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A Christmas Tale, Four Christmases among new DVD reviews

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A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008). If the Hollywood hit Four Christmases (reviewed below) takes family dysfunction to its comic extremes, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale plays it closer to real life, finding both humor and heartbreak as it focuses on the members of the Vuillard clan gathering over the holidays. The most recognizable names (or, for those not versed in French cinema, most recognizable faces) are those of international superstar Catherine Deneuve, still lovely after all these decades, and Mathieu Amalric, who was briefly all over the place thanks also to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Quantum of Solace (in which he portrayed Bond's nemesis). She plays Junon, the matriarch faced with fatal illness; he plays oldest son Henri, who doesn't get along with either his mother or his sister (Anne Consigny). Their younger brother (Melvil Poupaud) also figures into the proceedings, as do various spouses, nephews and friends. The performances are uniformly fine, although it's the raspy-voiced Jean-Paul Roussillon who steals scenes as Junon's husband, the perpetually patient paterfamilias who serves as the eye of the hurricane in this tumultuous household.

Extras in Criterion's two-disc DVD edition include a 36-minute making-of piece featuring interviews with Desplechin, Deneuve and Amalric; the 66-minute L'aimee, Desplechin's documentary about the sale of his family home; and the film's French and American theatrical trailers.

Movie: ***

Extras: **

FOUR CHRISTMASES (2008). Upon its original theatrical release, the underrated Four Christmases promoted itself with a wretched trailer that focused almost exclusively on barf gags, pratfalls and other broad, physical comedy that probably drew the yahoo crowd but not necessarily anyone else. A more representative trailer, on the other hand, would have revealed a movie that's worth seeing – a smart, tart confection whose observations about family dysfunction will make viewers squirm on their couches even as the laughs tumble off the screen. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon headline as Brad and Kate, a couple who always bypass their families at Christmastime in order to take overseas vacations. But complications force the pair to visit their relatives after all, and since both sets of parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek are his, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen are hers) are divorced, that means four familial gatherings in one day. It proves to be a grueling endurance test, as each is humiliated in turn by said folks, siblings and other assorted in-laws. Movies of this nature always follow the humor with an excruciating final half-hour of phony moralizing or cheap sentiment, so it's a credit that this one not only keeps this sober-minded portion of the film short but also makes it develop believably from the situations that have preceded it (in other words, the character evolution feels natural rather than the work of a hack screenwriter). But honestly, who's here for anything besides laughs? On that front, Four Christmases soundly delivers on the ho-ho-hos.

The only DVD extras are a few theatrical trailers.

Movie: ***

Extras: *

FUNNY PEOPLE (2009). What distinguished writer-director Judd Apatow's previous films (Knocked Up and especially The 40-Year-Old Virgin) from most of the doltish fanboy comedies hitting theaters and DVD shelves these days (The Hangover, for instance) is that he made sure to include genuine characters rather than stock types in his stories and further made us care enough about them to allow the movies to resonate beyond their nyuk content. Funny People is even more ambitious – it wants to make us laugh and cry and ruminate – but it never properly merges all of its disparate elements into an organic whole, resulting in viewer whiplash as it repeatedly starts and sputters. Adam Sandler is cast as George Simmons, a Hollywood star who's just been diagnosed with a potentially fatal strain of leukemia. After the obligatory bouts of self-pity, he tries to move ahead, first by hiring rising comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to write material for him and then by trying to rekindle a romance with Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife), an ex-fiancée now married to an Australian businessman (Eric Bana, stealing the show). Criminally overlong, this is so overstuffed with incidental material – Ira's thorny relationship with his two more successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman), his tentative wooing of a deadpan neighbor (Aubrey Plaza), George's schmoozing with countless celebrities playing themselves (Sarah Silverman, Paul Reiser, Eminem, etc.), an endless stream of dick jokes – that the George-Laura story line doesn't even materialize until the film's second hour. Apatow clearly meant to further his reputation with this ambitious effort, but the end result, sad to say, is no laughing matter.

The two-disc Collector's Edition DVD contains both the R-rated and unrated versions of the film. Extras include audio commentary by Apatow, Sandler and Rogen; 11 deleted scenes; a 65-minute making-of documentary; two gag reels; and archival footage of Sandler's first appearance on Letterman's show.

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