‘The Best Man Holiday’ Interview with Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on an interview which took place back in 2013.

It has been over a decade since “The Best Man” came out in theaters, and now Nia Long returns to play Jordan Armstrong in the eagerly awaited sequel “The Best Man Holiday.” Whereas in the original she was a producer for the BET network, we now find Jordan working as the director of programming at MSNBC. She remains as work obsessed as ever, but she has found time to snag a boyfriend named Brian who is played by Eddie Cibrian. But while she is completely smitten with him, can Jordan find the power to pull herself away from her job enough to fully commit to a relationship? Also, will Jordan’s friends have an issue with Brian being white?

Long is best known for her work on the television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Third Watch,” and she has appeared in the movies “Boyz n The Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Big Momma’s House.” Cibrian also appeared on “Third Watch,” and many still remember him best as Cole Deschanel on “Sunset Beach.”

We got to catch up with Long and Cibrian when they appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for “The Best Man Holiday” press junket. Long talked about what it was like playing Jordan Armstrong for the first time in 14 years, and of how she has managed to have such a long career. Cibrian discussed what it was like joining this closely knit cast, and of how he came to deliver one of the best lines in this sequel.

Question: Nia, 14 years ago you played this role. Was it easy or difficult to pick the character up again 14 years later?

Nia Long: Getting back into character wasn’t so difficult. What was difficult was determining what her journey has been like for the last 14 years and making sure that I maintained certain things about Jordan in this film. But also, we just really needed to be clear about what her emotional journey was. For me that was pretty much the motivation and the most important thing.

Question: What was the deciding moment for you to sign onto this sequel?

Nia Long: We all decided that before Malcolm really finished the script. He kind of came to each one of us and said, “Would you guys be interested in doing the sequel?” We all just decided that if the script is great and the story is there and the characters have grown, why not? So that’s basically what happened and it was pretty easy.

Question: Eddie, you are the new kid on the block here so you are essentially joining the cast that already has a chemistry. Was it daunting for you coming on knowing that these guys have a connection?

Eddie Cibrian: You know, I think what Malcolm was looking for was someone who could feel at ease in the environment, and I’m kind of that way personally as well. For me, I’ve worked with a handful of them before so I already knew them and it wasn’t like I was meeting this team for the first time. Nia and I worked together while we were doing a show called “Third Watch” in New York, Morris (Chestnut) I’ve worked with a handful of times so I already knew some people which made it easier for me. But I think what Malcolm wanted was someone who didn’t feel intimidated in this situation, and I hope that came across that he (my character) is somebody who’s just at ease with himself and the environment.

Question: The female characters are all so strong and so diverse. Why is it important that we see these types of images in the media?

Nia Long: I’m all about girl power…

Eddie Cibrian: She is!

Nia Long: I am, right? I love my girlfriends; I think sisterhood is so important. I think learning from one another culturally is really important no matter where you are from or what you look like. If we can come together as women, I think we are just so much more powerful when we stand in a group. I’m not afraid to say I am a bit of a feminist. I think that we are incredible. What’s so great about Malcolm’s writing is that he does give each character a very specific voice, and the reason why we have so many women who actually love the “Best Man” brand is because they can look at the film and almost point themselves out or at least say I’m a combination between Jordan and Shelby or Robin and Nia or whatever it is. As an actor you don’t get those opportunities to really work alongside other great women, and that’s such a blessing. I mean when’s the last time you’ve seen a film where there were four African American women that are actually all in the same movie? It doesn’t happen all the time so you’ve got to take the ball and run when you get it and get that touchdown.

Question: It is 14 years later and you still look amazing. What are some of your beauty secrets?

Nia Long: Oh my gosh! Should I tell them?

Eddie Cibrian: I don’t know.

Nia Long: He saw everything that goes on in the trailer.

Eddie Cibrian: She’s got some beauty secrets. She’s naturally beautiful, that’s her secret and that’s the truth.

Nia Long: Thank you. You know what it is? I just take care of myself, and when I’m not working, I’m with my kids. In mommy mode you are in sneakers with no makeup and my hair is really combed, so that’s what it is. You guys just don’t see me out there all the time, so when I do come out there it’s like, oh okay, you’re back.

Question: Nia, can you describe what it was like coming back to this cast 14 years later?

Nia Long: We would have to these roundtable discussions where they would always put our chairs altogether. The girls would be kind of grouped together and the guys would be grouped together, and we would have some pretty intense conversations about everything and we would get into debates on love and relationships. I don’t want to be inappropriate but we were like college kids at times (laughs).

Eddie Cibrian: This was in between takes.

Nia Long: Yes. We were like bad children. That’s what we were like, but we got it done.

Question: Nia, when it comes to your career, your longevity is something many actors and actresses continually strive for. What has been the key to remaining relevant after so long?

Nia Long: Dealing with my life and truth, dealing with my career and truth, saying no and I’m never really motivated by money. I am motivated more by the creative (aspects)… Well that’s not true. Let’s not get too carried away (laughs). I have bills to pay. Sometimes money is okay. I think just staying true to myself. My dear brother who I miss every single day, Heavy D, said to me, “This is not a race, it’s a marathon.” Whenever I get frustrated or unsure about what to do next, I always think about him saying that to me because it’s very true. Don’t you feel that when one door closes something else opens and you’re like, whoa, I didn’t expect that? You just go with it if it’s right in your heart.

Eddie Cibrian: Plus, you’re very good at what you do. That helps.

Nia Long: Thank you!

Question: Eddie, you delivered one of the most memorable lines in the movie when you said, “You have to be a bitch to be concerned about your woman’s past.” How did that scene play out for you and how did you go about delivering that line?

Eddie Cibrian: Well you have to think Malcolm for that because it was written. I wasn’t clever enough to come up with that line. I think what Malcolm’s intention was that everyone has a past, everyone has made stupid mistakes, everyone has done things that they are probably not proud of, but that’s in the past and that’s made them who they are now. They are a different person, and if you fell in love with them for who they are now and what their truth is now, then who cares what their past is? They weren’t just born. They have had life experiences to get them to where they are.

Nia Long: And who wants a virgin? (laughs)

Question: Who are some of your mentors and the people that have kept you going this whole time?

Nia Long: I was doing a film called “Made in America” with Whoopi Goldberg, and I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was just like a little deer in the headlights and Whoopi Goldberg said to me, “This business is tough and you are going to have to develop a second layer of skin.” And now when I think back on that, I know exactly what she means because as an actor you want to keep your heart open so you can do good work. The only place that good work comes from is by being vulnerable. But in the business side of this, you can’t really be vulnerable. You have to separate the two and it took a long time for me to understand that because naturally I’m just an emotional being. That’s just kind of who I am. So, I would say Whoopi, Heavy D who I think about almost every day, my brother and my grandmother who said, “You know when they stop talking about you, that’s when you need to worry.”

Eddie Cibrian: My dad really. When I was first getting into this business, he would take me around to auditions. I was doing commercials and stuff like that and I was an athlete and I just wanted to play sports, but he was like “no, you can do this.” And I was like, “I don’t really wanna do this” and he was like, “You can do this.” And so we would go to 100 to 200 auditions in a year and I would get four or five of those, but every single time I would go I was like, “Why am I not getting these? I don’t understand.” He said, “Well look, you don’t have to get a yes every single time. You just got to get the right yes.” That’s the way it is. We go out on a bunch of different things and we wish we could get a bunch of different things. We wish we could get everything that we go out on, but we don’t because there are thousands of people out there. But the ones that you do get and they say yes to, those are the ones where you have to make something of, and those are the important ones. I thank my dad for that.

Nia Long: I like your dad. Where is he?

Eddie Cibrian: He’s at home sleeping (laughs).

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming services.

Scene from “The Best Man Holiday”

‘The Best Man Holiday’ Interview with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan return to reprise their roles of Harper and Robin from 1999’s “The Best Man” in writer/director Malcolm D. Lee’s long-awaited sequel, “The Best Man Holiday.” When we last saw these two, Harper proposed marriage to a very shocked Robin. Now its 14 years later and they are happily married and expecting their first child. But while Harper’s previous book “Unfinished Business” proved to be a bestseller, his latest book gets rejected by his publisher. To make matters even worse, he is laid off from his teaching job at New York University, and he doesn’t have the nerve to break the bad news to Robin.

All those concerns get put on hold, however, when Harper and Robin travel to Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia’s mansion to celebrate the holidays, and it reunites them with the other characters from the original film. But old rivalries and passions are quickly reignited as Lance has not forgotten about the affair Harper had with Mia all those years ago. Can these two men find it within themselves to forgive one another and move on from their past?

We got to catch up with Diggs and Lathan when they appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Together they talked about what made them decide to do this sequel, how everyone has evolved since the first movie, and what it was like returning to play these characters 14 years later.

Question: For this movie to work, essentially everybody in the original cast had to sign on to do it. At what point did you to decide to do the sequel?

Sanaa Lathan: A couple of years ago, Malcolm actually got us all together and we went to Boa (Steakhouse), and he hadn’t written a script yet and at a loud restaurant with lots of drinks flowing, he literally pitched moment by moment and beat by beat the story. In that environment which is very challenging for a pitch, we were on the edge of our seats and we all at that moment said, “If you write it, we’re gonna do it.” So, for me it was that, and then the script came much later…

Taye Diggs: And then it just became about fine-tuning.

Sanaa Lathan: Exactly.

Taye Diggs: We all obviously had a great time doing the first one. Great friendships and bonds were made and we’ve kept all those friendships, so at this dinner it was so great to see each other just on general principle. It’s great to see old friends that we haven’t seen in a while. I think a couple of us knew possibly what Malcolm was going to come with, and then to actually hear him say it and then to hear the story and then to kind of get together as a group and do what we all needed to do to get this project done and made, it has been a great experience.

Question: How do you think Malcolm has evolved since directing the first movie?

Sanaa Lathan: He actually regressed… No, I’m kidding.

Taye Diggs: I was there every day on set, and good is good. I think we all evolved. We’re all older, we’re all more mature, and we have all had more experience. For me what I noticed this time around, when it pertains to Malcolm, was the outside pressures. I could tell this time around that he had a lot more on his shoulders, so I would say he has evolved in the sense that he was able to deal with a lot more pressure.

Sanaa Lathan: Yeah, and there’s the pressure of the first movie and of living up to it too. That’s a huge pressure.

Taye Diggs: Right and he did it again with a lot more on his shoulders. He had a cast that had experience…

Sanaa Lathan: (We were) very vocal. We tested him a lot and we were having a lot of fun, but we were always like, why? Why are you doing that? I know that we tested his patience but he dealt with it well, right?

Taye Diggs: Yeah. We were all new (at least I was) for the first one, so we weren’t nearly as vocal. But now we have matured as actors and we look at a script differently and challenged him on character and through lines and story structure, so he handled it well.

Question: Taye, have you seen “The Best Man” with your real-life wife?

Taye Diggs: Oh, of course. My wife was at the premiere and was a huge supporter, and hopefully she will enjoy the second one as much or even more than the first.

Question: You all look like you had an absolute blast on this movie. How much fun would you say you had on set?

Sanaa Lathan: They (the men) turned into like seven-year-olds (for the dance sequence). They had dance rehearsal because it wasn’t that simple and Tate has a dance background and Morris has no background. So literally in between takes for weeks they would be like okay, and 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughs). All the girls were so excited. This was like their debut at Alvin Ailey (laughs).

Taye Diggs: I have a stage background. I don’t know if you all know that. For me, stage is a lot more nerve-racking than film acting because no matter what you’re in front of people. With film acting you have control. If we’re shooting an emotional scene and its private you can say I don’t want anybody in the room except for the cinematographer and the director. It’s less nerve-racking doing film, but with this dance sequence Malcolm said, “Be on your stuff because the girls are gonna be watching.”

Sanaa Lathan: The first time we saw it was real-time reactions (laughs).

Taye Diggs: Yes, and there was a level of performance that we had to take into account because we wanted them to think we were good. So, we were nervous, at least I was, and I wanted to make sure that we had the counts and whatnots and it worked. It helped and when we filmed it, seeing them and getting that live, real energy…

Sanaa Lathan: And those reactions that you see in the movie are real.

Taye Diggs: That was great.

Question: Some of the themes in this movie are about unity and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst friends and family. Why do you feel it is so important that we see these images so often for minorities?

Taye Diggs: We don’t see them enough.

Sanaa Lathan: I think it’s important for us to see ourselves reflected in all that we are instead of one type of genre like the over-the-top comedy. It’s really important for the art form of film to reflect the world that we live in and who we are, and I think that it hasn’t really done that for people of color at this time in history.

Taye Diggs: We’ve come a long way but we are still struggling.

Sanaa Lathan: We still have a ways to go, but I think that’s why a movie like “The Best Man” resonates so much because people are hungry for stories that are layered, and they can recognize themselves and their family and friends in the things that they’re going through.

Question: What are the holidays like at your houses?

Taye Diggs: It’s crazy, fun and there’s always a little tension with those couple of family members who always bring something surprising. But growing up I’ve always looked forward to the holidays. Now I got my own little boy so there’s that level of enjoyment and excitement that comes with having a baby, and this Halloween was the first Halloween where he understood what was going on.

Sanaa Lathan: What was he?

Taye Diggs: He was, and he chose this, a zombie Michael Jackson from “Thriller” and he was into it. I had a different take on Halloween this time. I was just loving being able to live through him.

Sanaa Lathan: What were you?

Taye Diggs: I wasn’t anybody because I was so focused on him which is something different. Usually I’m worried about what I’m going to be and dressing up and leaving him with the sitter and partying myself, but this time it was all about Halloween for him. It’s fun. The holidays are fun, and they are way more fun with a four-year-old.

Question: Sanaa, how did playing a pregnant character throughout the entire film affect your craft, and how do you think your character handled being under the same roof with two women who have a romantic history with your movie husband?

Taye Diggs: Usually they ask how it affected me (laughs).

Sanaa Lathan: When Malcolm pitched the idea that I was nine months pregnant, I was (coming from a female vain perspective) like, well damn (laughs). I’m like, the whole movie? And it’s not like three or four months where it’s cute, it’s nine months. But I think that energy and “well damn” is what women feel in their ninth month, so it worked. I had to put on this huge belly that they actually… I did “Blade” where I played a vampire years ago, and the same people that did the prosthetics for “Blade” did my belly, so it was like a real belly. It was heavy, it made me hot and you have to waddle. It was a drag, but it worked for the character. And I realized how sick and sadistic people are. Literally every day, I would get about three punches in the belly out of the blue (laughs). They were just laughing. Malcolm would do it and it was crazy! Something about knowing that it wasn’t real (laughs).

Taye Diggs: We were awful.

Question: How has your real lives paralleled what your characters go through, and how was it coming back after 14 years?

Sanaa Lathan: In terms of the parallel, I tried to be a glass half-full person and I think Robin has always been that especially for Harper. He’s kind of the glass half empty and she’s the glass half-full, and a lot of my friends call me a hippie. I cultivate that mindset to see the bright side of things, and I come from a family of artists and Bohemians in the 70’s so there’s that aspect. But other than that, the reunion was great. It was fun and it didn’t feel like work. We had so much fun in between takes.

Taye Diggs: It helps. I think it shows in the chemistry. You can choose to act it or you can just be real, and obviously it always helps when it’s real. Just being able to hang out socially and look forward to the time when the cameras aren’t rolling as well as the time when the cameras are rolling, it makes the entire experience truly enjoyable. It just worked out. I think we were so blessed, lucky, fortunate or however you want to term it. The fact that we even got everybody together in the first place I think was miraculous, and then to have that type of script and then to have everybody mature the way that they did. We all brought our life experiences to these roles. We’ve all been through our ups and downs, and that has affected us as people and as actors. We were lucky in that we could apply that to these characters.

Question: Sanaa, having grown up with a parent who is a director, has that affected how you approach filming and have you ever worked with your dad?

Sanaa Lathan: You know I’m about to work with my dad. I’m going to do kind of like a cameo thing on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” I think that’s his show.

Taye Diggs: Oh, I want to do that. You tell him I want to be on it.

Sanaa Lathan: I will. You’d be perfect because you are a real husband of Hollywood. It’s a fake reality show, but Regina (Hill) is going to do it too. I wasn’t really around on set with my dad coming up. He and my mother broke up when I was five so I didn’t see him. He was always in my life but he was always so busy. The sets that I remember going to were “Sesame Street” when I was very young… I don’t know, I just didn’t go to a lot of sets and I have never worked with him. The great thing that I think I have in having parents that have been in the business is that they understand, and I think that’s a very special thing. I realize with a lot of my peers that they don’t have parents who really get what they are going through, and it’s great to have parents that you can lean on when you are going through some stuff.

Taye Diggs: You probably were blessed that you weren’t raised on set. A lot of times kids that have that early exposure end up going down the wrong avenues and you’re fairly sane.

Sanaa Lathan: Thanks!

Question: So, when it comes to your mentors, who would you say have been some of the people you go to for guidance in this industry?

Taye Diggs: For me, it was a very emotional shoot and Sanaa has always been in my life someone who I can bounce stuff off of and she always has really, really great and positive things to say. I have a best friend who is not an actor and we’ve been close since junior high school. No one knows me better than him and he has a good perspective. A lot of times you don’t want to go to someone that knows the business. You want a more accurate kind of view that doesn’t give you a lot of excuses like people in the business do. So yeah, I’ve leaned on him as well.

Sanaa Lathan: You know I get it from everybody, from my parents and I have great girlfriends. I feel like having some really close black actress friends is actually great because it’s such a unique road that we travel. There are so many blessings and so many challenges, but it’s great to have that community because there are days where you don’t want to do it anymore, and it’s great to have that person who is kind of in the trenches who would say to you, get up. So, I get it from everywhere. I don’t really have any one mentor.

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and you can also stream it on various digital platforms.

Malcolm D. Lee on ‘The Best Man Holiday’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was from a press day which took place in 2013.

In Hollywood, most sequels usually come out one to two years after the original because the studios want the money to keep rolling in while the property is still fresh in audiences’ collective minds. But when it came to making a sequel to “The Best Man,” writer and director Malcolm D. Lee was not about to rush it. “The Best Man Holiday” is being released 14 years after its predecessor, and it reunites Lee with Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun and Melissa De Sousa who reprise their roles. This time the college friends reunite for the holidays at Lance and Mia’s mansion, and it soon reignites old rivalries and romances from the past.

Since “The Best Man,” Lee has gone on to direct the comedy “Undercover Brother,” the roller-skating comedy-drama “Roll Bounce,” “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” the musical comedy “Soul Men” and the horror spoof “Scary Movie 5.” We got to catch up with him when he appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. While there, Lee discussed why it took so long to make this sequel, what he thinks about the success that African American films have had in 2013, and of the possibility of there being a third “Best Man” movie.

Question: In a world where people are making sequels a year to three years later, what took you so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: Honestly, there was talk of doing a sequel very early on when the first movie came out, but I wasn’t interested in doing the sequel right away. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a director. It was my first movie and I didn’t want to just do the same thing. My idea was if I was going to revisit these characters, and I thought I would want to, it would be like 10 years later after they’ve lived some life and had kids. Around late 2005 or so I just started percolating the idea and I would see the cast over the years and say hey I’m thinking about doing the sequel, and they were like, oh okay. It just got to the point where I was like, okay I’m ready to do this now, and I had taken enough notes and put enough of a structure together where I said well, let me get the cast together and let’s see what can happen. I basically got them together in early 2011 and said okay, let’s all get in the same room and at least we will have all caught up. I have an idea for a sequel, and if we all think at the end of this meal that it’s worth doing then I’ll pursue it. So, I pitched them the idea and they were all into it and they liked it, and I said well, let’s go. Then a couple months later I went to Universal and pitched them the idea and we got it going. It took a while to get it going because I wrote the script pretty quickly because I had been thinking about it for so long, and it wasn’t easy. It was, as you’ve seen from the film, very different tonally speaking than the first one, and I think that was part of their hesitation of wanting to make it. I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I didn’t want to tell the same story. The things you think about when you are in your mid to late 20’s is very different than what you think about when you are in your late 30’s and early 40’s and married and have children and have bills to pay and do grown up stuff and dealing with grown up things. So, I said to them it’s not about wanting to do a destination wedding or anything like that. People loved this movie because they loved the characters. They loved the people. They don’t just love that it was a wedding. It took us bringing the cast together and doing a read through, and once they did the read through they were like okay, we get it.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting into the minds of these characters after so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: I know these characters very well. I’ve lived with them in my head for a long time so when you evolve as a person you have to have your characters evolve too. Not only that, but my actors were great actors in the first movie, and they are even better now. I have grown as an artist, as a writer and as a director. I’m better, so I wanted to make something that was more sophisticated, something that spoke to these characters that would be similar to where they were but which also showed their growth and evolution. I don’t think it was that difficult. It was just a matter of really knowing the characters and making them evolve.

Question: Did you seriously entertain other alternatives to the storyline for each character at any point?

Malcolm D. Lee: What I had come up with I pretty much stuck to. There wasn’t a whole lot of deviation. There were a lot of suggestions by the studio about making it a wedding movie and blah, blah, blah, and I was just like no I don’t want to do that. So, it was pretty much what I wanted to do, and the actors had some input about what they felt about their characters and where they could be strengthened and layered. Some of the suggestions from the studio were like, well this person is out of the picture already, this person is that already, and this person is divorced, and I was like I brought the cast back together and we are going to do this collectively, period. At least you’ve got to give this a fair shot. So that’s why we did the reading, and that’s what made them say oh okay, we get it.

Question: Futuristically speaking, do you foresee a production of a series or a spinoff from this kind of film like “Soul Food” or something similar to that?

Malcolm D. Lee: It’s possible. People love these characters and they want to live with these characters, so it’s a rich enough world and a world that’s rarely seen on network or cable television. The only danger would be like, could you get all the actors to do a series and where do you start it? Do you cast different people? So, I don’t know. I had the idea of, were this movie to be successful, to do a series that would take place from the end of the first movie until the second movie. That 14-year span might make for an interesting television show, but how do you cast that too? It’s possible. We’ll see.

Question: Have you thought about doing a third movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: Well we have to see how this one’s going to perform first. That will dictate whether a third one gets made or even talked about. There have been some whispers. I have an idea, let’s put it like that.

Question: What’s the idea?

Malcolm D. Lee: I’m not going to say.

Question: Are you going to wait another 15 years to make it?

Malcolm D. Lee: I will not wait another 15 years. If it happens at all, it’ll happen quickly.

Question: “The Best Man Holiday” actually feels like a stand-alone movie in that you don’t have to go back to the first movie to catch up with or relate to the characters. Was it important to you to make it a stand-alone film so that you can capture new audiences as well as retain the fans of the first?

Malcolm D. Lee: I don’t know if that was a conscious decision. When I set out to make the first film, I set out to make a classic movie, one that will stand the test of time. Fortunately, that has been the case. People really love “The Best Man,” and with this one I knew I had to, in my mind, make a movie that was better than the first. Or at least, in my mind, more sophisticated and more layered and have some deeper things to explore. So as a result, yes I guess the movie stands on its own but that’s what the whole opening credits are about which is trying to fill in people who may not know, and then also the fans of the first one get kind of tickled about remembering them then and this is what they’ve been doing and this is where they’re at now. I certainly wanted the movie to stand on its own and I think that there are people who really loved the first one will be more deeply connected. I think people that have not seen the first one was still enjoy this, but I think the fans of the first one will really enjoy this because they’ve had the experience of 14 years of viewing it.

Question: 2013 has been a great year for critically acclaimed black films. What do you think that means for the future of black filmmaking?

Malcolm D. Lee: We’ve seen these bursts before, and what happens is that studios and filmmakers start to churn out carbon copies of these movies. When Spike (Lee) first came out with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” it was like this Spike Lee phenomenon. There were a couple of movies that came out like “House Party” and “New Jack City,” and they were all different. John Singleton started with “Boyz n the Hood,” and that was like the whole hood genre and pushing that. Then “Menace II Society” and “Juice” came out and we got saturated with that and we were like, okay, what’s next? On their tail came “Love Jones,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” which gave us a different side of African-American life. Then in 2008, nobody wanted to make any black movies. They weren’t profitable, nobody was going to support them, people got tired of them and they petered out which is why I had to wait until “Jumping the Broom” came out before I went ahead and pitched the movie to Universal to see what the appetite of the studios and the audience was going to be. I hope that the diversity of African American fare this year will continue. It has been a very refreshing year to see sports movies, comedies, musicals, romantic comedies, historical drama and indie movies that are made by black filmmakers. So, I hope that it continues and that the quality of the work keeps getting better because I feel like that’s great. But if there’s like, oh, we can make money because they’re going to come out for Kevin Hart or this person or that person, then it’s going to be a money grab. It’s got to be about having choices at the movie theater that African-American audiences can enjoy and general audiences can enjoy, and just let it be a regular thing. Let’s see great movies.

Question: Can you tell us about more about the movie’s soundtrack and what role you played in it?

Malcolm D. Lee: One of the things that I was doing back in 2005 was listening to Christmas music and thinking about where it could fit into the movie. I love music. I think music and songs are such an integral part of filmmaking so I was playing a lot of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas music and Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. So, a lot of those songs were written into the movie, and then we get updates of many of them. It was very, very integral in the soundtrack and making sure that the sound that was created was going to be integral to the movie. I don’t like soundtracks that just are “inspired by.”

Question: How did you decide which artists to include in the soundtrack?

Malcolm D. Lee: You work with a label and they say well we got this person and we’ve got that person and it’s kind of like casting. I thought Fantasia would do a good job on this song, I think Jordan Sparks would do a good job on that song. Someone like Ne-Yo who came out of the blue, the song that he sings is a Marvin Gaye song called “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” I thought that nobody was going to be able to replace that, but Ne-Yo came in and I showed him the scene and where it fit, and I showed them how important was for the movie and how the emotion was going to play. He said listen, I’m not going to sound like Martin, but I’m going to do it in a way that is me and it will be faithful, and he killed it. First time out and I was like, wow! That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you’re just no, that’s not quite it. Let’s try that again. Also, the one song that’s featured, the Stevie Wonder song that Marsha Ambrosius and Anthony Hamilton sing on camera (“As”), that had to be in the movie where it was because it was very integral to the first film. I always felt that it was one of the greatest love songs ever made and it would be great to do it as a ballad or as a duet, so Marsha and Anthony were a great choice for that. It’s funny because people, when I’ve been watching the movie with audiences, love seeing Anthony, and then they recognize the song. And if that’s not enough, then they see Marsha and they are like, oh my god! It’s really a beautiful combination. We struck gold with that, I think.

Question: Which of the characters do you relate the most to and why, and did that change from the first movie to the second movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: There’s a little bit of me in all the characters. They’re all within me. I lived with them in my mind. Of course, there are female characters and there are certain things that I don’t know because I’m a man, and I observe and talk to people about how they feel about fidelity. Murch (played by Harold Perrineau) finding out those kinds of things about his wife and they have a great open relationship, but it’s like whoa, that’s something I didn’t expect. How do I deal with that? Should I be mad about that? I don’t think they’ve changed over the years. They’re pretty much the same to me.

Question: Can you walk us through what it’s like with your writing process when it comes to creating these characters? Where does it start and how does it develop?

Malcolm D. Lee: When it came to these characters, I want to see where they left off. From the get-go I just started saying that I wanted to set this movie at Christmas time because it’s a cinematic time of year, and it makes it a reason for being together. If you are going to bring these characters back together, it’s got to be for a reason. Harper (Taye Diggs) was kind of on top of the world when we left off. He had learned some things and had been beaten down a little bit, literally and figuratively, but he was on his ascension. So now I want to say okay, what if he has a couple of failed things? Lance (Morris Chestnut) has this seemingly charmed life and he does; he’s about to break a record, he’s got four beautiful children, he’s got this ginormous house and this wonderful, beautiful, supportive, loving wife, but there’s something that’s going to test his faith even more than in the first movie. And then you have the other characters and you just try to give them conflicts and obstacles that they have to get around. I’ve learned over the years to be a better writer and what characters are used for. Quentin (Terrence Howard) is going to be that button pusher still and he’s going to give us the comic relief and so is Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) and they’re going to be my comic fastballs, but at the same time they are more than they were in the first movie. I tried to write something sophisticated, challenging for myself and challenging for the actors because why come back together because it wasn’t for the money. This wasn’t a money grab at all. We did this for price and it was about displaying their acumen as actors, mine as a director and writer, and kind of re-introducing ourselves to the world and the time was right. We also knew that there was a large fan base for this movie that really wanted to see these characters again, so let’s give the people what they want.

“The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is available to stream on various digital platforms.

‘The Polar Express’ Deserves More Respect Than Most Christmas Movies Get

The Polar Express movie poster

The Polar Express” was directed by Steven Spielberg’s protégée Robert Zemeckis, and it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg which Tom Hanks was a big fan of when he was kid. It involves a boy who is selected along with many other kids to take a train ride to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus and see his intricate operation of present giving. This voyage will have this boy meeting other kids on their way as well as many other characters, most of who are played by Hanks.

That’s right, Hanks plays six different parts in “The Polar Express,” and it has me wondering if this was done to save money on what must have been a very expensive production. Among the parts he plays includes a hobo who may not actually be real, Scrooge, and Santa Claus himself. But the most prominent role he plays in this movie is the Conductor of the Polar Express itself. He’s a man who is constantly running the train on what he says is a “tight schedule,” and he cannot help but be occasionally convinced one of these kids is determined to keep the train from reaching its final destination. He also has this wonderful talent for punching out your tickets to form certain words in them. I mean really! He does it so fast! How does he do it?

The big thing about “The Polar Express” is it is an animated movie by the way of motion capture. This has become a popular way of making movies in an animated fashion as actors where these suits and have these tiny white balls glued to their face and bodies. With the help of computers, which at this point we cannot live without, they can be captured on film and manipulated to look like they are in a place too expensive to build as a set. It is remarkable stuff however, and it could serve as further proof of how actors will never be replaced by technology because we need them to make the technology work effectively. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved this makes me feel.

I was surprised at how much I liked “The Polar Express.” It’s not a perfect movie, but it does have a heart and emotions which are far more genuine than other Christmas movies. It is also exciting as we see the train and its main characters struggle to stay on board as it goes through many treacherous parts in a journey to one of the coldest places on the planet. Seeing it in 3D is a major plus as well because the effects seem so real to where the kids in the audience were literally trying to grasp at the snowflakes falling from the screen. Heck, I even found myself doing this a couple of times.

This is the one thing I want to mention; the audience was full of kids there with their families, and this initially was a problem for me. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan in Los Angeles when it was released, and it was full of parents completely incapable of keeping their kids quiet throughout the entire movie. Here I am trying to watch one of the weaker movies from the Pixar catalogue, and there’s a little boy right in front of me who cannot get himself to sit down and kept asking his mother for more candy. If you can’t shut your kids up, don’t take them to the movies! Stay at home and watch “Finding Nemo” on DVD. My niece has already seen it hundreds of times to where her parents can recite every line (not that they want to).

But at the same time, seeing these kids get totally sucked into the magic of the movie with the 3D technology was really special. Hearing them talk back to the screen, especially my niece, brought a smile to my face as they got completely caught up in the journey “The Polar Express” took them on. This is the kind of movie you want your kids to see. When it first came out, many found the technology disturbing and scary, but that’s really ridiculous. While it doesn’t look like typical animated movies they loved from their past, it does aim to continue to preserve the innocence none of us are quick to lose.

If there is anything which takes away from the experience of watching “The Polar Express,” it’s the lame ass Glen Ballard song some of the characters sing in one scene which you hear again during the end credits. I am sick and tired of crappy love songs sung and written by white guys. They reek of lameness, and this movie is not even a musical!

Don’t worry about parents telling you about how creepy it is. This one is fine for the whole family. Those who disagree have long since lost the mindset of a child, and that’s just tragic.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘A Christmas Carol’ with George C. Scott, My Introduction to the Charles Dickens Classic

A Christmas Carol 1984 poster

I’m sure everyone has read or heard the story of “A Christmas Carol” several dozen times by now, be it as a play, a book, or a movie. My introduction to it came back in 1984 with the television movie starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. My parents got my brother and I to this movie back when we lived in Thousand Oaks, California. Back then, I had no idea what I was in store. All that was going through my head at the time as the movie began was, am I staying up later than Santa Claus would like? I sure didn’t want to miss out on any presents, and it was way past my bedtime. Please keep in mind, I was nine years old at the time.

What makes this particular version of “A Christmas Carol” stand out is how down to earth the actors are in their performances. These days when I see this story, it is usually at a play typically acted and directed with incredible theatricality. But with movies, things are done in a far more intimate fashion. Director Clive Donner doesn’t have any of the actors over-emoting anything and, as a result, these characters end up feeling like our next-door neighbors. Forget how this is a period piece; some things about humans never change.

Ebenezer Scrooge reminded me of the meanest bullies from school, especially those determined to make themselves feel stronger by belittling and excluding others from social gatherings. But seeing him go through the heartaches of life made this particular bully all the more sympathetic to me regardless of how cold he was to people around him. I was already feeling bad for Scrooge before the story’s midpoint. Plus, I thought it was inexcusable for the Ghost of Christmas Present to leave Ebenezer in the freezing cold instead of bringing him home to await the next ghost. Some people can be so inconsiderate.

I first came to discover actor George C. Scott in the movie “Taps,” but this is the role I will always remember him for best, and that’s even over his Oscar winning performance in “Patton.” Scott showed how Scrooge can truly be the role of a lifetime as he takes the character from being a hopeless curmudgeon of a human being to the ultimate fun-loving guy by the story’s conclusion. The moment where he realizes that what the Ghost of Christmas Future was not actually real and promises from there on out to always keep Christmas in his heart is an amazing piece of acting, and this moment remains strong in my memory so many years later.

It is Scott’s brilliant performance which made this particular “Christmas Carol” such a memorable experience for me. Now I don’t know about the rest of my family, but I found myself being pulled from one giant emotion to another. There were times where things got a little too dark for me where I almost cried, and I have always been an infinitely sensitive human being, but all those feelings made for one of the most gloriously happy climaxes in any motion picture I have ever seen. Seeing Scrooge meet up with the fully recovered Tiny Tim brought a big smile to my face. It all reminds me of how Robin Williams, in an interview he had with David Frost, talked about a Russian he once met who told him how we have to live with pain in order to feel pleasure.

It has now been over 30 years since we all watched this version of “A Christmas Carol” with George C. Scott, but the experience of watching it remains ever so vivid in my mind as was my fear of Santa not coming down our chimney if I stayed up so late.

For the record, Santa did come by and left me and my brother plenty of presents… or so I was told.

Exclusive Interview with Ron Shelton about ‘Just Getting Started’

Just Getting Started Shelton with Jones and Freeman

When I first looked at the poster for “Just Getting Started,” I was very happy to see the following phrase on it: written and direct by Ron Shelton. Shelton is responsible for creating some of the best sports movies such as “Bull Durham,” Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and he has a true gift for creating fantastic dialogue and getting wonderful performances out of his actors. Somewhere along the line, he stopped making movies to where I wondered where he was and what he was up to. Now we know.

“Just Getting Started” takes place at a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California called the Villa Capri. This resort is managed by Duke Diver (Morgan Freeman), a man with a mysterious past who is determined to make sure his residents will never ever stop partying or having fun. But while Duke is the life of the party, his ego becomes threatened by the arrival of Leo (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military man who wastes no time in battling Duke for the top spot of Alpha male at the Villa Capri. Things get even more complicated when a new resident, the beautiful Suzie (Rene Russo), arrives at the resort, and the two become determined to gain her affections in an effort to prove who is the better man. But once Duke’s past comes back to haunt him, he and Leo are forced to work together in an effort to stay alive.

It was a real pleasure talking with Shelton, and he spoke about what brought him back to the director’s chair for the first time in over a decade, how he goes about directing a comedy, and of what it was like to have Freeman and Jones go against type and play characters who are not so serious and eager to have fun. Shelton also talked about Glenne Headly who passed away recently, as this was the last movie she appeared in before her death.

Just Getting Started movie poster

Ben Kenber: I was very excited to learn you were directing another movie. This is your first feature film since “Hollywood Homicide.” What was it about this story which inspired you to get back in the director’s chair?

Ron Shelton: Well I had three or four movies which fell through at the last second, so it’s not like I suddenly decided to get off the couch and direct. I have been writing steadily and developing TV things and trying to finance features. In the independent world, there are so many moving parts to the financing that if one piece falls out, the whole thing falls apart. So it hasn’t been for lack of effort, and now I have a couple more I think that are gonna go. It won’t be such a dearth of time between them, and I got some other projects I’m working on. This one came together financially, that’s why this one got made.

BK: What inspired you to write this particular screenplay?

RS: Southern California where I grew up, and maybe you grew up, in the winters and Christmas, to me, I’m used to it. You go to the beach and play golf. But people from cold climates come out here and they are just like appalled; this doesn’t count as Christmas. And I started saying to half the world, this is Christmas, this kind of weather. What’s wrong with it? When the Nativity happened, it was probably more like Palm Springs (laughs). Then I remembered driving to Palm Springs at Christmas and there were dust storms and Christmas trees were blowing off lots down the street and Johnny Mathis was being piped in, and I thought, yeah, this was a good backdrop for a movie, so that’s where the backdrop came from. And then basically, the Duke Diver character is based on a hustler a producer and I knew who was a good hustler. He wasn’t a criminal hustler, but he was a guy everybody loved, and nobody ever knew what he did for a living or how he survived. So, I kind of turned that into this character, and the whole thing fell together.

BK: The characters played by Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo, they are not all they appear to be at the start.

RS: Right, exactly.

BK: Your movies take place in the real world which we all understand and complain about more often than not, and they also contain fantastical elements which you can only find in the realm of fiction. How much of a challenge is it for you to balance those two elements out?

RS: It’s what I prefer to do. What I couldn’t imagine is a movie set in outer space or in the future or time travel or Death Stars blowing up or toys that turn into monsters or Transformers. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in human behavior whether it’s tragic or comic, and all of my movies, however disparate they are, are about how people behave. I just think that’s the most exciting thing to observe, and I tend to like movies about human behavior and not special effects. That’s just me. I’m in the minority obviously when you look at the box office results out there. I like to take the audience into a world they never would go into except for a movie whether it’s playground basketball (“White Men Can’t Jump”), minor league baseball (“Bull Durham”), or the political world of Louisiana politics in the 1950’s (“Blaze”). That’s just what interests me. It’s as simple as that.

BK: I fear many people will consider “Just Getting Started” as a movie about old people, but it really isn’t. It’s more about how no one ever really acts their age and how we roll with the punches.

RS: Well you don’t go to a retirement home to die. You go there to party. Everybody onscreen is not looking back and reliving their loses which everyone has, looking at their high school yearbooks, or thinking about what might have been. Everybody there probably is divorced or widowed, and all they are doing is looking for what’s next in their life. I’m 70. When you get to 70, that’s all you’re doing. I don’t think of myself as old. I can’t hit a golf ball as far, but I’m a better golfer. Morgan’s 80 and Tommy’s my age. We’re all about moving forward, working more, discovering things about ourselves, and that’s really what I think interests me. Most people I know who are my age, whether they are in the movie business or not, are not looking back. They are looking forward and looking forward to tomorrow. That’s all it’s about.

BK: I love how you cast Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones in these roles. Both are known for playing dramatic roles with a lot of gravitas, so seeing them let loose here is a joy because we don’t see them often in comedic roles. When it comes to directing actors to be funny, do you let them play the joke or play the scene?

RS: Play the scene always. Never play the joke. I’m not a very good joke writer anyway. I try to write behavior and interchange and exchange that’s humorous or that’s real and based on behavior, and I just say play it. You’re the actors, play it. Don’t ever look for a laugh. Don’t ever worry about where the punchline is because there’s probably not a punchline, and that’s the way we do it.

BK: That’s great because a lot of movies today, filmmakers just like to play the joke and that doesn’t work.

RS: Right.

BK: I think the trick with comedy, especially with your movies, is to play the scene and never play it like you are in on the joke.

RS:  Exactly. A lot of times an actor, not these two because they are so good, but in another movie I’d be directing, they would say this line is so funny on the page and I don’t think I’m getting the laugh out of it. I said you shouldn’t be trying to get the laugh, just play it real. Play every line real, and the laughs come or they don’t come. Sometimes you think there’s going to be a laugh in the script, and it’s a smile. Sometimes a laugh comes when you least expect it, but it’s not going to come on the punchline because there aren’t any, or they rarely are.

BK: You worked with Rene Russo in “Tin Cup,” and she looks and is fabulous in this role. It looks like a serious role for her at first, but then she pulls out the stops.

RS: Rene plays the strong woman who’s really a mess better than anybody I know (laughs).

BK: How did you direct the actors? Did you just let them loose?

RS: When a director says “action,” his work is done. It’s like you’re a basketball coach; at the first tip, you’re done. Plus, with these people, you don’t have to direct them as much as you give them a note and then get out of the way. Just help stage it and shoot it. Tommy’s note was look you’re not competing with Duke, he’s competing with you. You’re not threatened by Duke, he’s terribly threatened by you. So that’s where some of the chemistry comes from. Tommy’s toying with Duke, and Duke is fighting for his existence with Tommy. So that just needs a slightly different motivation.

BK: When you write a screenplay, you usually have a vision of it in your head of how the dialogue should sound like. What is it like when actors speak the dialogue you have written?

RS: Well then, it’s the third thing: You write one movie, you shoot another movie, and then you edit a third movie as the old saying goes. Once they have it, it takes on a new life of its own. That’s the truth. Once you’ve hired the actor and I hand them the script, I always say look, until this moment, I know more about this character than you because I have been living with this character and writing him and figuring him out. Now, it’s yours. Now you’re going to discover things about this character I didn’t even think about. So in a certain way, I’m handing this character to you.

BK: I also liked the three ladies (played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley and the late Glenne Headly) whom Duke flirts with, and I loved their dialogue because you expect them to not know what’s going on, but they know more than they let on. What was it like writing those characters?

RS: They were great. I wish I had more time. It was a fast shoot. We had 28 days if you can believe that. If we had more time, we could have done more with those wonderful actresses. And yes indeed, it was a shocking loss when Glenne passed. Nobody anticipated it at all, and it happened suddenly too. It wasn’t like a disease. But they were all great to work with. They were so happy to be working in a nourishing environment where everybody was having fun, and there was mutual trust and we could play. But everybody was very respectful of the script. There was virtually no improvising in the whole movie, and they were just pros. I love working with pros.

BK: I really thought the dedication you gave Glenne at the conclusion of the end credits was really lovely.

RS: Thank you.

BK: In regards to the shooting schedule you had for this movie, how did shooting it in less than 30 days affect you as a director?

RS: It’s not a shooting schedule when a movie is shot in three different cities with 80 and 70-year-old actors with about 80 locations. It’s a schedule when you’ve got sets, and we didn’t have any sets, and you’re moving the company all the time. When you’re moving the company all the time, that’s what takes time. The second unit I shot in Palm Springs because we also shot in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I picked up a day in Valencia. So that’s a lot of movie for 28 days.

BK: Another actor I was happy to see in this movie was Jane Seymour, and she is almost completely unrecognizable here. Was this by design or was it her idea to look completely different from any role she has played previously?

RS: When she said she would love to do this, she was a late add. She said, what’s my hair look like? I said I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about that. And she said, I have two different wigs. And I said, why don’t you wear them both? We’ll just alternate them in scenes. She thought that was a great idea, and she said one is blonde and one is brunette. I said perfect, every time we cut to you, you’ll look different.

BK: How did this movie evolve for you while you were in the editing room?

RS: Well you keep finding the movie. The big question in editing was, how much should the audience know that you keep a secret? You don’t want to make it too much, and you also don’t want to say he doesn’t have a secret because when the golf cart blows up, it can’t be like, what the hell’s happening? It has to be oh, now we’re going to get to the bottom of the secret. So we were always playing with how much to share with the audience and how much not to share. That’s just a difficult kind of problem you address in post-production.

I really want to thank Ron Shelton for taking the time to talk with me. It was a real pleasure. “Just Getting Started” will open on December 8, 2017. Be sure to check it out!

Poster, photo and trailer courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

a-merry-friggin-christmas-poster

The worst Christmas memories we have tend to become the funniest and most memorable moments of our lives, and I went into “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” thinking it would reflect this fact. With a cast which includes such tremendously talented actors like Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke and Robin Williams, in what sadly turned out to be one of his last roles before his tragic death, this seemed to be a surefire winner and quite possibly one of the most subversive Christmas comedies ever, right?

Nope, no such luck. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” turns out to be a tremendous disappointment as it strands its wonderful cast in a far too typical Christmas movie with very little in the way of laughs. In fact, I never got much in the way of gut-busting laughs like I hoped I would. When actors like these can’t make this holiday comedy rise above its formulaic conventions, you know something is seriously wrong in the state of Denmark.

McHale stars as Boyd Mitchler, and the movie starts with him as a boy hiding under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa Claus to appear. But instead of Santa Claus, Boyd is greeted by his drunken father Mitch (Robin Williams) who quickly tells him that, like the Easter Bunny, Santa doesn’t exist. Move to a number of years later, and Boyd is now happily married to Luann (Lauren Graham) and the father of two adorable children. Unlike his father, Boyd is determined to keep the magic of Christmas going for his kids as long as he can before the reality of the cruel world they live in forever robs them of it.

It’s interesting how Boyd’s daughter already knows Santa doesn’t exist as kids these days are getting increasingly harder to trick or fool. Still, Boyd is determined to keep his son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon from “Looper”) believing the jolly fat man from the North Pole is real even if he has to fly at 20,000 mph in order to deliver all those presents in a timely fashion. Of course, with climate change melting away much of the ice on this planet, Santa will most likely be living in a submarine at this point.

But then Boyd gets word from his brother Nelson (Clark Duke) that his baby is going to be baptized on Christmas Eve, and this means the whole Mitchler family is going to be reunited under one roof for the first time in years. We all know what happens when such a dysfunctional family gets together; tempers flare and old resentments quickly rise to the surface. Clearly, things are going to get worse before they can finally get better, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how predictable this “comedy” is going to end up being.

What’s even more unsurprising is how we see early on that Boyd is going to completely forget to bring Douglas’ presents along with him, and this results in him going on an 8-hour round trip to get them and preserve his son’s belief in Christmas. Coming along with Boyd on this ride is father who uses his truck which has a couple of portable toilets stowed in the back. Will one of them fall off the truck and create a disgusting mess? Does a bear shit in the woods?

Holiday movies are a dime a dozen, and I’m always waiting for one which messes around with the formula to give us something different. “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” had the potential to be such a movie, but it ends up falling apart as soon as it starts. The performances and the comedy are played much too broadly, and everything comes off as uninspired. It’s such a shame because you have an actor like Graham, who starred in one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, “Bad Santa,” and even she can’t save this movie with her priceless expressions (and they really are priceless).

“A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” has taken on a special meaning in light of Williams’ tragic death, and it’s sad his career had to end with a movie like this one. Having said that, he does have some moments where he doesn’t say a word but his face speaks volumes about what Mitch is feeling and going through in his head. He makes you feel Mitch’s pain when he discovers he has been photo-shopped out of a family photo, and while his character is mostly a one-dimensional jerk, Williams gives him a depth many other actors would not have been able to achieve. It’s a shame his talents ended up being wasted on such a half-baked screenplay.

For me, there are few things worse than a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh, and “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” sadly turns out to be one of them. Those looking for the perfect Christmas movie for the whole family will be better off renting “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Love Actually” or “Bad Santa.” This one is not going to keep you entertained.

* out of * * * *

Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Love Actually

love-actually-movie-poster

Around Christmas, most families watch “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday tradition. Others watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” which I still haven’t seen (don’t ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but a British romantic comedy called “Love Actually.” I myself prefer “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton, but I’m in the minority of those in my family who want to see it at Christmas time. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with “The Big Lebowski,” so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant’s character of Prime Minister David saying:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywThere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board weren’t messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, “Love Actually” instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea where the movie is going, and this is what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.

“Love Actually” was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone which never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American movies. Plus, he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and this is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.

In describing the various stories, I think it’ll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One which comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There’s one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark’s reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido’s “Here with Me.” Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.

Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is happily married, or so it seems, to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen’s reaction to the present she didn’t expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.

The hardest actor to watch in “Love Actually,” however, is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move on after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it’s fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don’t want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn’t make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?

Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any “Harry Potter” movie, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Linney has such emotionally honest moments which she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don’t even realize she is acting.

As for Grant, you can always count on him to bring the befuddled nervousness from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and perform it to sheer comic perfection in a movie like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You’d figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the one actor who steals the show in “Love Actually” is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays the aging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly, if at all, sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his “festering turd of a record” is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:

“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them to you for free!”

Colin Firth’s performance as broken-hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon over him ever since he was in “Pride & Prejudice.” Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can even while he is clearly scared to death. It’s all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck with as Lieutenant Uhura had trying to speak Klingon in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

There are several other cute stories in “Love Actually” worth taking in like the budding relationship which builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It’s great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term “skip the foreplay.”

Granted, some stories in “Love Actually” get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can be to lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I’m so glad this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there, several of them starring Katherine Heigel, that it drives me up the wall.

I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport, so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into the movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart “Love Actually” is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.

I still like “Bad Santa” better though…

* * * * out of * * * *

Jeremiah S. Chechik Looks Back at Making ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

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Jeremiah S. Chechik was the special guest at Arclight Studios in Hollywood a few years ago when they hosted a screening of his directorial debut, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The third and most beloved in the “Vacation” franchise has long since become a holiday classic, and it is the Christmas film many families watch during the holiday season instead of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After the movie was over and the end credits were all done, Chechik came up quickly to the front of the audience before anyone could introduce him and said, ”I haven’t seen it since the day it opened!”

The screenplay was written by the late John Hughes and was inspired by an article Hughes wrote for the National Lampoon called “Christmas ’59.” Chechik tipped his hand to Hughes’ wonderful writing and went on to say it was originally written as a stand-alone movie. Warner Brothers, however, read it and immediately wanted to integrate it into the “Vacation” franchise.

When asked how he got the job to direct, Chechik explained he was directing what he called “high profile” commercials back in a time when it was unusual to go from doing commercials to directing feature films. His work eventually got him discovered by Steven Spielberg who ended up giving him an office at Amblin Entertainment. This brought a lot of awareness to his visual style, and both Chase and Hughes soon became adamant he be the next one to direct the next “Vacation” movie.

With this being his first film, Chechik said he was determined not to back down on actors who wanted to exert their power over him. While it’s tempting to think he and Chase didn’t get along as Chase’s reputation for being hard to work will never disappear, Chechik said they actually had a great working relationship on set. This came after he admitted to not being a big fan of Chase’s comedy as he described it as being “very broad.” Chechik described Chase as having a very strong point of view, a very clear intention of what the movie is about, and they worked together to find things which worked.

Chechik, however, did say he and Beverly D’Angelo had many arguments, some of which he described as being “very heated,” on set. Still, he said all the bad blood between them is now water under the bridge.

“Christmas Vacation’s” budget was $27 million, and its shooting schedule lasted for 60 days. Much of the movie was shot in Breckinridge, Colorado while other scenes were shot the following summer at Warner Brothers in Burbank, California. Chechik was happy to say Hughes had his back throughout the whole production. When the movie went through previews, the studio heads pressured him to cut the scene where the cat got electrocuted. Chechik claimed he resisted the pressure and kept it in because he thought it was funny (and it was) and that he was more of a dog person anyway. The test audiences also loved the scene, and the studio heads didn’t bother keeping the moment out of the movie’s trailer.

Chechik said “Christmas Vacation” worked so well because we truly cared about Clark Griswold and what he went through. The mood of certain scenes was very important to him, especially the one with Chase in the attic where he watched home movies of past Christmases with tears filling his eyes. Looking at this made Chechik point out the way comedy should be done in movies:

“Funny beats funny,” he said. “If everyone thought the set pieces were funny but they didn’t care about the main character, then the movie won’t work.”

With the squirrel scene, he said a trained squirrel was brought onto the set and there was also a trainer there for the dog featured in it as well. Chechik said the filmmakers “storyboarded the hell out of it” and were eager to start filming it, but when he arrived on set that day he was confronted with the grim faces of the trainers and line producers. After shuffling around for a bit, they informed him the squirrel had died. The squirrel trainer went on to say they don’t live for very long anyway as if that could have possibly softened the blow.

So, they went out and got another squirrel for the scene which they ended up drawing out onto the set with food. From this, Jeremiah said he learned how to roll with things and to use improvisation. About every scene in “Christmas Vacation” had a certain amount of improvisation in it, he pointed out.

As for the most difficult scene to shoot, Chechik said it was the dinner table scene where the whole family begins their Christmas Eve celebration. He did not hesitate in telling everyone having 9 to 11 actors in a scene is a really bad idea. The blocking proved to be very complicated, and it became such a nightmare for him as it took days and days for him to get the scene right.

Here are some other “Christmas Vacation” trivia Chechik let us know about:

  • In the scene with the two granddads snoring in front of the television, the actors playing those roles really were fast asleep.
  • Mae Questal, who played Aunt Bethany, was the voice of Betty Boop.
  • Chevy’s angry rant on his boss was done exactly as it was written by Hughes.

It was really nice of Chechik to come out and talk with us about “Christmas Vacation,” a movie he succeeded in making a timeless classic and, as he put it, “very postcardy.” When asked why he hasn’t seen the film since it first came out, he said he just wanted to let it go and let it live. It certainly has had a long life since 1989, and the series continued on with “Vegas Vacation” and “Vacation” which starred Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. In response to one audience member who said his family watches it every year, Chechik replied, “I like your family!”

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Bad Santa 2

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Bad Santa 2” is the kind of sequel I thought it would be; one which repeats the story of the original. Granted, many sequels are like this, and some get away with it like “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “The Hangover Part II” and John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.” Clearly, this is a movie made for fans of 2003 original which has long since become a holiday and cult classic, and this sequel does contain a number of gut-busting laughs as the world’s worst mall Santa Claus ever, Willie Soke, gets himself involved in another heist. But in its second half, “Bad Santa 2” loses much of the energy it built up and begins to run on fumes as scenes quickly remind us of the original and how great it was.

It’s been 13 years since “Bad Santa” was unleashed in theaters everywhere, and the holdup was the result of Miramax being sold among other things. Billy Bob Thornton was eager to get a sequel off the ground, but because of various rights issues, it seemed impossible to start production on one for years. While it is a relief to see this sequel finally arrive at your local cinema, it’s being released at a time where a major Presidential candidate bragged on audio about grabbing women by “the pussy.” As a result, it’s hard to watch “Bad Santa 2” without thinking about that, so the bad timing of its release is unfortunate.

So, what has Willie been up to for 13 years? Well, he’s still the same old cynical lout whose heart is smaller than the Grinch’s, and he still drinks himself silly at any given opportunity. Sue (Lauren Graham from the original) has long since left him as Willie is incapable of hanging onto any nurturing relationships, but he still gets regular visits from Thurman “the kid” Merman (Brett Kelly) who still acts like an 8-year-old even at the age of 21. Willie is prepared to put himself out of his misery, but he is much better at cracking safes than at attempting suicide. One thing’s for sure, he’s got one hell of a liver.

Despite having tried to kill Willie previously, Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) still manages to convince him to pull off another heist which will be their biggest yet. Marcus wants to rip off a Chicago charity which is said to have $2 million dollars, but Willie is against robbing a charity because, you know, they never have that much money. But Willie’s in for a big surprise as he discovers Marcus has brought on another partner for this caper, his mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). The fact Willie is quick to punch her right in the face as soon as he recognizes her should give you a good idea of just how dysfunctional the mother/son relationship is between these two.

Thornton hasn’t lost a step since first playing Willie back in 2003, and he still knows how to give a deplorable character like this one a complexity other actors couldn’t. The actor can still land a joke like the best can, and just when you think Willie can’t reach an even deeper bottom than he already has, he does. But as irredeemable as Willie seems, Thornton still gives us a reason to root for him even as he is about to sin again.

“Bad Santa 2,” however, scores a real casting coup with the addition of Kathy Bates who shows no fear in making Sunny every bit as cynical as Willie. She relishes playing an unrepentant biker chick who throws caution to the wind just as one would flick away a cigarette to the ground, and she’s the kind of actress who’s game for just about anything and everything.

It’s also great to see Tony Cox back as Marcus, and that’s even though the logistics of Marcus working again with Willie are beyond belief. Then again, you don’t bring logic into a sequel like this. While Lauren Graham is missed, it’s crazy fun to watch “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks let it loose as a reformed alcoholic who still feels the need to be bad when the opportunity presents itself. As for Brett Kelly, he still gives this sequel the heart it needs as man-child Thurman Merman. You would think Thurman would have long since outgrown his attachment to Santa, but again, this is not the kind of sequel you bring logic to.

But as “Bad Santa 2” heads into its second act, the laughs begin to die down as our familiarity with original sinks in to where what was once fresh now feels sadly stale. We are introduced to Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) who heads the charity and is Christina’s husband who cheats on her and indulges in a foot fetish which is best left to the imagination, and there’s also the security officer who is on the verge of uncovering Willie’s true identity. They eventually bring to mind the characters John Ritter and Bernie Mac played in “Bad Santa,” but these characters are nothing more than mere caricatures supplied for the audience to despise right from the start. The characters Ritter and Mac portrayed were not clichéd ones, and each actor inhabited them with a comic brilliance not easily duplicated. The both of them are very much missed this time around.

Directing “Bad Santa 2” is Mark Waters who gave us “The House of Yes,” the “Freaky Friday” remake and the infinitely enjoyable “Mean Girls” which made a star out of Lindsay Lohan and gave Tina Fey a life outside of SNL. With this sequel, he feels obligated to stay within the original’s formula as straying from it wouldn’t have worked. Waters succeeds in keeping the comic pace of the movie up, and he generates some big laughs which left me in hysterics. However, he can’t keep it from losing steam as we become more aware of where things are heading as this sequel heads to its inevitable climax which is not as inspired as it wants to be.

For me, “Bad Santa 2” is a near miss. Some sequels are mere replications of the original, and this drives most critics up the wall. I can be a bit forgiving as I’m willing to accept this to a certain extent if the sequel proves to be entertaining, but even I have my limits. “Bad Santa 2” succeeds in its first half, but its second half shows its filmmakers running out of steam long before they crossed the finish line. It’s a shame because the original is one of my favorite movies to watch during the holidays, but this one comes up short. It definitely has its devilishly inspired moments, but it could have used more of them.

* * ½ out of * * * *