Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
There was a fresh quality to the original Spy Kids. The idea of two children finding out their parents were superspies whom they wind up having to rescue showed a new twist on kid empowerment. Unfortunately that fresh imagination which appealed to audiences and catapulted the original into a smash hit is not as prevalent in the sequel. What writer/director Robert Rodriguez does instead is further the story along; now there is a whole new branch of kid spies at the OSS. Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) and older sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) are now star Level 2 agents but brother/sister agents Gerti (Emily Osment) and Gary (Matt O'Leary) Giggles are quickly becoming stars in their own right. The two rivaling duos set off on a mission to a mysterious island their objective to locate and destroy a device that could wipe out all the world's technology. On the island they discover weird animals roaming around created by a mad scientist (Steve Buscemi) who is hiding somewhere on the island. Juni and Carmen soon run into big trouble when their gadgets and gizmos don't work. They have to use their wits to figure things out but a little help from the whole family--dad Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) mom Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and their grandparents (Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban)--doesn't hurt either. The time has come for a little family power to save the day.
Vega and Sabara continue to do a nice job in their roles as Carmen and Juni especially Vega. It is fun to see how she's grown up over the last year. Carmen is a young woman now and her amorous feelings towards Gary Giggles add a nice touch to her character. The interesting mother/daughter conflict between Carmen and Ingrid which was explored in the original has now switched to a conflict between Juni and his dad. Gregorio feels like his son doesn't need him anymore now that Juni is a super kid spy. It doesn't hold up quite as well. Sabara gets a little romance of his own in the form of the U.S. president's daughter (played by How the Grinch Stole Christmas's Taylor Momsen) and he handles the chores as little leading man well. Osment (who is a spitting image of her older more famous real-life brother Haley Joel) and O'Leary make nice additions to the story as the rival Giggles and if there's a third Spy Kids we hope they'll be a part of it. As far as the adults Banderas does well with his comedic moments but he and Gugino almost seem like caricatures of the loving parents they fleshed out so well in Spy Kids. Taylor Montalban and Buscemi are simply wasted. Period.
Spy Kids 2 relies more on special effects and gadgetry than the original did and that's a shame. The heart of Spy Kids was about family and trust but Rodriguez has chosen to focus more on the spy aspects than family issues in the sequel. Of course some may disagree with this assessment because the theme of family is certainly prevalent in Spy Kids 2. It just seems much more superficial and forced than the first. The thing to point out however is the special effects are not nearly as spectacular as they could have been. If the film is hyping itself as action-packed with gadgets galore then one might expect glorious visuals. Instead the effects are reminiscent of the early '70s Sinbad B-movies even down to Juni and Carmen fighting skeletons. And the island looks more like it should belong to Dr. Moreau with odd combo animals like the spider-monkey (half spider half monkey of course) and the slizard (you can guess). Maybe Rodriguez intended to use this particular style and if he did he should be told it didn't really work that well.