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HTF Blu-ray Review: FOUR CHRISTMASES
2 replies to this topic
Posted December 02 2009 - 03:52 PM
Four Christmases (Blu-ray)
Studio: Warner (New Line)
Film Length: 88 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; English DD 5.1 (compatibility track); German DD 5.1*
Subtitles: English SDH; German;* German SDH;* Dutch;* Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB + 1 DVD (digital copy)
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 28, 2008
Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 24, 2009
*Though not listed on the Blu-ray case, these audio and subtitle options are included on the disc.
Director Seth Gordon has a distinctive ear for the absurd. His first feature film was the remarkable documentary, The King of Kong, which related the if-you-made-it-up-they-wouldn’t-believe-it tale of a fight to the death between a science teacher and a guy who manufactures hot sauce for the world record at Donkey Kong (yes, the old arcade game). Gordon managed to present this story with a dramatic flair worthy of an old-time Western.
In Four Christmases Gordon took on a mainstream subject: Christmas. Critics were unimpressed, but the film did good box office, largely on the strength of star power in both the leads (Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon) and the supporting cast (Robert Duval, Jon Favreau, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, among others). Warner is clearly hoping to make the film a seasonal perennial, but only time will tell whether Gordon’s particular brand of dark humor has that kind of staying power.
Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have been together for three years but have never met each other’s families. Every Christmas they spin elaborate stories to each of their parents, all of whom are divorced, and then escape San Francisco together for some island paradise. This year, though, circumstances conspire to postpone their trip for a day – and even worse, to let all the families know about it. Now Brad and Kate have to make the rounds at four different homes in the Bay Area to spend a few hours of Christmas with all the family members they’ve so carefully avoided all these years.
(Cameo alert: Watch for executive producer Peter Billingsley, who once was Ralphie in A Christmas Story, as a polite but unhelpful airline ticket agent. The blue eyes are a giveaway.)
Indignities galore await the two of them, and not just because each household they visit is headed by an Oscar-winning actor. (With Witherspoon, that makes five in one film.) At the home of Nate’s father, Howard (Robert Duvall), Nate has to contend with two vicious brothers (John Favreau and Tim McGraw) who would rather knock him down than talk to him, while their father looks on approvingly. Then they turn sullen when Nate, who’s a successful attorney, gives their kids gifts that are more expensive than they can afford.
The situation further deteriorates when Nate gives his father a satellite dish and tells him that the installer is scheduled for the following week. Howard objects to having a stranger in his home and insists that Nate install the dish. While Nate is on the roof, his very pregnant sister-in-law Susan (Katy Mixon) tries to show Kate how to hold her nine-month-old baby, while Kate looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. These two situations escalate on parallel tracks in a complicated sequence that ends in disaster. Let’s just say that the satellite dish should have had an “ACME” logo.
The next stop is Kate’s mother, Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), in a home that Kate herself describes as a “cougar den”. After the requisite embarrassing trip down memory lane, much of it courtesy of Kate’s annoying sister, Courtney (Pushing Daisies’ Kristin Chenoweth), and a terrifying confrontation with an old phobia in a backyard “jump-jump” (you’ll have to see the movie), it’s on to the church of Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam), Marilyn’s current boyfriend. There Brad and Kate are dragooned into playing Joseph and Mary in the church’s nativity play, and Kate’s humiliation is complete.
By the time they reach the home of Brad’s mother, Paula (Sissy Spacek), Brad and Kate are clearly unstrung, and matters don’t improve when they have to deal with Paula’s current beau (about whom the less said in advance, the better). Matters come to a head when they visit Kate’s father (Jon Voight), and from there the plot speeds to its inevitable conclusion.
Reviewers generally hated Four Christmases, and their dislike is being echoed by disc reviewers a year later. But expectation plays a large part in reactions to a film. As I said in a recent review of another Christmas film, they’re either “feel good” or “enough already!” Reviewers see Witherspoon and Vaughn and assume rom-com and “feel good”. Then, when their expectations aren’t fulfilled, they complain that the film is “mean-spirited” and “unfulfilling”. (Those are actual quotations from a recent review.) But what about those of us who picked up early on that Four Christmas is the exact opposite of a “feel good” film, that it’s more Bad Santa than It’s a Wonderful Life? If you watch it that way, the film plays very differently, and it’s a lot funnier.
It wouldn’t surprise me if even some of the participants thought they were making a “feel good” project. The film had four credited writers, and the disc extras indicate that the cast was constantly ad-libbing and inventing. Each of the two stars’ companies had a hand in the production. With that many cooks, who knew what kind of broth they were brewing? But I think director Gordon knew exactly what he was doing, because he managed to steer his way through all of the stars and all of the input, just as he steered his way around the crazy denizens of the Donkey Kong world – and he came up with something better focused than anyone could have expected: a darkly comic, live-action Punch and Judy cartoon, in which Brad and Kate are relentlessly knocked down and abused by one grotesque after another (and each other as well).
That the film is a cartoon is signaled by the physical abuse that Brad and Kate sustain – Brad from his brothers and on the roof, Kate in the “jump-jump” – without either of them landing in the hospital. They just move on to the next household with nary a scratch and barely a hair mussed. That it’s not a film about the blessings of family becomes clear as each parent and sibling they encounter along the way (with one exception I’ll address in a moment) is quickly revealed as a monster of self-absorption, fully demonstrating the wisdom of Brad’s and Kate’s decision to flee the city every year. Duval, Steenburgen and Spacek may be likable actors, but the characters they’re playing are anything but. The apparent exception is Kate’s father, Creighton, played by Jon Voight, who talks with Kate about the value of family and seems poised to turn the film in a “feel good” direction at the eleventh hour. But listen carefully. Creighton is only a recent convert. He’s spent most of his life doing exactly what Kate and Brad do: avoiding family. He may be the least convincing spokesman for family values ever to appear in a Christmas film. Kate obviously learned from the best.
In fact, after spending the day being punched, knocked down, spit up on, insulted and humiliated, Kate and Brad have indeed gotten to know each other much better, and their relationship is stronger. But it’s not because the day’s experiences have given them new insight into the virtues of family life. It’s because they realize how right they’ve been to disappear every Christmas and how closely they’ve bonded in wanting to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their miserable relations.
Don’t believe me? Watch the final scene again (and think carefully about the dates). Then get ready to call out, “Mistletoe!”
The 1:85:1 image has excellent detail, good black levels and faithful color renderings. The film opens with a warm romantic glow cast over everything, which disappears as soon as the family encounters begin. The Blu-ray captures this effect nicely. There is noticeable film grain, and no evidence of DNR or other sorts of noise reduction (other than what might have been applied during the digital intermediate phase). This may be a BD-25 with a lossless sound track and extras, but Warner demonstrates yet again that, unlike Lionsgate, one needn’t wreck the image to achieve an appropriate result.
The TrueHD track provides a nice sense of ambiance and some effective immersion in certain scenes, such as Kate’s horrifying descent into the jump-jump. The big set piece involving the satellite dish is also very good. Dialogue is clear and well-presented, which is especially important when Vince Vaughn’s motor-mouth revs up to full speed. The score by Alex Wurman has fun using snatches of familiar Christmas carols, and it gets a nice full soundstage.
The special features listed below are exclusive to the Blu-ray of Four Christmases. The video for all special features is in high definition.
Four Christmases: Holiday Moments (10:50). A series of brief interviews with various cast members, director Seth Gordon, producer Jonathan Glickman and production designer Shepherd Frankel. The principal focus is on two of the film’s major set pieces: an elaborate stunt-and-effects sequence involving the ill-fated satellite dish, and Kate’s encounter with the “jump-jump” in her mother’s back yard. The latter looks like it would be simple enough to film, which is what director Gordon first thought. It wasn’t.
HBO First Look: Four Christmases (13:02). This a standard-issue HBO promotional piece, and it contains very little of surprise or great interest.
Seven Layer Holiday Meals in a Flash (10:08). Someone must have thought this would be funny. It’s a spoof episode of the show Paula’s Home Cooking starring Savannah, Georgia chef, author and restaurateur Paula Deen. The spoof features actress Katy Mixon in character as Brad’s sister-in-law Susan preparing the “seven-layer salad” she makes in front of an appalled Kate in a scene deleted from the final film. Susan’s preparation uses such “healthy” ingredients as bacon, boloney, cheese spread, plenty of mayonnaise, but also lettuce because, as Susan explains to Kate, they’re trying to be more heart-conscious.
Mixon and Deen play it absolutely straight, but the sequence demonstrates perfectly how a character like Susan works well enough as a comic seasoning but falls flat as the main attraction. It’s one thing to highlight the differences between Kate’s world and Susan’s, because mixing with people who are different from us is part of the extended family experience that goes along with holidays. It’s another thing to relentlessly ridicule one of those people, and this bit crosses the line.
Gag Reel (2:34). Considering how often the actors talk about departing from the script in the HBO special, one would have expected to see more surprises and mistakes. What we get instead are people cracking up when they shouldn’t, which is not uncommon on comedy sets. (Sissy Spacek has said that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of her role.)
Additional Scenes (8:21). Most of the scenes are small add-ons that amplify existing character elements or plot points, but there is one particularly good scene involving Spacek’s character trying to take a group family portrait, during which she has to deliver a speech to Vaughn’s Brad justifying her current lifestyle. Spacek cannot help but make the scene effective, but there would have been obvious plot issues if it had been included.
A “family reunion” scene was obviously intended as a different ending. It probably sounded better on paper than it ultimately played out on film. The existing ending is far superior.
BD-Live. Warner’s BD-Live site offers two additional extras for Four Christmases, both of which are available for download in either standard of high definition. They are entitled “Four Christmases: Favorite Christmas Memories” and “Paula Dean and Katy Mixon: Unleashed Outtakes”.
Unfortunately, Warner has a way to go with their BD-Live site. Download speeds are exceptionally slow, especially as compared to Sony’s or Paramount’s sites. Having completed a download of the “Favorite Christmas Memories” extra in standard definition, which took about an hour for an 80 megabyte file, I could not get it to play. My experience has been replicated by another user with a PS3, which confirms that this is not a hardware-specific issue. It probably reflects a flaw in the file structure and/or instructions being deposited by Warner’s site in the player’s local storage.
I was ultimately able to play the file by removing the memory card from my player, inserting it in my computer’s card slot, searching through multiple directories until I found an appropriately sized file, and then trying various software-based media players until I found one that worked. “Favorite Christmas Memories” is a mildly entertaining series of interview snippets with the cast of Four Christmases. It’s not nearly worth the amount of time and effort I expended to view it.
Digital Copy. A digital copy is included on a separate disc. It expires on Nov. 24, 2010.
Four Christmases is a ridiculously contrived story, but so was The King of Kong – and that was utterly true. Seth Gordon is a director who appreciates the extent to which contrivance is part of everyday life. Indeed, the central subject of Four Christmases is the ridiculous contrivance of being forced to celebrate a holiday in the company of people with whom you have nothing in common except the accident of blood or someone else’s marriage, when you’d rather be spending the day with people of your own choosing. Why can’t we keep the important occasions for ourselves? At the end of the film, Brad and Kate are still asking the same question.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
Posted December 02 2009 - 04:27 PM
Interesting...I actually avoided this because I thought it was going to me just another feel good Christmas comedy. Your description makes it more intriguing. I'll have to take it for a spin. Thanks for the review.
Posted December 02 2009 - 06:20 PM
I may just have to give it a look see.
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