Thursday, December 21, 2006

Central Ohio Film Critics Association takes to the web

I'm pleased to announce the launch of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association site. It went live late this afternoon.

The site will be a resource for finding out what films are opening in Columbus and what local critics have to say about them. It also includes past awards winners and member profiles, although there are still some, myself included, who have yet to submit this information.

I'm thrilled to see the idea realized. Thanks to Paul Kramer for programming the site, Bill Clark for designing graphics, Kristin Dreyer Kramer for suggesting that we could do something more than the bare bones blog I was planning, and all of the membership for chipping in a few bucks to give the group some money to make it happen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Happy Blogiversary

Today this blog turns three years old.

With the number of films I've seen in the last two weeks and this month overall, it's amazing I remembered, although I confess I did have to look at the first post to get the date right.

The general insanity of everything this year produced a slow stretch where I didn't post much. I still have a lot of reviews backlogged that may or may not ever see the light of day on ye olde blog, but I've been better about getting the most recent ones up (and in a timely manner). I definitely had a period of writer's block, so if some of the writing seems substandard, I'd probably agree with you. I do feel like I've rebounded in the last couple months, so hopefully everyone's happy.

I'm most pleased with redesigning the look of the site, which took a lot more time than was necessary, but the book I checked out of the library was just partially helpful in taking me through major template changes.

My reviews have become longer because of how I've chosen to incorporate this blog into my writing process. For all intents and purposes, I would consider this my primary outlet. After all, more people read this on a daily basis than likely see the television show I've been doing for nearly ten years. I've been writing for the web first and paring down the reviews for TV. I think it's improved the quality of my work, but you'll be the judge of that.

Of course, I never get as much written as I would like, but I can only expect so much of myself. I may be a fulltime critic, but it's not how I make a living. I'm lucky to have it incorporated into my job, though.

I've been writing online since June 2000 when Levi Wallach was looking for DVD reviewers at I wrote like a madman for that site for a couple of years. My work is still posted there if you're interested in reading it. While I never intended to break off from his site, starting this blog effectively made that transition. I'm grateful to him for giving me a space to publish online at a time when I hadn't the foggiest idea how to do any HTML coding. (Not that I'm a genius at it now...)

This year I started writing for Kristin Dreyer Kramer at Some of my work there is republished from here, but I've also taken a stab at a book review, a game review, and humor writing. It's been nice to mix things up a bit writing-wise. I appreciate her interest in publishing my work, and I'm glad to help out a friend. (The amount she writes on a weekly basis is very impressive.)

Whether you're here for the first time or have been checking in since I started, thanks for stopping by. All writers want their work to be read even if, when all is said and done, I write for myself. As aggravating and time-consuming as it can be, I love doing it. Hopefully you find some value in it too.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Charlotte's Web

CHARLOTTE'S WEB (Gary Winick, 2006)

E.B. White's classic children's book CHARLOTTE'S WEB and the 1973 animated film get a CGI polish for this live-action version. Farm girl Fern (Dakota Fanning) saves the runt of the litter from the ax when she promises her father to take care of the tiny pig. She names him Wilbur and totes him around like those little dogs that fashionistas carry as accessories.

Although small, Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) becomes too big to keep around the house, so Fern must take him nearby to stay in her uncle's barn. The animals there are not inclined to play with the enthusiastic little pig, and they certainly do not want to break the news to him that the spring pig will not see the winter snow.

Wilbur finds a friend in Charlotte the Spider (voice of Julia Roberts), and what a fine friend she is. When Templeton the Rat (voice of Steve Buscemi) informs Wilbur that he is intended for the Christmas dinner table, Charlotte works to ensure that her friend will be around for many winters to come.

I've grown tired of the loud and crass films that pass as children's entertainment, so it's wonderful to come upon a gentle film like CHARLOTTE'S WEB that values storytelling over spectacle and selflessness over self-centeredness. Director Gary Winick paints the film with picture book colors and populates it with adorable talking animals. Aside from a flatulence joke or two, this is a film rooted in traditional kids' literature without coarsening, dumbing down, or modernizing.

Kids (and adults) may be diverted for awhile by whiz-bang effects, but in the end nothing can grab attention like an enchanting story. White's timeless book deserves a great deal of the credit, but screenwriters Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick have done an excellent job in keeping the adaptation clean and simple. CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a beautiful tale of friendship that spoons out the virtues of kindness and generosity without a medicinal taste. The characters and the film are invested with common decency, but the film is anything but stodgy. There are many funny moments, such as Wilbur's insistent attempt to get out of the pen, that lighten the heavier themes.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB is also about death being a part of life. The scenes that illustrate this lesson won't leave a dry eye in the house. The last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are a masterful tearjerking demonstration that brings the end of one character and a sad yet joyful beginning for some new ones. The pivotal conversation cuts between the characters, getting slightly closer each time, until the emotional charge is almost too much to bear. It's presented in a matter-of-fact manner yet is as moving as anything I've seen on film all year. Although happy, the denouement is shattering, not from any big gestures but rather from the delicacy with which Winick makes the point. Parents may be hit harder than children, who may wonder why the adults are getting choked up, but the film opens a door to talk about a difficult issue for kids to understand.

The voicework is first-rate, particularly Roberts' sensitive embodiment of Charlotte. She delivers her lines with quiet, dignified grace, transforming the creature with a scary exterior into something extraordinarily lovely because of what's inside. Kay is very good too as the humble pig. He brings the right amount of youthful optimism and energy to the part. Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin add humor as the voices of scarecrow-fearing crows.

Humility is a valued trait in CHARLOTTE'S WEB, but there's nothing untoward about the rest of us praising this film's greatness. CHARLOTTE'S WEB has heart and intelligence, qualities that combine for a transcendent time at the movies.

Grade: A

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Holiday

THE HOLIDAY (Nancy Meyers, 2006)

In THE HOLIDAY two lovelorn women on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean swap homes to escape heartbreak for Christmas. Iris (Kate Winslet) is determined to erase the last traces of her lingering affection for Jasper (Rufus Sewell), a former boyfriend and currently engaged co-worker who's been leading her on for years. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) wants to forget her fresh break-up with Ethan (Edward Burns).

Eager to leave Los Angeles, Amanda comes upon a home exchange website with a listing for Iris' cottage in Surrey. The women chat online, confirm for one another that there are absolutely no men where each hopes to travel, and agree to trade places.

Iris can't believe the enormous pad Amanda inhabits, but the sun and space is just what she needs to stop thinking about England and the man who has broken her heart many times. Amanda wasn't expecting something so small and off the beaten path, but at least the location should minimize the chance of running into any guys.

Just when they're ready to stop looking, fate intervenes and delivers men who may be perfect for both women. Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law) doesn't know that his sister is away and drops by her home one night to crash after some barhopping. Amanda is attracted to him immediately. She and Graham vow to enjoy their brief time together and leave it at that, but it quickly becomes apparent that Amanda is falling for him.

Meanwhile, Iris has two men enter her life. She befriends Arthur (Eli Wallach), Amanda's elderly screenwriter neighbor, and develops feelings for Miles (Jack Black), a film score composer who works out of Amanda's house. Once again, Iris looks to be setting herself up for disappointment as Miles is dating an actress.

THE HOLIDAY doesn't reinvent the romantic comedy, but writer-director Nancy Meyers understands two of the keys to making a successful film in the genre. First, the romantic comedy can be predictable, but it shouldn't be contrived. The love affair's escalation and destination is rarely within doubt. That's OK. Ultimately the appeal of these films is wanting and knowing that everything will turn out okay for the couple. Just don't make it seem like we're marking time until the happy ending. Whatever you do, don't have someone running to the airport to catch the other person before he or she leaves forever. You can be predictable and creative.

Second, and more importantly, we need to fall in love with the characters. It helps a lot if they are relatable rather than stock figures. Plus, how can we believe two people should be together if we don't like one or both? This doesn't rule out fights or misunderstandings between the romantic leads, but don't insult us. Put a credible obstacle between the lovers, not the tired device of a cataclysmic misunderstanding that could be cleared up in a second but ends up driving the entire second act because the characters never talk.

In a sense, Meyers' film succeeds because it doesn't make missteps. Only someone watching a romantic comedy for the first time would not be able to foresee where things are leading, but THE HOLIDAY works its magic because Meyers invests time in the characters instead of the scenarios. Iris' friendship with Arthur is a real surprise because it precedes (and possibly supercedes) any romantic involvement she has with Miles. Winslet shows us the good soul inside Iris and makes her someone to root for before she's met a man who might win her heart. Diaz's performance is inconsistent--she's too flighty and cutesy--yet we get to know her enough to see her decency underneath the immature surface.

The men of THE HOLIDAY fare well also. Law is suave and lovable, but there's more than meets the eye with Graham. Meyers wisely lets us make assumptions about him, just as we do in assessing people in an instant in real life, and then reveals his depth. Law is a classic romantic lead, but he really sparkles in his scenes with children. In a nice turn, Black tones down his shtick. There's nothing "real" about THE HOLIDAY, but the friendship and more that grows between Miles and Iris feels more organic than the love at first sight that romantic comedies often peddle.

THE HOLIDAY is a blissful reprieve from the depressing, portentous films that dominate this awards-conscious part of the movie season. A little love and warmth is always appreciated, especially when it comes in as delightful a package as this film does.

Grade: B

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (Gabriele Muccino, 2006)

Being a good, hard-working person who loves one's family should be all that it takes for a lifetime of joy. Sadly, it doesn't always work out that way. In THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is all those things. He breaks his back day in and day out in 1981 San Francisco trying to sell the portable bone density scanners in which he sank his life savings. Unlike his own dad, he's a good father to his son Christopher (Jaden Smith) and loves his wife Linda (Thandie Newton).

Yet each day is a struggle. Chris' business investment hasn't been as lucrative as he expected. Doctors like his product but don't consider it a necessity. The meager income he and his wife make isn't really enough to pay the monthly bills or their outstanding taxes.

One day Chris observes the smiling faces of people flowing into and out of an office building. What could they be doing that has them flush with cash and happiness? He learns that they are employed at a stock brokerage firm, one that also happens to be accepting applications for a six-month internship program. Chris has always been good with numbers, so he jumps at the chance to make a career switch that will make him more capable of providing for his family.

Linda isn't as enthralled with his plan. Since Chris has no experience as a stock broker, she believes he's wasting his time applying for a spot in the competitive program. As both of them later learn, the internship is unpaid. Upon completion only one of the twenty interns is likely to earn a job with the company. It doesn't take a math whiz to see that the odds don't favor Chris.

He is undeterred, but Linda cannot take it any longer. She follows through with her threat to leave Chris but agrees to leave their son with her husband. As if life weren't urgent enough before, now he must fulfill the role of two parents while working even harder to sell the remaining scanners to sustain them during his internship at Dean Witter.

The common struggles of working people are rarely shown in major Hollywood films without some embellishments to glamorize poverty, usually in imbuing the poor with special wisdom about what's important. Such techniques might make audiences feel better, but these narrative devices can feel dishonest. Based on a true story, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS is a feel-good film with plot conveniences that stack needless burdens on the main character, but it takes great care to show how difficult it can be to pull oneself up. Shot with muted colors on a finer grain film stock, the images have a grittier texture. In story and style THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS also sounds a faint echo of the Italian neorealist tradition. (Chris' hand-to-mouth living and constant setbacks recall UMBERTO D.)

As Chris hopes to change the trajectory of his professional life, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS serves a similar purpose for Smith. The happy-go-lucky star of several blockbusters remains as affable as ever, but here Smith trades his usual suaveness and stylishness for gray-flecked hair, work clothes, and lower class living conditions. The change looks good on him and benefits the film. As Chris, Smith radiates decency radiates even in the most dire circumstances.

The key scene in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS and for Smith's performance arrives in one of those ridiculous movie conventions when the wrong events converge. The day before the most important interview of his life Chris is hauled into the local precinct because of unpaid parking tickets. He spends his last dollars to take care of them, but he must be kept in a holding cell until the check clears the next morning. Of course, that's not long before his internship interview. And yes, because Chris was painting his apartment when he was detained, he's raggedly dressed and splattered with paint. Chris impresses the interviewers and convinces the audience that he could do so because Smith comes across as humble, intelligent, and composed while obviously being in desperate need of the opportunity.

Smith's charisma appears to have been passed along to his son Jaden, who plays his child in the film. The younger Smith gives a relaxed performance that is cute but not overly precocious.

What THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS lacks in surprises it compensates for in heart. It won't take two guesses to determine how Chris' story turns out, but it's gratifying to see him chase survival and exceed his expectations.

Grade: B

Home of the Brave

HOME OF THE BRAVE (Irwin Winkler, 2006)

In December film critics hibernate in theaters and screening rooms. Studios compete to get their contenders in front of the nation's movie writers in time for consideration on year-end ten best lists and by critics' groups. It's a frantic time with multiple screenings per day on consecutive days. Inevitably a few films slip through that studios are fooling themselves if they think their products are award worthy. *cough* BOBBY *cough*

Take HOME OF THE BRAVE, a drama that observes the difficulty four Army enlistees serving in Iraq have upon their homecoming to civilian life. The Irwin Winkler film strives to be the first defining movie about the struggles of Iraq veterans returning to an indifferent country, but it's hard to believe anyone can watch it with a straight face. HOME OF THE BRAVE is so ham-fisted in its attempts to wring pathos from the vets' problems that it plays like an overwrought parody of an award bait movie. Something this serious shouldn't be so consistently and unintentionally funny.

Before leaving on a humanitarian mission, the soliders learn that their company's deployment ends in two weeks. This is like a movie cop going on a call on the last day before starting retirement. You know something will go terribly wrong, and in HOME OF THE BRAVE it does.

The vehicle Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel) is driving is hit by an IED, and she loses her right hand. Tommy (Brian Presley) and Jamal's (50 Cent, billed as Curtis Jackson) squad goes on foot pursuit of the terrorists who ambushed them. Tommy gets shot in the leg and sees his best friend's brains splattered in front of him. Jamal accidentally kills a woman. He also takes a hard tumble and injures his back. Dr. Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) escapes physically unharmed but bears psychic wounds that cause him to turn to the bottle.

These demons don't get exorcised upon coming back to family and friends. Vanessa has trouble adjusting to using a prosthetic hand and feels distant from her boyfriend Ray (Jon Bernthal). In a scene with dialogue so clunky you can hear it hit the floor, Tommy learns that his boss at the gun shop didn't hold his job while he was serving. He bristles at those, such as his father, who don't understand why he's so moody and unambitious. Jamal is angry that a former girlfriend won't talk to him and that his discharge papers keep getting hung up in the bureaucracy. Will self-medicates and lashes out at his wife and rebellious son.

Although packed with enough material for four films, HOME OF THE BRAVE starves each character's story and tells none of them well. Jamal's storyline is the most anorexic and may end up confirming in some viewers' minds the worst stereotypes of combat vets. Vanessa and Tommy fare a little better, but they're done the injustice of having a laughing fit-inducing conversation at a movie theater that is ripped from the Lazy Screenwriting 101 textbook.

Returning to domestic life from the frontline must be incredibly hard. There's no way those back home can understand the awful things witnessed or committed in defending freedom. Now magnify that with an ambivalent or underappreciative population. HOME OF THE BRAVE pursues the noble goal of conveying empathy for those who have seen combat. How unfortunate then that Mark Friedman's screenplay tries to fulfill its purpose with hoary clichés and the grace of someone trying to get out of quicksand.

Grade: D

Friday, December 15, 2006


ERAGON (Stefen Fangmeier, 2006)

ERAGON tells of how the sky was once dotted with dragons and their riders. Many years ago a lone rider turned on the others, nearly wiping dragons from the face of the earth. While the evil King Galbatorix (John Malkovich) terrorizes the poor people of Alagaesia, a dragon's egg is protected until it can be delivered to the chosen one who will lead the rebellion.

The Alagaesian savior comes in the form of poor teenage farmer Eragon (Edward Speleers). He doesn't realize what he's found when he stumbles upon what looks like a supersized blue jelly bean in the woods. To Eragon's surprise, a blue dragon named Saphira (voice of Rachel Weisz) emerges from the oblong curiosity.

Saphira matures at an unusually rapid pace. During her first flight she transforms into a fully grown dragon, although more time must pass before she can breathe fire. Dragons pick their riders, so Saphira is able to communicate telepathically with Eragon. The bond is so deep between human and beast that if a rider is killed, the dragon also dies.

Word of Eragon's new pet reaches Brom (Jeremy Irons), an outspoken peasant and former rider. He trains the seventeen-year-old Eragon as they journey to join forces with the Varden rebels. Meanwhile, the sorcerer Durza (Robert Carlyle) dangles the captive Princess Arya (Sienna Guillory) to pull Eragon from his task in hopes of killing him.

ERAGON borrows liberally from the STAR WARS and THE LORD OF THE RINGS universes. Character arcs and scenes parallel the film's inspirations with such fidelity that it plays like an expensive, yet strangely joyless, home video made by fans. It's not too reductive to say that Eragon is Luke Skywalker, Brom is Obi-Wan Kenobi, and so on and so forth. ERAGON seems proud to reference George Lucas and Peter Jackson's definitive films but doesn't recognize that it fails to measure up in comparison. (For all I know, the same is true of the source novel.)

Lucas drew upon Joseph Campbell's writings and Akira Kurosawa's THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, but he also created something of his own. Earnestly acted and directed, ERAGON has neither the visual dazzle nor narrative momentum to compensate for its cut-rate fantasy mimicry. Genre fans might be willing to overlook the plodding plotting if the movie looked, for lack of a better word, cool. First-time feature director Stefen Fangmeier's background is as a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, but the company's FX work for ERAGON is far from state of the art.

Fangmeier might know how to put together effects sequences, but he and his screenwriters are woefully inept in telling the story with visuals and dialogue. ERAGON opens with excessive voiceover narration and overuses blank reaction shots of dragon and rider listening to each other's thoughts. Most of the dialogue is laughable. There are also snickers to be had at the expense of the king's army, which resembles leftovers from a Capital One credit card commercial.

Speleers' screen debut doesn't give one reason to believe he merits another role. He's uncharismatic, never a good thing for a film's anchor, and forgettable. ERAGON boasts an impressive supporting cast, but what's the point in using terrific ingredients to make something that tastes stale when it's fresh?

Grade: D

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Other scribblings

While I slowly lose my sanity going to screenings during the December onslaught, why not check out some of my other writings?

I have a review of the game Would You Rather...?: Pocket Travel Version at Nights and If you'd like to see some of my movie reviews with a nice orange gradation background, Kristin has republished some of my film writings originally posted here in the last couple months. If that's not enough incentive, at least one has been trimmed for length.

And if you didn't check them out before, you can read my attempt at humor writing with The Disclaimer. There's also my review of Douglas Coupland's novel JPod.

If I can find the time and energy, I may have a music review there soon.

And now it's time for me to collapse...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

And so it begins...

Awards season has been in full swing, maybe not for quite a month but close to it. As a voting member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association and Online Film Critics Society, I've seen screeners pile up outside my door and endured what seems like a neverending screening schedule of awards hopefuls.

Today the first list of winners appeared courtesy of the National Board of Review. Awards season should be a simple matter of critics honoring what they believe to be the best, but to a certain extent it has been perverted into an Oscar prognostication game. In part that's what I think the NBR is trying to do, although since their only claim to fame is being first out of the gate, I can't say I take their winners all that seriously.

That doesn't mean the winners aren't deserving--some are--or that their choices have to line up with my preferences. Not at all. I find it a little fishy that all of the films Fox Searchlight has promoted with awards screeners earned mentions in one category or another, but just because they've worked hard to sell voters on their films doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that. (The studio has two other titles that I expect will arrive in my mail once they are closer to theatrical release.)

The most glaring omission from the Best Films list is DREAMGIRLS. I've seen the perceived Oscar frontrunner, but I'm not making a judgment call on whether it should or shouldn't be there. (With embargo rules these days, I'm not sure if I can say what I think of the film, so I'll withhold comment. I would be stunned if the Academy doesn't go for it, though.) I'm just saying that its absence is notable, not that it means the film's prospects are damaged.

Entertainment writers pore over these awards as though they're trying to divine fortunes from tea leaves. But what difference should the NBR's list make in regard to the Academy Awards? For that matter, what impact should any of them have? The critical bodies and AMPAS don't overlap, so why is it taken for granted that what the critics of the nation honor will affect the Academy Award nominations?

Voting on year-end awards is fun to do, although it's a lot more effort than you'd think. (Yeah, I know. Boo hoo.) I know I'm not nominating or voting with any agenda in mind other than bringing to attention the work I found to be the year's best. If the films are well-known, so be it. If they're obscure, that's fine too, although chances are not enough people will agree with me to matter.

I can hear the avalanche of lists on the way. If you don't like what the NBR has announced, don't worry. Something completely different will probably turn up soon.

Monday, December 04, 2006


IDLEWILD (Bryan Barber, 2006)

André Benjamin and Antwan Patton of OutKast star in IDLEWILD, a hip-hop musical set in 1935. The two play childhood friends Rooster and Percival. Patton is the bootlegging understudy Rooster, who helps run and stars on the stage of the ironically named juke joint Church. Benjamin is Percival, a mortician's son and sensitive piano player whose nights are spent banging the keys in the house band at Idlewild, Georgia’s den of iniquity.

The cocksure Rooster faces trouble when a new gangster takes a murderous path to becoming the top crime boss in town. Meanwhile, Percival shyly goes about helping the club’s new singer.

IDLEWILD overflows with inventiveness and random weirdness that sort of make it a must-see even if it isn’t a particularly good film. Benjamin duets with a wall of cuckoo clocks, and Rooster’s flask talks to him. Director Bryan Barber has lensed several OutKast videos and Christina Aguilera’s retro-futurist “Ain’t No Other Man”. His eye for terrific visuals is enhanced by some of the most stunning production and art design in any film this year.

IDLEWILD is snappily paced, and the songs, largely drawn from 2003’s SPEAKERBOXXX/THE LOVE BELOW, keep things moving when the story drags. The problem is that the story is so superfluous that there’s little to no dramatic tension in the film, turning it into a glorified long form music video.

There’s also surprisingly little comedy, one aspect of OutKast’s albums that is sorely missed. The group has been rumored to be on the verge of breaking up since they released the double album that functioned virtually as dual solo albums. The film won’t do anything to dash such talk. The two rarely share scenes and seem to inhabit different films.

Unfortunately, Benjamin’s section is out of tune with the performer’s voice. (Strangely, the film also does the same thing with its veteran performers. Patti LaBelle and Ben Vereen appear but aren’t given any moments to strut their stuff.) He oozes energy, charisma, and humor, qualities that are absent in his downbeat storyline. It’s not until the end credits that he gets to cut loose in a Busby Berkeley-like number that beats every performance scene in IDLEWILD. If more of this Dirty South spin on MOULIN ROUGE had tapped that fun side, it might have been something else.

Grade: C-

Sunday, December 03, 2006

For Your Consideration

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Christopher Guest, 2006)

Oscar fever spreads among the cast of HOME FOR PURIM, the film within a film in director Christopher Guest's FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. Internet rumors suggest that Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) may be delivering a performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Like a runaway freight train, Oscar buzz builds around a little film that no one wanted to be involved with in the first place.

Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) believes that his days of being best known for wearing a wiener costume in a TV ad may finally be behind him. Callie Webb (Parker Posey) dreams of becoming Hollywood's new ingenue, which would rescue her reputation after her failed one woman show. Only Callie's boyfriend, fellow actor Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan), is left out of the awards talk.

On a fundamental level FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION misunderstands how Oscar season works. With year-round Academy Awards discussion on websites and daily entertainment programs and in magazines, it's possible that the audience knows more about the meat grinder of nominations and awards than the film demonstrates. How Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy could get it this wrong is perplexing.

The Oscar chatter begins while HOME FOR PURIM is in production and alters the course of the film. The actors change how they work, and the studio executives question elements they now consider to be too ethnic. It's fair to assume that movies designed as awards bait undergo such internal tinkering to maximize their gold statuette haul, but significant talk of Academy Awards and actively run campaigns don't take place before a film has completed shooting.

Factual errors aside, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is a funny movie, albeit a minor one alongside Guest's other comedies. The biggest laughs come courtesy of Fred Willard. The scene stealer bulldozes his way through his screen time as Chuck Porter, the co-host of an ACCESS HOLLYOOD clone. With his bleached fauxhawk and disregard for what his co-host or interviewees have to say, Willard's Porter is hilariously smarmy and insincere like his real-life counterparts. The force of Willard's performance sort of blows Jane Lynch off the screen, but she does a funny riff on the statuesque women who also host these shows.

O'Hara, another regular in Guest's mock docs, is quite good as the actress who lets the Oscar rumors overinflate her expectations after a career's worth of lousy and forgettable roles. She milks all she can from Marilyn's ridiculous botox and silicon makeover, although the joke seems a little broad for Guest's usually understated approach.

Some critics have accused Guest's previous films, such as BEST IN SHOW and A MIGHTY WIND, of having contempt for the characters, but it's felt more strongly in FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. There's a detectable bitterness toward the people in the industry, yet the targets, minor veteran performers and starry-eyed up-and-comers, don't seem deserving of the director's anger. A better film would have let the air out of the big stars and directors in positions to nurture projects made primarily to boost their egos.

While FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is funnier than a large percentage of Hollywood comedies, there are signs that Guest's formula is losing its potency; however, the writer/director can take heart that he won't need to worry about sullying himself in this winter's awards scrum.

Grade: B-

Deja Vu

DEJA VU (Tony Scott, 2006)

Director Tony Scott has never been one to play it safe, sometimes to his own detriment, but his risk-taking opening to DEJA VU seems pretty bold even for him.

Set in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the film begins with the terrorist bombing of the Canal St. ferry transporting families and Naval officers to a Fat Tuesday celebration. Before the bomb goes off Scott lingers on shots of men in uniform happy to be on release and bored children waiting to get to their destination. Amid the chaos of the explosion, the director shows burning sailors leaping from the boat. None of this is new, but considering the setting and who is involved, the matter-of-fact depiction of members of a branch of the armed services being killed is kind of shocking in a mainstream action movie.

ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is assigned to the case. During his investigation he's tipped off to the murder of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). Her body washed ashore around the time of the explosion. It is assumed she was one of the more than five hundred passengers on the ferry, but the timing doesn't work out. Someone wants investigators to believe she was onboard, meaning that if he can find Claire's murderer, Doug can find whoever is responsible for blowing up the ferry. Stranger yet, Claire tried to contact Doug before her death.

At first glance DEJA VU appears to be a conventional Denzel Washington action movie, but there are some major surprises in store for viewers thinking they walked into a standard police procedural. Agent Andrew Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) asks Doug to join his new, top secret unit working on the case. This team possesses tools that take the film into the realm of science fiction, a direction not hinted at in the promotions for the film. It's essentially impossible to review DEJA VU without spoiling this central element, a twist I thoroughly enjoyed, so those who don't want it ruined should continue reading at their own peril.

Pryzwarra's team of braniacs has harnessed the ability to see whatever happened four days ago. It's far too complicated to explain, but suffice it to say that as long as they know where to look, they can see whatever was happening as it occurred in the past. It's not perfect. There are no second chances or rewind options, and the areas covered are limited by satellite placement.

The fantasy technology deepens DEJA VU'S resonance and makes the New Orleans setting all the more appropriate and poignant. Would being able to see into the past and send messages to people there allow us to avoid catastrophes, or would everything play out the same way because we've already done those things that have brought us to that point? It's the main conundrum in time travel movies, but this fascinating riddle gives DEJA VU an unexpected thoughtfulness. (The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" also gains some weight from its use in a pivotal scene.)

Scott's manic style is well matched with the technology's constant scanning. The technique reaches its apotheosis in a thrilling scene in which Doug gets in a car chase with a suspect whose actions were four days earlier.

As usual Washington is charismatic and projects an honorable core akin to Jimmy Stewart. It tends to be forgotten that the venerable Stewart also played his share of oddball roles, like in his darker work with Alfred Hitchcock. With DEJA VU and this year's INSIDE MAN, it's fun to watch Washington cut loose a little within his upstanding characters.

An unforeseen mix of action, sci-fi, and even a hint of romance, DEJA VU'S pleasures are in delivering what we don't see coming.

Grade: B


BOBBY (Emilio Estevez, 2006)

As writer and director of BOBBY, Emilio Estevez tries his hand at an Altmanesque drama detailing the fictionalized goings-on at the Ambassador Hotel on June 6, 1968, the day of the California Presidential primary. Before the day was done, Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.

Sporting a cast that includes practically half of Hollywood, it's the kind of film that might as well introduce each of the actors with the "...and so-and-so" credit, the billing that name actors get when their involvement amounts to glorified cameos. Estevez spoons out the twenty-two recognizable faces with such regularity that it seems like an extended joke about ensemble films.

BOBBY meanders among the hotel's employees and guests in the build-up to the campaign's election night party. Along for the ride are Christian Slater as a racist running the hotel's kitchen; Freddy Rodriguez as a kitchen staff member who isn't allowed to leave work to vote or attend that night's Dodgers game; William H. Macy as the hotel manager, who's married to Sharon's Stone's hairdresser and having an affair with a switchboard operator played by Heather Graham; Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood as a couple marrying so he can avoid the front line in Vietnam; and Ashton Kutcher as a hippie who introduces two Kennedy staffers to LSD.

That's just a sampling of the enormous cast. Missing among this is any sense of what any of it has to do with Bobby Kennedy. That's kind of a big oversight. After all, the film is named after him. While it includes excerpts of some RFK speeches, BOBBY provides no insight into the man and his politics, choosing instead to flit among the insipid soap opera storylines. There's no time to develop any of the characters, and the time spent with them is a waste. Helen Hunt delivers a monologue about the importance of shoes to women. Laurence Fishburne talks about cobbler and America. These are just a couple of the howlers in a movie that intends to be A Serious Film.

Estevez's point may be that these are the people Kennedy would have represented and helped if he had not been killed, but with an overpopulated cast and undercooked characterization, BOBBY struggles to attach greater meaning to the insignificant stories he tells.

Grade: D

Deck the Halls

DECK THE HALLS (John Whitesell, 2006)

Christmas is a time for generosity and goodwill...or it's supposed to be. In DECK THE HALLS the season becomes a war of holiday cheer between neighbors.

Optometrist Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick) is the Christmas guy in his quaint Massachusetts town. His rootless childhood has Steve determined to make Christmas special, even if it means overcompensating with a long checklist of annual family traditions. Everyone wears the same hideous sweater for the Christmas card photo. Steve has a special area at a nursery where he grows perfect trees for several Christmases to come. He leads a merry band of carollers in his neighborhood.

Yep, Christmas is Steve's time to shine until car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) moves in across the street. Buddy longs for one thing to make him feel special. He finds his calling when his daughters show him a tool similar to Google Earth that allows homes to be seen from space. Buddy's new house is obscured from view, so he makes it his mission to decorate it with Christmas lights and geegaws that can be visible from the heavens.

Buddy's gaudy display of lights, a live Nativity scene, and thumping music rubs Steve the wrong way for a couple reasons. The late night noise and illumination make it nearly impossible to sleep. More critically, Buddy's decorating captures the town's imagination, and he begins to overtake Steve as the Christmas guy. Steve won't stand for it and plots to sabotage Buddy's work.

As with many modern Christmas movies, DECK THE HALLS is a comedy of misplaced priorities. It's built around the notion that our quest to succeed--to have the Norman Rockwell family or get people to take notice of us--often results in losing perspective and getting further away from our goals. Steve is so adamant about creating Christmas traditions that they don't possess any joy for him or his family. Buddy gains media exposure and the admiration of the town's population, but he risks losing his wife and daughters.

Of course, these overachieving suburban dads are supposed to be funny as they engage in a game of one-upmanship and revenge. A few laughs are sprinkled in this equivalent of a lame sitcom holiday episode, but the broad comedy and treacly ending are unlikely to put anyone in the Christmas spirit.

Certainly the holidays can be a stressful time, but as with CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS, DECK THE HALLS presents Christmas as a time of nasty competitiveness. It would be nice if movie execs realized that for most people the day, whether a religious or secular celebration, isn't about outdoing everyone or Christmas card perfection. If they could put a good Christmas movie or two in our theaters' stockings each year, we'd appreciate it.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

So which is it?

You'll probably have to click on the photo to get the contradiction here.

This afternoon I received awards screeners for BABEL and AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Included was the standard warning: "These screeners have been loaned for your personal review. Please do not copy, loan, rent, sell, give away or upload to the Internet the enclosed screeners or their contents." The inside cover for the global warming documentary says, "Watch it. Share it. Donate it."

I know what's happened here. This DVD is the commercial disc, but still, I thought it was kind of funny.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

STRANGER THAN FICTION (Marc Forster, 2006)

Each of us is the protagonist in our own story. For IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in STRANGER THAN FICTION, the problem is that he's the main character of someone else's story.

One day while brushing his teeth Harold hears a British woman's voice narrating his actions. It wouldn't be out of the question for Harold to think that he's having some kind of psychotic break. In fact, that's what everyone else believes. Literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) offers his bemused, although not entirely sympathetic, assistance to Harold as he searches for the author of his life and imminent death.

Professor Hilbert assigns Harold the task of determining whether he's in a comedy or a tragedy. Considering his choice of employment and obsessive-compulsive fastidiousness, it could go either way. He tallies the events of his day auditing baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who he is innately drawn to, but Harold finds that his hapless interactions with her confuse matters more.

Eventually Harold identifies Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) as the voice he hears in his head. The professor informs him that his outcome is bleak. Kay kills off the main characters in all of her books. With an unknown amount of time left to live, Harold races to find the reclusive writer and plead with her not to off him.

STRANGER THAN FICTION'S premise and the presence of Ferrell indicate that the film is a comedy. It is but in a subtler way than the big concept and star's past work would suggest. Like life, the story isn't inherently funny or tragic but becomes one or the other depending on one's perspective. Such tenuousness requires a delicate balancing act that director Marc Forster, screenwriter Zach Helm, and the cast pull off beautifully.

Yes, ultimately it's about fully embracing life rather than staying locked in our habits and comfort zones, hardly a new moral to the story in the history of cinema, but STRANGER THAN FICTION brings vitality to the shopworn message. The plot unspools in novelistic fashion. Kay's narration presents the opportunity to convey interior thoughts that ordinarily play better on the page than the screen. Director Marc Forster utilizes a basic cool color scheme and geometric design to highlight the ordered but hermetic nature of Harold and Kay's worlds. It's no accident that more color and less rigid lines are found in scenes with the free-spirited Ana. In this way, the film recalls Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME.

STRANGER THAN FICTION is liberating for its characters and for moviegoers tired of films whose conclusions are apparent after the first ten minutes. The film has an inventive framing device that makes the tone hard to pin down at first, but in the end, it's nice to watch a well-told story whose finish can't be predicted at the outset.

Grade: B+

Happy Feet

HAPPY FEET (George Miller, 2006)

The emperor penguins in HAPPY FEET sing in MOULIN ROUGE medleys to find their spouses. What's a penguin to do if his singing voice is like nails on a blackboard?

That's exactly the dilemma that Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) finds himself in. There's no way a female will be drawn to his screechy heart song, but boy can he tap dance. Unfortunately, his inability to sing and penchant for toe-tapping make him an outcast with the other birds. While in the egg, Mumble was accidentally exposed to the frigid air. His father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) takes the blame for Mumble's difference, but his disappointment makes it hard for him to accept his boy unconditionally.

Mumble's talents with his feet rather than his voice draw suspicion from the elders. The fish supply shrinks, something which the council believes is due to Mumble being an offense to their ways. Mumble sets out to learn why their food source is becoming smaller as well as discover himself.

HAPPY FEET'S animation is nothing short of spectacular. The frozen home of the emperor penguins is rendered in stunning photorealistic CGI. The flightless birds and other Antarctic residents are beautifully animated too. A sequence in which Mumble and his new friends plummet over an icy edge and slide down and around the terrain is as thrilling as any live action setpiece you're likely to come across.

Director George Miller works overtime to entertain, although such ends rarely seem effortless. A preponderance of mashed pop songs may trick some into thinking this is a frivolous children's movie, but the messages pile up fast and furious. The visual elegance is not reflected in the screenwriting.

HAPPY FEET is a didactic movie that takes on religious fundamentalism and addresses environmental concerns. There's nothing saying that entertainment for kids can't be substantive, but the film's hard sell against belief in the supernatural and for ecological care are simple-minded and preachy. Perhaps it's reading too much into HAPPY FEET, but is Mumble's difference from the pack simply a way of encouraging kids to be comfortable with who they are or suggestive of a lesson in accepting those with racial or sexual identities outside the majority? These thematic elements are bold choices for a movie about singing and dancing emperor penguins, but they don't mesh very well.

As a technical achievement, HAPPY FEET is a seriously impressive film. It's also seriously weird and will probably freak out younger viewers. (The subwoofer gets a particularly vigorous workout, which led to many crying children when I saw it.) Parents are better off taking the kids to FLUSHED AWAY for some holiday moviegoing. The animation may not be as groundbreaking, but it's wittier and has less insistent messages.

Grade: C

Monday, November 20, 2006

Fast Food Nation

FAST FOOD NATION (Richard Linklater, 2006)

It's said that you don't want to watch how sausage gets made. For most, the same probably goes for the process involved in making the hamburger patties sold at fast food restaurants. Eric Schlosser's book FAST FOOD NATION, something of a contemporary companion to Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel THE JUNGLE, gets the fictionalized treatment in director Richard Linklater's film. This tour follows the chain from the illegal immigrants who work at the meat processing plant to the teens slinging burgers and fries and the suits working hard to find ways to sell more of the food.

Fast food chain Mickey's receives bad news. A test shows that too much fecal matter is being found in their burgers. New company VP Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is sent to Colorado to root out the cause and remedy the situation. He visits Uni-Globe, which processes all of the meat used in Mickey's top-selling The Big One. The place looks spotless, but as a rancher tell him, if he didn't remember seeing the killing floor, then he didn't get the whole tour.

Uni-Globe employs illegal Mexicans, all in the name of keeping costs low. The work is dirty and smelly, but for Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and his companions, the pay is better than what they could make at home and is worth the risk of injury, exploitation, or being caught by INS. His wife Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) has serious reservations about the plant and chooses a lower-paying but less hazardous job as a maid.

Amber (Ashley Johnson) is one of many teenagers whose first job is behind the counter of a burger joint. She works the register at Mickey's without giving much thought to what she's doing. As she searches for answers about her future, Amber begins to question whether she should be working for such a company.

Akin to a socially conscious ensemble film by John Sayles, FAST FOOD NATION takes aim at corporate America moreso than the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world. Like Linklater's counterculture figures in SLACKER and WAKING LIFE, the characters fear being chewed up by the machine, a concern that is a literal danger for the meat processing workers who lose limbs and digits.

Clearly FAST FOOD NATION'S thesis is that the system is bad for everyone but those at the top raking in money. The food is junk, and the workers are exploited. Despite this viewpoint, Linklater makes efforts to be evenhanded.

In one of the film's best scenes, Bruce Willis turns up as the middle man who negotiates the beef prices for Mickey's with Uni-Globe. He's not shocked by what Don tells him but treats it as part and parcel of the industry. It's not news to him that there are excrement particles in the meat, but what does it matter if the patties are fried so that everything bad gets killed? Today people get freaked out about germs, but at least one study has shown that toilet seats are cleaner than kitchens.

FAST FOOD NATION has an aimless structure that picks up these three primary storylines and some minor ones. Characters disappear for long stretches and sometimes don't return. It doesn't always lead to a good flow. Kinnear's Don is dominant for the first half and then drops out of sight until the start of the end credits. A fast food restaurant robbery thread is introduced but vanishes.

Linklater's body of work shows a love for common people ruminating on the nature of existence. There's plenty of time for armchair philosophizing, not all of which is as enlightened as the characters or filmmakers might believe it to be. For all of FAST FOOD NATION'S sledgehammer evangelizing on the issues, a streak of humor runs through it. Amber's self-discovery is treated with respect, but the collegiate idealists she is attracted to are shown to be foolish, wannabe radicals. This kind of mood lightening is critical to keeping the film from sinking under the weight of its own ideas.

The purpose of FAST FOOD NATION is to inform. This opens it up to criticisms of fingerpointing without providing solutions, although I think it's unfair to expect Linklater and company to solve something as major as how business is conducted in the United States. While I enjoyed seeing how this film fits into the director's oeuvre, it's fair to say that FAST FOOD NATION'S informational function (and ponderousness) will trump entertainment value for most people.

Grade: B-

Let's Go to Prison

LET'S GO TO PRISON (Bob Odenkirk, 2006)

John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) has spent more time in the clink than he has as a free man. As a kid he stole the Publishers Clearing House prize patrol van, which earned him a stay in juvenile detention. His behavior on the other side of eighteen hasn't been much better.

In the comedy LET'S GO TO PRISON John decides to take revenge on the judge who has sentenced him to time behind bars for each of his offenses. Unfortunately for him, Nelson Biederman III (David Darlow) died a few days before John was released. Hellbent on getting back at the judge, he turns his plan onto his son Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett), who runs his father's foundation.

John's vengeance amounts to spitting in Nelson's coffee and emptying his inhaler. These small actions have big consequences, though. Nelson has an attack and needs a puff from his inhaler. His reacts badly to it being empty, which results in some pharmacists mistaking him for a junkie trying to rob their store. Nelson's lawyer and the foundation board don't like their overbearing boss, so they conspire to put up a weak defense in court.

Nelson gets incarcerated, but John isn't satisfied. He commits a crime so he can go back to jail, become Nelson's cellmate, and really ruin his life.

LET'S GO TO PRISON is one of the strangest comedies to be released in theaters by a major studio this year. The humor derives from fear of prison rape, getting shivved, and other similarly hilarious aspects of life in the slammer. OK, so it's not very funny, and you could probably write down a high percentage of the jokes without seeing the movie. The film pins its success on being all kinds of weird.

That's to be expected with MR. SHOW'S Bob Odenkirk in the director's chair. (Odenkirk also appears as Nelson's lawyer and gets one of the few funny moments with his cockeyed logic for why Nelson's videotaped actions can't be believed.) As crazy and subversive as LET'S GO TO PRISON'S makers might believe it to be, it's too undisciplined and predictable to amount to anything.

Arnett sneaks in a couple Gob-like moments, but they only highlight how much wittier ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was. At best LET'S GO TO PRISON is a sketch ballooned into a feature. At worst it's funny people grasping at straws.

Grade: D

Monday, November 13, 2006

Harsh Times

HARSH TIMES (David Ayer, 2005)

After serving six years as an Army Ranger, Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is wound tighter than a coil. He has nightmares about the efficient, brutal killing he did under order in the military, but his cocksure demeanor gives no indication of his inner demons.

HARSH TIMES finds the South Central Los Angeles resident back in civilian life. Jim and his best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez) are in need of work. Jim wants to get a job with the LAPD or feds so he can marry his longtime Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) and bring her to the States. Mike needs employment so his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) will get off his case. Regardless, their job searches usually lead them to the bottom of some 40s, scoring weed, and trying to fence a brand new Luger pistol.

One day their prospects improve. The Department of Homeland Security expresses interest in Jim despite concerns about his performance on psychological tests. Mike runs into an old buddy in a position to hire him. All this time, though, the likelihood of Jim snapping gets greater.

Built from a basic shot-reverse shot template, HARSH TIMES puts its emphasis on performance. In a role that would have gone to Robert De Niro a couple decades ago, Bale brings the same intensity he's given to brooding or troubled characters in BATMAN BEGINS, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and THE MACHINIST. Jim's detached attitude may signal an imminent mental breakdown, but it's also an asset for a profession that demands cold, calculated action. Bale plays this ticking bomb in such a way that he's never likable, yet you can't take your eyes off him.

Rodríguez complements Bale well. He pulls off the tricky task of making Mike seem like the upright guy despite doing much of the same things Jim does plus repeatedly lying with a straight face to his wife.

The problem with HARSH TIMES is that it plays more like an actor's workshop than a compelling narrative, the first half in particular. Developments are slowly doled out while Jim and Mike repeat their daily crawl through the city. There's little doubt that things can only end badly. At almost two hours, the film delays the explosion until long past when we care.

The inner city is familiar territory for writer-director David Ayer, whose writing credits include the cop dramas TRAINING DAY and DARK BLUE. His directorial debut showcases his ability to conjure a strong sense of place. The endless driving scenes take us deep into the area the characters call home. The seamy visuals underscore Jim's emotional terrain. If more action propelled this water-treading plot, Ayer might have produced the mean streets classic that HARSH TIMES aspires to be.

Grade: C-

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Return

THE RETURN (Asif Kapadia, 2006)

Since she was eleven, Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has seen visions. The most common is a stringy-haired man in coveralls and work boots who calls her "sunshine" and claims just to want to talk. Every time she thinks she sees him, Joanna squeezes underneath something--a table, a bed--in hopes of avoiding him, regardless of if he's really there.

In THE RETURN, Joanna appears to be a regular 25-year-old, although a bit of a solitary one. She's distanced from her father (Sam Shepard) and friends and prefers when business keeps her on the move, trading hotel room and city night after night. She rarely gets back to her old stomping grounds, but the chance of landing a lucrative account lures her to return.

Upon her arrival, the visions return more forcefully, as does Joanna's childhood habit of cutting herself. She travels on to La Salle, Texas, a place where she's never been but which is home to a red tavern and rundown farmhouse that she's envisioned. Could something have happened to her there that is feeding her waking nightmares?

Director Asif Kapadia and screenwriter Adam Sussman reach into the grab bag of horror movie clichés and pull out fistfuls for THE RETURN. Ghostly country and western song that skips? Unexplainable problems with in-dash radio/CD player? Creepy southerners everywhere you turn? Childhood drawings that help solve the mystery? Check, check, check, and check. Not only is this a film without an original bone in its body, it's also about as thrilling as sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office.

For as little that happens in THE RETURN, I don't think it has internal consistency. When she expresses interest in the big account, Joanna's boss says that he thought Texas was off limits for her. A critical flashback shows Joanna's dad driving a car with Kansas license plates. At a visit to her father's place, he tells her that her bedroom is the same it was as a girl.

The title, as bland as bland can be, doesn't seem appropriate either. The place to which she returns is somewhere she's never been. The ending provides a kind of answer, but it's a tenuous reason at best to think that THE RETURN fits because of it.

It's easy to pick up on those things because there's a whole lot of nothing going on in this movie. THE RETURN tries to get by on atmosphere alone. The blue-tinted images and eerie silences, themselves played out stylistic choices, don't mean anything when the film lacks dramatic tension and interesting characters.

There's not enough plot in THE RETURN for an episode of GHOST WHISPERER, let alone a feature-length film. At least with a TV show, you don't have to leave the house to be bored.

Grade: D

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause


Preparing for the holidays can be stressful enough. Imagine if it was a year-round process. In THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE, the jolly bringer of Christmas cheer finds home and work demands a little overwhelming.

On top of monitoring toy production and naughty and nice lists, Santa Claus (Tim Allen), a.k.a. Scott Calvin, and his wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) have a baby Claus on the way. Carol is understandably nervous, especially since her due date may fall on the same night as Scott/Santa’s big delivery.

Due to the nature of Santa’s work, the location of the Claus home must remain secret, meaning that they’re cut off from family in the U.S. (Scott’s in-laws think he’s a Canadian toymaker.) Nevertheless, Carol asks for her parents (Ann-Margret and Alan Arkin) to be brought to the North Pole to help her through the pregnancy. Scott agrees to retrieve them as long as the joyful village can be redecorated with a maple leaf and hockey theme to sustain the illusion that they’re in Canada.

Adding to Santa’s concerns is Jack Frost (Martin Short), an ambitious fellow who wants to represent a holiday rather than the start of a season. The Council of Legendary Figures is ready to discipline Jack for his unsuccessful attempt to create Frostmas, but Jack persuades them to give him community service helping Santa. Meanwhile, he schemes to take over the big guy’s role.

THE SANTA CLAUSE films may speak to the need for family connections, but this third movie represents another part of the season: the need to move product. It’s no secret that sequel after sequel is produced because they continue to sell tickets. Walt Disney Pictures is going to ride this franchise until they cease to pull in sufficient box office dollars or Tim Allen bails. (That’s when it will likely evolve into a direct-to-video series.) From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense. Creatively, though, it’s another matter entirely.

The two prior films have been profitable enough to justify the existence of a third one—I’ll concede that the second film is a successful family movie—but there’s nowhere for THE SANTA CLAUSE movies to go. The concept’s bankruptcy is apparent in THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 employing the movie world’s equivalent of jumping the shark. An imminent newborn enters into the equation, and the film swallows its own tail by returning twice (!) to the pivotal moment when Scott assumed the responsibility of being Santa.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 had the potential for some mildly raucous fun with Jack Frost. Nothing subversive like the vulgar hilarity of the decidedly family-unfriendly BAD SANTA, mind you, but something along the lines of Jack Skellington’s unfortunate reimagining of the holiday in THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (the cartoon, not the rancid live-action version) would have been nice.

In the first half of the film Jack takes a back seat to the domestic crises of the Clauses, just what the little ones in the audience want to see. When he finally gets to cut loose, Jack’s evil machinations are manifested by turning the North Pole into a tourist trap and making himself the star of a Broadway-style revue. That’s diabolical but not all that funny.

Allen won’t be winning any awards for his work in films like this—nor should he—but he’s an agreeable actor who has found his niche and is often the best thing about his lesser movies. The Santa Claus role reins him in, but he adds a welcome dash of mischief to the large-hearted guy.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 helmer Michael Lembeck is a veteran television director. To his credit, he feeds this stale story in bite-sized servings that make it watchable even if it doesn’t satisfy. This plays a lot like a TV holiday special intended to reach a broad viewership. It’s diverting enough seasonal fare appropriate for a wide age range. Family viewing like THE SANTA CLAUSE 3 won’t muster any strong objections, but who wants a Christmas gift for which that’s the best you can say about it?

Grade: C-

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Death of a President

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Gabriel Range, 2006)

A film about the future assassination and death of a sitting President is a lightning rod for controversy if ever there was one. It comes as no surprise that some national theater chains have refused to book DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, a documentary that hypothesizes how President George W. Bush might be killed. Blending staged scenes with actors and manipulated file footage, director Gabriel Range constructs a believable account of the President's final hours and the political repercussions of his murder.

Structured like a longform television news piece, DEATH OF A PRESIDENT recounts the events of October 19, 2007 and the subsequent investigation through interviews with eyewitnesses and agents on the case.

The President is visiting Chicago to give a speech on the economy. The Iraq War and tense relations with North Korea have caused thousands of protesters to flock to the site and try to have their voices heard. The Secret Service is wary of the situation, especially when one person breaks through the barricades and smacks the President's car, but he makes it into the Sheraton and to the appointment unharmed. It's not until a meeting with supporters that a sniper mortally injures the American leader.

The bulk of the film is concerned with the politically motivated investigation and the legislation that is passed to increase governmental surveillance powers. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT does not imply that the assassination is part of a conspiracy, but there are suggestions that the President's death is used as a tool to advance President Cheney's interests.

As inflammatory as the subject matter might seem, Range's film is a staid, even somber, piece that takes no satisfaction in the assassination of a head of state. Presumably the director is not fond of Bush's policies, but DEATH OF A PRESIDENT doesn't cater to those who fantasize about the worst befalling Bush. The assassination itself is obstructed through a jumble of people colliding once shots have been fired. A protective circle forms immediately around the wounded President and keeps viewers from seeing much of anything. The Zapruder film this isn't.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT'S premise will outrage some, although Range tries not to offend. He's made a sober film that explores how such an incident might impact the American Muslim community regardless of who the killer might be. He also looks at how investigators and government officials might justify chipping away at privacy in the name of finding the killer and keeping the population safe.

Range has expertly interwoven real and simulated footage to make a film that looks convincing, but it amounts to little more than a clever editing exercise. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT theorizes what might happen. The problem is it doesn't play effectively as a warning of a near future. The conclusions are hardly revelatory. The dry, matter of fact presentation will keep dissenters at bay, but for such a potentially controversial film, it's relatively boring. The idea of this speculative documentary will rattle some cages, but the execution of it will inspire indifference.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT'S structure doesn't work within the universe the film imagines. The film would have been released after the assassination and trial, yet it holds the twists until the end. Anyone who lived through the events would already know the secrets that the film squirrels away for its last reels. A more interesting and productive approach would have been to put this information at the beginning, not to mention that it would have better fulfilled the film's conceit.

Grade: C-

Monday, October 30, 2006


SAW III (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006)

Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), the twisted mastermind of the SAW films, likes to test damaged people's limits to see how much they want to keep on living, no matter how bad they feel their lives are. That's a fair description for the experience of the challenge posed in watching SAW III, a more-of-the-same second sequel that licks its chops at the harm inflicted on the characters. I know I've just about reached my breaking point in enduring yet another so-called horror movie that wallows in the ugliest human impulses for "fun".

For this third go-round, the bedridden Jigsaw has his protégé Amanda (Shawnee Smith) abduct Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), a surgeon in a broken marriage, to tend to his medical needs. Lynn's job is to keep him alive while Amanda monitors another of his games. To keep Lynn motivated, a contraption with cocked triggers and shotgun shells is placed around her neck. If Jigsaw's heart stops or she tries to go too far away, kablam.

Elsewhere in the same decrepit building, a grieving father is marched through one of Jigsaw's shock therapy games. Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) cannot let go of his anger over the accidental death of his son and wishes to exact revenge upon the lightly sentenced perpetrator. Jigsaw may grant him his wish, although viewers of the first two SAW films know that Jeff won't want to follow through on the opportunity.

With films such as HOSTEL raising the stakes for on-screen depictions of cruelty and torture, the makers of SAW III must feel obligated to give the franchise a little more gore for the greenbacks. It's not the most violent and stomach-turning film to come out this year, but believe it or not, there's a more sadistic streak than was found in the original or SAW II. Two horrific deaths are shown before the main story begins. Neither move along SAW III'S plot, so the inclusion of these scenes is truly gratuitous.

The same applies to the distasteful use of female nudity in a torture setting and a single utterance of a still generally taboo word for female genitalia. What other choice is there if the competition is pushing the envelope? Three SAW films have exhausted the concept. This box office golden goose has a future of going more extreme and making "the beginning" movies about Jigsaw, a direction suggested a few times here.

SAW III is essentially a grim schoolyard game of "would you rather...?" rendered in nasty vignettes. Yes, it's only a movie, but there's enough pain and suffering in the world that consuming this as entertainment seems obscene.

Grade: D

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

My second submission to Nights and is now online. It's a humor piece--think funny in scare quotes--called The Disclaimer.

In a sense, it's a return to what I used to write. In high school I tried my hand at David Letterman-esque top ten lists. I saw some of the lists several years ago when my parents were moving and thus giving me some of the things I had at home. It was pretty cringe-worthy stuff, but friends seemed to like them at the time.

I'll make no guarantees of The Disclaimer causing side-splitting laughter. Check that. It won't cause a busted gut. It's merely a dry take on the absurdity of disclaimers, especially those that come on DVD cases. I hope you find it moderately clever. If not, at least it's short.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Marie Antoinette

MARIE ANTOINETTE (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE takes a sympathetic view of the future French queen, a teenager who had to abandon everything she brought with her from Austria—even the clothes on her back—to wed dauphin Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman). The marriage is a political arrangement, one intended to strengthen relations between Marie’s Austria and France.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) finds life at Versailles to be a bureaucratic comedy. Getting dressed each morning is a group affair dictated by social standing of those present. The reigning king (Rip Torn) openly indulges his affair with the whore Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), whose purchased title is . Of greater concern is Marie’s unconsummated marriage with her disinterested husband. Louis Auguste expends his energy hunting and making keys while resisting Marie’s attempts to conceive an heir. Pressure to produce a boy builds as Louis’ sexual preference becomes gossip fodder and the young couple ascends to the throne.

Rather than a critical portrait of the infamous French queen, MARIE ANTOINETTE sees her as a bird in a gilded cage. Essentially traded like property to the French royal family for political capital, Marie lives the high life but one dominated by ennui and loneliness. Coppola’s Versailles insulates Marie from the outside world, all the better to understand why she fritters away her time on fashion and sweets while opposition to the crown builds in the streets of Paris.

As in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and LOST IN TRANSLATION, Coppola again proves that a dazzling visual sense is her strength as a director. MARIE ANTOINETTE is a gorgeous film with sumptuous production and costume design. Cinematographer Lance Acord’s natural lighting creates a fantasy world inside the royal home and highlights the beauty of the countryside with sun-kissed shots. Every frame of MARIE ANTOINETTE is like a painting, be it the stunning images of reflected light on the palace or the teeming party scenes.

Coppola’s talent with imagery and atmosphere make her narrative weaknesses all the more glaring. The fashion-conscious MARIE ANTOINETTE looks great. Imagine what this attractive but empty shell of a movie might have been with something inside it. Coppola has borrowed a thing or two from Wong Kar-wai when it comes to depicting wistful alienation, but unlike her previous efforts, here she struggles to give audiences any reason to care. There’s little psychological depth to the characters, and often they’re undercut by stilted dialogue, perhaps none more than Schwartzman.

Schwartzman came to attention as Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s RUSHMORE. Whether fair or not, it’s hard to separate the actor from his breakthrough role, especially when playing another awkward, sullen character with an odd hobby. Magnifying the problem, Coppola’s screenplay leads many of the performers to act as though this period piece is a contemporary production staged by the Max Fischer Players. Some of MARIE ANTOINETTE is intended to play as comedy, but it's not always clear when that's the case and when it's accidentally funny.

Dunst fares better as a ray of light among the dour royal court, but the writing lets her down too. MARIE ANTOINETTE feels for the queen, but the emotion is held at a distance. The slight plot, which meanders a great deal once an heir is born, exists as a series of events. Such an approach misses the opportunity to explore Marie’s feelings and instead favors the filmmaker’s reading of the historical figure without getting to know the person.

Grade: C

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Grudge 2

THE GRUDGE 2 (Takashi Shimizu, 2006)

If dying in a powerful rage can cause a curse to be born, as THE GRUDGE 2 insists, then surely feeling severe dissatisfaction from watching this awful sequel will produce minor disturbances in movie theaters across the nation. Subsequent moviegoers will suffer nothing as serious as death from raven-haired spirits, mind you, but popcorn will mysteriously become stale and fellow viewers will forget to turn off their cell phones. Actually, that last one will probably happen, lesser curse or not.

THE GRUDGE 2 consists of three storylines, one of which picks up the thread from the conclusion of its 2004 predecessor. Upon receiving news that her sister Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been hospitalized, Aubrey Davis (Amber Tamblyn) goes to Tokyo to find out what’s wrong with her. (Although Gellar is in the film, she has the good sense to make little more than an extended cameo.) Aubrey disregards all warnings about the supernatural forces at play and investigates the circumstances that brought about Karen’s incapacitated state.

A second Tokyo-based storyline has unpopular schoolgirl Allison (Arielle Kebbel) giving in to peer pressure and entering the cursed house from THE GRUDGE on a dare. She too begins seeing all manner of creepy things, like the ghostly little boy who shrieks like a cat.

There’s also a sequence set in Chicago in which Jennifer Beals’ character moves in with her lover and his two children. It’s safe to say that the new living arrangement is probably doomed because of all sorts of bad vibes emanating from the neighbor girl shrouded in her hooded sweatshirt.

Apparently writer-director Takashi Shimizu has made a career out of redoing the same two films over and over, which seems like a curse in its own right. His Internet Movie Database filmography lists entries for JU-ON and JU-ON 2, both made in 2000; 2003’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2, theatrical versions of the earlier films; and THE GRUDGE and THE GRUDGE 2, his English-language remakes. (If the IMDb listing is correct, there’s more to come. The Japanese-language JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 3 is supposedly due next year.)

It comes as no surprise that this material doesn’t seem fresh, even if one hasn’t seen the other versions. Shimizu’s direction is on auto-pilot. He reuses scenarios, images, and beats that drain THE GRUDGE 2 of suspense. The repetition is numbing, and it leads to inadvertent laughter. For all intents and purposes, THE GRUDGE 2 is a parody of itself and the most recent wave of Japanese horror. I couldn’t stop from laughing when a girl guzzles a half gallon of milk and regurgitates it back into the jug.

Although short on plot, THE GRUDGE succeeded as a stylish exercise in mood. The tension was built slowly with long silences and punctuated by chilling images. THE GRUDGE 2 isn’t frightening at all, save for the stingers on the soundtrack that function as reflex tests rather than actual scares. Since it doesn’t cause any anxiety, the film can be seen for the poorly written rehash that it is.

Studios are milking their back catalogs by cranking out cheap direct-to-video sequels without the original stars—THE PRINCE & ME 2 and LIKE MIKE 2, anyone? Although it received a theatrical run, THE GRUDGE 2 is just reconstituted product, a watered down version of a decent original.

Grade: D-

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Protector (Tom yum goong)

THE PROTECTOR (TOM YUM GOONG) (Prachya Pinkaew, 2005)

Muay Thai martial artist Tony Jaa leaves his homeland to rescue two elephants entrusted to his care in THE PROTECTOR. Jaa’s character Kham comes from a family which has upheld the ancient tradition of raising and protecting the king’s elephants. When his father is murdered and their animals stolen, Kham travels to Australia to track down the gangster responsible.

Tony Jaa’s first starring vehicle, ONG-BAK: THAI WARRIOR, was a bracing kick of physical stunts and ingenious action scenes. Jaa looked poised to become the next big thing in Asian martial arts cinema, but THE PROTECTOR is a step backwards for the star and his director Prachya Pinkaew.

THE PROTECTOR’S plot is as sturdy as a piece of balsa wood, which wouldn’t have mattered so much if the film had showcased Jaa’s talents better. What made ONG-BAK so exhilarating was seeing him running up walls and doing other crazy moves. Although THE PROTECTOR is essentially an 80-minute fight scene, it’s largely lacking in the eye-popping stunt department.

The only notable sequence in this ordinary film is when Pinkaew uses an unbroken take to follow Jaa as he dispatches dozens of bad guys and makes his way up several floors of the gangster’s restaurant. The camerawork and Jaa’s punching and kicking efficiency mimic a video game, but in shooting the scene wide and in a long take, the director gives an appreciation of the star’s abilities.

At this point Jaa doesn’t display the charisma of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, in part because THE PROTECTOR doesn’t require him to do more than look distressed or angry. His last film was quite funny, but aside from the occasional amusing oddity—the villain signals his X Games assassins by triggering a siren that apparently can be heard through all of Sydney—THE PROTECTOR doesn’t elicit many laughs.

The Weinstein Company is releasing THE PROTECTOR. When he was at Miramax Harvey Weinstein was notorious for reediting and dubbing Asian films for American release. It looks like he’s been at it again. THE PROTECTOR is an inconsistent mix of original language with subtitles and bad dubbing. The film has been rescored by The RZA, and I’d wager there are scenes that have been removed from the original cut. While I prefer that the director’s vision be imported than a studio execs, I don’t think the alterations have done mortal damage to the film. THE PROTECTOR is flawed enough on its own.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Employee of the Month

EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH (Greg Coolidge, 2006)

In EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH rumor has it that the new buxom, blonde cashier at bulk retailer Super Club has a thing for the staff member honored every thirty days. Zack (Dane Cook), a lackadaisical box boy, takes the information to heart and strives to unseat Vince (Dax Shepard), a flashy checkout worker who has won the award seventeen months in a row. As if hooking up with Amy (Jessica Simpson) isn’t ample motivation, Vince can win a “new-ish” car by extending his streak another month.

Cook is the stand-up comic of the moment, although there’s little in EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH to explain why he’s currently one of the hottest names in comedy. He exhibits some scruffy appeal as Zack, who’s a mix of a calmer, less pathetic Adam Sandler character and a less obnoxious version of Ryan Reynolds’ WAITING… troublemaker, but mostly he plays the straight man to the wacky supporting cast. Surrounded by a who’s who of scene-stealing comic actors (Andy Dick, Harland Williams, Efren Ramirez a.k.a. Pedro in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE), Cook stands in the middle of the zaniness rather than participate in it.

He receives no assistance from Simpson, who’s good at spilling out of her low-cut clothing and nothing more. Aside from her prominently framed physical attributes, she’s a blank on screen. It’s telling that EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH tends to cut to reaction shots during her lines.

EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH shares more than a passing resemblance with WAITING…, that odious comedy about casual dining servers, and wants to recall OFFICE SPACE, the king of modern workplace comedies. Those films established a good sense of the daily slog and indignities in the jobs whereas EMPLOYEE fails to take full advantage of its megamart setting. The film could have used more scenes like the big bagging competition and an after hours date a la CAREER OPPORTUNITIES. This Noah’s ark of merchandise gets ignored for jokes about a pneumatic tube messaging system and a plush cashier’s-only lounge.

Messages are an afterthought in films like EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH, yet it’s mildly distressing that here the underlying theme is that it’s better to eliminate all ambition and stick with one’s friends than try to improve one’s station. Rising through the chain of command and keeping old relationships aren’t mutually exclusive, but the film would have us believe that bettering one’s self means abandoning buddies. Talk about keeping the working man down.

Grade: C-

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Gridiron Gang

GRIDIRON GANG (Phil Joanou, 2006)

In GRIDIRON GANG juvenile detention center counselor Sean Porter (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) notices that many of the boys he and his co-workers are supposed to be rehabilitating return with fresh sentences or end up killed. The teenagers are full of anger but have no productive way of releasing their energy. A former college pigskin star whose career was cut short by injury, Sean decides that football might be a positive way to channel their pent-up aggression, build teamwork, and cross the gang lines that extend into the center.

The philosophy espoused in GRIDIRON GANG places the team above the individual, but the film is carried on the broad shoulders of the charismatic Johnson. The actor, best known from his days as a pro wrestler, has almost always been the best thing about his films, even the lousy ones. His imposing figure and megawatt smile allow him to be at home doing action and comedy, and on screen he comes across as eminently likable.

GRIDIRON GANG is a transitional movie for the star. Johnson exercises traditional dramatic chops as the inspirational coach who has the best interests of the wayward kids at heart. He’s completely convincing as someone smooth enough to finesse the administrators who initially balk at the idea and tough enough to make the juvenile delinquents listen and respect him. The end credits show snippets of a documentary about the coach on whom Johnson’s character is based. It’s astonishing how much Johnson resembles him in personality and physical presence. If there was still any doubt, Johnson should no longer have to fight his wrestling past to be taken seriously as an actor.

As for the football action and motivational storyline, GRIDIRON GANG hits the standard beats with a light touch. The outcome-driven sports movie requirements are balanced with the emotional arcs of the counselors and the players. The gridiron play is fast and hard-hitting but not so overblown that it seems like a miracle anyone can walk away unharmed. The players’ troubled backgrounds aren’t soft sold or overdramatized. A minor fault is the impression that Sean works at the center 24 hours a day except when he’s visiting his sick mother. He’s not made out to be a saint, but with his work load it wouldn’t hurt to be one.

GRIDIRON GANG is a hybrid of familiar football movies and teacher-as-savior films. The conventions don’t limit the film but pave the way for a highly satisfying view.

Grade: B

Friday, September 29, 2006


FLYBOYS (Tony Bill, 2006)

FLYBOYS tells the stories of the first American combat pilots. Many of the volunteers had no prior flight experience when they went to France to fight Germany during World War I. Inspired by the true story of the 1917 Lafayette Escadrille, FLYBOYS follows a group that includes Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a Texas farm boy whose family ranch was foreclosed; Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a millionaire’s son out to prove himself; and Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a former slave’s son who had been working in France as a boxer.

FLYBOYS pays respect to the memories of the original fighting airmen and marvels at their heroism. The American flyers were not drafted or even fighting for their own country, yet they put their lives on the line every time they took to the sky. Such reverence in war films can lead to dramatic inertia, but FLYBOYS sustains a sense of wonder through its detailed depiction of training routines, military culture, and aerial combat.

Detail doesn’t always mean good. The dreadful GODS AND GENERALS was suffocated in part by slavish devotion to Civil War reenactments; however, FLYBOYS is most interesting when it shows the technology involved in preparing these young flyers. Training included being spun around in a chair and then walking a narrow beam to being pushed in a makeshift plane body on tracks and firing at targets. Their tools were perhaps even less advanced. They were given hammers to fix jammed machine guns and pistols to use as a means of avoiding fiery deaths. (They did not have parachutes.) This old-fashioned adventure works hard to stay true to the experiences that it’s slightly distracting when it turns to obvious movie moments.

The combat scenes are well executed, and the effects pass the believability test for the most part. My guess is that most of the action was shot with models—it doesn’t look like a lot of CGI is on display—and the illusion is much more realistic, save for a couple times.

As with any film constructed from a purportedly true story, FLYBOYS takes liberties with the characters. Most resemble real pilots or are composites but function as war movie archetypes. All the time goes into the meticulous documenting of what the flyboys did, leaving less for who they were. FLYBOYS rises above these flat characterizations to provide an often fascinating glimpse of the lives of early airmen.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


CONFETTI (Debbie Isitt, 2006)

The mock documentary CONFETTI satirizes the wedding industry and the couples who want to do something different for their special day. Confetti magazine sponsors a contest to put on the most creative ceremony. Two of the finalist couples’ themes—tennis and 1930s Hollywood musicals—offer the possibility of delivering stylish events that will look attractive on the cover of the magazine. The naturist couple wants to have a nude wedding, which presents a dilemma for the publication if they win.

CONFETTI is the latest mockumentary to encounter the problem of reality, or reality TV, being more outrageous than the filmmaker’s send-up. With bridezillas raging across the screens of cable television, the relatively well-behaved couples in CONFETTI don’t stand a chance of matching the level of derision that their real-life counterparts encourage.

The wedding concepts aren’t wild and crazy either, although the naturist couple’s propensity for appearing completely undressed in the film may be a shock to mainstream American moviegoers. That said, this British comedy is almost too polite. Pat jokes about overbearing mothers-in-law, the emotional gay wedding planners, and the ultra-competitive tennis couple are hardly the stuff of hearty laughs or inspired improvisations. The two funniest people in the film—THE OFFICE’S Martin Freeman and SPACED and SHAUN OF THE DEAD’S Jessica Stevenson—comprise the straight couple in comedic terms.

CONFETTI isn’t uproariously funny or all that compelling, but director Debbie Isitt has the good sense to end it on a high note. The ceremony for Matt and Sam (Freeman and Stevenson) is reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s elaborate song and dance routines and a treat to watch.

Grade: C-