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.
Set in a world inhabited only by motor vehicles Cars is sort of a cross between Michael J. Fox's Doc Hollywood and NASCAR. The main hero is a hotshot rookie race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson)--an obvious homage to the late fast-driving Steve McQueen--whose one goal in life is to win the Piston Cup and bask in fame and glory. Yet on his cross-country trip to the Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros (real-life legendary racer Richard Petty voices the reigning champion The King) Lightning finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy--and forgotten--Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There he meets its colorful denizens--including Sally (Bonnie Hunt) a snazzy 2002 Porsche who owns the local “rest” stop; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) the town’s rusty but trusty tow truck; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) a 1951 Hudson Hornet who rules the town with a steady hand er wheel. Together they all help the cocksure Lightning realize that there are more important things than trophies fame and sponsorship. If Pixar calls you come running so it isn’t at all surprising how impressive the Cars vocal line-up is starting with legendary screen icon Newman as the Doc. Come on being the race car driving nut that he is you think the 81-year-old actor would say no to voicing a 1951 Hudson Hornet who has his own mysterious past in the racing world? Hell no. The rest of the cast also seem to have a good time channeling their inner car from Wilson’s snarky speedster to Hunt’s cute and sexy Porsche a big-city lawyer who decides to get out of the fast lane. Supporting voices include Cheech Marin and Tony Shalhoub as Radiator Springs’ low-riding body shop and Italian Fiat tire shop owners respectively. Even George Carlin gets into the act as a groovy ‘60s VW wagon who sells “organic” fuel. Good stuff. Of course what Pixar flick would be complete without its comic relief? Although he’s no Ellen DeGeneres as a short-term memory impaired fish Larry the Cable Guy fills in nicely as the dim but sweet Mater the ultimate hick tow truck. Having been out of the directing loop since his 1999 sequel Toy Story 2 Cars marks Pixar’s golden boy John Lasseter return--and this is his big love letter to the splendor that is the automobile. Of course his demand for perfection took its toll. The animators had to come up with a new technique called “ray tracing ” which allows the car stars--that are metallic and heavily contoured--to credibly reflect their environments. Even with a sophisticated network of 3 000 computers and state-of-the-art lightning-fast processors that operate up to four times faster than they did on The Incredibles the average time to render a single frame of film was 17 hours. Still all that time spent pays off. Cars is a real visual treat with another firm grasp in storytelling. Sure it’s a bit of a vanity project and may shoot way over the kiddies’ heads making them squirm a little during the “slow” parts. But as one of the recently appointed top guns at Disney Lasseter can do just about anything he wants these days--and we are going to love it dammit.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Although it's modern day there's a distinct Raymond Chandler-esque feel to this story about a petty thief named Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) who lucks into a movie audition and finds himself heading to Hollywood. Harry is replacing Colin Farrell as a detective in a film and to get the realism of the part he's shown the detecting ropes by Det. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) also known as Gay Perry--because he's gay. Then Harry runs into his old high school sweetie Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a Hollywood party. She believes Harry is a real detective and begs him to help her. That's when the bodies begin coming out of the woodwork. Greed torture and mayhem ensue. If there's any way to prove that Downey is back in true form this is it. He's glib charming deep and truly becomes a modern-day Chaplin in this very trampy role. Kilmer avoids some of the stereotypes of playing gay but as he points out "we're not good cop bad cop we're fag and New Yorker." Both deserve awards. Monaghan holds her own as a feisty red-head. Even Downey's real-life son Indio--who plays his character in the early flashback scenes--shows incredible promise as an actor. This is the Shane Black’s directorial debut the same guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and Long Kiss Goodnight. He knows violence that’s for sure but he also has a keen sense of humor. In Kiss Kiss he mixes them well. Black sets the mood with Downey--giving his best Bogie-like voiceover-- narrating the action along the way. This is better than Get Shorty as far as a dark look into the entertainment industry and far more entertaining. And as Harry's character promises "I've seen Lord of the Rings and we're not going to end this 17 times."
Ape descendant Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) gets yanked from the Earth by best friend and alien Ford Prefect (Mos Def) seconds before a Vogon constructor fleet destroys it to make way for a hyperspace expressway. Next thing he knows Arthur is aboard the Vogon ship reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (voiced by Stephen Fry) and wondering where he might get some tea. But he and Ford are not in the clear: the Vogons (some of whom look like the nightmarish drawings of Ralph Steadman come to life in S&M leather) want to throw them into the vacuum of space right after they read some of the third worst poetry in the known universe. Luckily the spaceship Heart of Gold picks up the stranded hitchhikers in the nick of time. Stolen by the dim but groovy President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) the ship has an Improbability Drive that causes certain mischief turning the stowaways into loveseats and later two missiles into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. Also onboard is doe-eyed Earth girl Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) who previously ditched Arthur at a costume party on Earth to satisfy her wanderlust with Zaphod. The crew then embarks on a quest to find the Ultimate Question to Life the Universe and Everything after supercomputer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren) found the answer: 42. On the run and without a home Arthur discovers that life's true meaning comes from the answers found within.
The slapstick antics and sharp dialogue evoke enough laughs to make one forget that the characters are rather one-note. Rockwell's Zaphod is a riot at first but the cheeky smile and devilish winks soon wear thin. Deschanel has little to work with playing Trillian though it's fun watching her wield a point-of-view gun on Zaphod. Mos Def mumbles some lines but does manage to act like someone from another planet. Freeman does an amiable job playing the fish-out-of-water Earthman but neglects to express the grief and bewilderment of someone who just lost his planet. Even John Malkovich as Humma Kavular--the spiritual leader of a cult awaiting the arrival of the Big Handkerchief--fails to make much of an impression in his brief appearance. Only Alan Rickman as the perpetually glum robot Marvin and Bill Nighy as the stammering planet designer Slartibartfast remain funny without becoming routine--though unfortunately Nighy only appears in the third act. A half-cocked romance between Arthur and Trillian is thrown in for good measure with the couple merely going through the motions.
Directed with considerable flair by first-timer Garth Jennings whose frantic visual style blends well with Adams' ironic wit the film looks as good as can be. CGI is used to display Adams' universe in ways never seen before: The massive concrete slabs of the Vogon fleet surrounding Earth the Heart of Gold tricked out in 1960's Formica kitsch the stark bureaucratic world of Vogosphere and the eye-popping factory floor on Magrathea are all vividly brought to life. Although the graphics of the Guide look more like Internet pop-up ads than stellar entries from the best-selling book in the galaxy the exposition from the Guide is clever and amusing though one should brush up on the material prior to viewing. Even with all the stunning visuals however the plot is still thin. Jennings and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) have trimmed the story--and witty banter--to its barest essentials leaving out some of the funnier bits to quicken the pace. Memorable exchanges--like the opening battle of wits between Arthur and Mr. Prosser--are reduced to a few meaningless lines while the always hinted-at love affair between Arthur and Trillian gets the full Hollywood treatment. In the past Adams who died of a heart attack in 2001 has allowed the Guide to change and progress with each incarnation so new additions--like the point-of-view gun and the cult of the Big Handkerchief--are welcomed. But the patchwork of wacky vignettes and neutered banter particularly between Arthur and Ford leave one yearning for something more meaningful.