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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pink Panther 2 review
“Pink Panther 2” 
By Bob Garver
             It is no surprise that “Pink Panther 2” is incredibly and remarkably unoriginal.  Here is a movie that is a sequel to a remake of a series that notoriously had far too many sequels.
The 1963 original starred Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau.  For more successful sequels with Sellers followed.  Then Sellers died in the midst of filming 1982’s “Trail of the Pink Panther”. The film was awkwardly completed with the existing footage, but it was a critical disaster that seemed to mark the end of the franchise.  A last-ditch effort was made to revive the series with 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther” with Roberto Benigni (he of jumping on his chair at the Oscars fame) taking up Clouseau-related hijinks.  This film too flopped and the whole series really looked kaput.
           Then in 2006 Steve Martin took over the role of Clouseau for one of those franchise reboots that have been so popular this decade.  The film was a critical flop but a commercial success.  Bottom line being the priority that it is, a sequel was green-lighted, and now we have “Pink Panther 2”, a film from a franchise long stripped of its charm and originality.  Of course, the film in and of itself is also charmless and unoriginal. 
               Inspector Clouseau has been relegated to writing parking tickets, but that soon changes when a thief called The Tornado begins stealing valuable artifacts from all over the world.  The priceless Pink Panther diamond is stolen again, and since he’s always been so helpful before, Clouseau is put on an international dream team of detectives to find The Tornado.  The other members of the team don’t respect Clouseau and he doesn’t make things any better with his constant clumsiness. 
               The problem with the new “Pink Panther” movies is that Martin’s Clouseau isn’t clumsy like Sellers’s Clouseau.  When Sellers bumped into things or knocked them over, it was always by convincing accident.  When Martin does it, it is clearly because the script calls for a choreographed pratfall.  And he isn’t even all that clumsy.  There’s a scene early on where he’s trying to give a parking ticket to some jerk.  The guy activates his windshield wipers so Clouseau can’t put the ticket under them.  Then he rolls up his windows and traps Clouseau by his hand.  Clouseau gets dragged several blocks and has many near misses with oncoming traffic.  But none of it is out of clumsiness.  The perp trapped his hand. 
             The gags fail, but there’s still hope.  There are plenty of good actors who show up in supporting roles.  Jean Reno is Clouseau’s faithful assistant.  John Cleese is Clouseau’s boss who doesn’t like him.  Emily Mortimer is Clouseau’s girlfriend who has an even worse French accent than he does.  Andy Garcia is an Italian detective trying to win her from Clouseau.  Alfred Molina is a British detective who promises to wear a tutu if Clouseau solves the case.  Lily Tomlin is a “media consultant” hired to keep Clouseau from looking stupid in the press.  One of them is bound to be a scene-stealer, right?  Wrong.  They are all weak parts, the actors all took them for an easy paycheck from a franchise piece.    
            There’s very little to like about “Pink Panther 2”, and what little there is can probably be seen elsewhere.  For Popcorn Games, whenever something happens that makes you groan, eat a piece of popcorn.  Whenever something happens that does you laugh, don’t do anything.  Just savor the moment.  Genuine laughs are rare in “Pink Panther 2”. 
9:50 am est          Comments

Inkheart review
By Bob Garver
             January is typically not a good time to see newly-released movies.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great time to go to the movies, but the best choices are almost always holdovers from December.  Christmas releases stay strong, and limited-release Oscar contenders go wide.  New movies cower from this competition, and studios treat this time like a dumping ground for movies that they expect to flop.  “Inkheart” is definitely one of those flops that has been dumped on us.
            The film looks tempting on paper.  Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser) is a Silvertongue.  He can read things in books and they come to life.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize this when he reads a book called “Inkheart”.  This is not a book you want to read when you’re a Silvertongue.  There’s like fifty bad guys, and Folchart pulls them all out.  He also pulls out the hero Dustfinger (Paul Bettany).  The downside of this ability (apart from summoning evil) is that someone in the room has to go into the book to compensate for whatever’s been lost.  Folchart’s wife is sacrificed, and he spends the next twelve years looking for another copy of the book so he can undo his mistake. 
            He and his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) find the book early in the story, and we go from there.  Dustfinger desperately wants to go back in the book.  The bad guys desperately want to stay out.  Folchart hasn’t read aloud since he lost his wife, so he’s not quite sure what he should do.  He and Meggie get captured by the bad guys, led by Capricorn (Andy Serkis).  They want to use him to read out things like the treasure from “Ali Baba”.  He reads out one of the thieves.  This Silvertongue gift, it has a mind of its own.
The most intriguing aspect of the movie is the concept of the Silvertongue gift itself.  Can Folchart just write something and read it and make it happen (“he read his wife out of ‘Inkheart’”)?  Can he just read his grocery list and save himself a trip to the store?  And the really cynical one:  Can he just read out a much prettier girl to replace his wife?  Thinking about these questions is more intriguing than anything onscreen.
            Sadly, the film doesn’t have as much fun with its premise as one would hope.  The things brought out of the books usually turn out to be ugly special effects.  Academy Award winners Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent show up in small parts, but neither add much to the action and their performances seem forced.  Perhaps most distracting is that the rules of the Silvertongue keep changing depending on how the plot wants to use it.  Go see “Inkheart” and play Popcorn Games: 
-Eat a piece every time Folchart reads from a book, but nothing gets taken back into the book.  The film forgets this detail about a third of the way in.
            -Eat three pieces when Mirren’s character lists the places that books have taken her and she mentions Middle Earth.  Andy Serkis (Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” movies) is the film’s villain.
            -Eat an oddly-shaped piece whenever Dustfinger does something really cowardly, and cites “I’m written that way” as an excuse.  He’s supposed to be the hero of “Inkheart” the book.  Why is he written to be so cowardly?
            -Eat a million pieces whenever someone explains why the book is called “Inkheart”.  Don’t worry, it never happens.
            -Eat a particularly tasty-looking piece whenever the characters get help from Toto from “The Wizard of Oz”.  Even in this movie, Toto’s still awesome.
             “Inkheart” doesn’t know what to do with its own good idea.  The premise presents all kind of interesting possibilities, but the one that director Iain Softley chooses to explore is a disappointingly straightforward adventure.  But what do you expect?  It’s a new release in January. 
9:46 am est          Comments

Gran Torino review
“Gran Torino”      
by Bob Garver

            Respect is a theme that runs throughout Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”.  Respect for one’s elders.  Respect for one’s neighbors.  Respect for one’s family.  Respect for people of other races.  Respect for other human beings.  There is barely a scene in the film that doesn’t relate to these issues.  It is appropriate that a Clint Eastwood film should be so much about respect, because Eastwood is one of the most respectable actors and filmmakers on the planet.
             In this decade alone, Eastwood has directed 2003’s “Mystic River” and 2006’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” to Academy Award nominations for Best Picture.  He also directed 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” (a film where he was also nominated for Best Actor) to an Academy Award victory for Best Picture.  This is to say nothing of his countless other triumphs in previous decades.  No one commands respect like him.
             Walt Kowalski, the character Eastwood plays in “Gran Torino”, neither shows nor gets respect.  His wife has just died, and his kids and their kids can’t distance themselves from him fast enough.  Driven away from his family, Walt takes an interest in hating his neighbors.  The Vang Lor family are from an ethnic group called Hmong (from central Asia, although we never do know which country).  Walt is a Korean War veteran, and he has a strong distaste for Asians.  Then again, he has a distaste for just about all races.  He isn’t afraid to let everyone know this. 
              The Vang Lors have enough problems without the racist Walt living next door.  A dangerous group of Hmong thugs are trying to recruit Thao (Bee Vang) into their gang.  Out of fear more than anything, Thao agrees to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino as an initiation.  Walt catches him and he fails.  The angry gang turns on the Vang Lors, and a fight on the lawn spills onto Walt’s property.  He pulls a gun on the gang members (this is a Clint Eastwood movie, after all) and orders them to leave him alone. 
              Walt was acting on his own behalf, but the neighborhood labels him a hero for making the gang leave.  Walt suddenly finds himself in the good graces of a largely Asian population.  People bring strange food to his doorstep.  They no longer get offended by his racist remarks.  Thao offers to work off the disrespect he showed when he tried to steal the Gran Torino.  Walt even gets invited to a family barbeque at the Vang Lors.  Walt has never felt more out of place, but he takes a strange liking to this new world
             The rest of the film focuses on the shaky friendship between Walt and the Vang Lors.  He becomes a sort of father to Thao, teaching him about tools and life and so forth.  He also serves as a sort of protector, since the Hmong street gang doesn’t take too kindly to being expelled from the neighborhood.  Violence ensues, but there’s less death than one would expect. 
              The objectionable content in “Gran Torino” doesn’t come so much from violence as it does from language.  There’s a ton of profanity, but more than that, there is a constant stream of racial slurs and epithets spewing from Walt’s mouth.  These slurs are surprisingly wide in their variety, which leads one to wonder why Walt goes so far out of his way to use them.  In fact, it really took me out of the movie each time Walt used a new one because I can picture Eastwood thinking, “Which ones haven’t I used yet?” 
             It may be because he is so respected that nobody questioned Clint Eastwood on “Gran Torino”.  But he does make a number of mistakes. The gruffness in is voice is overdone and it sounds forced.  The same can be said of his trademark squinting.  “Gran Torino” is not a bad film, but it’s not Eastwood’s best.  But for a legend like Eastwood, “not his best” is still way better than average.  It’s a respectable effort. 
9:42 am est          Comments

Marley & Me review
“Marley and Me”
by Bob Garver
            The ads for “Marley and Me” would have you believe that the film is more about Marley than “Me”.  These ads want you to come see the story of the crazy Marley, who wreaks havoc on “Me”.  “Me” is supposed to be some comic foil, someone to get mad at Marley’s antics.  The secret that the ads don’t want you to know is that this is really “Me’s” story, and it’s Marley who is ultimately “just there.”  Marley gets the spotlight because “Me” is boring.
            “Me” in this case is a writer named John Grogan (Owen Wilson).  As the story starts, he’s very happy with his position in life.  He’s just married his dream girl Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) and he’s landed a good job at a newspaper in sunny Florida.  Everything is going according to plan.  But one of the recurring themes of “Marley and Me” is that plans change.  They change with Marley. 
            Marley is an impossibly cute Labrador Retriever.  John buys him as gift to Jennifer so she’ll stop worrying him with talk of wanting a child.  Little does the young couple know how much worry the adorable puppy will bring them.  Marley eats everything in sight, plows into everything in sight, and engages in plenty of unsightly behavior.  This might have something to do with the fact that John and Jennifer are horrible owners, assuming that Marley will behave himself without proper supervision or discipline.  Or maybe it’s more innocent than that.  Maybe Marley really is just a free spirit who is too pure for man’s rules.  If you believe the latter explanation, the first third of “Marley and Me” is definitely for you.             
            More hardened viewers will see the Marley of the film’s first third to be annoying.  They will roll their eyes at yet another movie that thinks dog mischief is cute and funny.  But the important thing to remember (both for friends and enemies of cute dog movies) is that the story moves away from Marley around the one-third mark.  John and Jennifer do decide that they want children.  John’s boss (Alan Arkin) throws his career a curve ball by assigning him a weekly column.  More than anything, the movie is about John and Jennifer as they start their marriage, careers, and family.  After a while, it becomes clear that Marley is only there to provide viewers with a common thread other than John and Jennifer themselves.
            The human storylines make for a dullness in the action.  Depending on how much you care for the non-human storylines, this dullness may actually come as a relief.  But then it’s a dull storyline all the same.  Pass the time by playing Popcorn Games: 
-Eat a piece of popcorn every time John has to calmly explain how to pronounce the name “Grogan”.  It’s not that hard of a name to remember.  There might be a temptation to call him “Josh Groban” (like the singer), but that passes soon enough.
            -Eat a piece of popcorn every time John or Jennifer think they have Marley restrained, but he pulls away easily.  Eat two pieces if they foolishly let him wander around without any restraint.
            -Eat a piece of popcorn every time the story progresses several years and John and Jennifer somehow don’t age.  But eat five pieces every time the story jumps forward and John’s friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) inexplicably ages about five years. 
            -And finally, the film gets really sad toward the end.  Cry into your popcorn, and eat the pieces salted with your own tears. 
            The movie is based on a book by the real John Grogan.  Telling his story in relation to his dog might have been a good idea on paper, but it doesn’t translate well onto film.  The gaps that don’t involve Marley are really noticeable, and the parts that do involve him aren’t as cute or funny as they’re supposed to be.  “Marley and Me” is a generic slice of life story with a cute puppy. 
9:39 am est          Comments

Yes Man review

“Yes Man”


by Bob Garver


            Fans of Jim Carrey will be happy to know that the star has finally returned to straight-up comedy.   One of the biggest (heck, the biggest) comedic stars of the 90s, Carrey has spent the last several years trying to expand the range of his filmography.  He’s done franchise pieces (“The Grinch”), biopics (“Man on the Moon”), weirdo indie films (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and one very ill-advised thriller (“The Number 23”).  But now he’s back to what brought him to the dance:  acting like he’s out of his mind for our entertainment.

            The premise of the film is that Carl (Carrey) lives a content, but unhappy life of boredom.  He spends every night in his apartment, never jumping at the chance to do anything.  His days aren’t much better, he works as a dead-end job as a loan officer at a bank.  He says “No” to all the loan applicants, just as he says “No” to everything else in life. 

            One of Carl’s friends drags him to a seminar, where a self-help guru (Terrence Stamp) forces him to make a covenant with himself:  He has to say “Yes” to everything.  Bum wants a ride?  Carl drives him to the park and gives him cash.  Invitation to a “Harry Potter” theme party?  Carl’s there, wearing a toddler’s Harry costume.  Ad for guitar lessons?  Carl jumps at the opportunity.  Someone wants a loan for something unnecessary?  Carl approves 451 loans in a month. 

            As this is a comedy, most of the “Yeses” turn out to have surprisingly good results.  The guitar lessons, for example, pay off when Carl needs to talk a music lover off of a ledge.   All the loan approvals make a profit for the bank, and Carl gets a promotion.  Dropping the bum off in the park leads to Carl finding his dream girl (Zooey Deschenel).  All good things, and just from saying “Yes” a few (hundred) times.

            The problem with the story is that we only see Carl say “yes” a few times.  Any more and the premise would collapse on itself.  For example, we see Carl give positive responses to two spam emails.  Doesn’t he have more than two?  He gets three fliers off a bulletin board.  They have those boards everywhere, does he have to respond to all of them?  Even with his promotion, won’t he go broke paying for all these things?  And speaking of money, why don’t more people just ask him to give them cash?  The bum does it at first, but then the issue isn’t touched again. 

            It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how easily this premise can fall flat on its face.  Therefore, any time something good happens, it’s disheartening to know that there was about a one-in-a-million chance that it could happen, and a one-in-a-billion chance that it could happen again.  But the plot manages to move along at a brisk pace so Carl can go from one surprise to another and Jim Carrey can go from one gag to another. 

            Carrey is by no means bad in the movie.  He really is back to the way he was in his 90s heyday.  It’s just that the plot is so unforgivably hole-filled.   If Carrey’s performance is like a fun roller coaster (like the kind at Hershey Park), the plot is like a rickety, unsafe track (unlike at Hershey Park) that threatens to ruin everybody’s fun.  Ride “Yes Man” at your own risk. 


Note:  I couldn’t think of many Popcorn Games for “Yes Man”, but I can think of one.  In lieu of human interaction, Carl sits on his couch and watches movies.  Eat pieces of popcorn according to which movies are represented.  For “Saw”, eat one piece.  For the “Harry Potter” movies, eat two pieces each.  For “300”, eat three (one for each hundred).  For Don Knott’s “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”, eat ten pieces.   That one’s a favorite in my family.  Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad. 

9:38 am est          Comments

The Day the Earth Stood Still review

“The Day The Earth Stood Still”


by Bob Garver


            “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is a movie about space aliens who come to Earth to destroy all human life.  They aren’t entirely sure they want to do this, so they send a representative named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) to observe humans for a few days.  Because they are afraid of him, most humans show Klaatu their worst side.  Only kind-hearted astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) sees that humanity’s hostility is not scaring Klaatu, but making him even more sure that it needs to be destroyed. 

            People will think the casting of Keanu Reeves as an unfeeling alien is hilarious.  The Reeves body is not Klaatu’s actual state, it’s just a disguise he uses to interact with humans.  Klaatu is not used to the human body, and he struggles with simple movements.  He also has a limited understanding of human speech patterns (although he knows just about all of the words).  So although he looks perfectly normal, his movements and voice are stiff.  Reeves has often been criticized for being a stiff, monotone actor, so the part seems right up his alley.  The problem is that everyone around him is so awed and serious that they come off as stiff as well.  Klaatu’s mannerisms don’t clash with anybody else’s, so the irony is lost.   

            Klaatu’s (and Reeves’s) alien nature is one area where “The Day The Earth Stood Still” fails to capitalize.  Another is the direction it takes when it comes to Benson trying to convince Klaatu that humanity is worth saving.  If the film had focused more on this, it might have worked better.  I can picture an alternate version of this film, with Klaatu as a fish out of water who happens to have the power to destroy all humans.  It could be funny, it could be profound, it could be a healthy mix of the two.  But that is not to be.  About the only convincing Benson gets to do is the occasional, vague, “We can change.”  Meanwhile, director Scott Derrickson chooses to waste our time with pointless action scenes and bad special effects.  Pass this wasted time by playing Popcorn Games:

            -Every time you see an alien spaceship that looks only slightly more threatening than a snow globe, eat a piece of popcorn.

            -Every time you see an animal that is obviously computer-generated, eat a piece of popcorn.

            -Every time bad special effects are obscured by darkness, eat a piece of popcorn.  If the bad special effects are obscured by rain, eat a particularly butter-soaked piece of popcorn.  If they’re obscured by dust, eat an over-salted piece.  Smoke, an overcooked piece.  Snow, and undercooked piece.  You can really tell that the special effects people have no confidence in their own work. 

            -Every time Klaatu escapes a sticky situation by using a mysterious alien power that no one knew he had (a way for the screenwriters to get from one scene to the next without playing by their own rules), think of a new, creative way to eat a piece of popcorn and eat it that way. 

            -It wouldn’t be an adventure movie if there wasn’t a cute kid along for the ride.  In this case that kid is Jaden Smith as Dr. Benson’s stepson.  The characters are of different races, and she’s not his mother.  Eat a piece of popcorn every time Benson tries to explain why he’s in her care. 


            The film is a remake of a 1951 sci-fi classic, so beloved that it currently ranks as one of the 200 greatest films of all time on the Internet Movie Database.  Time hasn’t done much to change the basic story, we simply have more advanced technology that is useless against the aliens.  Ultimately, this version of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is one of those remakes whose sole purpose is to get money from people who love the original and can’t believe that anyone could possibly screw it up.  It’s been screwed up. 

9:36 am est          Comments

Australia review


by Bob Garver


            Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” tries to be three movies in one.  It wants to tell the exciting story of driving cattle several hundred miles in the Australian outback.  It also wants to tell the harrowing story of Australia’s involvement in WWII.  It also wants to tell the touching story of three very different people who try to form an unlikely family against the backdrop of Australia. 

        If the film had tried to tell only one of these stories, it probably would have been too flat.  Two out of the three stories would have been right.  But to tell all three stories is overkill.  The result is nearly three hours of waiting for a disjointed, but otherwise predictable story to unfold.  The film’s advertisements would have you believe that the real attraction is beautiful shots of Australian scenery.  The truth is that these types of shots are there, but they are so few and far between that they are hardly worth mentioning. 

        Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, who is new to Australia.  She’s initially put off by the country’s crudeness and simplicity, but we know she’ll come to love it sooner or later.  Hugh Jackman is The Drover, a hardened native.  He knows a lot about the Australian wilderness, but very little about love.  Brandon Walters is Nullah, a native boy of about ten.  His grandfather is an Aboriginal chief and the boy may just have magical powers. 

        Lady Ashley comes to Australia to take over her late husband’s cattle ranch.  The only way it can stay is business is if she can land a huge contract to sell beef to the army.  Lady Ashley, Drover, and Nullah set out on an adventure to deliver the cattle to a crucial port, which would win them the contract. 

          This part of the film isn’t too bad.  There are some beautiful shots and some touching moments as the three form a shaky bond.  Some of the dialogue will make you roll your eyes, but that’s about as bad as it gets.  But then, just when it looks like the movie is over, the war part starts up and it becomes a whole different movie.  Everything is smoky and rainy, so gone are all the beautiful sun-soaked shots.  Instead we get bad special effects and even worse dialogue. 

          The film makes for a long 75 minutes followed by an even longer 75 minutes to make it a long two and a half hours.  Pass the time by playing Popcorn Games:

           -Eat a piece of popcorn every time Nullah puts an unnecessary “-em” sound into a word.  Example: “He drove-em them cattle.”

-There is a scene where Lady Ashley tries to teach Nullah the words to “Over the Rainbow.”  She has a little trouble remembering the lyrics herself, so eat a piece of popcorn every time she pauses to remember.  Eat two pieces when she forgets “rainbow.”  Yes, she forgets “rainbow.” 

-Eat a piece of popcorn every time Nullah is put in mortal danger, even though you know they aren’t going to kill off a cute kid who can do magic.

-Lady Ashley wants Drover to go to a fancy ball with her, but he isn’t too keen on the idea.  If you think he’s going to show up clean-shaven and handsome as ever, eat one piece of popcorn.  If not, don’t eat any.  Only those who guess correctly will get to eat. 

-Every time one of the characters goes through something physically damaging, yet walks away without a mark, damage a piece of popcorn in their place, then eat it.

           Director Baz Luhrmann’s niche is romances with a twist.  His 1996 version of “Romeo and Juliet” had Shakespearian dialogue in a pepped-up modern setting.  2001’s “Moulin Rouge” had pepped-up modern songs in 19th-century Paris.  “Australia” has no such twist.  Luhrmann apparently thinks that “Australia” will be just as interesting on its own, without the usual gimmicks.  What it really amounts to is a bland story that isn’t even told with flair or creativity.
9:35 am est          Comments

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