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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hancock review



by Bob Garver


            July 4th weekend is practically reserved for Will Smith.  In previous years, he’s had July 4th hits with “Wild Wild West,” two “Men In Black” movies, and the appropriately-named “Independence Day.”  This year’s offering is director Peter Berg’s “Hancock.”  It is a worthy entry into this tradition, but it may not go down as one of the best examples. 

John Hancock (Smith) is a superhero in Los Angeles.  He may be a match for Superman in the sheer number of powers he has.  He has super-strength, super-speed, super-sharp nails, and of course, the ability to fly.  He certainly has the potential to benefit humanity.  But he usually chooses not to.  And when he does, he ends up doing more harm than good. 

Most movies downplay the collateral damages caused by superheroes.  “Hancock” downplays the results.  The newscasts barely say a word about the people saved and the criminals caught, choosing to focus almost entirely on the millions of dollars of damage done in the process. 

Maybe if Hancock himself were more likeable, the public would go easier on him.  Alas, that is not about to change.  Hancock is belligerent towards most people (even kids), and is mean when he’s drunk, which is often.  There is even a running gag where people refer to him by an unprintable name. 

Ray (Jason Bateman) does not feel this way about Hancock.  The two meet after Hancock pushes Ray’s car out of the path of an oncoming train.  Most of the bystanders yell at Hancock for handling the situation badly (pushing the car into another car and causing the train to derail rather than lifting the car up and letting the train pass).  Ray admits that Hancock has a few rough edges, but feels that he is generally underappreciated.  By amazing coincidence, Ray is a professional publicist.  He vows to repay Hancock by improving his public image. 

Ray invites Hancock to his home for Spaghetti Night.  His wife Mary (Charlize Theron) isn’t too happy with her husband’s new best friend.  At first, she seems to have good reason – Hancock is rude and a bad influence on their son.  But soon it becomes apparent that she has a more important reason to keep her distance from Hancock. 

It is about here where “Hancock” takes a sharp turn in the wrong direction after an impressive first act.  Up to this point, the film was supposed to be the “bad boy” of superhero movies.  Hancock bumbled, drank, and cursed (and there is a lot of cursing).  The public was unappreciative and disrespectful.  Nothing was as it should be, and it worked because it was so ironic. 

But once the movie starts to get into Hancock’s origin (and Mary’s secret), it loses its focus.  No longer is it a smart-alecky superhero movie.  It is just a regular superhero movie.  Another regular superhero movie in a summer overstuffed with superhero movies.  Incidentally, if all goes to plan, my next review will be an exclusive look at the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight.”

As a regular superhero movie, “Hancock” just falls apart.  The special effects are once again crummy CGI creations that don’t fool anybody.  The climactic action sequence is shrouded in rain and shadows (always a sign that they wanted to hide things like stunt doubles and landing mats).  Perhaps worst of all, the villain (Eddie Marsan) is unintimidating and unmemorable.  Not for a second does he seem like a threat, even when Hancock is in a weakened state. 

The ads for “Hancock” play up the first act of the film, where Hancock has to deal with being a superhero in a world where people focus too much on collateral damage.  This is a good marketing decision, because it emphasizes the best parts of the movie, before it turns sour.  If Berg hadn’t strayed so far from this element, the film could have been much better.  The early scenes are legitimately funny and touching.  “Hancock” is at its best when it is the film it says it is. 


“Hancock” is playing at the Hershey Cocoaplex (312-1300) and Cinema Center of Palmyra (838-4809).  Contact the theaters for info, tickets, and showtimes.   
6:42 pm edt          Comments

WALL-E review

Movie Review - “WALL-E”


By Bob Garver


            Pixar Animation has been responsible for some of the best movies of the last fifteen years.  Not just the best animated movies or kids’ movies, but movies, period.  “Finding Nemo,” both “Toy Story” movies, and “Ratatouille” (my pick for the single greatest film of last year) are contemporary classics.  Even the studio’s lesser films are quite good.  There isn’t a huge demand anymore for movies like “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars,” but if you have an afternoon to kill, they are a fine way to pass the time. 

           Pixar’s newest film is “WALL-E,” and sadly, it is one of those lesser films that are nevertheless better than 90% of what other studios churn out.   “WALL-E” is the story of the robotic trash compactor of the title.  He lives on a deserted Earth 700 years in the future.  He spends his days crushing leftover garbage.  At night, he enjoys his collection of artifacts.  To you and me, these are ordinary things that humans left behind.  

         Where did the humans go?  They all left on a spaceship called The Axiom.  We know this because the opening moments of the film include plenty of old commercials and news footage about The Axiom.  The idea of using old TV footage is interesting at first, but it soon becomes clear that the filmmakers couldn’t find a better way to establish the setting. 

             The plot meanders of WALL-E’s daily life for a while, but picks up when a new robot enters the picture.  The new robot’s name is EVE and she has a much sleeker design than the rust bucket WALL-E.  EVE likes to shoot everything in sight, which makes social interaction rather difficult.  But she and WALL-E still become fast friends.  One day, WALL-E presents her with a plant, which is apparently something very rare in this wasteland of the future. 

           EVE snatches the plant and immediately makes plans to return to her home on The Axiom.  Apparently, bringing a plant to The Axiom is her one and only “directive.”  Other robots in “WALL-E” have “directives,” but they are inconsistent about sticking to them, often pausing to do something decidedly spontaneous. 

          WALL-E stows away back to The Axiom.  Once we are on the ship, we get a lot of questions answered.  The ship was supposed to return to Earth after five years, but had to stay in space because pollution made the Earth uninhabitable.  The human race has grown sedate from going everywhere in flying chairs, fat from laziness and drinking greasy foods out of cups, and animated for no apparent reason. 

         It is also on the ship where we meet the film’s most interesting character.  Captain (Jeff Garlin) has spent most of his life letting the ship’s autopilot do all the work.  When EVE returns with the plant, he gets excited about returning to Earth since the plant proves that it can now sustain life.  When this dream is nearly dashed, he surprises even himself by proving gallant in the face of adversity.  He’s so nice, you hate to have to tell him he won’t be able to grow pizza from trees. 

          The hopes of returning to Earth are nearly dashed because of the autopilot.  The autopilot received orders years ago from President Forthright (a live-action Fred Willard) not to return to Earth because of all the pollution.  What Forthright meant was that the ship shouldn’t return to Earth, but the autopilot does not make this distinction. 

            The rest of “WALL-E” is an adventure to preserve the plant and return to Earth.  WALL-E, EVE, Captain, and some broken robots all contribute.  There is a lesson about teamwork.  There is a sweet little romance between WALL-E and EVE.  There is also a neat sequence at the end where the humans get Earth working again, set to a Peter Gabriel song sure to get a Best Original Song nomination at the Academy Awards.  Everything about “WALL-E” is nice and agreeable.  It might not be the next “Ratatouille,” but it makes for a good afternoon for the family. 


“WALL-E” is playing at the Hershey Cocoaplex (312-1300) and Cinema Center of Palmyra (838-4809).  Contact the theaters for info, tickets, and showtimes.   
6:39 pm edt          Comments

Get Smart review

“Get Smart”


by Bob Garver


          “Get Smart” is the latest big-budget Hollywood movie based on an old TV show.   Typically, movies that take their cues from the small screen do not turn out well.  This is especially true if the film’s target audience (teenagers and young adults) is too young to remember the original series.  The show aired in the late 60s, so its chances aren’t great.  And yet, it does manage to succeed, thanks to the excellent decision to cast Steve Carell (of NBC’s “The Office”) as Maxwell Smart. 

No, Carell does not play Smart quite the same way the late Don Adams did.  His performance is not an “impression” of Don Adams.  He adds a lot of personal touches that make the character seem original.  The result is a different version of Maxwell Smart, but one that works well on its own while still keeping the spirit of the original.  Carell makes the movie.  Which is a good thing, because most of the spy stuff falls flat. 

Smart works as an analyst for CONTROL, a government agency that keeps tabs on terrorist activity.  He’s the best analyst in the agency, but he wants to be a field agent like his friend Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson, apparently still trying to get people to stop calling him “The Rock”).  His boss, The Chief (Alan Arkin), informs him that he has indeed qualified to be a field agent, but he must remain an analyst because he is even better at that job. 

            Naturally, CONTROL’s biggest enemy is a group called KAOS.  KAOS is seemingly run by a man named Siegfried (Terrence Stamp), but there is a boss above him.  KAOS breaks into CONTROL, steals the identities of undercover agents, and has most of them assassinated.  The Chief needs to send two agents on an emergency mission, and they have to be agents that KAOS won’t recognize.  One is Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has recently had plastic surgery.  The other is Smart. 

           The rest of the movie is Agents 99 and 86 (Smart’s new identity) on a mission to recover some stolen nuclear weapons.  They have plenty of adventures along the way, usually involving 86 thinking he can handle something, failing miserably, and 99 bailing him out.  They slowly build a relationship that we know will be tested in the line of duty. 

          The plot and the action are predicable and unimportant.  The 86/99 relationship is the heart of “Get Smart.”  Carell has a way of making everything he says funny, although there are a few times where the writers clearly want him to make a specific joke and he can’t apply his improvisational style to the lines.  But when Carell and Hathaway are allowed to just go at it, they really capture lightning in a bottle.  A conversation about their marriage (their backstory for an undercover assignment) is particularly funny and captivating.

            Some have pointed out the age difference between Carell and Hathaway (20 years), but it doesn’t detract from their chemistry at all.  There is actually a plot device where 99 is only a few years younger than 86, but her plastic surgery makes her look younger than that.  Honestly, it isn’t necessary.  Carell and Hathaway are fine, surgery or no surgery. 

Hathaway, for her part, does a great job with Carell, although the scenes with just her are a bit dry.  Arkin’s Bitter Old Man act works well with his character.  Johnson is a weak link, although to be fair, Agent 23 is not a character from the show, so he had no model to work from. 

          Many will call “Get Smart” an unnecessary TV adaptation.  They have a point.  The show’s simple charm has been swapped out for shiny special effects.  Modern raunchy humor may turn off audiences who found the show to be good clean fun.  The actors don’t quite nail the timing and inflection of the catchphrases, which come off sounding forced.  “Get Smart” could have been a huge misfire, but Steve Carell makes it highly enjoyable. 


“Get Smart” is playing at the Hershey Cocoaplex (312-1300) and Cinema Center of Palmyra (838-4809).  Contact the theaters for info, tickets, and showtimes.   

6:37 pm edt          Comments

The Happening review

“The Happening”


by Bob Garver


            “The Happening” is the latest film from director M. Night Shyamalan.  It is also a film starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel.  It is also a horror movie released in the height of blockbuster season.  But it will mainly go down in history as a Shyamalan film.  Unfortunately, it will also go down as one of his worst.   

Shyamalan’s films have much in common with each other, and this has become a mixed blessing.  On the positive side, he does many things well, so audiences know they’re getting competently-made films.  On the negative side, the shared elements make his films more predictable.  After the failure of his last film, 2006’s “Lady in the Water” that film Shyamalan has apparently decided to change things up. 

Like many of Shyamalan’s films, “The Happening” is the story of an unexplained phenomenon.  But the phenomenon itself is a deviation.  What is Happening is that massive numbers of people all over the Northeast are suddenly feeling an urge to kill themselves.  One minute they’re chatting in Central Park.  The next minute they’re freezing up.  The next minute… is fatal.  Which is a nice way of saying that they off themselves in a variety of disturbing ways. 

This phenomenon is a deviation for Shyamalan because it’s much more violent than usual.  Shyamalan’s films are usually rated PG-13, but “The Happening” is a hard R for its gruesome death scenes.  I don’t think moving away from the PG-13 rating is something Shyamalan needed to change.  One thing that draws audiences to Shyamalan’s films is the fact that they are frightening, but generally family-friendly.  He won’t be able to count on those audiences for this one.  But at least he’s committed to an adult audience.  A lesser director would have trimmed just enough of their otherwise R-rated film to trick families into seeing a movie inappropriate for little ones. 

Aside from the Happening itself, the plot of “The Happening” concerns a small group of people trying to protect themselves.  Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Deschanel) live in Philadelphia.  They hear about a “terrorist attack” in New York and decide to get out of the city.  They meet up with their friend Julian (John Leguazamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and board a train to Harrisburg.  Don’t get too excited, Harrisburg is mainly in the movie for the Three Mile Island references.  Besides, the characters never make it there. 

The train stops in Filbert, PA and everyone is stranded.  Julian leaves Jess with Elliot and Alma so he can go off to look for his wife in New Jersey.  The rest of the movie is Elliot, Alma, and Jess trying to avoid the Happening.  They think they’re safe in a small town in the country, but it turns out rural areas are just as dangerous as big cities, if not more so. 

The cause of the Happening is hard to swallow.  Even if you believe that there is a chemical that makes people kill themselves, it’s hard to believe that it is spread the way it is in the film.  Also, the methods of self-killing are too convoluted.  Some of them involve complicated machinery and knots.  If these people are so crazy and helpless, how do they have the presence of mind to do all this?  Because this movie needs cool death scenes, that’s why. 

Shyamalan still does silent suspense very well.  A character will be alone, and things will be way too quiet.  There may be a lot of negative space in the shot where you think something could pop out.  90% of the time, nothing happens.  But you’ll jump out of your seat at the other 10%. 

I want to compliment Shyamalan’s skill at silent suspense, because I can’t compliment him on much else in “The Happening.”  The action is nonsensical, the dialogue is stiff, and most distractingly, the acting is horrible.  The stars ham it up and bit players keep trying to steal the scene.  Overall, Shyamalan should not be happy with “The Happening.” 


“The Happening” is playing at the Hershey Cocoaplex (312-1300) and Cinema Center of Palmyra (838-4809).  Contact the theaters for info, tickets, and showtimes. 



6:34 pm edt          Comments

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