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.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
Finding Nemo, Pixar Animation Studios' little movie about a fish, netted a briny $70.6 million* take at the box office this weekend, posting the best opening ever for an animated film. The feature, distributed by Walt Disney Co., also became Disney and Pixar's fifth No.1 opening and the biggest opening for any Disney film--live or animated.
Finding Nemo bumped Disney and Pixar's previous No. 1 opener Monsters, Inc., which opened in November 2001 to the tune of $62.5 million. The studios' three other collaborations also debuted at the top of the box office, including Toy Story 2, which opened in November 1995 with $57.3 million, followed by A Bug's Life, which premiered with $33.1 million in November 1998. Toy Story, their first project, opened in November 1995 with $ 29.1 million.
Together, Disney and Pixar's computer animated films have generated ticket sales totaling more than $1.7 billion worldwide.
Driven by Finding Nemo and Bruce Almighty, the top 12 films this weekend grossed $165 million--up more than 41 percent from this time last year.
THE TOP TEN
Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar Animation Studios' G rated computer-animated feature Finding Nemo debuted at the top of the box office this weekend with an ESTIMATED take of $70.6 million at 3,374 theaters. Its $20,925 per theater average was the highest of any film playing this week.
The animated pic revolves around a clownfish in the Great Barrier Reef who is looking for his son, Nemo.
Directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it features the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe and Brad Garrett.
Universal Pictures' PG-13 Bruce Almighty dropped a notch to No. 2 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $35.6 million (-48%) at 3,492 theaters (+9 theaters; $10,195 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $135.7 million.
Directed by Tom Shadyac, it stars Carrey, Jennifer Aniston and Morgan Freeman.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 rated actioner The Italian Job debuted in third place with an ESTIMATED $19.3 million at 2,633 theaters with an impressive $7,330 per theater average.
In the movie, a mastermind thief and his crew pull off what they think is an amazing gold bullion heist--but one of them turns out to be a double-crosser.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, it stars Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Mos Def and Edward Norton.
Warner Bros.' R rated sci-fi sequel The Matrix Reloaded came in fourth in its third week with an ESTIMATED $15 million (-62%) at 3,453 theaters (-150 theaters; $4,356 per theater). Its cume is approximately $232 million.
Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, it stars Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss and Hugo Weaving.
Sony Pictures' PG-rated Daddy Day Care dropped to No. 5 in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $6.8 million (-51%) at 3,128 theaters (-344 theaters; $2,174 per theater). Its cume is approximately $81.9 million and headed for the $100 million mark.
Directed by Steve Carr, it stars Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, Steve Zahn, Regina King and Anjelica Huston.
Twentieth Century Fox's comic book sequel X2: X-Men United moved down two spots to sixth place in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $5 million (-52%) at 2,553 theaters (-534 theaters; $1,984 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $199.2 million.
Directed by Bryan Singer, it stars Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Twentieth Century Fox's R rated horror thriller Wrong Turn premiered in seventh place with an ESTIMATED $5 million in 1,615 theaters with a decent $3,102 per theater average.
The film revolves around a group that gets stranded on a dirt road deep in the wood of West Virginia and faces a horrific fate at the hands of gruesome mountain men.
Directed by Rob Schmidt, it stars Desmond Harrington, Eliza Dushku, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Jeremy Sisto.
Warner Bros.' PG-13 The In-Laws dropped three notches to No. 8 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $3.6 million (-50%) in 2,652 theaters (unchanged; $3,443 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $14.4 million.
Directed by Andrew Fleming, it stars Michael Douglas, Albert Brooks, Candice Bergen, Ryan Reynolds and Lindsay Sloane.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 romantic comedy Down With Love came in ninth with an ESTIMATED $1.5 million (-61%) in 1,300 theaters (-818 theaters; $1,212 per theater). Its cume is approximately $17.1 million.
Directed by Peyton Reed, it stars Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor and David Hyde Pierce.
Fox Searchlight's PC-13 rated comedy Bend It Like Beckham made it back to the Top 10 this week with an estimated $1 million (-41%) at 491 theaters (-31 theaters; $2,088 per theater). Its cume is approximately $19.1 million.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha, it stars Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
MGM and United Arists' PG rated drama Together debuted in limited release to an ESTIMATED $66,000 in six theaters with a $11,000 per theater average.
The film revolves around a 13-year-old music prodigy and his father, a chef who has put all of his hopes on his son's success. Together they set out for Beijing so the boy can further his studies.
Directed by Chen Kaige, it stars Tang Yun, Liu Peiqui, Chen Hong and Wang Zhiwen.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $165.4 million, up 5.7 percent from last week when they totaled $156.9 million.
The Top 12 were up a whopping 41.7 percent from last year when they totaled $116.7 million.
Last year, Paramount's PG-13 rated Sum of All Fears premiered at the top of the box office with $31.1 million at 3,183 theaters ($9,795 per theater); Fox's PG rated Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones came in second in its third week with $21 million at 3,161 theaters ($6,644 per theater); and Sony's PG-13 rated Spider-Man came in third in its fifth week with $14.3 million at 3,646 theaters ($3,927 per theater).