Reel Opinions

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Fountain

I shudder to imagine the reaction of the clueless viewer who walks into The Fountain, and thinks they are in for a standard Hollywood special effects spectacle. Despite the fact that the film has the backing of a major studio, an obviously healthy budget (though slashed from what it was originally supposed to be), and a big name star above the title in the form of Hugh Jackman, The Fountain is actually a thinking man's art house movie in the disguise of a Hollywood blockbuster. Reaction to this movie is bound to be strongly divided, and that seems to be the exact goal of Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For a Dream). Some viewers will throw their hands up in frustration before the film has hit the half hour mark, while others will devote multiple screenings trying to figure out its many ins and outs. I for one was captivated the entire time while I was watching it, and still am hours later as I am still trying to sort out my feelings and everything that I saw.

The Fountain's grand plot covers three separate storylines set thousands of years apart, yet all set around the ideas of death, loss, and the desire to live forever. The main storyline is set in the present day, and centers around a doctor named Tom (Hugh Jackman) who is obsessed over developing a cure that can not only slow down the aging process, but remove a deadly tumor. There is a personal reason behind his obsession, as his beloved wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is starting to show the drastic later signs of a terminal illness she has been struggling with for years. Over the past couple years, Izzi has been working on a book that tells the story of a Spanish conquistador in the 16th Century, and his quest for the Tree of Life for Queen Isabel so that they can both obtain eternal life. As Tom reads Izzi's book, we witness the story come to life with Hugh Jackman playing the conquistador, and Rachel Weisz as the Queen. The third and final storyline is set in the distant future, and focuses on a lone traveler (Hugh Jackman once again) floating through space in a bubble with the withering Tree of Life in search of a nebula that can help both him and the mythical tree.

One watches The Fountain, and wonders how a movie like this was able to be sold to a major studio like Warner Bros. This is an extremely downbeat, perplexing, and sometimes poetic sci-fi meditation on man's obsession with cheating death. The project has actually been in production for years, and was originally conceived as a $75 million blockbuster with Brad Pitt in the male lead role. When Pitt and director Aronofsky could not see eye to eye, the project was shelved, and Aronofsky went back to the drawing board, completely re-writing the script to fit a still healthy, but much more modest, budget of $35 million. I really wish I could read the original script and see just what could have convinced a studio to put this much money toward such a polarizing movie. That being said, those who are willing to unlock the enigma that this movie provides are sure to be rewarded. The film is deep, compelling, and often tragic. Earlier, I referred to the film as a sci-fi meditation on man's obsession with cheating death. At times, that's certainly what the movie seems to be. The film is leisurely paced, though never boring, and very slowly unravels its mystery upon the viewer. This movie is a journey into our fears about death and mortality, and although it is often heavy and downbeat, it never becomes overbearing or so depressing that you want to stop watching. This is a good thing, as there are really no "light" moments at any time in The Fountain. Some people have accused the screenplay of being heavy handed or overly melodramatic, but I thought the tone was perfect for the kind of story that Aronofsky was trying to tell, and was able to hold onto the human aspects of the characters, so that the emotion of the piece was able to ring out.

This is thanks mostly to the wonderful lead performances of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. In each of their multiple roles throughout the film, they are able to completely transform themselves, and are up to just about any challenge that the screenplay throws at them. Hugh Jackman, in particular, has the hardest role, as he must not only play three separate characters, but his characters must carry each of the multiple storylines. Having appeared in a grand total of four very different films in less than three months (his others being The Prestige, Flushed Away, and Happy Feet), Jackman has proved that he is willing to pursue a wide variety of projects, and that he is more than capable of handling just about any kind of character. Rachel Weisz is able to avoid most of the pitfalls that lesser actresses fall into when they play dying characters in her main role. She plays Izzi as a woman who has come to peace with what she knows will happen, and is simply trying to enjoy her final moments, never feeling sad or weeping over her fate. Even though we learn very little about Tom and Izzi's relationship in the central storyline, they still come across as a genuine couple, and we can sense the love between them. In the supporting performances, Ellen Burstyn is a strong presence as a woman who understands Tom's obsession to find a cure, but is at the same time frightened by it.

More so than the performances, it is the movie itself that makes The Fountain a filmgoing experience unlike any you most likely have ever had, or ever will have again in the near future. It is not just the ambitious and sometimes poetic storytelling, but the visual and technical sense that carries throughout it. The film is a constant visual wonder as it switches back and forth through its three separate time periods, making it seem as if we were watching three entirely different films. This is not a distraction, but a plus, as the three distinct styles of the storylines complement each other beautifully. The experience is further enhanced with some amazing special effects work that I was surprised to learn was not created with the use of computers. The special effects imagery during the sequences set in the future are awe-inspiring, and deserve to be seen on the big screen. To top it all off, there is the beautiful music score by Clint Mansell. The score is fairly minimalist and simple, a vast difference to how grand everything else about this movie is, but it fits perfectly with the imagery, and I can't imagine the movie without it. This is the rare film where everything behind the camera is able to enhance what you are watching on the screen, and you can truly see where the time, money, and energy went into the making of the film.

I am recommending The Fountain, because I enjoyed it. Your enjoyment, I feel, may vary differently from mine. This movie is most certainly not a crowd pleaser, and will most likely frustrate more than a few people. Those of you who are looking for some escapism or light entertainment should not even dream of dropping their money down on this one. But, if you want a challenging movie that is actually able to satisfy, and satisfy even more as you think back on it, I can think of few films that do it better than this. Love it or hate it, it's very unlikely you will forget The Fountain anytime soon. With so many movies content to fade from your mind the second you walk out the theater doors, that's something special indeed.

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Senator Robert F. Kennedy meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Bobby is not so much a movie about the man or about his assassination, but rather about his influence on the American people. Writer and director (and former 80s "brat pack" member) Emilio Estevez shows a great amount of maturity in how he handles a very tricky story. Whereas many filmmakers would have probably made your standard biopic about the man's life and his death, Estevez instead decides to take a much more ambitious approach by juggling multiple storylines of people who play some part in what the man stood for back in 1968. He has rounded up an impressive all-star cast to tell his story, and although the movie threatens to become top heavy from time to time, Bobby never completely collapses under the massive story it tries to tell thanks to some very talented performances on the screen.

The entire film is set during one fateful day and place - June 6th, 1968 in L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel. It was on the evening of that day that Robert Kennedy would be killed by an assassin's bullet as he made his way out of the Hotel after giving a speech. Before that tragic moment, it was just another day for a nation trapped in an unpopular war, and the film follows a large group of people (both employees of the hotel and guests), who will all be involved somehow with the turning point that will occur that night. Our large cast of characters includes the manager of the Hotel (William H. Macy), who is having an affair with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham) behind the back of his wife Miriam (Sharon Stone), who works as a beautician in the building. There's the retired doorman (Anthony Hopkins) who has been with the Hotel since the beginning, and can't quite let go of the past, and usually spends his days in the lobby playing chess with some of the regular guests and employees. There's also the racist kitchen boss (Christian Slater) who is trying to cling onto what little respect he has after just recently being informed he's been fired. His kitchen staff is made up of mostly minority workers, including a young Mexican-American worker named Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), and a kindly black chef (Laurence Fishburne) who doesn't like to cause trouble for anyone.

The cast continues to grow when we are introduced to a washed-up alcoholic entertainer named Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) who is giving her final performance at the Hotel's auditorium, and whose husband (Emilio Estevez) is starting to have second thoughts about their relationship. There's a young bride-to-be named Diane (Lindsey Lohan) who is planning to marry fellow college student William (Elijah Wood) in a desperate attempt to keep him from having to fight in Vietnam. There's a middle aged couple (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt) who are celebrating their anniversary. And because of Kennedy's upcoming speech that evening, there are a number of PR aides trying to drum up support for the candidates, including the experienced aides Wade and Dwayne (Joshua Jackson and Nick Carter), and new recruits Cooper and Jimmy (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf), who spend most of the day running around the Hotel in a LSD-fueled haze after they unwisely make a trip to a hotel room where a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher) resides. Last, but not least, there's a sweet young waitress in the hotel restaurant who dreams of bigger things (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and a Czech reporter named Lenka Janacek (Svetlana Metkina) who is fighting to get an interview with Robert Kennedy, even though the aides keep on turning her down, brushing her off as a Communist. All of these people will either be influenced by the words of Kennedy that evening, or be involved in some way in the chaos that occurs that evening.

With so many characters and storylines vying for our attention, Bobby sometimes seems to be biting off a bit more than it can chew. Though never confusing as it leaps back and forth throughout its multiple storylines, and expertly edited so that the storytelling never becomes muddled, you still get the sense that Estevez could have trimmed his cast by at least half, and come up with a movie that is just as good if not even better. A large part of this has to do with the fact that only half of the characters are developed to any degree of satisfaction. The rest are either short cameos that exist simply so that one more celebrity could be squeezed into the cast (like Ashton Kutcher's drug dealer character), or they are simply not developed enough for us to truly care about them, like Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt as the married couple having a getaway together at the hotel. The whole storyline of the young PR aides who go on a day-long drug trip could have also been removed, as they simply exist for easy comic relief, and don't really seem to play any real purpose to the story until the final few moments, where their characters take a turn. The characters who are developed strongly are great as they are, but if the movie had just removed some of the more unnecessary characters, it could have spent more time on the interesting characters, and have made the ones that work even more interesting. Perhaps writer-director Estevez was attached too much to his work the way it was, and didn't want to drop anything he had written. An outside director who could look at the script in a different way probably could have easily fixed this problem.

Even with its overloaded storytelling and cast, Bobby still works. The reason is because what does work in the film works so amazingly well. The storylines that do work include the Hotel manager and his affair, the young couple who are getting married, the fragile and broken relationship between faded celebrity Virginia Fallon and her husband, and PR aide Dwayne and his personal experience with Kennedy himself, and what Kennedy's message means to him. The reason why these stories work is because the screenplay is able to dig deep into these characters, and expose not just their personalities to the screen, but also how they fit into different aspects of American society at the time. The nation was going through tremendous changes at the time, with the Vietnam war dividing people and race issues literally exploding onto the streets in acts of violence and protest. It is when the film is giving a human face to these issues, and truly developing characters that we can care for, that Bobby is at its best. It is during these moments that Estevez shows a sure hand, both in his storytelling and in directing. He wisely does not drum up the melodrama, and is able to make his characters into real, flawed three dimensional characters. It is also during these moments that you see the movie that Bobby could have been if it were just a little bit more focused. For all it's flaws, these moments make the movie worth watching, and show that Estevez has definitely matured past his old image in the 80s and early 90s.

Although the film may be somewhat uneven, the large cast that has been assembled literally could not be better. There are three big surprises in the cast, and they come in the form of Lindsey Lohan, Sharon Stone and Nick Cannon. Lohan is given perhaps her best role in years as a young bride who begins to question her decisions to marry, even though she knows what she's doing is right. If she can avoid brain dead junk like Just My Luck and pursue more intelligent work like this, she may still have a chance to live up to the potential she showed when she literally burst onto the scene a couple years ago. Sharon Stone gives an equally career-changing performance as the wife of the hotel manager who is faced with a very difficult situation when she finds out about his unfaithful ways. She is vulnerable and completely sympathetic and honest in every bit of her portrayal, and seeing her in this movie almost makes you forget about her laughably bad villain turn in Catwoman, or the overly vampish and stupid Basic Instinct 2. Nick Cannon, however, will completely shock anyone who knows him from his previous work. After appearing in brainless teen garbage like Underclassman and Love Don't Cost a Thing, he is finally given a role that truly shows off his acting ability, and he gives one of the best performances of the film as a PR aide who has a lot of personal interest in Kennedy's ideals and vision for the country. The rest of the cast is excellent all around, with long-standing veterans like Anthony Hopkins and William H. Macy giving fine performances, and Demi Moore and Estevez playing off of each other very well as a husband and wife whose relationship is threatened by the wife's alcohol problem. Each actor in the cast gets their own individual moment to stand out in some way, and are often good enough to make you temporarily forget about the film's problems.

There really is a lot to admire in Bobby, and I greatly admire what Estevez was trying to do. It's a great idea to explain the impact Kennedy had on the nation by showing it through the nation's viewpoints in the form of these different characters. With a little bit more tightening of the script, Bobby could have been one of the great films of the year. For what it is, it will have to settle for a very good movie that simply tries to cover too much in a short amount of time. Maybe this idea would have worked better as a made for TV mini series, so that the large cast of characters would not be restricted to a mere two hour running time. Regardless of its faults, Bobby is an ambitious portrait of a certain period in American history, and one where the positives are most likely to stay with you longer than the negatives.

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Deja Vu

The sensation of deja vu is best described as the feeling that you have experienced something before. The title is actually very fitting for the movie Deja Vu, because the audience will have that same feeling watching this movie. We've seen everything the movie has to offer before, and no matter how many clever time paradoxes and scientific babble the screenplay throws at us, it can't cover up the fact that this is just your average everyday investigation of a murder action-thriller. Not that the movie is bad, mind you. It simply suffers from a pacing problem, with the movie frequently shifting gears from fast-paced action sequences to long, dragged out sessions where we literally watch nothing but the actors staring at a large monitor screen. The movie at least tries to be original, but it's not quite as smart as it seems to think it is.

The story kicks off with the explosion of a ferry boat that was carrying some off-duty Marines, women and children celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans. ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is called in to investigate the possible terrorist act. He finds some evidence that seems to suggest a bomb triggered the explosion, and later discovers the body of a woman named Claire (Paula Patton) who has washed ashore, and although she was not killed by the explosion, Doug strongly believes that the bombing and Claire's murder are somehow connected. He is soon after approached by an FBI agent named Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who introduces Doug to an experimental new program the agency is working on where they can literally watch the past unfold on computer screens within a certain limited range and by a four and a half day delay. They can follow Claire, watching her final days alive, and learn of her connection to the bombing, as well as the identity of the perpetrator of both crimes. It's even possible that the technology can affect the past, as they can theoretically send a living being back in time to the events they are witnessing and try to prevent the crime from happening, although this part of the technology has not proved successful so far. As Doug becomes emotionally attached to Claire as he is forced to watch her make the mistakes that will ultimately lead to her murder and the murder of others, he makes a daring decision to actually attempt traveling back into the past and try to change the flow of the future.

Deja Vu is directed by Tony Scott, who is perhaps best known for his overly frantic style of editing and storytelling. (His last film, Domino, was an exercise in near-incomprehension and a total assault on the senses.) He calms down quite a bit in telling this somewhat hard to swallow combination of murder mystery, race against the clock police investigation drama, science fiction, and time travel. Time travel is always a tricky topic to cover in film, as it almost seems to hold the door open to plot holes that can sometimes destroy a film. However, screenwriters Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and Bill Marsilli are able to avoid most of the traps that can sometimes occur when you mess around with time in your storyline. It's not completely airtight, mind you. I would have liked to have known a little bit more about the history of the project depicted in this film, and the characters seem to completely ignore how their interfering in the past might have unforeseen circumstances. Even if Doug were able to travel back in time, save Claire, and prevent the bombing from happening, what if it somehow opened up a rift, and caused some other disaster to occur? The characters never once really question how risky interfering with past events can be, and just seem to go into the situation at full force, the only thing holding them back being that they have never successfully transported a living thing back into the past.

While the whole time travel aspect does add some new possibilities to the standard "officer hunting down a psychotic killer" thriller, the movie for the most part plays it by the book. The movie features all the required car chases, investigation scenes, women in distress, and suspenseful scenes where the cop and the killer are stalking each other that one has come to expect in a movie of this type. While all of this stuff is more than familiar, it's at least done fairly well, and the action moves along at a fairly brisk pace. While I admire the filmmakers for trying to add some originality with the whole time travel idea, it is ultimately this that winds up bogging down not only the story, but the movie itself. We spend literally the entire middle portion of the movie watching Denzel Washington and a small group of actors sitting in front of a large computer monitor, and watching the past unfold. In other words, we the audience are looking at a screen showing Denzel Washington looking at a screen. The movie does try to throw some ideas during these moments, such as the moment when Washington actually affects the past by pointing a red laser pointer at the screen, and the person on the screen somehow notices it. But, very little is done with this potentially intriguing moment, and it is never really fleshed out so that it can reached its full potential. Deja Vu never quite digs deep enough into its own potential during these moments, and as such, it never quite becomes the movie the filmmakers probably wanted it to be.

In terms of the cast, Denzel Washington has proven himself time and time again to be a versatile actor. He can successfully pull off dramatic characters, as well as action-heavy ones. Here he gets to do a little bit of both, and although his character of Doug is a bit shallow in terms of characterization, he is still likeable enough to carry the movie, thanks mostly to Washington's performance. Paula Patton is a sympathetic presence as the doomed Claire, and I also liked it how the screenplay does not try to turn her into a love interest for Doug. The rest of the outside cast is fairly disposable, as they are either given no real personality to play off of (like Val Kilmer), or they are simply forced to recite fake science dialogue, explaining how the time travel technology works. Aside from the two lead roles, the only performance that gets a reaction is Jim Caviezel, who gives an appropriately chilling and eerie performance as the lead suspect in the investigation. He's a long way from his most famous role in The Passion of the Christ here, and proves that he can give a large variety of successful performances.

I guess the best way I can sum up my reaction to Deja Vu is that I liked a lot of the ideas the movie brought forth, but wasn't always happy with how they were implemented. The movie's not bad, but the entire middle section of the movie slows everything down to a near crawl, and that simply cannot be forgiven. They also could have done a lot more with the whole time travel idea, and the movie just plays it far too safe. Deja Vu may not always work, but I have to give it points for trying something different and for trying. Unfortunately, as much as I want to, I can't give it much more than that.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

In my review of The Marine last month, I opened by saying every once in a while a movie comes along that pretty much tells you what you're in for the second the studio logo fades away. Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny is the very same way, but fortunately, these opening moments are much more promising than that dead on arrival action flick. The opening moments of the film cover a young man's desire to rock and rock hard. His name is J.B., and he will very soon grow up to be Jack Black, but for now he is played as a child by Troy Gentile, who seems to be making a career out of playing Jack Black as a child, as he also played the child version of his character in Nacho Libre last summer. Despite J.B.'s passion to rock like the greats, his stern Christian father (played by rocker Meat Loaf in a brilliant decision of casting) is against it, as he believes rock music is the tool of Satan. The argument between father and son is played out in the grand, overblown rock opera style that Meat Loaf is famous for, and is quite frankly, fall-down hilarious. I don't think any comedy has opened as strongly as Tenacious D does, and although it never quite tops the inspiration of the first five minutes, the overwhelming sense of fun carries throughout.

Young J.B. leaves home that same night to begin a quest for Hollywood, a quest that will take him 20 years or so, because he stops in every city called Hollywood in the U.S. before he finally arrives in the right one in California. Now played by Jack Black, J.B. has a fateful meeting with a fellow rocker named K.G. (Kyle Gass) shortly after arriving. The two know that it is their destiny to join together and form the greatest rock band in the world, because they both share a matching birthmark tattoo on their rear ends that when joined together form the words "Tenacious D", inspiring the name of their band. Unfortunately, despite our two heroes passion to rock, they can't come up with a masterpiece song that will turn them into the gods they feel they are destined to become. While looking through old magazine photos of past great bands like The Who and Van Halen, they happen to notice that they all have one thing in common - they all used a green guitar pick in the shape of a demon. A burned out guitar store employee (Ben Stiller) informs them that it is the legendary Pick of Destiny, and that it holds the power to make anyone who possesses it into a Rock God, since it apparently holds supernatural powers due to the fact that it was forged from the tooth of Satan himself. The Pick is currently residing in the Rock 'n Roll History Museum, and so J.B. and K.G. make it their mission to steal it so that they can win an open mic night, and begin their road to superstardom.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny is a high energy bolt of comedic lightning that often had me holding my sides with laughter throughout. Director Liam Lynch (Jesus is Magic), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jack Black and Kyle Gass, seems to know exactly what the fans of the duo want, and what has made them a hit over the past couple years with a series of CD albums and TV episodes. However, the movie reaches beyond the usual fanbase, and hits just as hard with the non-fans. I had very limited experience with Tenacious D walking into the movie, and still was able to enjoy myself fully. The movie is so energetically silly, I can't see how anyone in the right mind set cannot have a good time. (Unfortunately, at my screening, I was literally the only person in the theater, so I had no outside audience reaction to judge.) The movie throws just about every rock and roll and heavy metal cliche in the book, and skewers it hilariously. You laugh first out of recognition, and then you laugh even more at the spin this movie puts upon it. With so many recent comedies failing due to the fact that they have funny ideas but no funny pay offs, it's a wonderful change of pace to come across a movie that actually knows how to carry out a gag. This movie is filled with so many wonderful moments that they could almost stand on their own as short comedic films, and still get the same response.

Some of the more memorable moments include J.B.'s mushroom-influenced visit with Sasquatch, the break-in attempt at the Rock 'n Roll History Museum, J.B. being mugged by some goons who walked out of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and a visit from a mysterious crippled man (who is listed in the credits simply as The Stranger) who gives our heroes vital information for their quest. I was shocked to discover in the credits that this character was played by Tim Robbins, who is almost unrecognizable in this film. After seeing him in Catch a Fire last month and now this, it's certainly nice to see Robbins pursuing some very diverse roles, and that he is highly skilled in both performances. And then there is the climax, which depicts a grand rock and roll duel between Tenacious D and Satan. In this film, the Devil is played by David Grohl, former drummer for Nirvana and lead singer for the Foo Fighters. He kind of looks like a cross between the villain Tim Curry played in the 80s fantasy film, Legend, and every depiction of Satan to ever grace an 80s heavy metal album. The rock battle is just as hilarious as the opening rock opera moments, and certainly show off how much this material meant to everyone involved.

It's easy to see while watching The Pick of Destiny why fans are so devoted to both Jack Black and Kyle Gass as a pair, as they have a natural chemistry together on the screen. Of course, it certainly helps that the two have been lifelong best friends in reality, but they still have an ease in performing off one another that all comedy duos need. Jack Black is the obvious star of the film, as his character carries most of the story, and he also gets a little more screen time. He may be playing the same "rock is everything" character that he played in School of Rock a couple years ago (albeit a bit more hard edged and raunchy, giving this film its R-rating), but he still seems to be having the time of his life, and it carries out into the audience. Kyle Gass doesn't leave as strong of an impression as Black, but he still seems to be having fun nonetheless. The rest of the cast is mainly made up of cameos by comedians and legendary rock artists, many of them of the "blink and you'll miss it" variety. This movie plainly belongs to Tenacious D, and they have more than enough charisma, energy and humor to carry an entire movie.

If there's any fault to Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, it is that it ends too soon and that the ending comes rather abruptly and without warning. Maybe this was intentional, but I was left wanting more when the credits started to roll. There are also a couple stretches where the laughs don't come as fast or as hard as other sequences, but they usually don't last too long. In the end, all I ask is that you do not let the extremely lame and laugh-free trailer that the studio has been running the past two months or so turn you away from this very funny film. I have a feeling that this movie is well on its way to rightfully earning the title of cult classic, so see it while it's still in theaters. Tenacious D is a great alternative to the family films and big budget spectacles that usually clog the multiplexes during holiday weekends, and should be given a chance.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Deck the Halls

I once was asked what's the hardest kind of film to review. I had to think for a minute or so, but my answer was ultimately a strictly average movie. One that doesn't really do anything overly wrong, but doesn't exactly get anything right either. It's just there. Deck the Halls is one such movie. Featherweight and destined to leave your mind the second you walk out the theater doors, the film is just too slight to reach the holiday classic status that it strives for. And yet, the film is watchable, thanks to some scattered chuckle-worthy gags here and there and some likeable performances. The kids are bound to like it, and the accompanying adults will tolerate it. If you're looking for a mild distraction over the Thanksgiving weekend to take the kids to, and they have not already seen the far superior Happy Feet, you could do a lot worse.

The story follows a building holiday rivalry between two neighbors that live across the street from each other. On one side, we have Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick), an Optometrist who for years has been the unchallenged "King of Christmas" in his community. Not only does he manage just about every aspect of his town's decorating and celebrating committee, but he plans out every detail of his own family's holiday festivities months in advance on a day-by-day basis. Into his life enters Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito), a nice enough, yet somewhat shifty car salesman who moves in across the street. Buddy is suffering from somewhat of a mid-life crisis, sad that he will never truly be remembered for anything. That all changes when his twin teenage daughters (Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge) show him a website that can look at any house in the neighborhood through a satellite camera in outer space. Seeing that his house doesn't even show up on the satellite map, Buddy decides that it is his calling to create the most wondrous outdoor Christmas light display known to man - one that is so incredible that it can be seen from outer space. This obviously draws the attention of the entire town and local media, and begins to put Steve's long-standing "Christmas King" title in jeopardy. The two men begin a childish war as Steve tries to sabotage Buddy's ever-growing outdoor display numerous times, and Buddy tries to ruin Steve's reputation in town. It may end up being up to their respective wives (Kristin Davis from TV's Sex and the City and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth) to remind the two men what Christmas is all about when they get too wrapped up in their petty war that it threatens to tear both of their families apart.

With holiday films released around this time of year becoming increasingly unwatchable (The Santa Clause 3 and Christmas With the Kranks being recent strong offenders), it's somewhat a nice change of pace that Deck the Halls is at least mediocre instead of flat-out terrible. You know things are bad when I consider the fact that a film is mediocre to be a plus, but it cannot be denied. The film's plot is terribly contrived, and many of the jokes are about as easy to predict as predicting that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Every now and then, the movie will hit upon a good gag, such as a doctored family Christmas card that doesn't seem very plausible, yet is funny nonetheless. The town sheriff who has a not-so secret affection for wearing women's undergarments beneath his uniform also got a laugh from me. The main problem here is that aside from these brief moments of clever lunacy, director John Whitesell (Big Momma's House 2) and screenwriters Matt Corman, Chris Ord, and Don Rhymer play it strictly by the book. This is a movie that has obviously studied a lot of recent successful holiday comedies (particularly 1989's National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which seems to have been the inspiration for many of the film's more broader comedic scenes), but does very little to set itself apart from the films it derives itself from. You may find yourself wondering why Fox didn't just go all the way and cast Chevy Chase in the Broderick role, and call it a sequel to the Lampoon holiday farce. Regardless, despite a total lack of originality, the movie is mostly harmless and inoffensive.

Maybe if Deck the Halls knew what it was trying to be, it would have stood out more. While the movie is mainly your standard "discover the meaning of Christmas" family comedy for most of its running time, there are moments when it veers into some questionable territory that makes you wonder if perhaps the screenplay was originally intended for a different audience. There is some mild sexual-related humor, including the fact that Buddy's wife used to be a nude art model, that left me scratching my head. Combine this with Buddy's frequently scantily clad twin daughters, whom Broderick's 10-year old son constantly lusts over. It never becomes overly racy or awkward, but I still found myself wondering if that type of humor belonged in a holiday kid's comedy. The film also seems to try to force its way into some fairly tame dark humor as the war between Steve and Buddy increases. This is quickly forgotten, as the movie immediately goes back into family holiday mode, and sets up a highly sentimental and completely ludicrous conclusion that is about as easy to swallow as having a cactus shoved down your throat. Despite the complete implausibility of the film's final 10 minutes, the movie is at least wise enough to let Kristin Chenoweth do what she does best as she leads the cast in a Christmas song, which allows the movie to leave on somewhat of a right note. That's just the kind of movie Deck the Halls is. For everything it does wrong, it will have something come along that doesn't make you completely forget about its faults, but at least makes you smile a little bit more than you were before.

Much like the movie itself, the cast is perfectly standard, with nothing truly standing out about any of the performances. The closest thing to a true stand out comes from the previously mentioned Chenoweth, and that's mainly because of a scene she has late in the film where she confronts her husband Buddy about his obsession and what it is doing to the family. There is a touching sense of honesty in this brief scene between DeVito and her that perhaps the rest of the movie could have used more of. Nonetheless, Chenoweth is fine throughout the rest of the film, even if the script gives her little to do. In the two lead roles, Matthew Broderick is likeable as always, but we've honestly seen him play this exact same character hundreds of times before. He's once again stuck playing the overly nice, if not somewhat bland, guy. He's good at what he does, but he could honestly play this role in his sleep by now. Danny DeVito doesn't get any real memorable lines in the script, but he's still able to make the character stand out with his unique soft-hearted schlub trying to be a tough guy performance. The rest of the performances are fairly nondescript. The children of both families barely register, and Kristin Davis as Broderick's wife is given little to do but react to everything going on around her. It's too bad she's not given at least one good scene like Chenoweth is.

When all is said and done, I most likely won't remember Deck the Halls by the time Christmas rolls around next year. Heck, I question if I will be thinking about it by the time December 25th rolls around in a couple weeks. And yet, it is a step or two above some of the dreck that usually passes for holiday entertainment simply because it at least manages to let a good laugh or two slip in now and then. That may not be the most glowing of praise, but compared to some of the movies I've forced myself to sit through, it at least comes across as if it's actually trying. It's an effort, and its heart is in the right place, but it's not much more than that.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Let's Go to Prison

There are two kinds of movies that are usually launched around or close to the big holiday weekends - Big budget family fare, and small movies that the studio knows don't stand a snowball's chance in Hell of finding an audience, so they simply dump the film in the middle of a crowded weekend, hoping no one will notice it. Guess which of the two categories Let's Go to Prison falls under? Here is a movie that deserves not to be noticed, as it does not hold a single laugh or bright idea (or any sort of idea, for that matter). Under the direction of veteran TV comic turned filmmaker Bob Odenkirk, Let's Go to Prison is shamelessly devoid of anything remotely resembling entertainment. You can only hope something good came out of this film's production. If it did, it certainly isn't up there on the screen.

Throughout his life, career criminal John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) has been in and out of prison ever since he was 8-years old and tried to carjack the Publisher's Clearing House van. Each time he's gotten in trouble with the law, it's been Judge Biederman (David Darlow) who has sentenced him. Out on the streets once again, John has a plan for revenge by destroying the Judge's life, only to discover that Biederman has passed away. However, a second chance presents itself when Biderman's stuck up son, Nelson Biederman, IV (Will Arnett) is arrested and sentenced to prison after a misunderstanding at a convenience store where Nelson is mistaken for a felon. Hearing this, John gets himself arrested for a drug charge, and goes out of his way to get himself sentenced to the same prison that Nelson is being sent to, and insists on being the disgraced Biederman's cell mate. Under the guise of being Nelson's friend and showing him the ropes of prison life, John plans to get revenge on the Judge by destroying his son's life. Unforeseen circumstances arise when Nelson begins to become accepted by the inmates, and may even get paroled. John will have to pull out all the stops if he wants his revenge scheme to pull through.

In his opening narration monologue, John informs us that if he had a nickel for each time he's been sent to prison, he'd have fifteen cents. I've got him beat. If I had a nickel for each minute this movie wastes during its 85 minute running time, I'd have $42.50. Let's Go to Prison is a series of cliched prison gags that have been told too many times, and often much better. Topics such as inmate-on-inmate "relationships", terrible prison food, and abusive Wardens and prison guards are touched upon. Unfortunately, that's as far as the screenplay decides to go. It touches upon these subjects, but can't think of a thing to do with them. There is a continuing subplot concerning Nelson and his evolving relationship with a velvet-voiced inmate named Barry (Chi McBride), who enjoys making wine in his prison toilet and giving Eskimo Kisses to guys that he likes. This relationship seems to play a big role in the story, especially later on, but absolutely nothing is done with it. We simply get a couple shots of Barry seducing Nelson, or washing Nelson's hair in the shower, and then it cuts to the next scene. A better screenplay could have thought of many more humorous ways to express their relationship, but this movie doesn't have time even for a proper pay off. Another good example is a short scene when Nelson is sent down to solitary confinement and begins to lose his mind. He begins to hallucinate, and once again, the movie completely misses a golden opportunity by having nothing funny actually happen. It simply shows multiple versions of him standing in different corners of the room, or getting a three second visit from a guy dressed in a dog costume, showing that he's supposed to be slipping into insanity. The fact that Nelson is going insane itself is not funny, the humor is supposed to come from an absurd look at that insanity. The film can find none, and so the joke falls flat on its face.

Let's Go to Prison seems at times to want to be a vicious parody of the justice system, and at others to be a raunchy and rude adult comedy. It fails on both accounts. The parody aspects are far too tame and don't go far enough, such as an early scene that pokes fun at the people who usually get Jury Duty. The raunchy comedy aspects are far too repetitive, often hitting the same notes over and over. The comedy is depressingly dreary in just about every aspect, and despite that it's obviously trying, it can't muster more than a slight smile from its audience. Maybe if lead actor Dax Shepard didn't constantly look like he wished he was somewhere else, his jokes would come off better. Not that I don't understand where he's coming from, mind you. With back-to-back stinkers like Employee of the Month and now this, I'd be wanting to be somewhere else too. Either that, or looking up a new Agent. As Nelson, Will Arnett at least looks like he's trying. He's got a certain kind of smarmy smugness that makes him easy to detest. Unfortunately, that aspect of his performance backfires when we're supposed to like him. In fact, the movie seems confused as to whether we're supposed to be siding with John or Nelson. The far too pat and neat ending doesn't help matters either. The film's entire cast is so thinly drawn out that they barely have time to give us any sort of characterization. They're simply prison cliches at the mercy of a screenplay that comes across sometimes as unfinished, and at others as a first draft that somehow accidentally wound up in front of the cameras. There is no source of life or energy to be found here. Even a cast sing-a-long that is played during the film's end credits can't muster forth any fun, and seems more like something that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Much like Date Movie or Material Girls, Let's Go to Prison makes me wonder if just about any comedy script can be purchased by a major studio. These days, a comedy doesn't even need jokes. They just need the right people backing it, and people who are good enough to somehow con usually talented actors into appearing in it. Amateurish in just about every possible way, the film has the look and feel of a straight to DVD project that somehow wound up on the big screen. At least we can take comfort in knowing that its stay in theaters will most likely be mercifully brief. All I know is by the time the movie was over, spending one night in an actual jail cell sounded more appealing than the idea of having to sit through this film again.

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Happy Feet

You would be forgiven for assuming that Happy Feet is just another talking animal movie filled with pop songs and cute dancing penguins. After all, that's the main emphasis the film's ad campaign has been taking. Fortunately for viewers, Happy Feet is about more than just being cute. Like the best family films, the movie does not talk down to children, and knows how to get a little dark without actually frightening kids. It is also charming, witty, and infectiously tuneful. I guess it should be no surprise. After all, the film's director and co-writer is George Miller, who previously brought us 1995's Babe and it's underrated sequel, Babe: Pig in the City. Just like those two films, there is a sense of joyous wonder and intelligence behind the cute talking animals that populate the story. Of the numerous animated films released in 2006, Happy Feet deserves a place alongside such other winners as Over the Hedge, Monster House and Flushed Away.

The story is a fairly simple fable about an outcast Emperor Penguin named Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) who does not know how to sing. This is a bigger problem than one would think, as Mumble lives in a community of penguins where each and every one must find a "heartsong" that not only expresses their inner feelings about themselves, but also is used to attract that special someone who you want to be bound to for life. For Mumble, that special someone is Gloria (Brittany Murphy), who has a beautiful singing voice and is searching for someone to share her heartsong with. Because he cannot sing, the lonely Mumble relies on his feet to do the talking, frequently breaking out into elaborate dance steps to show his happiness and his feelings. No one in the community, not even his loving parents (voiced by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman) understands his dancing, as it's just not natural for a penguin. With fish supplies in the arctic waters running low, the crotchety old Elder of the community (Hugo Weaving) blames Mumble's bizarre behavior for their troubles, and banishes him. Our hero is not alone for long, as he quickly befriends a small group of penguins from another community who are much more open to Mumble's "happy feet". With the help of his new friends, Mumble hopes to discover just what is truly making their fish supply dwindle so severely.

Throughout the film's 108 running time, Happy Feet covers a wide variety of topics and themes. The movie is one part spirited musical-comedy, one part fable about being yourself and finding your place in the world, and one part eco-friendly story meant to open some eyes. Screenwriters George Miller, Warren Coleman, John Collee and Judy Morris juggle these various themes expertly and with style so that the various tones of the story flow naturally into each other, instead of making it feel like the film is awkwardly switching gears. Fortunately, for how serious the story can sometimes get, the film never comes across as being preachy or talking down to its audience. It also never forgets how to have fun, which is one of the great pleasures of this movie. The numerous song and dance numbers are spirited and downright joyous, as the voice actors break into wonderful updated renditions of classic songs by artists that include Prince, Elvis Presley, Queen, The Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra. Like the better animated films, Happy Feet knows how to use these songs to complement the story instead of distracting from it. It certainly helps that the songs actually play a vital role in the story. They're not here simply to sell soundtrack CDs, although I'm sure the film will certainly do just that. Outside of the song and dance numbers, the filmmakers wisely treat their animal stars somewhat realistically. The film is not afraid to show the hardships of the life of a penguin, which will certainly bring to mind last year's surprise hit documentary, March of the Penguins. These moments are brought to life thanks to the vibrant and splendid animation.

Happy Feet is not just the last animated film of 2006, but it is also the best looking one. The animation team have gone above and beyond creating a semi-realistic look for their penguin stars, only having their eyes being able to show a bit more expression than the real thing. Even when they start bursting out into song and dance, the effect does not look awkward or fake. The animators are wise to hold onto the nature of the animals when they are doing things they normally do not so they do not look like tiny humans in penguin costumes. There are a number of scenes where the movie truly shows what great animation can do, the main highlight being a sequence where Mumble and his friends take a lengthy slide down an icy mountain that is just as exciting, if not more so, than some big budget action sequences in live action films. Animation has always had the ability to show the viewer the impossible, and Happy Feet is one of the most expertly animated films I can think of to come along this year. The arctic landscapes are as harsh and unforgiving as the real thing can sometimes be, and no detail has been left untouched. The film's look continues to inspire with its creative and seamless combining of human actors and the CG animals during the film's final 20 minutes or so. The effect is handled with grace, and although the actors never truly interact with the cartoon penguins, it is still able to give the illusion that they are existing in the same place. It is, unfortunately, during these final minutes that the film loses its footing somewhat. While the rest of the story has been given plenty of time to flow out naturally and let us get to know the characters, the film's climax feels far too rushed to truly make the impression that it wants to. It does not hurt the film in the long run, but I still felt there was a lot of untapped potential given everything that had come before it.

An animated film with an all-star voice cast can either be a blessing or a curse. Unless the screenplay and the story can truly make use of the talents that it has attracted, a big name cast is meaningless. (I am reminded of this past summer's The Ant Bully, which completely wasted the talents of Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti in thankless cameo roles that barely had any lines.) Fortunately, Happy Feet gives every voice talent their own individual moment to shine. Elijah Wood is plucky and likeable as the misfit Mumble, making him into a hero that just about anyone can root for. As his love interest, Brittany Murphy doesn't get as much screen time, but she definitely leaves an impression with her beautiful rendition of Queen's "Somebody to Love" during a key scene. As Mumble's parents, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman immediately grab our attention with a lovely duet they share in the film's opening scene, and continue to come across as a couple who truly love each other and their son, despite the many hardships they face during the course of the story. And then there is Robin Williams, whose casting in animated films has almost started to become a cliche. Here, he has a dual role as one of Mumble's friends, and as a penguin "guru" who is believed to be able to talk to mystic spirits. This is the first time since 1992's Aladdin that Williams' special blend of comedy has been used so well in an animated film. He's not simply a comic relief sidekick, but he is able to create some genuinely likeable performances.

Above all else, Happy Feet proves that you can create a winning and charming animated film without relying heavily on past successful formulas. Here is a film that is able to rise above your usual "talking animal" movie, and become so much more. It is a movie with a story and a purpose, and one that is certain to be embraced and remembered by both kids and adults for years to come. It certainly doesn't matter that the film falls apart somewhat during its final moments, as even at its worst, Happy Feet is light years better than the uninspired mediocrity that has made up most of this year's animated line up. Animation has the power to transport us to other worlds and show us things we've never seen. This movie uses that power and uses it very well.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale

When you stop and think about it, re-inventing the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale is somewhat of a gutsy move. Unlike other recently revitalized series such as Superman or Batman, the films featuring the British super spy have still been financially reliable, with 2002's Die Another Day being one of the more successful films in the franchise to date. Having never been a huge Bond fan, I was interested in the new direction that the film would take the character. What I found is mostly a change for the better. Everything that fans have come to expect is still there, but it's treated with a bit more integrity. There's no mad supervillain with an outrageous scheme for global domination, and there are no over the top spy gadgets to be found. What Casino Royale does have is one of the best portrayals of the legendary film character I've seen in years.

Based on the very first book in the Bond series by Ian Fleming, the film follows the spy's early days shortly after becoming a 00-Agent. This time, James Bond is portrayed by Daniel Craig (Munich), who plays the character as a charming, yet ruthless and cunning, secret agent/assassin. The plot revolves around a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who uses his vast fortune to help fund terrorist plots. Le Chiffre loses a lot of money when a bombing plot goes wrong, and decides to enter a high stakes gambling competition at a hotel in Montenegro. Naturally, Bond is sent in as a fellow player in the competition, hoping he can prevent the villain from walking away with the money Le Chiffre needs to pay off some very angry terrorist debt collectors. At James' side, as always, is a beautiful woman. This time, it's a woman named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green from Kingdom of Heaven) who has been sent along on the mission to pose as Bond's wife during the game, and assist him in his mission.

In giving the franchise a completely fresh start, director Martin Campbell (who directed the 1995 Bond entry, GoldenEye) has not only ditched the gadget-heavy action sequences and the comic book-style plots, but he has also removed many of the regular returning characters. Aside from the head of spy agency who goes by the name of M (once again played by Judi Dench), other regulars such as Miss Moneypenny and Q are nowhere to be found. This may be a tough hurdle for die hard fans to jump over, but once they move past that, I think they will find that this is one of the strongest entries in the series to come along in quite a long time. From Craig's portrayal of the legendary character, to the thrilling action sequences, Casino Royale never fails to impress. Indeed, the absence of Q and his gadgets is almost an advantage for the film's action-heavy scenes, as it allows them to be a lot more brutal and thrilling than Bond has ever been. There is an extended action sequence early in the movie that starts on the streets of a city in the Madagascar region, carries onto a construction site, and ends up in a local embassy that has to be seen to be believed. This sequence is filled with so many thrilling leaps and daring stunt work that it's good enough to be a final action sequence in a different action movie. And yet, this is Casino Royale's first. And if you are worried that the filmmakers are blowing their entire budget early in the movie with this jaw-dropping chase, don't be. There's plenty more to come down the line. These sequences alone are worth the price of admission of seeing this film on the big screen, and are likely not to be forgotten anytime soon. As a viewer who cringes every time I see an actor replaced by an obviously computer animated figure during difficult or dangerous stunts, it's a wonderful change of pace to see real stunt work that truly impresses.

Of course, the big question revolving around this film's release is Craig's portrayal of the legendary secret agent. Some fans have voiced their extreme displeasure ever since it was announced he'd be assuming the role after former Bond, Pierce Brosnan, who played the character in the past four films. All those naysayers would be wise to insert their feet directly into their mouth, as Daniel Craig delivers in just about every category. Perhaps the most solid portrayal since Sean Connery held the role, Craig comes across as a convincing killer and a very dangerous man who you do not want to mess with. It's not just his piercing blue-eyed gaze that intimidates, it's the way he carries himself and presents himself as being so sure and confident. Yes, he lacks the playfulness of some past Bonds, but he has plenty of films to grow into that part of his character. He is evenly matched by Eva Green, who plays the first woman to ever truly steal his heart during an assignment. She is important to the film, not only due to the fact that she is every bit his equal, able to resist his charms with some harsh sarcasm, but in explaining a lot about the nature of Bond himself in later films. As the villain, Mads Mikkelsen may not be quite as memorable as some past antagonists, but that doesn't mean he leaves no impression whatsoever. His ruthlessness is plain to see simply in the way he gazes at Bond from across the gambling table, trying to read his opponent's next move. Of the supporting cast, only Judi Dench as M comes across as anyone worthy of remembering. Her dry wit and constant frustration with Bond provides for an interesting relationship and some much needed humor from time to time.

For everything it has going for it, Casino Royale is by no means perfect. After a highly energized and exciting first hour, the excitement level dips quite a bit during the middle portion that focuses mainly on a high stakes Poker game. While the film never becomes boring, the game sequences obviously cannot bring up the same level of interest as the first half can. Besides Bond, most of the characters that surround him are mostly underdeveloped and nowhere near as compelling. However, I guess characterizations have never been the emphasis of past Bond films, so I suppose I should not be surprised at all. With a running time of two and a half hours, the film does grow close to testing your patience, especially since the film seems to have two endings. After the villain was dead and the problem had been resolved, I began to reach for my coat, expecting the end credits to roll, only to have the film continue on for another 20 minutes. Everything that comes after this point is important to the character of Bond, so I was not annoyed too much. There's really very little to truly complain about, and I'm sure fans of the franchise will be thrilled by every minute. For non-fans such as myself, you will most likely still enjoy it, but find some parts a bit slower than you would like.

When all is said and done, however, Casino Royale is Bond done right, and is a great start to what will hopefully be a grand new direction for the series, complete with sequels that follow down the same path and tone. I look forward to seeing Daniel Craig advancing his portrayal of Bond in further films, and hope that he will be with the series long enough to truly reach his full potential. From the stylized and memorable animated opening credits sequence, to the numerous first rate action scenes, this film at least proves that the creative minds behind it still know how to treat the character with respect. Considering that the entries in the series have now reached the lower-20 range in terms of sequels, this is quite an impressive feat. As long as the upcoming films are as good as Casino Royale, they can make as many as they want.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Return

You would think by now that Sarah Michelle Gellar would be tired of monsters, ghouls, madmen and spirits. After rising to fame playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV, she's mainly stuck to thrillers on the big screen such as The Grudge films and I Know What You Did Last Summer. If there is one movie that could scare any actress away from the horror genre, it's most likely The Return. This sleepy-eyed and strangely leisurely thriller offers no thrills to speak of and very little chills to go along with them. At the same time, the movie is not deep or intelligent enough to be classified as psychological horror. British filmmaker Asif Kapadia and relative newcomer screenwriter Adam Sussman throw every horror trick in the book, from loud noises on the soundtrack to characters popping up from out of frame. Unfortunately, instead of creating suspense, these moments simply jolt us awake from the boredom of the movie itself.

Ever since she was a child, traveling sales rep Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been haunted by visions she cannot explain of a mysterious long-haired man hunting her down. Because of her troubled past, Joanna is constantly on the move and refuses to be close with anyone. When she returns to her home state of Texas in order to work out a deal with a client, these visions become stronger than ever before, and she finds herself drawn to the small and dusty town of La Salle. Even though she has never been in the town, she recognizes many of the places from her dreams, especially a local bar that seems to play a big part in her vision. It is there that she meets a somewhat shady yet harmless man named Terry Stahl (Peter O'Brien) who seems to have some sort of connection to these strange occurrences. Who is the mysterious stranger that relentlessly stalks her? How does the car accident that Joanna and her father (Sam Shepard) were involved in years ago fit into the puzzle? Will you honestly care when the answers are finally revealed?

The Return's 80 minute running time, combined with the fact that it has been shuffled through numerous release dates throughout this year alone, are tell-tale signs that this movie has made one too many trips to the editing room in a hopeless attempt to try to make the film more marketable to a wide audience. The film is being advertised as a supernatural thriller, and while there are some ghostly happenings here and there, The Return is mainly a slow-paced character driven nightmare rather than the all-out spookfest that one would expect. Normally, I would open this approach with open arms, but the characters and the story itself are way too shallow and underwritten to warrant the more leisurely approach. The paper thin characters of the plot are either non-existent, or they simply come and go as the screenplay sees fit. A good example is a rival at Joanna's company who seems to be jealous of her, and so he follows her all the way to Texas just so that he can harass her at a bar, and somehow follow her back to her hotel room without her noticing and attack her. As soon as this attack scene is finished, he never appears again, nor is ever even brought up. The film is simply filled with too many unnecessary characters, and the characters it does decide to focus on are just not very interesting. We learn very little about Joanna herself, other than that she is haunted by strange nightmares, and her mysterious potential love interest Terry Stahl is just not compelling enough. It's almost like these characters don't know they're supposed to be in a thriller. They're too laid back, and don't seem quite as anxious as they should be in a situation where they are haunted by visions of psychotic madmen and their own pasts.

Oddly enough, the movie itself seems to forget that it's supposed to be a thriller for long periods of time. The movie seems to be in no rush in explaining itself, and many of its mysterious are left unsolved by the time the end credits start to roll. Instead of actually trying to scare us, the movie decides to cheat and have sudden noises blast at high volumes. Radios and record players suddenly turn on by themselves seemingly at random, people come popping out of dark shadows when it should have been painfully obvious to the person being stalked that their pursuer was there the whole time, ghostly figures suddenly pop up in the back seat...These kind of tricks may be effective the first or second time, but when you keep on doing it, it starts to grate on your nerves. Of course, if The Return didn't even have these moments, I don't think you could even call it a horror film. The movie itself develops no sense of terror or tension whatsoever, so it decides to cheat. I'm not sure whether to blame the lack of suspense on screenwriter Adam Sussman, or on the massive amount of time this movie obviously spent in the editing room. The potential for thrills is certainly there in its premise and in its atmospheric small town Texas setting, but it wastes every single opportunity left and right. The end result is a horror film that will find you fighting to hold back your yawns rather than your screams.

The overly leisurely tone of the movie itself seems to carry through into the performances. Sarah Michelle Gellar merely sleepwalks through her thankless role as the tortured Joanna, and doesn't get to create or display a single shred of personality in her performance. She simply is forced to stand around looking tortured and weary, though whether it's the fact that she's being hunted by a madman or if she realizes the stinker that she's stuck in is unclear. Peter O'Brien as the male lead is much the same. His character is supposed to be an isolated and shady man with a checkered past, but we learn very little if anything about him, or about why he's so hated in the town that people literally spit on him as he walks by. The movie doesn't dig deep enough, and therefore, the characters simply come across as being as natural as wooden cardboard cutouts. The film's sole credit is that it certainly knows how to create atmosphere with some potentially spooky locations and abandoned buildings. But all the atmosphere in the world is worth nothing if you just let it go to waste on pointless scenes that fail to raise the slightest bit of tension. Even the ending when some of the answers are revealed is strangely empty instead of fulfilling. Maybe it's because it's built around a character who was introduced literally just two minutes before the climax starts. Because we know nothing about this character, we feel nothing when his role in the story is revealed.

The Return is a textbook example of a movie that's been put under the editing knife one too many times in order to salvage what the studio instantly recognized as being an instant flop. It's barely coherent, doesn't seem to have a single thought in its head, and is far too sloppy in its storytelling to make it come across as being worth your time. It's not unwatchable, but there's just no reason for anyone to see it because it doesn't do anything well. The Return is strictly mediocre and subpar in just about every aspect, and with theater space being limited, there's no room for mediocre and subpar. If this doesn't move Mrs. Gellar away from the horror genre, at least it will hopefully inform her that she should be a bit choosier in picking her projects.

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A Good Year

There are certain genres that some directors are known for. One genre that filmmaker Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator) is not known for is romantic comedy. If you need any proof of why this is, or why he should never set foot near a romantic comedy again, go see A Good Year. Or better yet, don't see it. While I have no problem with a director exploring film genres outside of his known field, here Ridley Scott seems lost in an aimless screenplay that instead of actually being clever or funny relies on simply being cute. Cuteness can only take a film so far, and since that is all A Good Year has to offer, it quickly collapses underneath its overlong two hour running time.

The film tells the story of Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), a cut-throat workaholic stock trader in London. Max is the kind of guy who cares little about anything except himself and making money. When he receives a letter that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has passed away and left Max his wine vineyard in France, he is forced to take his first vacation from his job in years in order to travel to the vineyard where he spent a good part of his childhood with his Uncle. When he arrives, Max plans to instantly turn around and sell the land he has inherited, but as he explores the area, he remembers the great times he used to enjoy on the property as a child, which we witness in numerous flashbacks. And when Max meets up with a lovely young waitress at a local restaurant named Fanny Chenal (Marion Contillard), it becomes harder to think of leaving and returning home to London. Another problem arises, as to whether Max should legally take ownership of the vineyard, when an American woman named Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish) shows up at the door, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of Uncle Henry.

I have no doubt that there is material in A Good Year that could make a charming movie, but this film handles it all wrong. For one, there is very little if any plot to speak of. There is no tension created between characters, nothing that can get us involved with the plot, and no real reason given as to why we should care about who gets the vineyard, or if Max will return to his old life as a bitter jerk who only cares about money. The characters are hopelessly shallow and about as deep as a puddle. The movie tries to show us the relationship between Uncle Henry and young Max Skinner (played as a boy by Freddie Highmore from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) through the use of various flashbacks placed throughout the film. However, these flashbacks are so brief and offer such little information on the characters themselves, we're left wondering why the screenplay by Marc Klein (Serendipity) even bothered to include them. We never get a true sense as to why the two characters were so close in the past, or why Henry would leave Max everything. The relationship between Max and lovely French woman Fanny Chenal is equally underdeveloped, which is odd, since she's supposed to be one of the driving forces behind Max's dilemma of whether he should return to London or stay in France. Like most couples in romantic comedies, they start off hating each other. The first time they meet, he almost runs her over with his car and doesn't even realize it, since he was so wrapped up in his cell phone conversation. She gets back at him by almost drowning him in the pool the next time they meet. After these two senseless acts of near-murder, Max decides to help her out at her restaurant job for reasons that are left somewhat unexplained by the script. Yes, I understand he wants to apologize to her for almost killing her and not realizing it, but they seem to forgive each other for their acts way too quickly, and there seems to be no reason for them to fall in love with each other except for the fact that the audience expects it. Judging by how their relationship started with both of them almost killing each other, I don't think I'd want to see what would happen should the couple decide to separate.

Aside from the main characters who drive the story, the rest of the cast are a collection of overly cute eccentrics who exist simply for cheap gags. There's the seemingly-grumpy vineyard worker with a heart of gold, there's a crazy old man who falls asleep while doing his chores around the vineyard, there's even a cute little dog who naturally gets to take a leak on Max's shoe in one scene. There seems to be no limit to what Ridley Scott will go for a laugh. Whether it be dated slapstick gags (Max is standing on a diving board over an empty pool, and the board naturally breaks), or awkward scenes where the film is sped up in order to inspire laughter from the audience (Max is driving around France lost, and the film speeds up briefly while he is driving around in circles, making it look like an outtake from The Benny Hill Show), A Good Year is willing to go to great lengths in order to be a crowd pleaser. The only problem is that the film is very seldom if ever funny. The sarcastic one liners from Max fall flat each and every time, and the overly cute side characters seem to be trying too hard. In the end, all the film has to rely on is its beautifully shot landscape shots of the French countryside. The fact that I watched Marie Antoinette (another hopelessly shallow film that only had its beautifully shot French scenery to its credit) the same day as A Good Year made me think I had just spent the entire day at the theater watching video brochures for France. Actually, I think both films would have been more entertaining if they were just two hours of the scenery instead of trying to get me involved with plots that neither movies obviously cared about.

Much like filmmaker Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe is not exactly known for his comedic work. And much like Scott, Crowe doesn't seem to have the knack for it. He comes across as being too cold and cynical, like he knows how ludicrous the movie is. Even when his character is supposed to have a change of heart during the later half of the story, he still seems like he hasn't changed all that much. Crowe is simply forced to spend most of his screen time mugging for the camera, and letting the cute and "wacky" side characters get all the laughs. His relationship with female lead Marion Contillard is strained and forced, as they have no real chemistry together. Then again, with how underwritten their characters' relationship is, it would take a miracle for any acting couple to breathe life into it. As the secondary female lead, Abbie Cornish probably comes across as the strongest performance in the film. She at least seems to be giving a somewhat heartfelt performance, rather than just simply being cute or trying too hard to be funny. Even so, her character is too underdeveloped to make much of a lasting impression, and there is simply no genuine tension between her character and Max, when there obviously should be. Everyone else in the cast is not even worth noting or commenting on, as they either appear too sporadically in the story to matter, or they simply fail to create any sort of spark in their performance.

A Good Year tries to force us to like unlikeable or uninteresting people. That obviously will not work. In a romantic comedy, we have to grow to like the characters, or want to see the main characters come together in the end. When you try to force these feelings upon your audience, you wind up with a hopelessly miscalculated final product. And that's exactly what this movie is. The pieces are there for a passable or even a great date movie, but the film is too emotionally frigid and tries too hard to get the reaction that it wants. As for Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm all for filmmakers and actors stretching past their known fields into other genres. All I ask is that they actually read the script first before they sign on.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Were it a crime to create a frightfully dull biopic, and if the sentence for that crime included a march to the guillotine, writer-director Sofia Copolla (Lost in Translation) would most certainly find herself in a dire situation. Her new film, Marie Antoinette, attempts to tell the rise and fall of the famous French Queen. What should be an involving and compelling drama instead comes across as dreadfully boring and a complete and total misfire. The film's nice to look at to be sure, but there's absolutely nothing underneath, thanks mainly to a meandering script that never goes anywhere or allows us to get close to anyone. With absolutely nothing to offer besides a novelty soundtrack that quickly wears out its novelty, Marie Antoinette is one of the biggest miscalculated disasters to hit the big screen so far this year.

The film begins when Marie (portrayed in this film by Kirsten Dunst) is sent away from her home in Austria, as well as her family and her friends, in order to marry to future King of France, Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman). It is not a marriage out of love or consent, rather they have been arranged to marry by Louis' father, the current King (Rip Torn), to produce a new heir to carry on the family throne. The relationship is rocky from the very start, as Marie's husband seems more interested in his hobbies of making keys and hunting than in her. When it comes time for Marie to assume the throne as Queen, she becomes notorious for her wild partying, gambling and her unorthodox views on ruling. Although she is able to fulfill the family's desire for an heir, Marie finds herself in the center of a revolution as the people of France begin to grow weary of the lack of money and food left for them. With her country's faith in the royal family dwindling, she must find a way to protect herself and her family before the growing rebellion reaches the palace gates.

Never before has a movie so aimless and frustratingly lethargic hit the big screen until Marie Antoinette. With many scenes containing no dialogue at all, or simply whispered murmurs, it does not take very long for the viewer to realize that there is very little to entice or excite. Yes, the scenery is beautiful, and yes the sets and costumes are grand, but it's all show and absolutely no go whatsoever. There is no real tension that's ever established until the final 15 minutes or so, so we're simply forced to watch the actors walk around in powdered wigs and the beautiful scenery. This may be enough for some, or for those who are highly interested in the story of the famous Queen, but for anyone with little to no knowledge of her life, they will be left wondering why Copolla felt this particular take on her story needed to be on the big screen. In fact, I question if those interested in Antoinette will be satisfied with this film offering, as it glosses over many of the more famous aspects of the story. The fact that the movie does not even bother to depict her walk to the guillotine is not only mystifying, but makes the story feel incomplete. Indeed, the way the movie ends, it looks like the production budget suddenly ran out, and they suddenly had to stop filming. At least, that's what I'm assuming considering how abrupt the end credits are when there seems there should be just a little bit more. Not that I wanted there to be more, mind you. Two hours of actors meandering around pretty scenery was more than enough for me.

Much has been made of the fact that Sofia Copolla decided to use a number of pop songs from the 80s for the film's soundtrack. Some people have applauded the decision, while others have been up in arms, saying that it cheapens the experience of the film. I fall somewhere in the middle. On one hand, the pop soundtrack is one of the few aspects of this film that is actually fun and shows a sign of life. And yet, the songs are placed so sporadically and far apart from each other that the soundtrack almost seems to be an afterthought and winds up being one of the more forgettable aspects of an already forgettable film. After a short tune played during the film's opening credit sequence, it's a good 35 or 40 minutes until we get the next one where we get a scene set to the song "I Want Candy". While the idea of setting a classic story to more modern music is clever, Copolla does not know how to use the songs in such a way so that they complement the scene. They are used so rarely that when they do appear, it seems foreign and alien. Films like A Knight's Tale or Moulin Rouge were able to use contemporary music in a historical setting with much more energy and wit. In those films, the music felt like it was a part of the story. Here, it is usually a distraction, but at least it's a distraction that wakes us up now and then.

It's not just the music that is contemporary, but the performances as well. Marie Antoinette and her group of friends are played up almost as spoiled socialites who like to party a bit too much and have more fun than they should. The film does nothing with this idea, however, and they simply giggle and titter their way through every scene, not coming anywhere close to creating a character that the audience or the actors themselves can attach themselves to. Oddly enough, no one in this movie even attempts to speak in a French accent. Kirsten Dunst reads all of her lines like she's talking casually at a party with friends, Jason Schwartzman as her husband is too dry and dull to warrant any sort of response (Yes, I know his character is supposed to be a bit dry, but he plays it a bit too much so that we cannot sympathize with him at all.), and Rip Torn is one of the most miscast Kings since Tom Selleck played King Ferdinand of Spain in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. The rest of the cast simply stand in the background, dressed in authentic costumes, and whisper about the character of Marie Antoinette. Not one single character or performance in this film is even remotely believable, and what's more, some of the cast members seem to be wondering what they're supposed to be doing. Maybe Copolla didn't explain her "vision" to them. I sure wish she'd explain it to me, maybe then I could make some sense out of this mess.

When Lost in Translation came out a couple years ago, Sofia Copolla was heaped with awards and praise for the film. While I thought it was somewhat overrated, I was still able to find some enjoyment in the story and the characters. There is nothing to like in Marie Antoinette, aside from some very nicely filmed scenic shots. The movie is about as animated as a corpse from almost frame one, holds not the slightest bit of joy or inspiration. It is simply a case of a director with a runaway project idea with a budget. It seems as if Copolla lost control somewhere. Either that, or she didn't have a clear plan or vision to start with. Whatever the reason, Marie Antoinette deserves the reaction it received at the Cannes Film Festival where it was literally booed by its audience after it was finished. I merely had to settle for shuffling silently out of the theater as soon as the credits began to roll to show my displeasure. Well, that, and writing this review.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

I go to see movies for a wide variety of reasons. Stranger Than Fiction holds a great number of them. Here is one of the most satisfying and complete movies to come along in 2006. The film is endlessly entertaining, highly original, and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. For once we have a movie that never once compromises, nor does it falter in dealing with its wonderful premise. I become increasingly excited whenever I realize I love a movie, and with Stranger Than Fiction, I began to feel the tiny hint of excitement mere minutes into the film, and they only built from there. Best of all, that feeling never faded because I felt the film made a grave misstep or a wrong move. Director Mark Forster (Stay, Finding Neverland) and first-time screenwriter Zach Helm never miss a beat as they unravel this completely fascinating fantasy that holds more wonderful ideas than any one movie I have seen since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Complex, yet completely accessible, Fiction is hands down one of the great films of the year.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an isolated and lonely man who seems to have come to accept the fact that everyone in the world hates him. After all, he has one of the most despised jobs in the world - that of an IRS auditor. He leads a very ordinary, routine and calculated life where he counts everything, from the number of steps it takes to get to his bus stop to get to work, right down to the number of brush strokes he takes when he is brushing his teeth in the morning. Harold's mundane existence becomes much less so when he begins to hear the voice of a woman from somewhere, narrating the events of his life as he lives them. The voice does not seem to know Harold personally, yet somehow seems to know everything about him - even that Harold is going to die sometime soon. The owner of this voice is Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a reclusive and chain-smoking author who is currently trying to figure out the ending of her latest novel, "Death and Taxes", about a lonely IRS auditor named Harold Crick, and the events that lead to his demise. Somehow, Harold's existence and the book that Kay is writing have intertwined, and he has an unknown amount of time to live before this writer seals his fate. With the help of a literature professor at a local college (Dustin Hoffman), Harold will attempt to track this woman down, and in the process, learn a lot about himself and his life.

To reveal much more about the premise of Stranger Than Fiction would be criminal, so I will stop there. This is a movie best experienced with as little knowledge as possible, so that you can fully enjoy the way that the screenplay by Zach Helm fits all the pieces together, and how it juggles laughter, heartfelt sentiment, and genuine emotion that never once feels forced or manipulated. This movie is a wonder, from its ingeniously clever premise right down to the wonderful characters and their relationships. Harold Crick himself is one of the best examples of an everyman character that I've seen in a movie in a while. From his early moments as a reclusive man who lives solely by his routine and his wristwatch, to the man he ultimately becomes thanks to his bizarre experiences that drive the plot, he is completely likeable, and most of all, believable. This is one of those movies where you might see a little bit of yourself in either the main character, or one of the ones that surround him. You might smile in recognition, or you might think about yourself in a way you hadn't before. Movies have that kind of power, but so rarely use it. That's why you have to embrace movies like this when they come along. There are many scenes or lines of dialogue that are clever, but not so much so that they come across as being overly so and drag you out of the spell that the movie casts upon its audience. You are enraptured, listening to the dialogue, embracing the performances, and just loving every minute of it.

Sometimes when a movie is built around an original yet implausible premise, it gets too bogged down in explaining itself, or it just doesn't explain itself well enough in order to leave the viewer satisfied. The later is something that happened in Forster's last film, Stay. It was an intriguing puzzle of a movie, but one that I felt almost needed a director's commentary playing over it just so you could figure out exactly what he was trying to say with his story. While Fiction does not even attempt to explain its own key mystery, it does not once feel like a cheat or leave the viewer feeling confused or unfulfilled. The story is told in such a way so that we can believe that the impossible is happening in a way that is probably too great or complex to understand. Why it is happening is not what's important anyway. Rather the movie wisely decides to focus on what is happening, and how the main character deals with this almost miraculous turn of events that changes his life, and the lives of those around him. Look at the way Dustin Hoffman's character is slowly drawn into the story, becoming a bigger player than his early scenes would lead us to believe. Or look at the wonderful relationship that develops between Harold Crick and a feisty baker (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who refuses to pay half of her taxes. Rather than over-explaining itself, the movie decides to take us on a journey with these people, and spends time developing them as real people. By focusing on the characters, the movie is able to bring us a number of wonderful scenes, and even make some scenes that seem small (such as a sequence where Harold is looking for a guitar that suits his personality) stand out much more.

The wonderful storytelling featured throughout is aided by a cast that is more than willing to rise up to its challenges. Much like the film itself, the performances do not take a single wrong step. As Harold Crick, Will Ferrell has been given a golden opportunity to play a complex and emotional character, and he tackles the role expertly, demanding our attention the second he walks onto the screen. Ferrell has largely been hit and miss with me in a lot of his past performances, but here, he gets to give a performance that shows a side of him we rarely see. He is subdued and holding back, but still extremely personable. I think this is one of the best "serious" performances I have seen from a comic actor since Robin Williams first proved he could do dramatic work back in the 80s, and I honestly would not be surprised to see Ferrell's name mentioned come Award time. It should also be noted that the relationship he builds with Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is genuinely winning in its sweetness and honesty. Both actors have amazing chemistry together, and are able to make each dialogue exchange stand out. Dustin Hoffman has a small but important role as Crick's main ally in his search for finding the source of the voice he keeps on hearing, and is able to pull off the role splendidly, especially during some scenes late in the film where his character must make a difficult decision. Emma Thompson is wonderfully dry and somewhat dark as the author in control of Crick's fate, though she doesn't realize it. Her obsession with death as she tries to think of a proper way to kill off her main character at the end of the story comes across as a bizarre fascination, rather than being morbid, and delivers some of the biggest laughs in the film. The only performance that fails to leave a strong impression is given by Queen Latifah as Thompson's assistant, and it's not because she doesn't try as hard as the others. There's just less to her character than everyone else, and has less to work with.

This small complaint aside, I haven't walked out of a movie this satisfied since seeing United 93 back in April. Stranger Than Fiction knows how to hit every right note, and is a remarkable first effort for novice screenwriter Zach Helm. Variety has labeled him as being one of "10 Writers to Watch", and I personally couldn't agree more. I can't wait to see what he does next. This is a remarkable and wonderful film, and one that deserves to find an audience. It certainly caught me off guard. I walked in expecting a quirky and inventive comedy, and wound up getting that and much more. Stranger Than Fiction may not change the world, but it may make you stop and think, and possibly look at yourself a little differently.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause

2002's The Santa Clause 2 may have been an unnecessary sequel, but at least it had a bit more heart to it than expected thanks to a likeable romantic subplot that carried throughout it. That being said, I don't think anyone was begging Disney for a third installment. Regardless, we got one, and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause is quite possibly the most soulless and forced sequel I've seen in a while. Completely lacking the charm and warmth of earlier installments, this Clause is an unfunny and obnoxious Yuletide romp as two comic actors are forced to wade through pathetic material that could never possibly be funny, no matter how much they try to ham it up. Completely bankrupt in terms of humor and imagination, with any luck, this stinky little lump of cinematic coal won't be in theaters for long.

As the holiday season rapidly approaches, the pressures are building for Scott Calvin/Santa (Tim Allen). Aside from making sure all the toys are ready in time for Christmas, his wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) is pregnant and due to deliver any day. Carol is starting to get homesick living in the North Pole and misses her family, so Scott concocts a plan to invite her parents (played by Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret respectively) up to visit them. But with toy production taking up so much of his time, Scott barely has time to spend with his visiting family, and is starting to distance himself from the ones he loves. Even worse, the scheming Jack Frost (Martin Short) is making plans of his own in order to take over Scott's position as Santa. It seems that Jack is tired of all the attention going to Santa, and he wants in on the glory by not only taking over the Santa role, but by also converting the workshop into a glitzy and tacky tourist attraction where parents can pay to put their kids' names on the "Nice" list. Time is running out for Scott to not only fix things with his family, but to also save Christmas itself.

The Santa Clause 3 is as cold and crass as any holiday film could be, and that includes Tim Allen's last Christmas comedy, the terrible Christmas With the Kranks. Even though the movie's plot has some workable elements such as time travel and a It's a Wonderful Life-style alternate reality where Jack Frost is Santa, and Scott Calvin finds himself a tyrannical business man shut off from his family, it does absolutely nothing with its own ideas. These scenes could have led to some actual heartfelt sentiment, but instead the filmmakers breeze right over this and give us a terrible musical number where Martin Short embarrasses himself. The last two films at least took some time out away from the chaotic and childish world of the North Pole, and gave us a reason to care about the characters. Here, the overly cute elves and the farting reindeer take center stage, along with the very obnoxious Jack Frost. This is a complete and total miscalculation on the part of screenwriters Ed Decter and John J Strauss (There's Something About Mary). It's funny how the plot revolves so much around family, yet family plays such a small part in the actual plot itself. This is simply an excuse to squeeze out more money from the franchise, and it shows in just about every worthless frame of film. The screenplay also wastes some comic potential with Scott trying to pass the North Pole off as Canada. (He doesn't want Carol's parents to know that he's actually Santa Claus.) What could have led to some clever laughs is simply tossed aside and almost forgotten about for most of the 90-minute running time.

A lot of the aspects that worked in previous films have returned, but this time, they come across as cold and distant since the film cares so little about them. The charmingly retro design of the North Pole and the special effects, which have always been heavily inspired by the old Christmas specials that play on TV every year, now come across as chintzy and tacky. The Council of Legendary Figures, which include such icons as Mother Nature, the Easter Bunny and The Sandman, are now restricted to a mere cameo. It's a shame, because the idea is holiday and mythical icons working together is a clever idea, and the movie is too creatively bankrupt to even care. Also restricted to cameos are Scott's old family from before he became Santa, who are here simply to cash a paycheck, and may as well have just sat this one out instead of having this movie on their individual resumes. Everyone seems lost and adrift, almost as if they were just going through the motions. All good holiday films need a life and spark to them to make them click with audiences. The Santa Clause 3 comes across as being about as natural as those fake Christmas trees that are put up in department stores as early as October.

You can tell that no one cared about this particular project almost from the beginning. The original actors have all returned, but bring none of their enthusiasm with them. Tim Allen seems to be trying, but not as hard as he used to. He doesn't even really seem to be enjoying himself, and that's almost a crime when you're supposed to be playing Santa Claus. Martin Short hams it up as much as he can in his evil role and seems to be having a lot of fun, but unfortunately, none of that fun carries through into the film itself. He actually comes across as more creepy and unlikeable than the funny and over the top villain that the filmmakers intended. Returning co-stars Elizabeth Mitchell, Eric Lloyd, Wendy Crewson and Judge Reinhold are all given very little to do and simply fade into the background. In fact, the only performances that come close to standing out are Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret as Carol's visiting parents. Though they never actually made me laugh, they made me smile a couple times, which is more than anyone else in this movie was able to pull off. Besides that, the only other performance that comes to mind is delivered by child actor Spencer Breslin as Santa's head elf, and that's only because he delivers most of his lines with an annoying lisp.

The Santa Clause and its first sequel certainly weren't classics, but they at least had some things working for them, and that's a lot more than I can say for this installment. The Santa Clause 3 smells of rush job in just about every way. It does absolutely nothing to advance the story and the characters, and it only exists because the last one became a surprise hit four years ago. With the far more imaginative and witty Flushed Away opening the same weekend, there's simply no excuse to take your kids to see this junk. Heck, the children in my audience seemed just as bored as their accompanying adults. It always amazes me when a movie with so little to offer anyone comes along, because it makes me wonder why anyone even bothered in the first place. The best gift we could give the Disney Studio concerning The Santa Clause 3 is to save our money, and let them know that we won't settle for bottom of the barrel family entertainment like this. But, I guess keeping kids away from this movie would take a real Christmas miracle.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Flushed Away

As the slew of animated films released through 2006 finally starts to wind down (November 17th's Happy Feet is the last cartoon we're getting this year), it's at least nice enough that the genre has a chance of going out on a high note. After such uninspiring and derivative films like Open Season and The Ant Bully, Flushed Away comes across as a breath of fresh air for animation fans. Inventive, often very funny and downright joyous, this movie has an insane kinetic energy and life to it that really makes it stand out from its competition. Here is a cartoon smart enough that adults can enjoy it on a different level than kids. With so many animated films this year playing strictly to the younger set, that's something that simply cannot be ignored.

The story centers on a snobby pet rat named Roddy (voice by Hugh Jackman), who enjoys a life of wealth and privilege in his upper class London home. When Roddy's human owners leave for vacation, he sneaks out of his golden cage, and prepares to enjoy having the run of the entire house while they're gone. His joy does not last long when a mangy sewer rat named Sid (Shane Richie) arrives via the kitchen sink after being shot up through the pipes. Sid immediately makes himself at home, and when Roddy tries to get rid of the unwelcome visitor by flushing Sid down the toilet (he tells him it's a Jacuzzi), his plan backfires, and he himself winds up getting flushed down to the sewers below. Now lost in a strange subterranean city that exists beneath the streets of London, Roddy has no choice but to befriend a tomboyish and tough talking rat who has access to a boat named Rita (Kate Winslet) if he ever wants to see his posh home again. Unfortunately, Rita has problems of her own, as she has been targeted by an evil Toad (Ian McKellan) and his crew of rat henchmen and kung-fu French frogs. During his many adventures, Roddy will learn the value of friendship, and to trust others.

Produced by Aardman animation studios (whose previous films include Chicken Run, and last year's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), Flushed Away is a major departure for the studio in that the film is completely animated with computers, rather than the stop motion clay figures that were used in earlier efforts. Fans of Aardman's past works need not fear, as despite the change in technology, the film manages to perfectly capture the look and feel that the studio is known for. The characters have been designed in the trademark visual style of oversized teeth and goofy yet expressful round eyes that is instantly recognizable. Those expecting another Wallace and Gromit may be somewhat disappointed, however. This movie is much more fast paced, action-heavy, filled with some clever pop culture gags (There's a very funny nod to Hugh Jackman's role as Wolverine in the X-Men films very early in the movie.), and also contains a pop soundtrack with tunes by artists like Billy Idol and Tom Jones. The thing that separates Flushed Away from inferior films that relied on the same methods is that directors David Bowers and Sam Fell know how to use these aspects without making them annoying. For once, the pop culture references are actually funny and clever, and the song selections are well chosen and add to the action instead of becoming a distraction. The way that many of the songs are fit into the movie (mostly provided by a chorus of singing slugs who keep on popping up) is clever and guaranteed to make both kids and adults burst out laughing with each appearance.

Best of all, the dialogue in Flushed Away is quite frequently funny and clever. (Always a big plus when it comes to comedy, I say.) The jokes are fast-paced and come flying sometimes one after another that the film may require more than one viewing in order to catch them all. There's plenty of visual gags, witty one-liners and even some jokes that will most likely fly completely over the heads of kids. The film's bright and vibrant animation is more than a match to keep up with it all. While it's not the best looking animated film to come out this year (the lip movements of the characters sometimes seems clunky and off), it does have a pleasant look and there's even some inventiveness, such as the design of the underground city, and the fact that the evil Toad's henchmen all ride around on vehicles that are made out of modified household appliances like egg beaters and toasters. There are even some clever set pieces, such as the sequence where Rita brings Roddy to her home to meet her large family who all live in a house that is constantly rocking back and forth, forever in danger of toppling over. The animators are able to create some very clever visual gags just from the design of the house alone, which certainly shows the amount of thought that went into the design of this movie's world. What is perhaps most refreshing is that for a movie with a plot that gets its start with a toilet, there is very little if any bathroom humor to be found throughout. Yes, there's the required joke about a candy bar being mistaken for something you'd commonly find in a toilet, but that can be forgiven.

Beyond the witty script and inventive design, it is the voice cast that really help the characters and the world they inhabit come to life. Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet make a likeable odd couple pairing, with Jackman portraying the up tight individual and Winslet as the free-spirited adventurer with a kind heart. In supporting roles, the film has rounded up a strong cast of character actors such as Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis and Jean Reno. All of them seem to be having a ball in their respective roles, especially Reno as a French frog hitman who hunts down the heroes late in the film. The standout performance belongs to Ian McKellan who is obviously having the time of his life as the film's main villain. He bellows and rages with an overly dramatic and almost operatic quality, making him a character who is threatening enough to be a villain, but goofy and over the top enough so that he will not frighten young children in the audience. And then there are the previously mentioned singing slugs, who provide most of the songs on the soundtrack, and will probably become the characters that viewers most remember when looking back on the movie. The film knows how to use them so that the joke never gets old, nor do they ever become annoying.

While Flushed Away may not be the all-out charmer that Wallace and Gromit was last year, it's still unique enough to stand out in a sea of so many animated films that rely too heavily on past successful formulas for inspiration. It's breezy, it's inoffensive, and adults will have just as much fun watching it as the kids are likely to. With the winning Over the Hedge and now this, Dreamworks' animation studio may be turning over a new leaf, and could possibly gain some success outside of the overrated Shrek franchise. If anything, Flushed Away proves that there are still some studios out there who are willing to make a quality animated film, rather than just rushing one out in order to strike while the iron is hot. As a life-long fan of animation, I can only hope more studios will follow the example of Aardman.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

The question while watching Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (to be referred to simply as Borat for the rest of this review, for obvious reasons) is not whether or not it is funny, as it certainly can be in many scenes. The question I found myself asking is why did this movie deserve a theatrical release? That is a trickier one to answer, and one that the film itself fails to provide. While the movie does provide a good number of laugh out loud moments, it is also highly sporadic, mainly pointless, and plays out like an 80-minute practical joke that star, co-writer, and creator Sacha Baron Cohen is playing on random strangers or American figures. This is not a new concept, as TV's The Daily Show does it on a regular basis. The difference is that The Daily Show does it for five minute segments broken up by other sequences. Borat is a continuous series of sequences, some of which work much better than others, that unfortunately cannot carry out an entire movie. Though worth watching, one should really question if a film like this is worth paying full theater price.

Set up in a documentary style, the film follows the exploits of a reporter from Kazakhstan named Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is sent to New York City to film a movie that will hopefully provide valuable lessons to the people in his home country in how they can improve their daily lives by studying American culture. With his accompanying assistant, Azamat (Ken Davitian), at his side, Borat begins a whirlwind tour of the city and its people. Unfortunately, he becomes sidetracked the instant he happens to be watching television in his hotel room one night, and happens to see Pamela Anderson in an old episode of Baywatch. Borat becomes driven to the point of obsession with the blonde beauty, and literally changes his film's entire purpose in order to take a cross country trip to California in order to track her down and marry her. His single-minded mission will begin a perilous journey as Borat is introduced to black people, tries unsuccessfully to mingle with high society, and constantly offers his obscured and misinformed opinions about women and Jews to anyone who will listen.

Perhaps the most politically incorrect comedy to come out of a mainstream studio since 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Borat tries to offend just about everyone, regardless of race, religion or personal beliefs. The paper thin plot is simply an excuse to stage one sequence after another where Sacha Baron Cohen either walks up to someone on a street, or somehow manages to score an interview with an important figure, and then makes a mockery out of the person being interviewed. Many of the laughs come either from how misinformed about American culture Borat is, or the candid reactions of some of the people he talks to. Some of the film's highlights includes an extended sequence where Borat and Azamat make a stop at a Bed and Breakfast, and a fight that breaks out inside a hotel room, carries on into the halls of the building, and ends up at a certain formal meeting being held in another part of the building. The movie revels in bad taste and crude humor, almost daring the viewer not to gasp at some of the things that Borat says or does. (His opinions on Jewish people and women are bound to make some viewers squirm.) Wisely, however, the movie avoids falling into the pit of mean spiritedness. It does this mostly by making Borat completely clueless in the world outside his home. Borat is not a bad person, he is simply completely misinformed. He is willing to adapt, but has a hard time doing it, such as when he is given a chance to sing the National Anthem at a Texas rodeo, and decides to make some of his political views about the War on Terror known to the crowd. (The fact that the crowd at the rodeo actually cheers for many of his comments makes it all the more funny, and somewhat scary when you stop and think about it.) The movie may be completely tasteless, but it knows how to not go too far, while at the same time not make it feel like it's holding itself back.

And yet, looking back on Borat, I cannot feel the same sense of enthusiasm I felt during certain scenes. This is a movie that's bound to fade from a viewer's mind shortly after viewing it, because there's simply not a whole lot of substance. It is simply a series of skits shot on a handheld camera where Cohen meets up with random people, loosely tied together by a plot that really has nothing to do with the movie itself. Many of the sequences concerning Borat's experiences in America are largely hit and miss. For everyone that hits big like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above, there are at least two more that fall flat. Some examples include a disappointing scene where a hitchhiking Borat is picked up by some college frat boys, and a sequence where he must take a driver's test that never really seems to build to anything, yet keeps on going for about three or five minutes. Director Larry Charles (TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm) also sometimes takes too long in setting up a joke that is all too obviously coming almost from the moment the scene starts. Many of the jokes are disappointingly predictable once we get to know what Borat as a character is like. This is the kind of movie that once you've figured out its pattern, it's kind of easy to figure out where the movie is going to go from there. This turns what is initially a fresh and hilarious comedy into somewhat of a routine one, since the movie seems content to trot out the same joke over and over, just in different ways.

Needless to say, a little bit of Cohen's character goes a long way, and even at a breezy 80 minutes, Borat seems stretched out. There's simply not enough material here to support an entire movie, and not enough for us to care. It certainly doesn't help that the film seems to constantly be in a rush, leaping from one set piece to another, stopping only for a short narration from the main character now and then, reminding us that they're supposed to be on a cross country search to track down Pamela Anderson. With its severely fragmented nature and skit-driven source material, Borat would be much better suited for the smaller TV screen than a movie theater. Cohen, and even the character of Borat, got his big break on a TV series called Da Ali G Show, and it's quite clear watching this movie that television is a format much more suited for his style of humor. The movie is supposed to appear amateurish in style and tone, I am aware of this. And yet, at the same time, seeing something so small blown up on a big screen just seems wrong. It looks like something you should be watching in your easy chair late one night on HBO. I'm sure the DVD release will fix this problem, but while it's playing in theaters, Borat is just too small in scale and structure to make you feel like you're getting your money's worth for a theater ticket.

This brings me back to my original question - Does this movie deserve to be seen in theaters? Unless you are a die hard fan of Cohen, I would normally say wait for the DVD. My main hesitation is that given the amount of attention this movie has been getting, by the time it finds its way to DVD, your friends will most likely have spoiled most of the jokes for you already. While this would be a great disservice to the jokes in this film that do work, I simply cannot recommend you giving away your hard earned movie dollar to watching Borat. Yes, the movie has some big laughs, but it has no staying power, and leaves the viewer feeling curiously empty when it's all over. It's kind of like a joke you hear at a party that you think is funny at the time, but when you try to tell it to someone else later that same evening, it doesn't seem quite as funny as it did before. There's a lot to admire in Borat, but also a lot to be disappointed in, which makes it a largely uneven viewing experience, and one that is probably better suited for home.

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