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Friday, August 29, 2008

Star Wars: Clone Wars review

“Star Wars: Clone Wars”

by Bob Garver

            “Star Wars: Clone Wars” is a second-rate production, so it was probably meant to go straight to television or DVD.  Someone decided that this time of year was lacking in family-friendly adventure films, and a movie with the “Star Wars” label would thrive in theaters.  While it is true that the film has a built-in audience, it cannot hold its own in a multiplex alongside more competently-made blockbusters. 

The film takes place between Episodes II and III of the “Star Wars” saga.  The Republic (good guys) is at war with the Separatists (bad guys).  Both sides need help from disgusting crime boss Jabba the Hutt.  Jabba’s son is kidnapped and he promises his loyalty to the side that can rescue him.  Of course, it is the Separatists who have taken him, and are planning to “find” him as a way of gaining Jabba’s favor.  Or at least kill him and blame the Republic. 

Anakin Skywalker and his teacher Obi-Wan Kenobi are high-ranking Republic generals.  They are given the task of rescuing Jabba’s son.  For a character crucial to the “Star Wars” saga, Obi-Wan isn’t given much to do in “Clone Wars”.  His biggest contribution is stalling a rival general with a pointless negotiation.  He also has a lightsaber battle toward the end with a mid-level villain named Ventress, but it’s nothing pivotal. 

It is Anakin who serves as the film’s main character.  Of course, his plate isn’t full enough trying to make an ally that could make or break the Republic in the war.  He also has to be saddled with a teenage student named Ahsoka.  She is proficient, but reckless, while Anakin more experienced, but still prone to making an occasional mistake.  The dialogue between the two mainly consists of arguing, usually involving some variation of “I told you so” followed by “Fine, but there’s no time for that now!”  Ahsoka is basically a kid, and is clearly in the film to give kids a character they can relate to. 

Because she is constantly pandering to the children in the audience, Ahsoka has already earned a reputation as one of the worst characters in the “Star Wars” universe.  She certainly isn’t one of the best, but there are far more irritating characters in “Clone Wars.”  There is also an army of evil droids with robotic voices that somehow sound nasally.  But the film’s most annoying character has to be Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt. Ziro has all the disgusting habits of his nephew, and his voice sounds like a bad Truman Capote impression.  It is an incredibly off-putting combination. 

Other, more popular “Star Wars” characters put in brief appearances.  Yoda is the leader of the Republic, still talking in that inside-out way of his.  Senator Amidala tries to negotiate a deal with Ziro.  C-3P0 saves the day during a tense situation.  It all reeks of the filmmakers trying to “work in” popular characters. 

People do not go to see “Star Wars” movies for their plots and dialogue, which is good because both are weak in “Clone Wars.”  The writers keep alternating between necessary “dignified” dialogue and kid-pleasing “casual” dialogue.  The results sound awkward.  There are also a number of gaping plot holes, not the least of which involves Jabba objecting to his son being in the custody of the very people he sent to protect him. 

The film does a little better in the visual department, but not much.  The aliens and robots are well-designed as always, but the humans just look silly.  Specifically, their hair looks strangely solid, like they’re wearing helmets.  The same holds true of beards.  Obi-Wan has a pointy beard; I was afraid he’d tilt his head forward and stab himself in the throat with it.  Even worse than the hair problems is the mouths’ failure to stay in sync with the dialogue. 

“Star Wars: Clone Wars” does not look or sound like a movie that belongs in theaters.  It belongs in the Super-Discount section of a chain store that doesn’t care about having good movies.  Sadly, the “Star Wars” logo alone will make it a hundred times more successful than it deserves to be. 

7:49 pm edt          Comments

Pineapple Express review

“Pineapple Express”


by Bob Garver


            For a film with a fruit in its title, “Pineapple Express” is majorly lacking in sweetness.  Sweetness is the ingredient that usually sets Judd Apatow-style comedies apart from other comedies.  There may be an occasional fight, and relationships may go through tough times, but overall they are quite pleasant.  “Pineapple Express” is a generally unpleasant comedy, and that unpleasantness makes the film much less funny than it should be. 

The film opens in 1937 (complete with an old-school Columbia logo, getting the film off to an excellent start).  It is The Story Of Why Marijuana Is Illegal.  Apparently the government gave the drug to Private Miller (Bill Hader, great as always), but all it did was make him belligerent toward his commanding officers.  I guess this scene is there to explain what the government must have been thinking when they outlawed the drug.  The rest of “Pineapple Express” takes place in the world of crime that was supposedly created by this decision. 

Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is the Everyman who gets sucked into this world.  He’s a subpoena server with a girlfriend who is still in high school.  He’s also the best customer of Saul Silver (James Franco), a drug dealer who hooks him up with a batch of the particularly-potent Pineapple Express.  Dale looks down on Saul because he’s a drug dealer, and can’t wait to get out of his apartment and back to his “real” job.

            That night, he goes to serve a man with a subpoena, only to see that man commit a murder.  He can only think of one man who can help him, and that’s Saul.  This is a bad idea, as it turns out that the murderer is Saul’s supplier, who knows that Saul is the only one who has access to the Pineapple Express that Dale was smoking.  Soon both Dale and Saul are on the run. 

             As a buddy comedy, “Pineapple Express” works reasonably well.  Rogen and Franco have good chemistry with each other, and the prodding of executive producer Judd Apatow only brings out the best in them.  Still, the characters aren’t very likeable.  Dale is too mean and self-centered.  Saul is more gentle and friendly, but at the end of the day he’s still a drug dealer (he even sells to kids!).  There is a subplot about Saul only selling drugs to put his grandmother through a nursing home, but it seems like it was tacked on as a last-minute effort to make the characters sympathetic. 

           The film may have its merits as a buddy comedy, but as an action movie it fails miserably.  Murder and killing are a major part of the story, so the climax is naturally a shootout in a warehouse.  The problem is not that Rogen and Franco make poor action stars.  Franco has proven in the “Spider-Man” films that he’s not out of place in that environment.  Rogen is out of place, but that isn’t always a bad thing.  Sometimes it’s exciting to see an unlikely candidate like Rogen forced to adapt to unfamiliar action territory. 

          The problem with the action scenes is that they’re just done poorly.  Punches are thrown and make disproportionate impacts, telling us that they didn’t really connect.  Nobody except major characters gets in any offense, an unbelievable stretch since we are to believe that most of the extras are trained killers.  Characters are often shown from the back during fights, making it obvious that the film is using stunt doubles.  A comedy with a talkative, improvisational style doesn’t even need elaborate action sequences like these, let alone ones that take viewers out of the movie. 

             “Pineapple Express” just doesn’t have the heart to be a great comedy.  Director David Gordon Greene thinks that by adding drugs and bullets, it will become edgy and exciting.  What he really does is add unfunny elements that drag down the parts that actually work.  In a month filled packed with studio comedies, “Pineapple Express” deserves to get lost in the shuffle. 


Robert Garver is a guest columnist who lives in Palmyra.  He is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University.  He is the owner and operator of www.bobatthemovies.com.  He spends his weekends working at Cinema Center of Palmyra so he can be closer to the movies.  He can be contacted at rrg251@nyu.edu.   


7:47 pm edt          Comments

The X-Files: I Want to Believe review

“The X-Files: I Want To Believe”


by Bob Garver


            The best part about “The X-Files: I Want To Believe” is when it ends.  I mean this in two senses.  The first is that there is a surprisingly impressive credit sequence with fast-moving shots of beautiful landscapes.  Seriously, it looks amazing.  The rest of the movie should have looked like this.  The second reason is that the film is incredibly dull and it’s a relief that it is finally over. 

The film is based on a popular FOX television series that ran in the 90s.  There was also an earlier “X-Files” movie released in 1998 during the height of the show’s popularity.  The franchise concerns a pair of paranormal investigators working for the FBI.  Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is open-minded about the supernatural, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) has confidence in more logical explanations. 

Many critics list Mulder and Scully among TV’s all-time greatest odd couples.   This may be true, the series must have lasted nine seasons for a reason.  But ten years later, Duchovny and Anderson bring very little chemistry to their roles.  They have either lost the magic or they never had it. 

Unofficially, Mulder and Scully have been brought back together to bleed a few last dollars from a tired franchise.  Officially, they have been brought back to investigate the disappearance of a young FBI agent.  The paranormal twist is that a disgraced former priest (Billy Connelly) claims to be having psychic visions of the crime.  Mulder and Scully are brought in to see if and how there is any validity to these claims. 

Father Joe has all the characteristics of a wise old man who is dismissed as crazy but turns out to be right.  He has thick glasses, long hair, a European accent (Scottish instead of the usual British or German), and loves to watch television.  The question soon turns from “Is he right?” to “How does he know these things?”  He might have first-hand knowledge of the crime, but there might be something more interesting going on. 

We never find out if there is something more interesting going on.  The rest of the case is based on straightforward detective work.  The motive for the kidnappings turns out to be appropriately sick and twisted, although not supernatural.  There is no reason why Mulder should be snooping around without enlisting the help of anyone at the FBI.  Then again, no one at the FBI is much help in this movie. 

The movie needs more characters than Mulder, Scully, and Father Joe.  Enter the FBI agents played by Amanda Peet and Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner.  Neither serves a purpose other than to fill space.  Peet is wooden and has an exchange with Connelly so bad it is likely to join scenes from the “Wicker Man” remake on Youtube as an example of laughably poor acting.  Joiner doesn’t exactly do anything wrong, but his character is boring and unmemorable, just like the rest of the movie. 

The film is directed by series creator Chris Carter.  He runs out of ideas quickly.  For example, there are a number of scenes where characters from the show make their first appearances in years.  More than once, the camera shows the back of their heads, and then they turn around.  It’s a distracting repetition.  The action sequences are flat-out unconvincing (the bad guys have a snowplow, and somehow that gives them a huge advantage).  And he overestimates how interested we are in listening to the characters discuss things like faith and medicine when time is running out for the victims and Father Joe is bleeding from his eyes. 

Is there a place for an “X-Files” movie in 2008?  I actually did see a few T-shirts with the show’s logo at the screening I attended, so a bit of the audience is still intact.  But “I Want To Believe” isn’t likely to bring in any new fans, and it might annoy those loyal to the series.  “I Want To Believe” that it will soon be out of theaters.  


Robert Garver is a guest columnist who lives in Palmyra.  He is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University.  He is the owner and operator of www.bobatthemovies.com.  He spends his weekends working at Cinema Center of Palmyra so he can be closer to the movies.  He can be contacted at rrg251@nyu.edu.   




7:45 pm edt          Comments

Step Brothers review

“Step Brothers”


by Bob Garver


            Some comedy characters only work in small doses.  Often you will hear this criticism on movies based on characters from “Saturday Night Live” sketches.  People will say, “They’re funny enough for a five-minute sketch, but an hour and a half is way too much.”  The characters in “Step Brothers” are the opposite of this.  If anything, they only work in large doses. 

The characters are named Brennan and Dale, and they are played by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, respectively.  Don’t worry, you won’t need to keep track of which one is which.  Nor will you need to remember which one is the son of Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and which one is the son of Robert (Richard Jenkins).  It may be helpful to remember that Brennan is the one with a brother named Derek (Adam Scott) who serves as the film’s villain.  But Brennan and Dale are essentially the same character. 

Roger Ebert once wrote that Beavis and Butt-Head (of a onetime popular MTV cartoon) were “one personality, split into two so that they will have someone to talk to.”  The same can be said of Brennan and Dale.  They start out as enemies (uncomfortable with the changes in their families), become friends (Dale punches out Derek, much to the delight of Brennan), and then become enemies again after a development late in the story.  At first, they are too immature to realize that they have so much in common.  But then again that immaturity is something that they have in common. 

Both are pushing 40 and still living at home with their parents.  Neither is driven to get a job or take any responsibility in their lives.  For the most part, neither of them act like they’re past the age of twelve.  This is annoying at first, but after about ten minutes the shock wears off and you can feel comfortable laughing.  This is why I said they only work in large doses. 

Some people may not feel like laughing at this movie at all.  It is filled with crude humor and filthy language.  One scene, involving a prized drum set, is particularly disgusting.  People who don’t enjoy this type of humor are advised to stay far away from “Step Brothers.”  The ads for the film are going to try and bring in kids and teens (a relatively clean gag involving a collapsing bunk bed is at the forefront), but don’t let them fool you.  The film is extremely raunchy.  Kids should sit this one out. 

That said, for people who can enjoy crude humor, “Step Brothers” is a wonderfully funny movie.  Adam McKay is the director, and he’s responsible for Will Ferrell’s best comedies with “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.”  Judd Apatow is a producer, and he’s largely responsible for the reemergence of crude-but-hilarious comedy in the last few years.  “Step Brothers” may not have the heart or brains of his best movies, but its funny bone is as healthy as it can be. 

The biggest reason why “Step Brothers” works so well is the performances by Ferrell and Reilly.  They have plenty of energy, of course, but that’s only part of the reason.  The actors have done several movies together, but the characters’ first moments together are so believably awkward.  They make the obscene lines funny, but not funny because they are obscene.  And of course, they aren’t afraid of sacrificing their dignity to make the audience laugh. 

Ferrell and Reilly haven’t been doing very well on the comedy front lately.  Many of their fans want Reilly to get back to doing serious work, and Ferrell to stop screaming so much (they both do a lot of screaming in this film).  “Step Brothers” isn’t a real departure for either of them, it’s the same movie they usually do.  It just happens to be the funniest version yet. 


            Robert Garver is a guest columnist who lives in Palmyra.  He is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University.  He is the owner and operator of www.bobatthemovies.com.  He spends his weekends working at Cinema Center of Palmyra so he can be closer to the movies.  He can be contacted at rrg251@nyu.edu.   
7:42 pm edt          Comments

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Review - The Dark Knight

“The Dark Knight”

by Robert Garver


            Robert Garver is a guest columnist who lives in Palmyra.  He is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University.  He is the owner and operator of www.bobatthemovies.com.  He spends his weekends working at Cinema Center of Palmyra so he can be closer to the movies.  He can be contacted at rrg251@nyu.edu.   


            Some of my co-workers down at Cinema Center are concerned that “The Dark Knight” might be a bad title for the new Batman movie.  They think that the title should have the word “Batman” in it so people will instantly associate it with the popular character.  I want the movie to do well, so I’ll keep mentioning that “The Dark Knight” refers to Batman. 

Director Christopher Nolan relaunched the Batman franchise in 2005 with “Batman Begins.”  Gone was the one-dimensional, high-tech Batman that Joel Schumacher ran into the ground in the latter half of the 90s.  The new Batman was gritty, mysterious, haunted and conflicted.  New Batman Christian Bale pulled off quite the emotional juggling act.  It was a return to the darker Batman of the better comics.  “The Dark Knight” is a sequel to that.

A few years have passed in Gotham City and things are looking a little better.  Batman’s presence has sent most criminals running for the hills.  The police have made some significant gains, reducing the local mob to a few gangs that hide in kitchens.  New District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is promising to get even tougher on crime.  There are a few misguided copycat vigilantes who cause more trouble than they prevent, but overall, Batman has been a positive influence. 

For Bruce Wayne, Batman’s billionaire alter ego, things aren’t going as well.  His mansion (as well as the Batcave) burned down at the end of “Batman Begins.”  He is now living in the penthouse of his corporate building, doing Batman things on a deserted floor below. 

To make things worse, Bruce has had to let go of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman he loves.  She is now dating Harvey Dent.  Bruce barely recognizes her anymore, but then again, neither will anyone who saw “Batman Begins.”  Rachel was played by Katie Holmes in that film.  Holmes was nominated for a Razzie for her performance, and Gyllenhaal is arguably the best actress of the past ten years.  The recasting is an improvement to say the least. 

Other familiar faces remain as they were.  Michael Caine still dispenses wisdom as Alfred the butler.  Morgan Freeman still dispenses more wisdom as tech-guy Lucious Fox.  Gary Oldman may not exactly be “wise” as dedicated-but-weary cop James Gordon, but he still proves to be an invaluable friend to Batman, who is the main character in “The Dark Knight.” 

Any of the six aforementioned actors are fine reasons to see “The Dark Knight.”  There isn’t a weak one in the bunch.  But the reason I expect most people will want to see the film is the late Heath Ledger as The Joker.  Ledger was a controversial choice to play the maniacal villain because he wasn’t really known for Joker-like qualities like outlandishness and humor.  But in the course of “The Dark Knight,” he proves that he has all those qualities and more.  To think how long we had to wait to see those qualities, and how we will never see them again is quite saddening. 

To answer a few burning questions about Ledger’s involvement with this film:  Yes, Nolan keeps in the controversial scene where The Joker gets into a guarded room by hiding in a body bag.  Yes, there are a number of scenes where The Joker almost kills himself.  Yes, he does share screen time with Maggie Gyllenhaal (he takes her hostage at a party), but there are no references to the characters Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal (Maggie’s brother) played in “Brokeback Mountain.” 

The Joker lives to spread chaos.  He doesn’t care about money, power, or revenge.  He just wants to have fun with a terrified populace.  His idea of fun includes making people kill each other and causing massive amounts of damage.  He is the mortal enemy of Batman (main character in “The Dark Knight”) because Batman represents order and The Joker represents disorder.  Some people complain that Batman fights The Joker too much in the comics, but “The Dark Knight” makes it clear that their lives are absolutely destined to intertwine. 

The other villain of “The Dark Knight” is Harvey Dent.  Batman fans will know that he suffers burns over half of his body and becomes a villain called Two-Face.  To explain how this accident comes about would involve spoiling a plot twist, so I’ll have to leave that a secret.  What I can say is that the special effects (probably computer-generated) that go into making Eckhart look like Two-Face are excellent and make his appearance particularly gruesome and frightening.  And this is movie where the other villain is in creepy clown makeup the entire time. 

Batman (main character of “The Dark Knight”) is definitely good.  The Joker is definitely evil.  Two-Face is a challenging character because Dent was a good man who was driven into insanity and evil.  He even stays true to a twisted system of fairness where he gives potential victims the chance to stay alive by winning a coin toss (No, there are no direct references to the similar villain of “No Country for Old Men”).  “The Dark Knight” invites viewers to debate Dent’s decisions, as well as the decisions made by the other characters.  The film is smart for a superhero movie, and it is stimulating to study such interesting characters. 

             The rich characters are just one reason to love “The Dark Knight.”  The acting is another one, dialogue is another.  Even the action sequences (one of the few weak points of “Batman Begins”) are appropriately exciting and entertaining.  Of all of 2008’s big-budget summer blockbusters, “The Dark Knight” is by far the best.  In fact, it might be the best summer blockbuster of the last several years.  See it, and don’t forget that “The Dark Knight” refers to Batman.  That name will be justified in the film’s final act. 
8:26 pm edt          Comments

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