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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wolverine review
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

By Bob Garver

            It’s tricky to get excitement from a prequel.  We all know how they end.  They end with the setup to whatever they’re pre-quel-ing.  There are certain details that cannot be altered.

            Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) survives “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”.  That is hardly a spoiler.  We’re pretty sure that he’s going to survive because they aren’t likely to kill off a character worth millions of box office dollars.  But we know he’s going to survive because there is literally no way that he isn’t going to make it to 2000’s “X-Men”.

            He isn’t going to kill the film’s main villain, either.  Commander William Stryker (Danny Huston) may get killed in 2003’s “X2: X-Men United”, but he isn’t going to get killed before then.  Something has to happen where they both survive.
            “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is smart enough to understand this.  The film gives us a few characters that aren’t in the other “X-Men” movies.  We get to worry about them.    There’s Wolverine’s half-brother Victor Creed (Live Schreiber), his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), an ally named Gambit (Taylor Kitcsh), and a friend-turned-enemy named Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds).  Deadpool, by the way, is so cool and gets so little screen time that they have to be thinking about giving him his own spinoff.
            Still, a lot of the movie focuses on setting up what we already know.  Wolverine discovers that he is a mutant.  His power is that he has claws of bone that he can extend out of his knuckles at will.  He and Victor (whose power is super-sharp fingernails) fight in all major American wars from the Civil War to Vietnam.  When Victor’s temper starts to get out of control, the brothers are removed from the regular population and put on a team of mutants that work for Commander Stryker.

            The team’s activities start to turn unnecessarily violent, and Logan quits and moves to Canada, where he meets Kayla.  Victor, meanwhile, really goes around the bend and starts killing the other members of the team.  He also attacks Kayla to provoke Wolverine.  Wolverine is out for blood, and makes a deal with Stryker, who wants Victor stopped as well.  Stryker agrees to provide Wolverine with his trademark adamantium skeleton (which also turns his already-painful bone claws into an indestructible metal) in order to stop Victor.  At least that’s what he tells him.  We know Stryker’s a bad guy, and he has ulterior motives.  

Wolverine soon gets wise to Stryker’s plot, and enlists the help of other mutants to help him.  He finds out that there was once a mutant who escaped from Stryker’s secret prison on a mysterious island.  This mutant turns out to be Gambit, whose power is that he can manipulate energy.  He can throw around playing cards and they can land with the impact of a Buick.  In a neat twist, the “island” turns out to be surprisingly… local.

            Director Gavin Hood makes a few bad decisions with “Wolverine”.  There’s a scene where Stryker’s team gets out of a helicopter and the way they stand is conspicuously too perfect.  Wolverine stands right in the front and everyone else stands in lines beside him, each a step back from the one beside them.  They form something of an arrow shape.  The scene is clearly designed to go on a poster somewhere.  That’s the type of thing the film does when it’s at its worst.  When it’s at its best, it’s just average and routine.

            “Wolverine” isn’t necessarily a bad comic book movie, but it is painfully familiar-looking.  Everything in the movie has been done before and done better.  There’s the death of a parent, the unlikely taking in by a grizzled mentor, the fumbling around with the new power, and layer after layer of betrayal.  Even the claws themselves, which are supposed to be the film’s big selling point, are familiar.  The movie might want you to forget this, but this is the fourth time Jackman has played Wolverine and the umpteenth time this formula has been done. 
5:04 pm edt          Comments

Hannah Monatana review
“Hannah Montana: The Movie”

By Bob Garver 

Because the target audience for “Hannah Montana: The Movie” is so young, I'm aiming
this column at kids. Parents, you're on your own.
          If you like already like Miley Cyrus and “Hannah Montana” the TV show, then you might like “Hannah Montana: The Movie”.  If you aren’t a fan, the movie isn’t likely to win you over.

            Miley Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, who is secretly enormous pop sensation Hannah Montana.  Most of the world doesn’t know that Miley is actually Hannah.  This way, Miley can enjoy fame as Hannah, but also have a normal life as herself.  She gets the “Best of Both Worlds”.  It’s all right there in her theme song.

            But at the beginning of “Hannah Montana: The Movie”, she’s beginning to like being Hannah more than being herself.  Hannah gets to enjoy wearing expensive clothes and riding in private jets.  Miley has to do dishes and take volleyballs to the head in gym class.  She likes being Hannah so much that she skips her best friend’s birthday party to get into a fight with supermodel Tyra Banks over a pair of shoes.  Miley needs an attitude adjustment.             

               Her dad (Miley Cyrus’s real-life father Billy Ray Cyrus) decides that she needs to appreciate being Miley again, so he orders her to spend two weeks at their family’s farm in Crowley Corners, Tennessee.  She’s happy to see her family, but she wants to go back to being Hannah as soon as she can.  Will she feel the same way at the end of the two weeks?  

There are things to hold her interest in the meantime.  There’s a nasty reporter snooping around trying to find out about her secret identity, she has some fun foiling him.  A beautiful tract of local land is about to be turned into a shopping mall, she wants to save it.  And there happens to be a cute local boy (Lucas Till) that she wants to get to know much better.

            The thing that’s missing most from the movie is surprise.  The commercials have all made it a point to let us know that she learns to love it in Crowley Corners, so much that she takes off her blonde Hannah wig in the middle of a performance.  I wonder how she’s able to fool anyone by just wearing a wig.  Then again, Superman’s been fooling people for years just by wearing glasses.

            The musical performances themselves aren’t terribly exciting.  They all take place on stage when everybody’s expecting a song.  I prefer the “High School Musical” style where a lavish musical number can come any time, anywhere.  The ads promise 14 new songs, but I recognized most of the ones they use as ones that are already popular.  There might have been some new ones snuck into the background, but then why are they so buried?  I do have to admit however, that the danceable country/hip hop fusion “Hoedown Throwdown” is actually quite catchy.

There is a lot of physical humor in the movie, which is a good thing.  The actors aren’t afraid to slip, fall, and get hit on the head.  But it’s too easy to see where they’re going with some of them.  For example, Miley goes into a chicken coop to collect eggs.  She puts them into her back pocket instead of putting them in a basket.  You just know that she’s going to fall and break them and make a mess.

            You’ll like “Hannah Montana: The Movie” if you love Hanna Montana no matter what.  She’s already done a concert film, but this is the first one where she’s actually involved in a story.   I think it could be a much better, much more surprising story.  But you’re Miley’s biggest fans, you decide for yourselves. 
4:58 pm edt          Comments

Fast & Furious review

“Fast & Furious”

By Bob Garver
“Fast & Furious” is a bad, bad movie.  The dialogue is painful, the plot is full of holes, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are clearly only in it for the paychecks, and director Justin Lin is obsessed with nonsensical crashes and explosions.  The film is a brain-dead piece of cinematic garbage.

                And yet, there’s something I have to admit.“Fast & Furious” is a fun, fun movie.  All the lines, even the straight ones (especially the straight ones) get laughs.  There isn’t a lot of distracting plot.  Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are back.  And there are crashes and explosions galore.  If you’re looking for a magnificent brain-dead piece of cinematic garbage, look no further.
Yes, “Fast & Furious” is one of those awful movies that works surprisingly well if you see it under the right circumstances.  It’s an unpleasant feeling to be in a bad movie and get the feeling that everyone else thinks it’s a good movie.  You feel isolated and you wonder why you can’t join in everyone else’s fun.  But you don’t need to feel that way about “Fast & Furious”.  Nobody thinks it’s a good movie.  You can all watch it, and enjoy it, on the same level.

The film is the third sequel to 2001’s “The Fast and The Furious”.  Apparently this movie is so Fast that it doesn’t have time for any “The”s.  Either that or the people who named the movie are Furious with the “The”s.  Maybe they’re Furious because they slowed them down.  The original film was about a cop (Paul Walker) that went undercover in the world of illegal drag racing to catch a crime ring.  He made friends with the leader (Vin Diesel) and came to respect him so much that he let him go at the end.
Now Brian (Walker) and Dom (Diesel) are forced to race cars again.  The setup is that a powerful Mexican drug lord is recruiting drivers to get drugs across the border.  Brian, as a cop, wants to go undercover to catch the drug lord.  For Dom, catching the drug lord is personal.  The drug lord killed his girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez) who had agreed to work undercover for Brian in exchange for Dom’s freedom.  Dom is mad at Brian for letting the girlfriend get killed, and also for being a cop in the first place.  But they both want to take down the drug lord, so they rekindle their uneasy partnership.

Not that any of it matters.  The point of the movie is cars and excitement, not intellectual stimulation.  To that end, I recommend Popcorn Games:

-Eat a piece when there’s a crash.
-Eat half a piece when there’s a near-crash.
-Eat two pieces when you could swear a character’s been in a crash, but it turns out to be a minor character that just looks like them.
-Eat three pieces when there’s an explosion.
-Eat a piece when there’s a shot of scantily-clad women who apparently have nothing better to do than hang around drag racers.
-Eat two pieces when characters start making out with little to no motivation. 
-Eat a piece when a pedestrian or unrelated car is nearly hit.  Then wonder why the crime boss needs reckless drivers who go fast instead of safe drivers who can keep a low profile.
I recommend “Fast & Furious” only to those who can have fun with such a terrible movie.  Cheer, laugh, play Popcorn Games.  Those of you who like to sit quietly and “take in” a movie, this one’s not for you.  See it as soon as possible, see it with a crowd, see it with friends, and make a party of it. 

4:51 pm edt          Comments

Monsters vs. Aliens review
“Monsters vs. Aliens” 

By Bob Garver

            If ever I’ve seen a movie where the characters are designed to be toys that go with kids’ meals at a fast food place, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is the one.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it means all the characters are interesting, varied, and unique.  But it also means that the movie is going to spend the entire time trying to “sell” the characters to you.  Also, at some point the characters are going to break dance.  Kids love break dancing, apparently.  

The main character is a woman named Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon).  She’s about to get married to a jerk reporter (Paul Rudd), but plans change when she gets hit by a meteorite and becomes 50 feet tall.  Although Susan remains human, the government considers her a monster and she is whisked away to a secret government prison facility where she meets other monsters.  


There’s Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist turned into a giant cockroach through a failed experiment.  He eats garbage, which is hopefully a result of the same experiment.  He’s the smart one.  Missing Link (Will Arnett) is a prehistoric beast who talks a big game but can’t back it up.  He’s the “tough” one.  B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is a shape-shifting blob of goo.  He doesn’t have a brain, so he’s the funny one.  Rounding out the group is Insectosaurus, a 300-foot mutated grub.  He’s the cute one.


Insectosaurus is big and furry, he’d make a good plush toy.  The B.O.B. figure should be rubbery, and maybe filled with corn syrup.  Missing Link should have moveable arms and legs.  Dr. Cockroach should have moveable antennae.  Susan looks perfectly normal except for her size, so she should be paired with something big that makes her look bigger by comparison.  There’s a scene where she jams her feet into cars and uses them like roller skates, maybe the figure should look like that.  By the way, I tried to do that once with Hot Wheels and it doesn’t work.  The bodies of the cars kept scraping against the floor.  


The conflict with the aliens arises when Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) invades Earth.   He’s after the rare element that turned Susan huge.  And while he’s here, he wants to enslave humanity.  The President (Stephen Colbert) doesn’t know what to do, so her turns to General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) for help.  Monger is in charge of the monsters’ prison, and he strikes a deal with them:  save humanity and they earn their freedom.  


It’s a good thing the monsters want to save humanity anyway, because freedom isn’t for them.  They aren’t used to the real world, and don’t know how to behave.  And of course, people are afraid of them.  This is especially tough for Susan since she basically loses all of her friends and her fiancé doesn’t want anything to do with her.  Her family still loves her, but even they start acting strange and distant.  Witherspoon does a great job of conveying Susan’s struggle while staying almost wholly positive. 


The all-star voice cast must have come with a huge price tag, and the results are mixed.  Witherspoon is delightful, Laurie is hilariously maniacal, and Rogen gets a laugh out of every one of his lines.  But Wilson is awkward in pronouncing all his strange alien dialogue, and Stephen Colbert voicing a President character isn’t nearly as funny as the idea of Colbert actually being President.    “Monsters vs. Aliens” has plenty of funny jokes, likeable characters, and a healthy emphasis on determination and teamwork.  It’s a great choice for the family matinee crowd.  Just don’t expect it to go far beyond sugary entertainment and watch out for its constant commercial pandering. 
4:48 pm edt          Comments

Knowing review

By Bob Garver

             What a wild, uneven film “Knowing” is.  It starts off looking like a generic thriller about premonitions.  Then in an instant it turns into an unflinching work of haunting brilliance.  Then it turns back into an average thriller.  Then it develops into an above-average thriller.  Then the plot turns a little goofy and you hate to see it waste its potential.  But just when you think it’s ended on a bad note, it turns in a fantastic finale.  The quality of the film has its ups and downs, but sometimes roller coasters are fun.    

The film has been marketed as a mere Nicolas Cage movie.  This makes sense since he’s the lead, he’s a big name, and there aren’t any other big names in the cast.  But focusing on him isn’t doing the movie any favors.  His career has become something of a joke over the past few years, as evidenced by those YouTube videos that make fun of his performance in 2006’s “The Wicker Man”, among others. Early reviews of “Knowing” suggest that Cage ruins the whole movie.  This isn’t exactly true, but the film does suffer whenever he’s required to carry a non-action scene. 

The real star of “Knowing” is director Alex Proyas.  Proyas is a very visual filmmaker.  Many filmmakers are good at letting actors and the script carry a scene, but have trouble pulling off special effects and action sequences.  Proyas is the opposite.  He excels at the big-money moments and lets everything in between fall into the category of “filler”.  This should be a bad thing, but the big-money moments in “Knowing” make the filler much more tolerable.

               To get the filler out of the way:  Cage plays MIT professor John Koestler.  He’s been the widowed father of Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) ever since his wife died in a hotel fire.  Caleb’s class opens a 50 year-old time capsule of drawings of the future.  Most of the kids get drawings of spaceships and robots.  Caleb’s paper just has a strange series of numbers.  The paper was written by a weirdo loner named Lucinda who felt compelled to write the numbers because voices from nowhere told her to.

              John takes a look at some of the numbers – 911012996.  He discover that when broken up, the numbers represent September 11th 2001 and 2,996 deaths.  The other numbers on the paper also represent major catastrophes, including the fire that killed his wife.  There are three dates left.  What will happen on those dates?  What will happen on the last one?

              Those questions do get answered in “Knowing”, but the film raises a number of questions for you to ponder on your own.  If the future can be forecast like this, what does it say about the fabric of time and space?  What does it say about fate?  What does it say about our origins?  What does it say about God?  At the very least, it should make you wonder what you would do if you had a chart like this.
             All right, now we get to the good stuff – the action sequences.  There are five sequences that the film will be remembered for.  Three of them involve crashes of various modes of transportation.  One is a dream sequence, which I realize is cheating a little, but it’s still impressive and memorable.  The last is the one that makes for the film’s climax.  All five sequences are amazing, but the finale is truly breathtaking.  I won’t tell you what it involves, except that only the fact that you’re still alive will convince you that it is only a movie.  

             Horror movies are a dime a dozen, but “Knowing” is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that is truly terrifying.   The action sequences are disturbing in their intensity and the sense of hopelessness they instill.  The rest of “Knowing” isn’t very memorable, but I defy you to forget the film’s most powerful moments. 
4:43 pm edt          Comments

Race to Witch Mountain review
“Race to Witch Mountain” 

By Bob Garver

            What is it with movie aliens these days?  The ones who speak English always speak really sophisticated English. They’ve mastered a language that’s completely new to them, but they don’t understand that we want them to say “Drive the car fast” instead of “Maximize the velocity of the transportation unit.”  They’re starting out at the wrong end of the spectrum.  I miss the good old days of “E.T. Phone Home.”

            Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb play sophisticated aliens in “Race to Witch Mountain”.  The complicated dialogue would sound strange coming from an adult, but even stranger coming from kids, since the young actors might not understand their own words.  They’re teenagers, they probably do, but it still sounds stiff.

            Fortunately, “Race to Witch Mountain” isn’t really about the aliens, it’s about the human who takes care of them.  Jack Bruno (Dwayne “Pretty Please Don’t Call Me ‘The Rock’” Johnson) is a down-on-his-luck Las Vegas cab driver.  A UFO/sci-fi convention is in town, and he’s getting all sorts of annoying fares.  Then Seth (Ludwig) and Sara (Robb) show up in the back of his cab and order him to take them to the middle of nowhere.  They have cash, so he agrees.

            Of course, Seth and Sara are aliens.  They have information vital to the survival of their race, so naturally an alien assassin is after them.  Our government also wants them for reasons that are never made clear, but are apparently more important than establishing good will with another planet.  One good thing about the movie is that the bad guys always get cool theme music whenever they show up.  It’s not as memorable as, say, Darth Vader’s or Jaws’s iconic theme music, but the concept of Villain Music isn’t appreciated nearly enough these days.

            With a title like “Race to Witch Mountain”, it’s no surprise that most of the movie is basically a chase scene as Jack tries to get the aliens back to their impounded ship.  Along the way, they get help from a serious scientist that nobody takes seriously (Carla Gugino), a quack “scientist” that everybody takes seriously (Garry Marshall), a waitress (Kim Richards, of 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain”), a small town sheriff (Ike Eisenmann, also of “Escape to Witch Mountain”), and a dog.  Yes, it turns out the kids can talk to dogs.             
                Kids may find the movie interesting, but adults will probably find it too predictable.  Adults will probably have to go to see this movie with their kids, so I recommend passing the time by playing Popcorn Games:

            -Eat a piece of popcorn every time someone addresses Jack as “Jack Bruno”.  The movie apparently wants us to memorize the full name.  They’re probably proud of themselves for thinking of a name so close to “Jack Bauer” without violating any copyrights.

            -Eat a piece every time there’s an inconsistency in the kids’ alien powers.  Example:  they can make CDs levitate in Jack’s cab, but they can’t take guns out of the bad guys’ hands later.  Don’t even get me started on locked doors.

-Eat most of a piece (but not the whole thing) every time someone mentions Jack’s history with organized crime.  Like the popcorn, the storyline is never brought to a conclusion.
-Eat a piece every time Seth and Sara attempt to explain their own backstory.  They have travelled to Earth because their own planet is almost out of resources.  Hooray for Earth!  Apparently we’re the lesser of two evils.

Aside from a neat little montage of alien news coverage at the beginning, “Race to Witch Mountain” is pretty much a generic family adventure movie.  Johnson’s usually strong presence is almost undetectable, hidden behind dull straight lines.  A lot of aspects of the ending suggest that the studio is planning a sequel.  I sure hope that’s not the case.  By the time it gets made, the kids won’t even be cute anymore.  But at least their characters might know how to sound normal by then. 
4:39 pm edt          Comments

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