NATIVITY STORY There’s no small irony in the fact that 16-year-old Australian actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays the Virgin Mary in the new Biblical drama The Nativity Story, has recently revealed that she herself is pregnant – an unexpected development that should lead to plenty of headaches for New Line Cinema’s PR department. Normally, I wouldn’t pass along such chatter, especially since the holier-than-thou trolls on the IMDb message boards are one step away from hunting her down and stoning her to death on the street. But that tidbit will at least raise eyebrows; The Nativity Story, on the other hand, fails to even raise a pulse. Director Catherine Hardwicke, whose Thirteen was a wild and wicked look at out-of-control LA teens, seems fearful of adding any semblance of passion to this interpretation, resulting in a stillborn drama that inspires yawns more than anything else. Castle-Hughes, whose work in the lyrical Whale Rider earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination a few years ago, is curiously flat as Mary; the three wise men, meanwhile, are asked to generate so many nyuks they end up coming across as the Three Stooges.
DECK THE HALLS Christmas may bring out the best in most people, but what is it about the holiday that brings out the worst in Hollywood filmmakers? And now here comes Deck the Halls, yet another holiday hack job that champions cynicism and mean-spiritedness before tacking on a phony redemptive ending meant to fool us into believing that we actually sat through something of value. Mind you, I’m all for seasonal cynicism when done right: Few Christmas flicks are as vicious – or as funny – as Bad Santa. But Deck the Halls seems to have been conceived on the back of a snot-soaked tissue by a none-too-bright second grader: Its gags are all on the order of having obnoxious car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) climbing buck-naked into a sleeping bag with frostbitten neighbor Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick) in an effort to warm him up (after all, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a smattering of gay panic, right?), or the two men leering and hooting at teenage girls who turn out to be their own daughters (after all, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like allusions to incest, right?). The imbecilic plot concerns Steve’s disgust at Buddy’s desire to put enough Christmas lights on his house so it can be seen from outer space. Before it’s all done, Steve will find himself trapped on a runaway sled, spit upon by an angry camel, and shunned by his Instant Sitcom-Ready Family (i.e. just add laugh track). But why waste time describing this? Deck the Halls is the sort of film made for people who only see two or three theatrical releases a year – and even then only after they’ve determined that the picture in question will in no way stimulate them or upset their carefully orchestrated universe.
DÉJà VU If you were one of the gamers who braved both the elements and irate customers to score a PlayStation 3 during its heavily hyped launch a couple of weeks ago, then Déjà Vu should be right up your alley. The latest from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott is movie porn for the electronic media set, a techno-thriller deeply in love with its own hardware. Indeed, Bruckheimer and Scott have a history of tackling movies about boys and their toys, and some have even been good: The Will Smith hit Enemy of the State, for example, remains one of the best films made by either man. Déjà Vu, on the other hand, is a disappointment, a high-gloss action film that grows increasingly silly as it introduces each new wrinkle in its spiraling plot. Set in New Orleans, the film opens with an explosion aboard a ferry that kills over 500 people. Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), an ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agent, is summoned to lead the investigation, and he quickly realizes that the key to the mystery rests with the beautiful – and deceased – Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), whose charred body was found in the same vicinity as those of the ferry victims.Carlin’s footwork can only take him so far; to have any chance of catching the Timothy McVeigh-styled terrorist (Jim Caviezel), he must bunker down with Andrew Pryzwarra (a wasted Val Kilmer), an FBI agent who introduces Carlin to nifty new gadgets that can allow the government to not only use satellite technology to spy on citizens’ houses but also to make its way inside those houses, getting close enough to watch them take showers, make phone calls and feed the cats. For some convoluted reason, this available satellite footage is always running four days behind, and it’s impossible to speed it up, slow it down or stop it for closer inspection. But not to worry: Perhaps sensing that they’re quickly writing themselves into a corner, scripters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio also invent a pair of goggles that allow the present-day Carlin to engage in a car chase with the four-days-ago terrorist. And when that development runs out of juice, the pair decide (via a character’s unconvincing scientific explanation) that the spyware also doubles as a time machine, just the ticket so that Carlin can go back in time to save Claire (his first priority) and the other 500 victims (a distant second). Although the decision to stage a massive disaster in the heart of Katrina Country will strike many as an unfortunate lapse in judgment, it’s the early scenes in Déjà Vu that prove to be the most compelling, as Denzel’s Doug Carlin uses his wits to stockpile various clues that will lead him in the right direction. The film is so accomplished as a straightforward thriller, in fact, that it feels obtrusive not only when it starts to pay more attention to the satellite images than to the characters, but also when it introduces its menagerie of fuzzy sci-fi fancies.
HAPPY FEET For at least half of its running time, Happy Feet is the usual crapola animated feature, this one about a penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood) whose tap-dancing prowess freaks out his fellow flightless fowl. Like many mediocre toon flicks, it features saccharine characters, soulless CGI imagery, lazy stereotypes that border on racism, and way too much Robin Williams (playing not one, not two, but three characters). But a strange and wonderful thing happens deep into the film. It dispenses with the fun and games and becomes a sober reflection on the harm that humans are causing to the environment and to our ice-capped friends in particular. The movie morphs into one of the coolest Twilight Zone episodes never made, and for a brief, glorious second, I thought it was going to end at the most opportune moment, delivering its themes with all the force of a sledgehammer on an egg shell. But no. The film recovers from its momentary brilliance and soon is back on its preordained path to a happy ending.
CASINO ROYALE After a typically exciting pre-credits sequence, Casino Royale -- like almost all James Bond films before it -- employs the tried-and-true image guaranteed to raise the pulses of Bond fans all across the globe. The dapper agent strolls into the frame, whirls around and fires directly at the circular camera eye while the classic 007 theme plays on the soundtrack. Only... Where’s the music? Monty Norman’s familiar riff does show up during the end credits, but it’s conspicuously missing from the beginning. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson insisted that the franchise would largely be starting from scratch with this, the 21st film, but let’s face it: Not employing that beloved tune was a serious miscalculation. Fortunately, it’s about the only one. In most other respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years. It easily swats aside the Pierce Brosnan Bond flicks, while new star Daniel Craig vies with Timothy Dalton for second place as the screen’s best 007 (it’s doubtful Sean Connery will ever relinquish the gold). Casino Royale was actually the first Bond book penned by Ian Fleming, so it’s fitting that it serves as the source material for this refashioning of the series. Basically, this new film wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted by M (Judi Dench, the only holdover from the Brosnan years) to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. Bond’s first mission of import is to enter a poker tournament being held in Montenegro’s Casino Royale, where he’s to prevent Eurotrash villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a personal financier of the world’s terrorist organizations, from emerging victorious and collecting the sizable pot. Aiding him in his assignment is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a treasury agent who proves to be Bond’s match in the verbal sparring department. The character of Vesper Lynd -- one of the sharpest women in the Bond oeuvre -- is just one of the many pleasing touches on view in this slam-bang chapter. The most notable differences can be found in the secret agent himself: As intensely played by Craig, this James Bond isn’t a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he’s just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we’re used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero. Forsaking the special effects that ended up dominating the series (too often, it was hard to differentiate a Brosnan Bond from a video game), Casino Royale relies more on mano-a-mano skirmishes, confrontations that are up close and personal. This results in a couple of terrific action scenes, one involving a foot chase across a construction site. Even the more staid sequences, such as the actual poker tournament, crackle with a level of excitement missing from most of the recent installments. Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, “Do I really look like I give a damn?” Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating.
BOBBY For all its fast and loose playing with the facts, JFK was a remarkable movie that, except for some tepid domestic scenes between the Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek characters, exclusively focused on the Kennedy legacy and how his death impacted a nation. Bobby, on the other hand, is as much about Robert Kennedy as Stone’s World Trade Center was about 9/11 -- it uses a national tragedy as a springboard for a more generic Hollywood product. Set in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel in the hours leading up to Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan, Bobby is inspired by the 1932 Oscar winner Grand Hotel (referenced in the film) as well as by the sort of multistory TV shows director Emilio Estevez grew up with (Hotel, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Supertrain, etc.). So while Democratic staffers are busy prepping for Bobby’s visit, other soggy dramas are being played out in the site’s corridors and rooms. The hotel manager (William H. Macy) passes the time by cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone) with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham) and by handing walking papers to the bigoted employee (Christian Slater) in charge of kitchen operations. A Mexican busboy (Freddy Rodriguez), upset that he has to miss an important Dodgers game because he’s being forced to work two consecutive shifts, finds a sympathetic ear in the philosophical cook (Laurence Fishburne). A boozy nightclub singer (Demi Moore) picks fights with her manager-husband (Estevez). A former Ambassador doorman (Anthony Hopkins) reflects on all the great leaders he greeted over the years at the front of the posh establishment. A hippie (Kutcher) sells drugs from the comfort of his hotel room. There are a few nice speeches about the American future that Bobby represents if he can get elected president, and the final portion of the picture, with Kennedy’s own words being heard over the aftermath of his fateful encounter with Sirhan Sirhan, exhibits a power and poignancy missing from the rest of the movie.
THE FOUNTAIN The word from the Venice Film Festival, where The Fountain first saw the light of day, was that the latest work from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) is a dull and pretentious slice of sci-fi silliness, at once too cerebral and too slow-moving. Funny, a lot of folks once said the same thing about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and now it’s routinely considered one of the two or three greatest science fiction films ever made. Mind you, I’m not placing The Fountain on that esteemed level, but to dismiss this out of hand is to miss the overriding passion that Aronofsky pours into every frame of his wildly uneven but always watchable epic. Perhaps inspired by his muse, real-life fiancee (and mother of his child) Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky has penned a love story that spans the centuries -- yet that’s only part of the tale. Jumping back and forth between past, present and future, the film stars Hugh Jackman as Tomas, a Spanish conquistador sent by Queen Isabel (Weisz) to locate the Tree of Life. It also casts the actor as Tommy Creo (the surname meaning “I create” in Latin and “I believe” in Spanish), a scientist working 24/7 to find a cure for his wife Izzy (Weisz again), who’s dying of a brain tumor; his only hope seems to be the recuperative powers found in a piece of tree in his possession. Finally, Jackman appears as a Tom of the future (Tom Tomorrow?), a 26th-century loner who travels in an orb through space with a tree that contains the spirit of his deceased beloved.
TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny gets off to a fast and furious start. We see the portly kid JB (Troy Gentile) enduring a verbal trashing from his uptight father (Meat Loaf) before receiving words of encouragement and advice from the Ronnie James Dio poster hanging on his bedroom door. Dio’s advice: Get thee to Hollywood. And so it’s off to La La Land, and by the time he arrives, JB is now a grown man played by Jack Black. He hooks up with a struggling musician called KG (Kyle Gass), and after a smidgen of soul-searching and a lot of bong hits, the two elect to become the band known as Tenacious D. And there we have the origin story of Tenacious D, already a cult band thanks to their music videos and brief TV series. The rest of the story concerns the duo’s efforts to obtain a magical guitar pick made from the tooth of Satan, but continuity isn’t this meandering movie’s strong suit. Maybe it’s my age, but I laughed harder when Cheech and Chong went this route with the cult hit Up In Smoke. The key difference is that a viewer could enjoy C&C’s film alone and without the aid of a joint.
THE QUEEN Whether or not one agrees with a character’s declaration that the royal family is comprised of “freeloading, emotionally retarded nutters,” it’s fascinating to watch these upper-crust Brits play out their own sordid soap opera in The Queen, a wicked -- and wickedly good -- show that takes a highly dubious premise and somehow turns it into one of the year’s best films. Set mostly in the days following the death of Diana back in 1997, it focuses on the royal family’s reaction to the tragedy as well as the efforts of a newly elected prime minister to take control of the situation. The film begins with the landslide victory of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) as the new prime minister and his initial meeting with Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), who clearly has little regard for this populist politician. It picks up again a few months later, when the residents of Buckingham Palace are awoken out of their royal slumber by the news that the former princess was killed in an automobile accident in Paris while fleeing from pesky paparazzi.
BORAT Originally conceived as a character on HBO’s Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to make a documentary. There’s your plot. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they’re being questioned by a foreign reporter for a nonfiction piece that would presumably remain confined to the backwaters of a country on the other side of the globe. This naiveté and belief in anonymity allow the participants to open up more freely, garnering controversial results. And therein lies the dilemma. If Borat is staged, then it’s a hot-and-cold “mockumentary” that pales next to the Christopher Guest titles (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind). And indeed, there are a handful of sequences that feel staged: the Pamela Anderson interlude, for example, or a bit involving a flailing horse. Yet the filmmakers have repeatedly insisted that everything outside of Borat and his manager (played by Ken Davitian) is authentic in the picture. If that’s the case, then Borat is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerrilla filmmaking that’s able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths.
FLUSHED AWAY It’s a textbook Faustian example of selling one’s soul to the devil. Great Britain’s Aardman Animation, the studio behind the delightful Wallace & Gromit films, has always ignored the American modus operandi of churning out loud and obnoxious toon flicks by sticking to its vedy British guns and producing works that relied on clay animation rather than CGI and clarity instead of chaos. After beginning its partnership with Hollywood’s DreamWorks studio, Aardman stuck to its guns with the charming Chicken Run. Flushed Away, however, reveals that the devil is starting to collect his due. The story of a pet mouse who gets flushed down the toilet and ends up in an underground city populated by rats, frogs, slugs and other critters, the film exhibits the frenzied pace and overbearing characterizations that have become standard in US-born-and-bred animated features. The voice casting (Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, for starters) rests somewhere between Pixar inspiration and everybody else’s laziness, but the story is strictly perfunctory. Where the Aardman wit is retained is in the small details, tossed-off asides, and background imagery. The main action may move forward in fits and starts, but keep your eyes on the margins and you’ll remain satisfied. I laughed out loud at the briefly glimpsed newspaper headline that read, “Pied Piper Leads Thousands To Their Deaths,” but I expect each viewer will spot a different favorite among the clutter and cacophony.
STRANGER THAN FICTION Stranger Than Fiction has been promoted as offering a different kind of Will Ferrell just as The Truman Show was pushed as offering a different kind of Jim Carrey and Punch-Drunk Love was sold as offering a different kind of Adam Sandler. What this means in all instances, of course, is that the comedian is toning down the patented schtick a bit. Still, Carrey and Sandler both passed the test, and so does Ferrell in his role as Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose dull life is marked by rigid routine. The twist follows that Harold also inadvertently becomes the lead character in a book being written by reclusive author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, doing distracted well), and soon Harold begins to hear Kay’s voice in his head as she uncannily narrates all the minute details of his life.