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.
Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.
As clever as it can be at times Flushed Away’s plot is still formulaically step by step. Step one: Introduce hero one Roderick St. James (Hugh Jackman) aka Roddy a pampered but lonely pet mouse who lives in a posh Kensington flat in London. Step two: Propel Roddy into the utterly foreign world of the city’s sewers by flushing him down the toilet. Step three: Hook him up with a cute renegade mouse named Rita (Kate Winslet) with a nifty boat who makes a pact with Roddy to take him back to his home in exchange for some riches she can use to help her extended family (32 brothers and sisters to be exact). Step four: Have the two of them then outwit the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen) mob kingpin of the sewer city Ratropolis after discovering his dastardly plan to rid the sewers of the rats. Step five: Happy ending. Not too complicated. We’ve got a mostly British A-list this time around and everyone sounds enthused to be indulging in the make-up free come-in-your-sweats fun of vocal work. Jackman infuses Roddy with the appropriate upper crustiness but who soon warms to his surroundings—and his new friend especially since he’s never really had any friends before. Winslet’s Rita is all pluck and spunk with a keen fashion sense and big mouse ears while McKellen’s malevolent frog is a big blowhard with a goiter. But as is the case with these animated films the side characters provide the laughs. There’s Toad’s main hench-rats—Whitey (a very deep-voiced Bill Nighy) an ex-laboratory rat who’s experimental shampooings have left him bald and an albino and Sid (Andy Serkis) a wiry weasel who is not nearly as tough as he purports to be. Toad’s French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) a cross between Jackie Chan and Inspector Clouseau is also hilarious. The best part however are the sewer slugs who don’t say much but rather add any musical accompaniment deemed necessary. Aardman Productions and DreamWorks the same folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit movies seem to have perfected the clay animation techniques and incorporated a lot more CGI. Flushed Away is definitely more polished than the W&G’s but the big teeth and general sardonic British sensibilities are all still there. The sewer life is visually bustling using everyday items to create their world such as the bad guys riding hand mixers as wave runners to chase after Rita’s boat. Plus the film is loaded with enough funny pop culture references to keep the adults laughing (thank YOU Shrek!) For example when Roddy is zooming his way down the water pipes he sees a yellow striped fish who asks “Have you seen my dad?” Nope there really isn’t anything inherently wrong with Flushed Away save for an overdone plot. Kids and parents alike should enjoy themselves.