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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