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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Zombieland review
By Bob Garver
“Zombieland” is without a doubt the sweetest zombie movie ever made.  It is also the funniest.  It is also the one that has the least to do with zombies.  In short, it goes to a number of extremes in order to separate itself from other zombie movies.  Even if it wasn’t so good (and it is oh so good), it would still win points for being unique.

Many zombie movies open as the zombification of humanity begins.  This makes sense, as it’s scary to watch the main characters caught off-guard as the world falls apart around them.  “Zombieland” starts as most of world is already ruined, but it doesn’t matter since the main characters didn’t care much for the world in the first place.  For the record, the zombie outbreak in this film starts when someone eats a tainted hamburger, which sources tell me also starts a zombie outbreak in this Sunday’s episode of “The Simpsons”.  

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Columbus (a person), a college-age kid who avoided the worst of the disaster by staying indoors.  Staying indoors isn’t really a survival technique for Columbus (the person), he just likes video games and doesn’t have any friends.  He almost learns his lesson the hard way, letting a pretty girl into his apartment for the first time ever only to be forced to beat her to death with a toilet tank cover mere hours later.  He’s a huge coward, yet takes pretty easily to shooting anything bleeding from the head.  He’s a smart survivor, but he wants to get home to Columbus (the city) to see if his family is okay.  So begins his cross-country journey across Zombieland. 

Columbus (the person) wants to see his family out of a vague sense of obligation, not love.  It turns out that he finds lots of love with the people he meets along the way.  Tough guy Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) takes occasional breaks from swearing and looking obsessively for a Twinkie to become something of a father figure.  There’s definitely a spark between him and lovely con artist Wichita (Emma Stone).  Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) may only be a little sister to Wichita, but she soon becomes little sister to the whole group.  Columbus (the person) abandons his plans to go to Columbus (the city) and together the unlikely family journeys through what’s left of America looking for truth, love, and fun.  More often they find ravenous killer zombies, but they find truth, love, and fun as well. 

The “truth” and “love” parts happen gradually and subtly, but the “fun” is much more, well, fun to discuss.  The group goes to Beverly Hills, where they crash at Bill Murray’s place only to discover (with gory results) that the “Ghostbusters” star is only wearing zombie makeup.  They let out steam by attacking a tacky souvenir store.  And the adventure climaxes in an amusement park where Tallahassee searches frantically for a deep-fried Twinkie, Wichita inexplicably knows how to run all the rides, and Columbus faces off with his greatest fear of all – clowns. 

There are sweet moments as the bond of the new family grows stronger, there are suspenseful moments as the zombies give chase, but “Zombieland”’s greatest strength is its humor.  Eisenberg has a dry wit, Harrelson is more loud and flamboyant, Breslin is there to be a smart-aleck kid, Murray is hilarious with minimal effort.  Columbus’s rules for zombie survival are displayed  on screenwith cute timing.  The zombies get vanquished in various creative ways (I caught myself cheering out loud for one of them).  “Zombieland” may get gruesome, but it’s really more like a sweet little indie comedy with zombies thrown in for decoration. 
4:31 pm est          Comments

Inglourious Basterds review
“Inglourious Basterds” 

By Bob Garver

“If you're gonna compare a Hanzo sword, you compare it to every other sword ever made... that wasn't made by Hattori Hanzo.” -Budd (Michael Madsen) from Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”

What Budd means is that all Hanzo swords are the best ever made. They could technically be compared to each other, but it would be pointless to pit one perfect sword against another. The films of Quentin Tarantino require the same principal. One could say that some are better than others, but it would be missing the point because all Tarantino films are among the best ever made. Just be happy that he has produced so many amazing films. His latest, “Inglourious Basterds”, is such an amazing film.

The film takes place in Nazi-occupied France in the midst of World War II. Some might think that this would make the film a war movie, but it is really more of a spy thriller. The plot revolves around two simultaneous plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler at a movie premiere. One plot is to be carried out by undercover Americans known as “The Basterds”, led by southern-fried Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The other is a personal revenge scheme to be carried out by Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), the secretly-Jewish owner of the cinema. Will either plan succeed? Will the course of history be changed at a completely fictitious event?   

The Pitt storyline is the one that the film’s advertising plays up. Pitt absolutely nails the part, delivering terrifying straight lines that we can’t help but think are funny and even friendly. Of course, he gets some deliberately funny lines, and he’s a killer at those too. His second-in-command is Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), who looks for excuses to unleash calculated barrages of violence and profanity. The ominously-named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) has a colder personality, but is just as dangerous. 

As interesting as the Basterds are, the real heart of the movie lies with Shosanna. In creating the character, Tarantino has struck the perfect balance of vulnerability and inner strength. The result is an underdog that will have you on pins and needles as you wait for her to show her true colors. I can understand why “heroic” German sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) is drawn to her. What guy wouldn’t want a beautiful woman who owns her own movie theater? Zoller convinces Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere at her theater in order to impress her. 

In a movie with Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Boorman as characters, the film still manages to have an original character as its main villain. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a high-ranking Nazi officer in charge of finding hidden Jews. His real talent, though, is interrogation. He gets people to admit they’re hiding Jews, he gets people to admit they’re spies. And he does it all with zero violence and a lot of charm. He isn’t so much scary as he is scarily efficient. He is the most memorable movie villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. 

Many will find fault with “Inglourious Basterds” because there are several stretches where there is much talking and little action. But these people are being unfairly impatient.  These conversations are in place to build up to the action, not to replace it. There is a scene where two of the Basterds go in to a bar to meet up with German actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Nazi officers keep interrupting them to make small talk with von Hammersmark. Yes, this is frustrating, but one needs to remember that this is frustrating for the characters as well. It is an excellent way of building tension until you’re breathing more heavily than any of the characters. 

Quentin Tarantino fills “Inglourious Basterds” with rich detail, quotable dialogue, and exciting action. Its climax is incredibly violent and beautifully staged and shot. The film fits in flawlessly with the genius of Tarantino’s other works and cements his reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.
4:29 pm est          Comments

G.I. Joe review
“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” 
By Bob Garver
Calling a movie a glorified toy commercial is usually an insult, but there are two exceptions to the rule. The first is when the movie is based on a popular series of toys, in which case blatant commercialism is to be expected. The second is when the movie does a great job of making you want the toys. “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” is of course based on a popular line of toys, and I’m pleased to report that it succeeds in making its own toys desirable. 

As far as action figures are concerned, the good guys will have Everymen Duke and Ripcord (Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans, respectively), wise General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), strong female Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), stern enforcer Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and black-masked martial arts master Snake Eyes (Ray Park). Surprisingly, none of the characters are named “Joe”. The bad guys get arms dealer McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), sick scientist Doctor (an unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt), curvy female Baroness (Sienna Miller), and white-masked martial arts master Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). Good guy figures will be more plentiful, but the bad guy figures will be more interesting. The figures will have some exciting battles on your carpet and the characters have some exciting battles onscreen. 

The battles themselves may be interesting, but you’ll probably want to find a better reason for them to battle. There isn’t much of a plot in the “G.I. Joe” movie. McCullen wants to blow up some world landmarks, Duke wants to find out why former girlfriend Baroness turned evil, Ripcord flirts with Scarlett, and Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow try to settle a childhood rivalry. Too much time is spent on mere introductions, which are numerous but underdeveloped. One of the ten characters from the last paragraph Rises to become Cobra, but it happens late in the movie and doesn’t affect the main storyline. The film’s title would have been fine as simply “G.I. Joe”. 

The action sequences and visual goodies make up for a lackluster plot. There’s a ton of shooting and explosions, and for some reason they all happen with unusual colors. Many sequences resemble a fireworks show. The characters find some innovative ways to move around (especially one sequence involving a train), which are always a plus. Physical jokes work better than verbal ones (Ripcord has some embarrassing malfunctions immediately after promising to take care of his expensive equipment). The sounds are crisp. The characters get some pretty neat toys of their own (one of the vehicles has a cow catcher – who wouldn’t want one of those when they’re in a hurry at a fast food drive through?). Even the suitcase holding the weapons looks cool (I imagine it will be one of those accessories that is sold separately from the figures). 

I’m probably being too nice to “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”.  It isn’t a “good” movie in the way that I would recommend it over most other movies.  I’m just still reeling from the traumatic experience of seeing that awful “Transformers” movie.  I was expecting another insult to my intelligence, and was relieved to see that “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” is better, no matter the degree.  It isn’t a movie that you should go out of your way to see, but it’s a good choice if you want to go to the movies with your family and don’t care to see anything else. 
4:26 pm est          Comments

Funny People review
“Funny People” 
By Bob Garver
Sometimes great filmmakers go to the well once too often. I wanted to enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse”, but was quickly bored after discovering that the film once again employed numerous pop-culture discussions that had nothing to do with the plot. After “Zach and Miri Make a Porno”, I’m wondering if and when Kevin Smith will finally grow up. The Farrelly Brothers can’t seem to get arrested in Hollywood anymore after too many gross-out comedies. M. Night Shyamalan’s notorious twist endings have been regarded as a joke for years. Now Judd Apatow has hit the wall with “Funny People”. 

The tone of the film is, in fact, very different from Apatow’s typical lighthearted fare. The subject matter is dark and heavy, yet still handled with humor. The main characters are all standup comedians and comedic actors, so they sort of have to handle their problems with humor. The problem is that they all talk like Apatow characters while they do so.

          Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, an unhappy standup comedian. He finds out that he has leukemia, which makes him even more unhappy. Seth Rogen is Ira Wright, an unhappy wannabe standup comedian. He wants everything that George has, until he finds out that George is sick.  George hires Ira as an assistant, but it’s really more of a friend/mentor relationship. Ira convinces George to strengthen his interpersonal relationships so he can have more friends and loved ones as he prepares to leave this world. 

         Except George isn’t about to leave the world. He tries an experimental treatment without much optimism, but - miracle of miracles – it works. He’s pleased that he won’t be dying, but a new set of problems emerges. He had planned to be done with his life, but now there’s no end in sight. Against Ira’s advice, he pretends to still be sick so he can continue contacting his old girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann, Judd Apatow’s real-life wife). 

              Laura is married now and has two kids. Her husband (Eric Bana) is loving, but hard to like. She’s unhappy, but she doesn’t know if she needs someone else, and she doesn’t know if that someone else should be George. George and Ira come to her house for a weekend to meet her family, but George sends her mixed signals. Ira runs around trying to make everybody happy, but of course he makes everything worse. 

          There’s potential in all the film’s material, what with the comedians tackling upsetting issues with a touching sense of humor. However, there are three major problems that keep the film from being as enjoyable as it wants to be. The first is its running time. A lighthearted, dialogue-driven comedy has no business being two and a half hours. Nothing about the film screams “epic”. 

          The second problem with the film is the dialogue. This is the well that Apatow has gone to too often. Almost every line, no matter what the social setting, is too crude. Most conversations in the film follow the following format: Character A greets Character B, “Hey, (obscene nickname).  How’s your (sexual reference)?” Character B gives some self-deprecating response to the sexual remark. Then they have a serious conversation, which one of them ends with, “Take care of your (another sexual reference.” Every scene with this talk. 

            However, the biggest problem with “Funny People” is that it just isn’t funny. There are jokes, but not good ones. Sandler’s style of humor used to be funny because it had heart. Now it just seems like he’s doing a routine. Rogen tells the same jokes he always tells, he’s gone to the well too often as well. Co-stars Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman goof around on an absolutely painful sitcom. How unfunny is “Funny People”? It needs to tell us in the title that the characters are supposed to be funny. 
4:24 pm est          Comments

G-Force review
By Bob Garver
The advertising for “G-Force” represents the movie very well. Usually when I bring up a movie’s advertising, it’s to say that the film is different from how the advertising makes it look. But the advertising for “G-Force” is right on the money, giving potential viewers an excellent idea of what they’re in store for. 

This means that you will probably enjoy “G-Force” exactly as much as you think you will. If the ads make the movie look funny, you won’t be disappointed. If you think it looks painful, you aren’t likely to be won over. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the advertising, “G-Force” is a kids’ movie about talking guinea pigs that are super-intelligent secret agents for the FBI. Your kids will probably want to see it, you probably won’t. If you choose to see the film with a truly open mind, you might just find it a cute, pleasant surprise. 

The G-Force is comprised of guinea pigs Darwin (Sam Rockwell), Blaster (Tracy Morgan), and Juarez (recent Academy Award-winner Penelope Cruz). There is also a tech-nerd mole named Speckles (an unrecognizable Nicolas Cage) and a fly who acts as a fly-on-the-wall. They all answer to a human named Ben (Zach Galifianakis). The team’s current mission involves investigating a suspicious billionaire (Bill Nighy) who has control over every electrical device on Earth.

An FBI suit (Will Arnett) soon does what FBI suits usually do in movies – he interferes with the team’s success. He sends the G-Force to a pet store, where they can’t break out of a glass cage despite all their spy training. They encounter a hamster-ferret (Steve Buscemi), three adorable squeaking mice (that the kids in the audience will absolutely love) and a fellow guinea pig named Hurley (Jon Favreau). Hurley’s really nice, but he’s clumsy and has a number of disgusting habits.  He wants to join the team. Darwin wants to say no, but can he turn away family? 

The best scenes in “G-Force” all seem to involve vehicles. A sadistic kid traps Blaster in a remote control car, but Blaster ends up liking it and soon drives it for fun (his and ours). Darwin and Hurley evade guard dogs by hiding inside a single tire and trying to roll it past them. There aren’t many “inside a tire” action sequences out there, but it’s a lovely invention. The G-Force travels around in souped-up plastic balls, it’s funny to see several cop cars chasing something so small. Of course, it’s even funnier to see them fail to catch them. 

The ultimate bad guy turns out to be a secret (we see the Nighy character plotting with someone, but we can’t tell who until the last minute), and I was actually surprised at who it was. I’ve gotten good lately at pointing and yelling, “He (or she) did it!” But “G-Force” does a good job of covering this character’s true motives. Also, this character has access to a giant robot made up of evil coffeemakers. As if there’s any other kind. 

Enough with the gushing. Since the movie can be so accurately summed up in a television spot, that means it’s not that deep of a movie. The humor is dumb and mostly toilet-based (nothing inappropriate for a PG-rating, though). All the furry characters are hard to tell apart, the exception being the bearded human Galifianakis. Of course, he could be mistaken for a larger mammal of some kind, but that’s a different story. 

Basically, I recommend “G-Force” for kids and parents taking their kids. Adults on your own, you’re on your own. Kids will likely love it, parents may find they like it. Just know that at best it’s a “fun” movie, not necessarily a “good” one.
4:20 pm est          Comments

Harry Potter 6 review
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” 
By Bob Garver
For this review, I’m going to assume that anyone interested in the film is already familiar with the “Harry Potter” franchise.  If you aren’t, please know that this is the sixth entry in the series and the film requires a lot of knowledge of the previous five entries.  This is not a good time to get into the series, and thus you will be lost in the plot and unlikely to enjoy the film. 

For this outing, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) joins his best friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) for their sixth year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  The Dark Lord Voldemort is terrorizing the wizarding world, but Hogwart’s is relatively safe.  Hogwart’s Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) may have a way of finally defeating Voldemort, but it involves getting information from new professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent).  Meanwhile, evil student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been given a mysterious mission from Voldemort and attempts to carry it out with help from Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter).  Hagrid (Robbie Coltraine) mourns the death of a giant spider.  Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) is in there somewhere.  Neville Longbottom. 

That was a long summery and I didn’t get to elaborate on anything.  There were some things I didn’t even mention like Quidditch, the constant love triangles, the practical joke shop, a zombie attack, or anything related to the Half-Blood Prince.  The movie itself is quite like the summary – trying to cram so much into a relatively large amount of time (153 minutes is long for a movie).  Like the summary, some things get left out (I was especially disappointed with the omission of details of Voldemort’s past).  And like the summary, the film feels too rushed. 

The best parts of the “Harry Potter” books and movies are when the story slows down so the reader (or viewer) can take in the details.  I know that Harry’s back-to-school shopping in Diagon Alley isn’t going to be as exciting as a dragon battle, but the little things in those scenes are so rich and detailed that they suck you into Harry’s world more than an intense broom chase ever could.

To be fair, there are a few nice slow parts preserved in “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince”.  As with several of the other installments, the film starts off with special effects (to prove that it indeed has special effects) and finishes with special effects (for a big finish), but there’s some interesting character development in the scenes in the middle.  It has been well established that Ron and Hermione like each other but won’t admit it, and they never seem to be available for each other in this film.  The timing for Harry to fall in love with Ron’s sister Ginny is much better, but Harry’s Voldemort-related responsibilities prove distracting. 

The acting is always an important part of these big ensemble pieces.  The students are nice and relatable as always.  They have a tendency to become annoying as they are put under various spells, but the audience at the showing I attended liked these scenes so I may be in the minority.  Broadbent is an excellent addition to the cast as the conflicted Professor Slughorn.  I can’t say I care for the way Michael Gambon plays Dumbledore.  The character is supposed to be a symbol of confidence and peacefulness.  Gambon makes me feel more nervous and intimidated than the late Richard Harris did.

It all leads up to the ending that jerk-y “Harry Potter” fans are eager to spoil.  We have one more book adaptation to go, one that will be split into two films.  I’m looking forward to more deliberate pacing in the future.   The overstuffed “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is all right, but it definitely could have benefitted from the two-film treatment. 
4:14 pm est          Comments

Bruno review
By Bob Garver
It has been nearly three years since Sacha Baron Cohen released the funniest movie of the decade.  It was in 2006 that America was introduced to Borat, the innocent, naïve documentarian from Kazakhstan who wreaked havoc across America.  The film was a perfect example of how to pull off humor that we all know is “wrong” (as in filthy and offensive), but most feel is right (as in very, very funny). 

Now comes “Bruno”, a film that follows the same basic format as “Borat”.  Cohen plays a character and interviews people and conducts general mayhem as that character.  Of course, the pe
ople involved don’t know he’s an actor playing a character.  This way, Cohen can both pull off hilarious antics and subject unknowing victims to said antics so we can laugh at their reactions.  This suggests that we should get twice the laughs as most comedies, when in fact we get ten times the laughs. 

               Bruno is a flamboyantly gay fashion icon from Austria.  He gets fired from his talk show after a disaster at a Milan fashion show.  He grabs his assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) and leaves ungrateful Europe to come to America and become famous.  The goal is more clearly defined than in “Borat” (who was making a vague documentary about American culture), but he still gets himself into a wide variety of pickles.  I just want to take some time to mention the best scenes. 

-He goes to pitch a talk show to a focus group.  The show consists mostly of him dancing, and exactly two words from Harrison Ford.  It also contains full-frontal male nudity. 

-He interviews Paula Abdul for the show.  Lutz has moved all the furniture out of the room, and Bruno and Paula have no place to sit.  Bruno hires day laborers to fill in as chairs.  The scene contains full-frontal male nudity. 

-He uses a psychic medium to get in touch with the dead member of Milli Vanilli.  The scene contains full-frontal invisible male nudity. 

-He does an interview with former Presidential candidate Ron Paul.  Bruno wants to have an affair with him.  The scene only contains partial male nudity.

-He adopts a child from Africa and goes on a talk show to talk about single parenting.  Everything he says antagonizes the show’s all-black audience.  The scene contains rear male nudity not from the baby. 

-He interviews parents to find babies to use for photo shoots.  The parents will agree to put their children through anything.  The scene contains no male nudity. 

-In order to become straight like Tom Cruise (itself a joke), he joins a very-straight male hunting party in the woods.  He fails at becoming straight.  We’re back to full-frontal male nudity. 

-He goes to a “swingers” party to take an all-important step in becoming straight.  The scene contains full frontal male and (much to his horror) female nudity. 

-The climax of the film is one of the most beautifully shot and edited sequences I’ve ever seen.  Like many beautiful scenes, it takes place inside a steel cage.  I won’t go into details about how much male nudity it contains. 

           The film isn’t flawless.  Cohen sometimes ruins his own surprises by telling us what’s coming before we get a visual.  There are a few scenes where you can tell that both people in the scene are actors or that the scene itself is a second take.  Sometimes the Austrian schtick goes too far and sometimes the shocks seem unnecessary. 

            However, there are nothing but minor complaints coming out of the hilarious “Bruno”.  The film, cements Sacha Baron Cohen as the king of uncomfortable documentary comedy.  It is a worthy companion to “Borat” and stands up well on its own.  The style of humor isn’t for everybody and it definitely isn’t a movie for kids.  But if you can handle its shocking nature, you’ll probably laugh like crazy the way I did. 
4:09 pm est          Comments

Ice Age 3 review
“Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” 
By Bob Garver
There are two big smelly wooly mammoths in the room that might keep you from enjoying “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”.  The first is that dinosaurs were extinct millions of years before any of the characters in the movie would have been around.  The second is that the first two “Ice Age” movies weren’t very good.  The room where those mammoths reside is the theater box office.  They are there to discourage you from buying a ticket.  I advise you to brush past them, buy a ticket and go into a different room – the one where the movie is actually shown.  There you will be treated to a highly enjoyable family-friendly adventure.  Best of all, the only mammoths in the room are the ones up on the screen. 

The solution to the first issue is a simple suspension of disbelief.  This is a cartoon with talking animals, are we really going to let a gap in eras be “too much”?  Also, the movie has an explanation:  the dinosaurs have been living underground.  So there.  As for the second issue, it has been three years since 2006’s poorly-received “Ice Age: The Meltdown”.  The people at Fox must have seen some of the much-better Pixar movies in that time, and made sure that they held their animated offerings to a higher standard.  “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” isn’t Pixar quality, but it does represent a world of improvement for the franchise. 

Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano) and his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) are about to welcome their first child.  Their pal Diego the Saber-tooth Tiger (Denis Leary) thinks that this will break up their circle of friends, so he plans to leave their herd.  Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) wants to be included, so he tries to start a family of his own.  He finds three abandoned eggs, which turn out to be adorable little dinosaurs.  Mama Dino wants her babies back, so she pulls Sid and the kids into the underground World Of The Dinosaurs.  Manny, Ellie, Diego, and some opossums make the rest of the movie out of rescuing Sid. 

Many animated sequels introduce new characters to the mix, and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” doesn’t disappoint.  In addition to the dinosaurs, we get a one-eyed weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), an excellent addition to the team.  He’s been stuck in Dinosaur Land for years, and has an expert knowledge of the scary world.  Unfortunately, being the only mammal in a land of reptiles has caused him to go crazy with solitude.  He always knows what he’s doing, but he doesn’t always know how to treat new friends.  Still, his mix-ups usually lead to hilarious results. 

Of course, no discussion of any “Ice Age” movie would be complete without a mention of Scrat.  He’s an acorn-crazed nut of a prehistoric squirrel.  All he wants to do with his life is get ahold of an acorn, but fate always has other plans.  For his third film, Scrat gets some competition for the acorn in a female squirrel named Scratte.  They fight over the acorn, fall in love with each other, find that the acorn comes between them, agree that they can only be together without the acorn, but are both tempted to return to the acorn.  And they do it all without any dialogue. 

The film’s action sequences are inspired.  Some of them take place in bubbles, on trees, on vines, in laughing gas, and on cliffs (where Diego’s efforts mirror Ellie’s labor pains – funny).  Most of the jokes land, although I’m sorry to report that the filmmakers can’t resist sneaking a few smutty ones for adults.  Still, if you’ve already taken the kids to see the superior “Up”, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” is a worthy summer successor. 

4:06 pm est          Comments

Transformers 2 review
“Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” 
By Bob Garver
Why was “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” allowed to be released?  Weren’t there hundreds of people whose job it was to make sure it wouldn’t be like this?    Will any of them ever work again?  They might if they lie on their resumes.  “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is something to be ashamed of. 

The film is a sequel to the 2007 original, itself based on a popular cartoon and line of toys.  For those new to the franchise, Transformers are fighting robots from another planet that live undercover on Earth disguised as everyday objects.  There are good-guy Transformers called Autobots led by Optimus Prime and bad-guy robots called Decepticons led by Megatron. 

The point of the movie is supposed to be to give kids a few thrilling hours that get them to go out and buy the toys.   The movie can’t even succeed on this level because the movie is too crude for kids.  It isn’t unusual for a movie like this to be too violent for kids, but there’s no reason for it to be this crude.  Yet I’m watching a “Transformers” movie with inappropriate dog behavior, inappropriate bathroom behavior, drug references, too much swearing, and robot genetalia.  Oh, and there are two Autobots who are clearly supposed to be African-American.  They’re quick to violence and can’t read.  They are probably the two most imitatable characters in the movie.  Parents of all races, do you want your kids acting like that? 

The movie starts off with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) going off to college.  His plans involve distancing himself from the Autobots and keeping a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox).  After about an hour with his annoying parents, annoying roommate, and annoying teacher, the Decepticons make their presence known. They want Sam because he knows the location of a secret weapon that will no doubt destroy humanity.  Sam, some secondary characters, and the Autobots spend the rest of the movie trying to reach the weapon before the Decepticons can get their claws on it. 

Again, the stars of the movie are supposed to be the awesome robots, but director Michael Bay wastes too much time with human characters, who we all know shouldn’t stand a chance against the machines.  My theory is that Bay was sick and tired of hearing people complain about how his movies were brain-dead collections of crashes and explosions.  He decided to go hours without showing crashes or explosions to show everyone how boring his movies would be without them.  I guess he’s right, the movie is boring.  But it’s also still brain-dead. 

The action sequences aren’t even that exciting.  We only ever see the robots from certain angles, which tells us that the animators could only render them at certain angles.  The robots are supposed to have human-like bodies, but they whip each other around so much that it’s hard to tell if we’re looking at their heads or backs or anything else.  The soundtrack is composed mostly of whooshing metal sounds that sound like a rejected rough draft of a light saber from “Star Wars”. 

I could take any minute at random from “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen”, say “Are you watching this?” and you would see why I hate this movie.  Its badness is that self-evident.  I try to be nice to movies because I know a lot of people work hard, the process is frustrating, sometimes jokes and scenes don’t come off the way they are supposed to, and the artists try but they fail.  But there’s no a way a movie can be this bad by accident.  Michael Bay should be ashamed of himself, but something tells me that he’s laughing at torturing so many people for two and a half hours.  “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is one of the stupidest movies ever made. 
4:04 pm est          Comments

Year One review
“Year One” 
By Bob Garver
The funniest thing about “Year One” is the title and you get that for free.  It’s sort of funny to imagine a year numbered so low that it can be spelled so easily.  It’s funnier to imagine the kind of New Year’s celebration they might have had to bring in the Year Two.  But “Year One” is so unfunny it can’t even capitalize on a gag like this, one that the filmmakers practically set up for themselves. 

Instead, the movie chooses to focus on two dimwit hunter-gatherers played by Jack Black and Michael Cera.  Since Black is loud and hairy, it’s not hard to picture him as a primitive villager.  But the casting of Cera should be the first sign that the movie is in trouble.  He doesn’t look the part, and his style of humor involves his own social awkwardness.  “Year One” takes place in a society that hasn’t evolved to a point where there’s such a thing as awkward. 

A typical exchange goes like this:  Black yells, “We gotta do this, it’s gonna be AWESOME!”  Then Cera replies with, “Uh, yeah, I mean, I guess we can do that.  It’ll probably get us killed, but, okay.”  This is supposed to be funny because the things they’re talking about are all goofy Early Man things. 

The title “Year One” implies that the story takes place around the time of Christ, but actually the setting is a mix-n-match from the Old Testament.  Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) get kicked out of their village for eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  They stumble on Cain (David Cross) just as he’s betraying Abel.  They meet up with Abraham (Hank Azaria) as he’s about to sacrifice Isaac (Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse).  Everybody ends up in Sodom, where Zed and Oh are determined to rescue two women who don’t like them. 

Aside from being unfunny, “Year One” suffers from bad pacing.  Many gags are centered around jokes going too long, a device that is being used too much lately.  The film is a chore to sit through.  Get through it by playing Popcorn Games:
            -Eat a piece every time someone eats something disgusting.
            -Eat a piece every time a bodily function is played for laughs.
            -Eat a piece every time someone casually throws an archaic name like Marlak into the middle of a line and you’re supposed to laugh at it.
           -Eat two pieces every time someone uses an archaic name as an entire line and you’re supposed to laugh at it.
-Every time the sleazy High Priest (Oliver Platt) orders Oh to rub oil on his chest, eat a particularly dry piece.  You won’t want to put anything greasy in your mouth.
-Eat a piece when someone like Cera is clearly wearing a wig because their real life hair is too short and neat.
-Don’t eat a piece when someone has too much body hair.  Just try to keep down the pieces you’ve eaten so far.
-Eat a piece when Zed and Oh are introduced to the wheel.  Eat two pieces when they discover an unfortunate side effect of wheel travel.  You’ll actually be eating three pieces because it involves a bodily function. 

           I want to say something good about “Year One”, but the most positive things I can think of are things that it doesn’t do.  It isn’t a sequel or a remake like too many other films this summer.  It doesn’t have any lame “Flintstones”-esque gags where the characters have crude versions of modern technologies like iPods.  It doesn’t have any strobe lights.  But when “Year One” does try to do something funny, it either falls flat or makes you hate it. 
4:00 pm est          Comments

Taking of Pelham 123 review
“The Taking of Pelham 123” 
By Bob Garver
“The Taking of Pelham 123” is a formula that’s been done many times before.  Your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how long it’s been since you’ve seen a film just like it.  If you can get though a 90-second commercial without thinking of three examples from the last decade, it might just be the film for you. 

The film is about a hostage situation in New York City.  A man known simply as Ryder (John Travolta) “Takes” over a subway car from the “Pelham 123” train.   Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a disgraced subway dispatcher in an office miles downtown.  He calls the train to ask why it has stopped in the middle of a tunnel.  Ryder doesn’t want to talk to the cops, so Garber is suddenly the only man who can deal with his demands. 

Most of the film revolves around the cat-and-mouse games between Ryder and Garber.  Ryder is fond of giving people seemingly impossible deadlines, and there’s a lot of suspense.  There’s a sequence where the police try to get a ransom through the streets of New York and they have to drive so recklessly that they keep crashing.  It’s unfortunate and exciting the first time, but it gets unintentionally funny by the third or fourth time. 

The situation doesn’t stay secret for long, and soon Garber is joined by other authorities.  Camonetti (John Turturro) is a professional hostage negotiator.  Turturro is well cast.  He has a way of calming people down without putting exaggerated soothing sounds into his voice.   James Gandolfini is the unnamed Mayor of New York, whose term is about to end.  He’s no longer terribly concerned with hiding his sleaziness.  Still, he wants to see the hostages freed and turns out to be a surprising asset.

Both Washington and Travolta (especially Travolta) turn in good performances, but the casting decisions themselves are weird.  Travolta keeps hurling ethnic slurs at the Italian Camonetti.  Ryder may not be Italian, but Travolta is.  If they wanted to cast Travolta in the role, couldn’t they have taken out the Italian slurs?  Or made Camonetti a different ethnicity?  It’s just distracting the way it is.

As for Washington, he’s played hostage negotiators before.  2006’s “Inside Man” comes to mind, but I’m sure there have been others.  Why would they want us to watch him squirm uncomfortably in a role that we all know he can nail?  It would be like casting Alex Giroux (superstar Left Wing of my hometown Calder-Cup-winning Hershey Bears) as a total rookie hockey player who has to learn the basics.  Stop with the struggling and give us more time for action. 

There’s very little action in “The Taking of Pelham 123”.  Most of the movie is about the interactions between Garber and Ryder.  Ryder is one of those eloquent movie villains that is always in control of the situation and always has a speech or a story ready.  He’s also eager to get Garber to open up about a secret from his own past.  Not because it’s important, just because he can. 

A hostage situation in New York City, an unlikely hero, and a smart villain who’s willing to kill people in order to get his money faster.  There’s not much that’s original about “The Taking of Pelham 123”.  But if you like the formula and want to see the film anyway, please go see it.  It’s at least a worthy entry in an overcrowded genre.
3:58 pm est          Comments

Hangover review
“The Hangover” 
By Bob Garver
It won’t come as a surprise to anybody that “The Hangover” is missing a brain.  It isn’t trying to be a smart movie, it’s just trying to get an audience to laugh at its dumb characters.  Its goal is to end up as a DVD that you pop in on a rainy day.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach, many of the best comedies are “dumb guy” comedies.  But there is a major problem with “The Hangover”, it’s missing a heart, too. 

The characters in these movies need to get you to feel strongly about them.  Usually this means being likeable, occasionally this means making you hate them so much that it’s funny to see bad things happen to them.  The characters in “The Hangover” have almost no personality, we’re indifferent to their successes and misfortunes. 

             Phil (Bradley Cooper) is an easygoing party animal.  Stu (Ed Helms) is a nerdy dentist with an annoying girlfriend.  Alan (Zach Galifianakis) is just plain weird.  They join their friend Doug (Justin Bartha), whose sole character trait is that he’s about to get married, for an awesome weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas.  The four go up on the roof of their hotel for a toast, and then ?????????? and then they wake up - wait for it… hung over.  Also, Doug is missing.     

           The three remaining friends can’t remember a thing about last night, but their room is littered with indications that they were irresponsible.  Phil is wearing a medical bracelet.  Stu is missing a tooth.  Alan is missing his pants.  There’s a hungry tiger in the bathroom.  Someone’s baby is stuffed (safely) in a closet.  Doug’s mattress is impaled on a statue outside.  Everybody just wants to get Doug and get out of town before the resort discovers how they trashed their room.  But if they want to find him, they have to figure out exactly what they did last night and where they might have lost their friend. 

             They go on adventure that takes them from their hotel to a hospital to a police station to a wedding chapel to the desert to the casino floor.  They deal with incompetent cops, kids with stun guns, strippers, Asian gangsters, and Mike Tyson.  All of these movies have an unlikely cameo by someone making fun of themselves.  Apparently it was Tyson’s turn.         

              “Dumb Guy” movies are supposed to have more sympathetic characters.  It might be fun to see Tommy Boy fall down, but you do want to see him get back up.  Happy Gilmore may have some rough edges, but you still want to see him stick it to that jerk Shooter McGavin.   Austin Powers gets humiliated, but he just has to make it to a showdown with Dr. Evil.  There’s a scene in “The Hangover” where it looks like the guys are going to be in jail for the whole weekend.  I shrug and think, “That sounds fair.”

               The characters in “The Hangover” are unsympathetic for several reasons, but one of the biggest is that what they say isn’t funny.  We’re supposed to be laughing at all the profanity they use, but it isn’t creatively-used profanity.  It’s just profanity for profanity’s sake, as if the writers think four-letter words are a good substitute for actual punchlines.  The actors don’t quite have the timing to be “good” at swearing, either.

            “The Hangover” can boast a few funny bits.  Helms sings a hilarious song about tigers, Galifianakis throws his back into some physical gags.  But the characters are underdeveloped and the screenplay keeps insisting that straight-up profanity is funny.  In the end, it might be worth an actual hangover to forget that you saw “The Hangover”.
3:55 pm est          Comments

Up review

By Bob Garver

            I have this theory about Pixar Animation.  It is my belief that they are in possession of a powder that contains the secret of making great movies.  They keep this powder in an ordinary-looking can in their employee cafeteria.  Every day, they take some of this powder and use it to make delicious fruit punch for their employees.  Everybody gets a yummy treat, everybody makes great movies like “Up”.
The most iconic image of the film is without a doubt the mode of transportation that the filmmakers have invented for the characters.  That vehicle is a flying house supported by balloons.  The balloons are multicolored and beautiful and so is the house itself.  Put them together and you get one impressive-looking conveyance perfect for the adventure of a lifetime. 

Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) shared a love of adventure with his late wife.  They both looked up to globetrotter Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) as a role model.  They always dreamed of traveling the world, starting with the beautiful Paradise Falls in South America.  The wife even had a scrapbook full of blank pages for all the adventures they were going to take.  Alas, Carl’s job as a balloon salesman never made them enough money to go anywhere. 

            Now Carl is alone and everything annoys him.  A Boy Scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) is pestering him to let him help him so he can get a “Helping the Elderly” merit badge.  A greedy land developer is forcing him to move into a retirement home.  He has one night left in his house.  If only he could use his skills as a balloon-maker to hold onto his house somehow…

           Carl ties several thousand balloons to his fireplace and sends them up the chimney, which causes the house to float.  He can play the tight balloon strands like a string instrument, one of many brilliant touches in the film.  He’s all set to steer his way to South America when Russell comes knocking from the front porch.  Carl isn’t alone in the flying house.  Looks like he and Russell are going on the adventure together. 

              Together Carl and Russell fly the house through a storm, get out and guide it over a perilous rock formation, meet an extremely rare bird named Kevin who turns out to be a mother, take in a talking dog, and do battle with Charles Muntz himself.  They do it all with the balloons, string, the house, Carl’s walker, and Russell’s seemingly endless supply of chocolate.  They may have a limited number of tools, but the filmmakers come up with an unlimited number of uses for them.  The missing pages in the scrapbook do get filled, but not in a way that anyone expects.  It’s more touching than exciting, but satisfying all the same.

              What will kids take away from the movie?  They’re sure to sympathize with Russell, and it won’t take much for them to like Carl too.  He’s been depicted as grouchy in the ads, but the film explains early on how he got to be so grouchy.  Kids will root for him to become his old spirited self again.  They’ll find Kevin adorable, and might make some gobbling sounds.  They’ll really love the talking dogs.  Those mongrels try to be calculating bird-hunters, but at the end of the day they still love chasing squirrels and chewing on tennis balls.   The only detraction (if there is one) is that all the flying and dangling looks really fun and exciting.  Parents, make sure the kids know not to try any of this at home. 
“Up” is intelligent, imaginative, exciting, touching, and funny.  It is the best movie of 2009 so far.  It’s almost getting boring to pour so much praise on Pixar.  But as the movie proves, sometimes boring things are far greater than we realize.  Complimenting Pixar may be boring, but it’s because everything they do, including “Up”, is great. 
3:51 pm est          Comments

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