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Full disclosure – I came in late, but I saw enough of this obvious, treacly, hackneyed, preachy pile of cornpone to feel safe that I didn’t miss the good part. Hitler is destroying all of Europe’s art. The Monuments Men, each and every one a gentle soul borne of devotion to those things that ennoble us, arrive in Europe to stop him. In the process, they say things like: “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for” and “Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing or the Mona Lisa is still smiling? Who will protect her?”

It’s not hard to figure what director and co-writer George Clooney was aiming for, an inspiring, old-fashioned period piece that trumpets the virtues of humanity in a world mired in barbarism, updated to include a little wit.  Call it “Band of Oceans 14.”

Clooney fails utterly.  Every character is stock, and the film feels untethered, veering wildly from the cornily comic to the embarrassingly sentimental (the deaths of Downton Abbey master Hugh Bonneville and Jean Judarin from The Artist are laughably operatic).  Bill Murray and Bob Balaban go for some night air, meet a scared German boy-soldier and share a cigarette with him.  Makes you think, right?  Then, Matt Damon, a member of the mission to save the art, steps on a land mine, prompting Clooney to quip, “Why d’you do something like that?”  And then Elliot Gould and Brad Pitt show up and they all have a drink at The Bellagio.

Clooney took a very interesting story and made it a bunch of hooey. Turns out Hitler didn’t order the destruction of art. Now, is Hitler the kind of historical character you actually need to lie about to make him look worse? I submit he is not. But this manifest picture isn’t taking any chances.

 

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Very funny, very raw, often insightful comedy written and directed by Chris Rock. Rock stars as a facsimile of himself, a Hollywood success straight out of the mean streets of NYC, returned home on the eve of his made-for-Bravo wedding to a reality star (Gabrielle Union) and the opening of his shot at a serious film after making his fortune in broad comedies (the most successful of which is the Hammy the Bear series, which delivers a running joke, as everywhere Rock goes, you hear “hey, Hammy!”). Four years sober, Rock is accompanied on his return by a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson).  A convincing love story ensues as Rock opens up to her about his rise, fall, fears and regrets.

The film starts off a bit choppy, mainly due to the fact that Rock has to carry most if it. Rock has a winning smile and a wicked perceptivity, but he carries the armor and remove of a lot of comics, so his manner is a bit stiff, forestalling investment. But soon, Rock gets in his element, as he is surrounded by a dozen very good comics to play off. He loosens up in the second half, which allows him to reach deeper to connect with Dawson.

Rock borrows liberally from Judd Apatow’s Funny People and evokes Woody Allen’s chatty vibe (Rock’s back and forth with Dawson on the real reason for Martin Luther King’s assassination is alone worth the ticket and emblematic of their clever repartee) but he also writes strong, emotional moments which resonate stronger and longer than the gags, in particular, Rock’s reconnection with his father.


There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

I just saw this on the AFI big screen with Will and my nephew in from Spain, Julian.  A great holiday classic.

John McClain (Bruce Willis), a NYC cop who is flying to LA to spend some time with his kids over Christmas, drops by his estranged wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) holiday party in the gleaming high-rise, Nakatomi Plaza.  Unfortunately, he arrives just when the party is crashed by a terrorist gang led by the slick and debonair Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).  The terrorists had the perfect plan, but they did not foresee a rogue cop picking them off one by one.

When I first saw Die Hard, I was impressed such an efficient, commercial, cop-against-the world shoot ’em up could be so deft and clever.  Most contemporary blockbuster cop pictures were devoid of humor; featured laughable, deadly serious male leads spouting leaden dialogue and women relegated to looking 80s video hot; invariably starred Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal; and sucked.  The only outliers were vehicles for established comedians (Beverly Hills Cop) or buddy pics (48 Hours and Lethal Weapon).

Willis, in his first big role, is winning.  When the terrorists strike, he is in his wife’s private office bathroom, shoeless and clad in pants and a wifebeater.  He’s vulnerable, put-upon and even giddy, and his charm is infectious.  He’s the perfect guide.

He’s assisted by an intricate, charming villain.  Rickman eschews stock heavy,  opting for an amused persona that hides a deeper ruthlessness :

 

The film also features numerous secondary characters who resonate even with limited screen time.  Reginald VelJohnson is the patrolman first on the scene and McClain’s link via walkie-talkie to the activities on the ground, with a tragic backstory of his own; Alexander Gudonov is the number 2 for the terrorists, infuriated because McCalin has killed his brother; Bedelia becomes the de facto leader of the hostages and has a few nifty exchanges with Rickman; and William Atherton (the haughty EPA investigator in Ghostbusters) is a convincing slimy television reporter.  Most notable is Hart Bochner, the coke-snorting LA cool cat who works for Bedelia.  I always thought Bochner would be a big star and the scene where he tries to “negotiate” McClain’s surrender damn near steals the picture.

Finally, Jeb Stuart’s writing is fresh, cynical and all the more surprising given this was his first picture.  Stuart writes for all characters, providing great repartee, such as this back-and-forth between two FBI men who are brought in late to take over operations:

Imagine a banana split, with 2 pounds of cane sugar dumped on top.  Add a generous ladling of chocolate syrup.  Drop it all in a bucket of melted cotton candy.  Deep fry it in maple butter.  Then imagine they could put this concoction on film, and you have Love Actually.

The only thing that recommends this monstrosity is Billy Bob Thornton as an American president who is an uncanny mix of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Even this brief treat is spoiled by his counterpart, British PM Hugh Grant, who apparently reverses relations with the U.S. solely because he caught Thornton feeling up his secretary.

It’s all too precious. Avoid the tooth decay and bellyache, even in the judgment altering season that is Christmas.

2015 UPDATE:  look, this is a gruesome film, substituting true emotion and pathos with a staggering falsity.  If you ever met anyone in your life anywhere near as quaint and darling as any of the characters in this bucket of marshmallow and melted gumdrops, it’s likely they are an enemy of the state infiltrating our ranks for a low purpose.  Before you feel your heart swoon and your mouth say “awwwwwwww”, run.  Run for your damned life.

2016 update:

Think about how creepy it would be for a person who long-pined for you to show up at your door with cue cards (one of which has semi nude women on it) to reveal his long held love immediately after you have chosen another.  Keira Knightley seems to think this is charming, but in point of fact, she should have called the cops.  This weirdo is now going to do . . . what, exactly?  Go off to Tahiti because mere proximity to his lost love is too much for him to handle?  Go to his apartment thinking that his gambit may pay off, that Knightley might think to herself, “Hmmmmmm.  He must really love me.”  Hang around, quietly watching . . . waiting . . . hoping.

This scene is emblematic of this stupid film because it trades a sentimental ball of goo moment for a larger and more generous gesture.

The dude should have simply left Knightley to her new husband and their life, which would have been stoic and laudable.  But nooooooo.  Let’s leave this on a narcissistic, creepy note.  Married women, think of you, at the door, newly betrothed a few weeks.  Your husband’s best friend comes to the door with cue cards and professes his long love for you.  Now, remove the gloppy music and the cobblestones and the holiday lights and Love Actually becomes . . . . Play Misty For Me?  When he says, “Enough.  Enough now,” I sensed menace, that crazy shit was going on in his head.  And frankly, had he gone back in the townhouse and killed them all, it still wouldn’t save this vile film, though it would have been an improvement.

Also, how dumb is the husband?  The boom box is supposed to be a substitute for carolers, but it is a smooth voice with some harmonists and an orchestra.  Bad choice, Keira.

Also, one card says “And at Christmas, you tell the truth.”  That’s ludicrous.  You no more tell the truth at Christmas than on Easter or Arbor Day.  What a putz!

This is all in a line with this dim flick.  Boy Prime Minister Hugh Grant probably effs up policy with the U.S. for decades, and for what?  Because the amalgamation of W and Bill (Billy Bob Thonton, literally the only good thing about this flick) grabbed his secretary’s ass?  Again, big things subordinated to tiny things.

It’s difficult to resist a dissipated, alcoholic, and profane Billy Bob Thornton as a Santa Claus who works department stores to crack their safes, especially when he meets an eternally cheerful but clueless grade schooler (Brett Kelly) left alone with his addled grandmother (Cloris Leachman) in their tony Arizona suburban ranch home.  In true Christmas spirit, Thornton discovers the boy is essentially alone and defenseless, moves right in, raids the liquor cabinet, and trysts with a slutty barkeep (Lauren Graham) who has a Santa fetish.

Santa is so bad he rips open the kid’s Advent calendar to get at some chocolates.  He pisses himself on the job.  He beats up children.  He engages in sodomy in the dressing rooms of the Big & Tall Women’s section of the department store.  He looks in the cherubic faces of all those blessed children who revere him and  . . . well, see for yourselves.

Is there redemption for Bad Santa? Kind of. But Thornton is a character who could endure three Dickensian ghosts and conclude, “Eh. Fuck ’em.”

Bad Santa is the ultimate anti-Christmas flick and a holiday favorite.  Thornton is brutally acerbic (especially when dealing with a host of bratty kids on his lap), Graham is indescribably hot, and John Ritter and Bernie Mac (as mall security and management) contribute significantly to the humor (Ritter’s repulsion/fascination with Bad Santa is inspired; what a loss he was).