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+