Fred Claus

Posted on November 25, 2008 at 8:00 am

The predictable work and family and romantic complications ensue, but they are dragged out and overplotted as an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) comes in for some bah-humbug moments, threatening to outsource the entire operation. The movie could have used an efficiency expert as it drags on about half an hour too long and the ratio of laughter per minute declines. All that should matter in the movie are the two brothers. As long as we stay with them, the movie stays on the “nice” list.
Vince Vaughn has a literally off-beat vibe. His words tumble out in a rapidly syncopated tumble and his delivery vibrates like a plucked high tension wire. The words come out so quickly that it takes a moment to realize that he has just revealed something hilariously honest that even he does not seem to know he said. He is disarmingly frank about being a bit of a liar.
Director David Dobkin has worked well with Vaughn before (in the under-appreciated “Clay Pigeons” and the smash comedy “The Wedding Crashers”) and this movie about Santa’s brother is well-designed to take advantage of Vaughn’s strengths. The theme of sibling rivalry is perfect for showing off Vaughn’s gift for barely-under-the-surface resentment. And it is very funny to see the 6’4″ actor trying to interact with hundreds of elves and their Lilliputian environment.
The set-up is promising: If you think sibling rivalry is tough, imagine being the sibling of the most beloved figure in the world: Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti). And Vaughn is marvelous dancing with the elves and struggling not to be drawn to his irresistibly loveable brother. But plot digressions that take much too long to resolve and mangled special effects are a distraction and a nuisance.
According to this movie, Santa’s older brother Fred (Vince Vaughn) has spent hundreds of years feeling slighted and resentful. It turns out that when Nicholas became a saint, his entire family was granted perpetual life. So, Fred now lives in Chicago, where he is needs money to start his off-track betting operation, and where his meter-maid girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) is losing patience with his evasions and unreliability. Fred asks his brother Nick (Santa) for money. Mrs. Claus wants him to say no, but he tells her, “I’m a saint. Tough love’s a little difficult for me.” The best he can do is insist Fred come up to the North Pole to earn the money. So Willie (the head of John Michael Higgins on a little person’s body), the head elf, swings by in the sleigh to pick him up, and Fred gets whisked to Santa’s workshop by reindeer express.
Fred does not exactly fit in, physically or culturally. He gets into a tussle with the workshop’s DJ (the head of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges on a little person’s body), after one too many spins of sugary seasonal tunes. Fred shoves him aside and plays Elvis singing “Rubberneckin’.” The elves get so excited that the workshop turns into a rave, complete with mosh pit.
The predictable work and family and romantic complications ensue, but they are dragged out and overplotted as an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) comes in for some bah-humbug moments, threatening to outsource the entire operation. The movie could have used an efficiency expert as it drags on about half an hour too long and the ratio of laughter per minute declines. All that should matter in the movie are the two brothers. As long as we stay with them, the movie stays on the “nice” list.
Parents should know that this movie has some crude humor, including mild sexual references, potty jokes, a non-explicit childbirth scene, mild language, and some skimpy clothing. Some audience members will find it insensitive that Fred and the elves assume that boys will all want one gender-specific toy and girls will want another, though it does show one girl happily receiving the “boy’s” toy. And this is a rare Christmas film to recognize that some people belong to religions that do not celebrate Christmas or expect a visit from Santa. Some may also find it insensitive that the faces of full-size actors are imposed on the bodies of little people.
Families who see this movie should talk about Fred’s feelings about Nick. Why was it hard for him to feel good about his brother? Who was right about the naughty list? How can an efficiency expert be a help?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Elf (some crude humor) and The Santa Clause.


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Meet Dave

Posted on November 25, 2008 at 8:00 am


It seems like Eddie Murphy wants to live in a world of his own. Increasingly, in movies like the execrable Norbit, he plays multiple parts and does his best to make sure that any parts played by other actors are bland and forgettable. He plays only two parts in his latest film, “Meet Dave,” but he has found a way to live in a world of his own — literally. He plays the captain of an alien spaceship that plans to steal all of Earth’s oceans. And he plays the spaceship itself, a white-suited humanoid structure designed to move about New York to find their missing ocean-sucking orb.

The aliens are tiny by Earth standards and it takes dozens of them to operate a human-sized spaceship. The cultural officer (Gabrielle Union, warm and elegantly beautiful as always) uses Google to explain what is going on and provide the captain with answers to questions he is asked. When he is asked for his name, she does a search of Earth’s most common names and he answers “Ming Cheng.”

The person asking his name is Gina (Elizabeth Banks), who accidentally hit the spaceship with her car and is trying to make sure what she thinks is a person is all right. When she says he looks more like a Dave, he tells her that his name is Dave Ming Cheng and he begins to befriend Gina and her 5th grader son Josh (Austin Lind Myers), and discover that the Earth inhabitants are not the useless barbarians he expected.

As “Dave” and, through him, his crew begin to interact with the earthlings they experience food, shopping, mochitos, salsa dancing, 5th grade bullies, and “A Chorus Line” (a couple of bars is enough to bring out the inner effeminate homosexual in a formerly macho weapons expert). They get a little drunk and they start to feel emotional.

The kids in the audience enjoyed the silly stuff, as when “Dave” ducks into an Old Navy changing room to manufacture American money out of his boxers. But director Brian Robbins (Norbit, Ready to Rumble) allows the film to sag between its weak and too-infrequent punchlines and has no idea of how to work with talented performers like Banks, who has not much to do other than a nervous laugh, and Union, limited to longing or impatient glances. Murphy seems angry and impatient with the material and the other performers. As horrible as Norbit is, at least it tried to build on the bitterness and insularity Murphy increasingly projects. Murphy manages a good silly walk but his best moments here only remind us of his better films, especially “Coming to America,” another fish-out-of-water story set in New York. These days, Murphy seems like a fish out of water as an actor on screen.

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Comedy Fantasy

Space Chimps

Posted on November 25, 2008 at 8:00 am

space chimps.jpg

This genial animated sci-fi comedy about astronaut chimps is an unpretentious summer pleasure, an entertaining mix of adventure and comedy that even manages to find some heart.

Ham III (voice of “Saturday Night Live’s” Andy Samberg) is a chimpanzee circus performer whose most popular trick is being shot from a cannon. As he rises higher in the sky before crashing down to earth again, he reaches wistfully toward the moon, thinking of his grandfather Ham, who was sent up in a space capsule by NASA back in 1961. Ham’s only family now is his grandfather’s friend Houston (voice of Carlos Alazraqui), who has been looking out for Ham as long as he can remember.

But Ham III does not like rules, authority, or thinking of himself as a hero, so when NASA wants him to go on a space mission, he declines. However, it turns out it was not a request but an order, so he soon finds himself in training with some serious and highly qualified space chimps, Titan (voice of Patrick Warburton), Luna (voice of Cheryl Hines of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), and Comet (voice of Zach Shada).

The chimps are needed because an American space probe has been sucked into a wormhole and ended up on an alien planet. It is too dangerous to send humans after it, but the Senator in charge (Stanley Tucci) is willing to send the chimps. And so Titan and Luna, whose entire space experience is being part of a historical exhibit about what happened with the first Ham in 1961 are sent up with Ham III, who is added to provide some public relations sizzle. Comet and Houston stay home to provide support. And yes, Houston, we have some problems.

On the alien planet, a bully named Zartog (voice of Jeff Daniels and more silly than scary) is using the space probe to control the sweet-natured, jelly-bean-colored inhabitants and force them to give him a really extreme home makeover. Will the chimps complete their mission and return home with their ship or will they help solve the problem that earth’s technology has created?

Everyone has some lessons to learn as the chimps have to navigate hostile terrain (including the Valley of the Very Bad Things and a monster with a lot of big, sharp teeth), confront Zartog, and do some DYI construction to find their way home. They will prove that they can do more than the humans thought and even more than they knew was possible themselves.

Samberg is an appealing hero and the brisk pacing and lively visuals keep things moving. These astro-chimps have the right stuff.

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Animation Comedy Fantasy


Posted on November 25, 2008 at 8:00 am

The problem is, this is not a 4th of July movie. It is not a bad movie. It is not a good movie either. It is a flawed but interesting movie but its biggest problem is that on the 4th of July the kind of Will Smith movie people want to see is a brainless summer blockbuster with some cool explosions, some quippy dialogue, and the kind of bad guy you can cheerfully enjoy seeing fall off a building. This is not that movie, and people who expect that movie are doomed to disappointment. Go see Iron Man again. Or put those expectations aside, start from scratch, and go this this messy but intriguingly ambitious film. Inside the $150 million-budgeted would-be blockbuster there are two or three quirky little indie films trying to get out.

Will Smith’s Hancock may be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to soar like the eagle, his favorite animal, but he is no Superman. He dresses like a homeless guy, drinks like a wino, and talks like a sulky teenager. He will save lives, catch crooks, and hurl beached whales back into the ocean but he won’t be happy, nice, gracious, patriotic or careful about collateral damage. Everyone needs him but no one likes him. He doesn’t like anyone and he doesn’t like himself.

When idealistic PR guy (if that is not an oxymoron) Ray (Jason Bateman) gets stuck on the train tracks, Hancock rescues him and (literally) drops him off at home. Ray invites Hancock in for dinner and offers to give him some help with his image. He advises the petulant superhero to accept responsibility for his actions and remind everyone they cannot get along without him by spending some time in jail and getting some help with anger management. Pretty soon Hancock is shaving, wearing a streamlined leather superhero suit, and handing out compliments to the cops. And he looks pretty good. After all, he’s Will Smith.

But then the story takes a darker turn that makes it at the same time more provocative, more interesting, less safe, and much, much messier. Smith, Bateman, and Charlize Theron as Ray’s wife do their best to ride the bucking bronco of this movie’s seismic shifts set up by director Peter Berg and writers Vy Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan but by the end, which bears the unmistakable marks of a panicky recut to make it more upbeat. Too little, too late.

And so a promising idea about a superhero with an existential crisis several times greater than the “great power means great responsibility” growing-up metaphors of Spider-Man and other Marvel and DC denizens wobbles through wildly misjudged moments with way too much emphasis on the metaphoric and literal aspects of the terminating point of the lower intestine and then turns a sharp corner and has something of an existential crisis of its own, leaving the audience itself asking why we are here — meaning in the theater.

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Fantasy Superhero
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