which time the film's already lost its grip.
Four Christmases sort of follows along the same lines as any holiday movie these days -- dysfunctional families being dysfunctional until they realize how warm and fuzzy it is being dysfunctional. Yawn. In this case unmarried yuppie couple Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) have successfully avoided their crazy families during the holidays for a few years now concocting some cockamamie goodwill story about saving babies in a third-world country while they really go on an island adventure. But uh-oh plans go awry this Christmas and they are forced to indulge in a little family good cheer. Guess what though? Brad and Kate learn something from their ordeal. They realize a) they love each other and might want a family of their own but they need to get to know each other better and b) they still don’t want to spend the holidays with their families. Ever again. While Witherspoon is no slouch in the comedy department and definitely holds her own with her co-star -- even though he looks freakishly tall next to her tiny frame -- Vaughn is the one who keeps things afloat for the most part. Honestly he could read from the phone book in that quick-paced stream of consciousness way he’s perfected and we’d still laugh. It’s Four Christmases long list of supporting players however that is rather alarming starting with Robert Duvall as Brad’s no-nonsense dad to Sissy Spacek as Brad’s hippie mom. Sure Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight who play Kate’s divorced parents would do a movie like this but Duvall and Spacek? They must have needed a paycheck. The one standout is Jon Favreau as Brad’s brother a buffed out Mohawk-ed extreme fighter. Old buddies Favreau and Vaughn may have needed to work out a little aggression. Newbie director Seth Gordon whose claim to fame is the little-seen but hilarious documentary King of Kong unfortunately shows his lack of experience with Four Christmases. But maybe it isn’t Gordon’s fault -- not completely. The real culprit may be the way this film follows the same tired Christmas cookie cutter plot holiday movies seem to be about these days -- in which the families are SO dysfunctional the antics SO over the top it makes you want to run out of the theater so you can get to your own defective family for a little normalcy. I’m not saying we can return to the It's a Wonderful Life-type sugary fare but it would be nice to see a holiday comedy about familial ties that isn’t always so mean spirited.
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.
If there’s one positive thing about Delta Farce is that is actually follows a tried and true comedy formula-- namely the fish-out-of-water scenario—with moderate success. Down on his luck after losing his job and his girlfriend on the same day Larry (of the Cable Guy variety) decides to join his neighbor Bill (Bill Engvall) and his combat-happy buddy Everett (DJ Qualls) for a relaxing weekend of playing army. But when the three unlucky guys are mistaken for Army Reservists they’re loaded onto an army plane headed for Iraq--and mistakenly ejected in a Humvee somewhere over Mexico. Don’t ask. Convinced they’re actually in the Middle East the clueless wannabe soldiers turn into Magnificent Seven meets the Three Amigos and save a rural village from a siege of bandits proving to be real heroes after all. If you need to laugh at the war on terror you might as well do it with Larry the Cable Guy. He serves up his particular brand of comedy making light of a bad situation. In fact not only does he come off somewhat sympathetically as the hapless boob with a heart of gold he also gets the hot chick at the end of the movie. Go Larry! As his accomplice fellow stand-up Bill Engvall follows his own comic routine playing a hen-pecked trailer trash denizen who views this adventure as a great way to escape his overbearing wife and snotty kids. As the third doofus DJ Qualls (Hustle & Flow) plays a trigger-happy wannabe jarhead who sees this opportunity as a way to gain some street cred. And in a supporting role Danny Trejo a Robert Rodriguez regular pokes fun at his scary looks as the leader of the marauding bandits aptly named Carlos Santana. Yes the jokes are plenty. Director C.B.Harding is obviously a Larry the Cable Guy crony since his only other feature film credit is the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie. Honestly all that’s really required of him is to point and shoot with maybe a few action sequences to coordinate here and there. But while the formula works as a cohesive movie having to sit through Delta Farce’s comic stylings is the tricky part. What it really boils down to is whether you’re a fan of Larry the Cable Guy. If so you’ll (I would hope) realize you’re watching a pretty stupid comedy but will laugh in the appropriate parts. If not I would really wonder what the heck you are doing sitting in the theater.
Despite what the trailer might have you believe In the Land of Women isn't exactly a sweet sigh-inducing romance. Yes main character Carter Webb (Adam Brody)--a slightly snarky screenwriter who makes his living writing soft-core porn--leaves Hollywood for Michigan to get over a hard break-up by taking care of his aging tart-tongued grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). And yes he subsequently ends up getting entangled with angsty blond teenager Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart) and her lonely mom Sarah (Meg Ryan). But the trio's tenuous relationships are complicated by confusion resentment illness and misunderstanding all of which add up to a situation that's hardly straightforward--and frankly not all that romantic either. Brody is no stranger to playing sarcastic pop culture-savvy Southern Californians: After four seasons on The O.C. as Seth Cohen he's got the type down pat. As Carter he balances wry quips with a nice dose of empathy--you can tell that he truly cares about both Lucy and Sarah (not to mention his grandma as crusty as she is). But to be honest it's a little hard to see why. Stewart plays Lucy with a shy sullenness that's not very endearing--she gets a little more animated toward the end but it's too little too late--and Ryan's trademark perkiness has worn thin. She gives Sarah's dramatic scenes her best shot but the character's confusion and pain don't seem at home on her unnaturally tight face. Dukakis gets in a few zingers as Grandma Phyllis but the character is essentially one-note--as is Lucy's sister Paige (Makenzie Vega) who swiftly goes from "cutely precocious" to "awkward yapping." In many ways Paige seems like a character lifted out of the John Hughes playbook which isn't that surprising given Carter's fascination with the '80s director's oeuvre--and the movie's Hughes-ian high school subplot. Unfortunately the "classic" high school movie scenes (the party Lucy takes Carter to their movie outing at the mall her dawning realization at the end etc.) while fun for folks who grew up watching the movies they're obviously inspired by have a light tone that's jarring compared to the rest of the film's drama. When it comes down to it Carter--who's looking for a reason to stop drifting through life--has a lot more in common with Garden State's Andrew Largeman than Hughes heroes like Ferris Bueller and John Bender. Trying to squeeze him into a teen-centric story rather than focusing on helping him grow up doesn't do him--or the movie--any favors.
In the late 19th century Dr. Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) a misunderstood monster hunter is summoned to Transylvania to ferret out Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and kill him once and for all. When Van Helsing gets to the small village where the vampire was last spotted he discovers he also must contend with Dracula's three seriously twisted vampire brides Dracula's angry henchman/werewolf--and a lovely gypsy princess named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) who is hell-bent on eradicating Dracula and his bloodsucking kind for slaughtering her entire family. Oh and let's not forget Frankenstein's Monster (Shuler Hensley) who holds the key to Dracula's evil master plan--something about releasing his minions of unborn bat-like children from their goo-filled cocoons so they can wreck havoc on the world. Yuck. Sounds like our resident monster stomper and his sword-swinging gal pal have their work cut out for them. If Van Helsing does manage to kill all his monster foes does that mean he's out of a job?
Jackman has the whole antihero thing down pat. He adequately embodies the younger more virile Van Helsing dishing out as much pain and torture as he can on the undead--but the Aussie actor isn't given nearly as much meat to chew on as he did say delving into the complicated Wolverine in X-Men. Instead the monster hunter is relegated to carrying big weapons wearing a big hat and muttering something about having bad dreams to a past he can't remember. Same goes for Beckinsale. The British actress was oh-so-cool on the other side of the fence playing the chic vampire Selene in Underworld cutting her way through a myriad of werewolves. As Van Helsing's heavily accented female counterpart Anna however she just runs around with her sword blurting out such pathetic dialogue such as "Dracula took everything away from me and now I'm alone in the world" while Roxburgh's Dracula--who can't hold a candle to other far more charismatic Draculas before him--wails about being so very alone as his luscious brides hang upside down in front of him. Give me a break. At least Australian actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) provides much-needed comic relief as Van Helsing's sidekick Carl a Catholic friar who doesn't much like playing hero.
With the requisite dark mood and tone action sequences and snazzy CGI-creations including the winged vampire brides and formidable werewolves you can see exactly where writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) spent Van Helsing's nearly $150 million budget. But even all the bells and whistles can't tie together the film's vacuous nonsensical mumbo jumbo as Sommers attempts to bring classic movie monsters together in the same movie. Maybe in a tongue-in-cheek Abbott and Costello movie it could work but as a serious action-packed thriller clearly Dracula Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do not need to meet. On top of that Sommers steals from other movies as well such as recent films Underworld (the whole vampire vs. werewolf conflict) and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (Van Helsing defeats a rather familiar-looking Mr. Hyde at one point). Whatever originality there is in the film leaves you either scratching your head--Dracula has kids?--or rolling your eyes--Anna needs to kill Dracula so her nine-generations of family can reunite in Heaven? Please.