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Christmas Coal

Early holiday releases fail to deliver the goods

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DECK THE HALLS
*
DIRECTED BY John Whitesell
STARS Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick

Christmas may bring out the best in most people, but what is it about the holiday that brings out the worst in Hollywood filmmakers?

Christmas With the Kranks arguably ranks as the worst picture of the 21st century (and with only 94 years left, time's running out for it to relinquish its title!), while such Yuletide turkeys as Jingle All the Way, Mixed Nuts and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians certainly did no favors for 20th century cinema. 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's your daddy?") 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 (Holy Mother, the nonsense that gets the green light in today's Hollywood!). 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. Certainly, the woman seated next to me at the advance screening felt it was worth the gas money: When the cross-dressing sheriff commented that a particular situation got "my panties in a twist," she laughed and laughed and laughed to the point where I feared that neither my eardrums nor the theater foundation were safe.

Fortunately, both the building and I survived. And so will the film industry, despite nuclear bombs like Deck the Halls threatening to destroy it from within.

DÉJÀ VU
**
DIRECTED BY Tony Scott
STARS Denzel Washington, Paula Patton

If you were one of the gamers who braved both the elements and irate customers to score a PlayStation 3 during its 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.

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 remains one of the best films made by either man. Déjà Vu, though, 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 a ferry explosion 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 him 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 residents 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 allows 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).

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