Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review: Fred Claus

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamotti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz
Director: David Dobkin

Release Date: November 9, 2007
Running time: 116 min

MPAA Rating: PG
Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures

For a lot of people, Christmas is their favorite time of year. Religious implications aside, and for reasons left to the individual, there is no other span of time in the calendar year as generally well regarded as the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Having said that, it becomes more and more difficult each year to sift through the garbage and enjoy it for what it is, or at least what it was that made you like it in the first place. The season itself starts earlier and earlier thanks to the wonders of the obscenely over-commercialized retail arena and political correctness has stifled the spirit of the holiday so much that we feel martyred just for wishing someone a Merry Christmas. This twinge of sadness, this funk, lurked around and stayed with me throughout this movie.

Frederic Claus (Vince Vaughn) is the older brother of Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamotti). Nick is born into medieval family and immediately starts working his way into the role of family favorite. Eventually, and inexplicably, Nick is granted sainthood. And apparently by some stretch of folklore I have not been privy to, when you become a saint, you and your family and wives and children all become immortal. Seems weird, but so goes the narrative explanation. Fast forward to today. Fred lives in Chicago as a repo man and Nick has embodied the modern day version of Santa Claus we all know and love. Fred needs to borrow money and Santa agrees under the condition that he come to the North Pole and work for it during the holiday rush.

Meanwhile, Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey) is an efficiency expert sent by some unnamed agency that apparently oversees all holiday figures and their respective operations. He is sent to the North Pole to monitor and report back the details of Santa’s operation to determine whether or not they are deemed efficient enough to handle the worldly workload of Christmas, or whether the work should be consolidated and outsourced to faster, less expensive agencies. This is where that sadness I talked about came in.

It does not take a film scholar to know well before taking your seat what was going to happen in this movie. There is strife between Fred and Santa. The conflict is dealt with and in the end, the spirit of Christmas prevails. I am not robbing you of the experience of seeing this by saying that. What DID surprise me was the message the movie inadvertently sent by the contrived plot. Instead of being a funny, lighthearted holiday romp, this struck me as quite a sad little movie. The story of an old timer who has run his business the way he wants to run it for as long as anybody can remember only to be abruptly faced with the prospect of losing everything he has worked for because someone else thinks his methods are outdated? Or basically every Mom and Pop store in Anytown, USA before the mall, Wal-Mart, or any other oversized conglomerate steamrolled them out of business. To take institutions like Christmas and Santa Claus and overlap them with the modern ideals and trappings of Corporate America is flat out depressing. It might have been an interesting concept had it not been anywhere close to what they were shooting for.

Hidden agendas aside, the wasted talent in the movie is enough to run anyone out of town. Vince Vaughn and his fast talking, effusive way has worked in the past, and will no doubt work again, but he needs to learn the lesson of time and place. I am pretty sure his whole shtick was lost on any kid who went to see this movie. And any respectable adult in the audience should have noticed how tired his act was after The Break Up. When the five or ten worst movies of 2007 comes around, Paul Giamotti will now have the distinction of having starred in two of them after the awful Shoot ‘Em Up. And Kevin Spacey is still on auto-pilot in another cheesy performance I think he phoned in from the set of Superman Returns. To top it all off, the CGI used to put regular sized actors faces on elfin bodies did nothing but creep me out.

The Rub:
Full of bad performances, distracting and weird looking CGI, and an inadvertently depressing story, Fred Claus wants to be a funny fish out of water holiday film, a la Elf, but it completely misses the mark. The previews made it look bad and the execution was that much worse. We must be on the Naughty list this year because we all got the same big lump of coal. Merry effing Christmas.

And there’s the rub.

½ * out of ****

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Review: Tree

Starring: Bill Elverman, Kate Berry, Avery Laine, Jeff Garretson

Director: Michael R. Steinbeck

Running time: 46 min

Distributors: Drop Shadow Productions

“More and more intense. Every day I am seeing the future. I am seeing my glorious end. The tree is telling me the story of my death.”
Tom Brueggeman, Tree

The Skinny:
Tom Brueggeman and his family discover the tree in their yard gives them visions of the future. Tom struggles with his visions as they are gradually more vivid outlines of his own death.

The Review:
Horror films, or what passes as a textbook definition of horror films today, are all about blood and guts and gore and how disgusting can you make it onscreen. Even worse, with a lower budget the ideas behind all that gore become cheesy imitations when applied on film. Tree is different, and different for all the right reasons. It is different because it applied some novel concepts that aspiring filmmakers should take note of; one of which is that it all starts with the script. Without a good story to tell you are dead in the water.

The movie opens as Tom Brueggeman (Bill Elverman) and his family have recently taken over the family farm in rural Wisconsin after his wife’s father passes away. Tom doesn’t seem to be terribly motivated to have been relegated to this life, but he manages anyway. In the basement one morning, Tom finds a journal his father-in-law left behind full of crop reports and farming tips but at the end there are these stories. Creepy stories that are a bit off-putting to Tom so he ignores them and goes on about his day.

Chopping wood one evening after a long day, Tom starts to see flashes that include his daughter, then his wife crying, then nothing. He passes the visions off as an offshoot of the typically overworked farmer. Later, Tom’s daughter Katie (Avery Laine) tells him that when she is out in the yard playing she “sees things sometimes. Like dreams but I’m awake.” Tom questions her but seemingly for her sake, he ignores it. Katie and wife Ellie (Kate Berry) begin having visions too, but theirs seem to be less of the macabre and more about winning pie contests and the like. They both try to convince Tom this is not a bad thing but as the days go on and the dreams become more intense, eventually showing Tom his own death, he is understandably rattled and less willing to accept this as a perky anomaly.

Another of those novel concepts is finding actors that happen to be good at acting. In many independent films, the acting is one of the main areas of opportunity. In this film it is one of its strongest attributes. Lead actor and writer Bill Elverman gives two winning performances. First his script is original and fresh. He takes the time to tell the story, and his simple idea is maintained for the length of the film. Second, his performance, with Avery Laine, is the heart of the movie. Their performances, as well as the music used in the film, really helped ratchet the tension.

There is a scene by the river stuffed with people used more as a backdrop than to heighten the tension of the scene. This would not have been as distracting had it not been for the strength of the performances leading up to that scene. It was off base, but not enough to ruin the movie.

I smelled the ending coming long before it actually happened, but what saved it from the throes of mediocrity was the very last shot of the movie. I wont ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the closing image rose above what came dangerously close to banality and really brought it home for a strong finish.

The Rub:
An independent film full of strong performances, crisp writing, and refined direction that makes for a genuinely honest movie that actually tells a story. A refreshing change from other horror movies that spend all their time and money relying on blood and guts and special effects they can’t afford.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

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