Tag Archives: C

MAN IN THE CHAIR

An aspiring high school filmmaker bonds with survivors from Hollywood’s golden age in Michael Schroeder’s likable but unhappily ragged “Man in the Chair.” Movie buffs will get some enjoyment from the idea that today’s would-be directors have a lot to learn from oldsters, but it’s a message that might have been more effectively delivered.

The engaging young actor Michael Angarano, probably best known for his work in “Sky High,” plays Cameron, an outsider at his L.A. campus who intends entering a short film competition against rich bully Brett (Taber Schroeder). He’s got plenty of ideas but not much cash or experience. At a repertory screening of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” however, he bumps into a scraggly old drunk called Flash (Christopher Plummer), who shouts at the screen. It turns out that despite his appearance Flash was actually a member of Welles’ crew—a gaffer on whom the famous director bestowed the nickname.

Cameron asks Flash for his help on his project, and the initially reluctant old man eventually agrees, enlisting not only his fellow residents at the movie nursing home but once-great screenwriter Mickey Hopkins (M. Emmet Walsh), who’s ensconced in a fleabag flat, and whose circumstances so shock the boy that he decides to make his film about the degrading ways in which impoverished old people are forced to live. Flash also buries his pride to ask for financial aid from an old friend and rival, a producer who stole his wife (Robert Wagner). But while Flash and Cameron gradually bond—and Flash helps the boy win grudging respect from his harsh taskmaster stepfather (Mitch Pileggi), their work is endangered by the old man’s drunkenness and wild mood swings. But never fear: they’ll overcome all obstacles to finish the movie.

There’s a good deal of TV-movie mentality in all this (although Schroeder deserves some credit for at least stepping away from the most predictable of triumphal endings). But a network film would be far more slickly made. “Man in the Chair”—meaning the director’s chair, of course—looks about as scruffy as Flash does, with generally grungy cinematography from Dana Gonzales (including some visually tricked-out transitions that are more aggravating than mood-setting).

But Angarano manages to make Cameron a rebellious kid with a nice streak of vulnerability, and it’s good to encounter Walsh again—one of those inimitable character actors who always brings a smile to your face even when, as here, he’s going for poignancy. Most of the attention, however, will undoubtedly be on Plummer, who plays Flash with abandon—so much, in fact, that the performance often seems more like an over-the-top vaudeville turn. A bit of subtlety would not have been out of place. But it’s still pleasant to see him in such a large role, and at least he’s spared the sort of indignity he was forced to endure in a picture like John Boorman’s awful “Where the Heart Is” (1990), where he played a grotesque caricature of a street person.

Schroeder’s movie is too slight and formulaic to amount to much, but at least, unlike Boorman’s, its heart is in the right place.

FRED CLAUS

The slew of awful Christmas movies over the past few years—just think of “Deck the Halls,” “Surviving Christmas” and “Christmas With the Kranks”—does not bode well for “Fred Claus.” There have been exceptions—Will Ferrell’s “Elf,” for instance, springs to mind, and the Tim Allen “Santa Clause” movies have been financially successful, if not very good. But generally speaking, no holiday season has been served worse on screen lately that Yuletide.

That makes the fitful pleasure afforded by “Fred” something to be thankful for. This is hardly a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but it has some pretty funny moments, and though the level of sentiment goes off the chart in the last reel, at least there’s some earlier sour to go along with the later sickeningly sweet. And most importantly, it’s frequently less a Christmas movie than a vehicle for Vince Vaughn, who dominates it just as Billy Bob Thornton did “Bad Santa,” a picture with which it shares a bad-tempered undercurrent, though hardly to the same degree.

In plot terms the movie of which this one is most likely to remind you, in fact, is Jeannot Szwarc’s big-budget 1985 “Santa Claus,” which told the story of Santa’s origin rather blandly and then moved into a rather dreary tale of a megalomaniac toy magnate’s attempt to highjack the Christmas holiday. Dan Fogelman’s script also deals with Santa’s adoption of his genial persona, and it sets up a conflict between Saint Nick and a modern efficiency expert who threatens to close down his operation and outsource the whole thing to the South Pole.

But it adds to the mix a tale of sibling rivalry between Santa and his jealous, low-life older brother. In a prologue we’re shown how centuries ago the latter, Fred (Vaughn), was turned against his little brother Nick (played as a grownup by Paul Giamatti) because the latter was so sanctimoniously generous and the apple of their parents’ (Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock) eyes. The backstory also adds, without any logical explanation, that Nick’s adoption of the Santa persona brought apparent immortality and agelessness not only to himself but to his whole family, which allows the script to shoot forward to the present, where Fred’s a shiftless, fast-talking con-man in Chicago estranged from mom, dad and bro. But when he’s tossed into jail just before Christmas for one of his get-rich-quick schemes, he calls Nick to bail him out. Santa agrees, much to the consternation of his wife (Miranda Richardson), but insists that he come to the North Pole and work off the debt. Unfortunately, Fred arrives just as that mean-spirited efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) shows up, and his disruptive conduct gives the number-cruncher all the ammunition he needs to close the elf factory down. The fact that Santa has also invited mom and dad to his place to rebuild family bridges makes matters even worse.

There’s more to the plot, of course—Fred’s on-again, off-again romance with a Chicago meter maid (Rachel Weisz), his surrogate dad routine with a troubled orphan called Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson), and the friendship he develops with Santa’s chief elf, a lovesick fellow named Willie (John Michael Higgins, whose face is digitally superimposed on a much smaller body, as is that of Chris Bridges on another elf). But the big turn is Fred’s conversion to goodness, as he saves the day for his brother by taking over Christmas gift delivery, preserving the operation if he manages to finish the route before dawn.

It’s this final turn that takes “Fred Claus” into ultra-sappy territory: a montage of Fred repeatedly falling down chimneys is bad enough, but the interspersed shots of kiddies happily unwrapping presents to the strains of “Silent Night” are even worse (especially since the script has set up a premise involving hula hoops and baseball bats that seems practically to invite a nasty punchline). And the final family reconciliation sequences are tough to swallow. (On the other hand, Spacey’s reformation includes a nice jibe at the expense of his Lex Luthor role in “Superman Returns.”)

But there are sporadic compensations in Vaughn’s earlier motor-mouth shtick, which is certainly familiar but still amusing, particularly in his one-on-ones with Weisz, and in one inspired episode involving a “Siblings Anonymous” group and featuring some surprising cameos. Unfortunately such moments are more than counterbalanced by some poor slapstick (like a chase sequence involving multiple Santas and a really dreadful dance scene with Fred and the elves) and the saccharine stuff between Fred and Slam. The fact that Vaughn is virtually the whole show is a distinct drawback, too. Giamatti tries to make Nick genuinely soulful, which takes him too seriously, Richardson and Bates are totally wasted, and the visual legerdemain with the miniaturization of Higgins and Bridges hardly seems worth the effort when the results are so slim in comedic terms. As for Spacey, no one could have played the part of the officious, bitter company man better, which is not to say that it offers him much to do.

“Fred Claus” is generally well produced, with special kudos for the authentically chilly Chicago scenes, although the candy-colored, snowball North Pole setting is hardly the sort of stuff that will inspire awe in either children or their parents (the fact is, we’ve just seen it too often in other pictures). And that points to what will certainly keep the picture from becoming a perennial, or even lasting very long this year before wilting. Simply put, it’s a movie that, in trying to appeal to both tykes and older viewers in different ways, won’t entirely please either; the mixture of the jaded and the juvenile just doesn’t gel. By trying to be both naughty and nice, it exhibits a split personality that director David Dobkin isn’t crafty enough to overcome.

But though it’s no Christmas treat, at least it doesn’t descend to the miserable level of the rogue’s gallery of dreadful Yuletide movies we’ve suffered through in recent years.