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Monday, May 23, 2011



By Bob Garver

            Half of "Thor" takes place in our world, half of it takes place in another world.  The film isn't very good in either world.  The scenes in the other world are unique and visually impressive, but I never made the connection to the world that the film needed me to make.  As for the scenes in our world, they are supposed to hit us as familiar, but the characters are so uninteresting and underdeveloped that they have no place in any world. 

            The other world is a distant realm called Asgard.  Their king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) once saved the universe from an army of evil Frost Giants, who were then banished to another distant realm.  Now Odin is getting on in years and the time has come to pass on his crown.  Should he give it to son Loki (Tom Hiddleston)?  No, Loki's a wimp, nobody respects him, and his behavior is so shady you'd be shocked if he didn't turn out to be a villain.  Better give it to Thor (Chris Hemsworth).  He commands respect and can defend the realm himself with his mighty hammer Mjilnor.  He's a bit hot-headed and a bit on the arrogant side, but he's still easily the best choice.  Thor is set to be coroneted when a few Frost Giants ruin the occasion. 

            Thor's instinct is to go fight the Frost Giants in their own realm.  Odin wants to wait and see if the Frost Giants really want a war.  Thor disobeys his father and takes the kingdom's best warriors to go fight the Frost Giants.  A battle ensues that is supposed to be the best action sequence in the film.  It is the best only by default.  At this point in the film we have no idea what any of the characters including Thor himself can do exactly.  The warriors of Asgard are apparently endowed with superpowers, but these powers are used before it's established that the characters have them.  For example, the Frost Giants learn the hard way that Mjilnor can shoot lasers. The scene doesn't work because we didn't know the hammer could shoot lasers either.  For all we knew it was just a blunt object. 

            Thor wins the battle, but he has now officially started a war between Asgard and the Frost Giants.  Odin is furious, and he strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth.  It's probably just as well for the story because I was just not sympathetic to Asgard.  The film gives us no feel for their culture.  It seems like all they do is prepare for war and serve the royal family.  Thor crash-lands on Earth and is rescued by astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).  Mjilnor is also thrown to Earth, where it immediately attracts attention from superhero followers S.H.I.E.L.D. 

            Thor spends the rest of the film trying to rescue his hammer and return home.  He has to go through S.H.I.E.L.D., who we know to be good guys but here function as a sort of enemy because they don't understand Mjilnor's history and purpose.  Thor also has to adjust to life on Earth, and the film wastes time with "fish out of water" awkwardness.  He eventually falls in love with Jane (who frankly loses credibility for falling for the muscle-bound weirdo so easily) and comes to wish to remain on Earth.  But pressing matters back home with Odin, Loki, and the Frost Giants force him to press on.

            "Thor" is directed by Kenneth Branagh, best known for film adaptions of Shakespeare plays.  This explains the sophistication and eloquence in the scenes set in Asgard.  It does not explain why we never get a proper background for our heroes' powers or why the majority of scenes set on Earth are so painfully stiff.  "Thor" is supposed to be one of the biggest movies of 2011.  It will be a sad year for movies if this is the best we can do. 

Two stars out of five.

9:23 am edt          Comments

"Fast Five"

By Bob Garver

            I know by now what to expect from the "Fast and the Furious" franchise.  People don't see these movies because they're good movies, they see them because seeing them in a crowded theater makes for a big party.  I even gave a positive review to 2009's "Fast & Furious" because even I had to admit that the party was a blast.  So all "Fast Five" really needed to be was a fun, dumb action movie with fast cars. This past Friday the Cocoaplex was packed and my expectations were lowered, and "Fast Five" still managed to disappoint me on almost every level. 

            When we last left the franchise, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) was going to prison, having finally been captured after a history of implausible hijackings. He was on the bus to a penitentiary when we saw that a team of his friends led by Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) were in hot pursuit of the bus, no doubt ready to bust him out.  At the start of this film, we get to see the follow-through.  Turns out their plan was less eloquent than I thought.  They cause the bus to crash and by pure luck Dominic is the only one to get away. 

            Dom, Brian, and Dom's sister (Jordana Brewster) end up in Rio de Janeiro where the try to pull "one last job" where they are to steal a microchip from the DEA so they can sell it to a drug kingpin (Joaquin de Almeida).  The job goes awry and they end up on the wrong side of both the DEA and the kingpin.  Now they have a new "one last job".  They'll steal the kingpin's money and avoid the DEA at all cost.  This will be doubly tough since the kingpin is a powerful figure in Rio and the DEA has called in the dangerous, determined Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to bring in Dom and Brian.  It will take a whole team to pull this off. 

            It is at this point where the film can't even be dumb properly.  The rest of the team is made up of characters from the previous four films in the series.  "Fast Five" expects us to actually remember these characters.  Even the ones from the last movie barely registered with me, the older ones had gone off my radar entirely.  While there might be a place in the film for the moderate star power of Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris (from 2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious"), do they really expect anyone to care about Matt Schulze's character from the decade-old original?  There's a difference between being clever (which the film thinks it is) and being unfairly complicated (which it definitely is).  By the way, even more characters are re-introduced midway through the end credits. 

            The film doesn't do action very well.  The sequences are choppy and it's hard to keep track of where the characters are in relation to each other.  The botched hijacking at the beginning has a few exciting moments (and I'll give credit to a particular spot involving a cliff), but then there's a long stretch where our time is wasted with increasingly dull banter and one-liners.  The cars themselves are conspicuous by their absence.  There's only one race, and it goes for two blocks.  Yes, the climactic sequence involves a car chase, but it's too little too late. 

            Perhaps the biggest flaw in "Fast Five" is that it really doesn't want to be a "Fast and the Furious" movie at all.  What it wants to be is "Ocean's Eleven".  There is much focus on the finer points of the heist, which make for more needlessly complicated details that the film can't even keep straight.  I said the film should have been a fun, dumb action movie with fast cars.  "Fast Five" is low on action, unforgivably low on cars, and dumb for the wrong reasons.  I didn't have much fun. 

Two stars out of five. 

9:21 am edt          Comments


"Water for Elephants"

By Bob Garver

            "Water for Elephants" has plenty of details in its production and not nearly enough details in its story.  The film was made by a very professional team.  It has the look, sound, and feel of a great cinematic epic.  It probably even deserves a handful of Oscar nominations in the minor technical categories.  Alas, the film is so flawed in its script that it cannot go down as an Oscar nominee even for what it does right. 

            Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a promising young veterinary student who drops out of Cornell after the sudden loss of his parents.  Immediately resorting to a life of Depression-era vagrancy, Jacob stows away on the first train he finds.  It turns out the train belongs to the Benzini Bros. circus.  And they need a vet for all the performing animals they've been mistreating. 

            The circus people are a community unto themselves, a kingdom if you will.  That would make the owner August (Christoph Waltz) their king.  He's quite a mad king at that.  He knows everything about putting on a show, little about treating animals or people with respect, and nothing about business.  At least he usually has his star performer wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) by his side to keep his temper under control. 

            August and Jacob clash early when August wants Jacob to treat his star performer (other star performer) white horse. Jacob thinks the horse should be put down.  August wants the horse to keep performing at all costs.  Jacob puts the horse down.  August nearly has him killed and implies that he has had others killed and will have others killed again.  At this point Jacob should probably run away from the circus.  But since August stops just short of throwing Jacob off the train, Jacob must think he's earned enough respect to be immune from further punishment. 

            Indeed it does seem that way.  August soon buys a new star attraction - an elephant named Rosie.  Nobody knows what to do with an elephant, so Jacob is put in charge by default.  He is soon a recurring party guest of August and Marlena, and since the film takes place during Prohibition, the parties include more alcohol than a modern party.  August usually gets drunk and goes to bed early.  Jacob and Marlena begin to have conversations of their own.  Marlena is becoming more and more frightened of August's violent, crazy behavior.  The conversations are about to include more than talking. 

            The rest of the film follows Jacob and Marlena's quest for love and freedom.  It isn't easy since August is good at keeping people under his thumb.  He is even able to track them to a specific hotel room despite the story taking place in the 1930s when tracking technology had only come so far.  But he isn't above turning violent towards his star performers (both star performers) and making them too ugly to perform, which when you think about it can only hurt him.  Waltz is brilliant as usual as the villain, but I can't say the same for Pattinson and Witherspoon.  Even if you can look past the actors' ten-year age difference, they still have surprisingly little chemistry in a film that wants to be a romance above all else. 

            The emphasis on romance may be the downfall of "Water for Elephants".  I was fine with the film as a chronicle of Jacob's life with the circus.  Surely there are a number of colorful characters in the kingdom, but the story devotes most of its time to only three.  Two minor characters make a major difference late in the story, but I had completely forgotten who they were.  Details of the story like that are the film's weak points.  Stronger points are the film's camerawork, music, costumes, sets, and other carefully-attended technical aspects.  I wish these aspects had been a part of a better overall film than "Water for Elephants". 

Three stars out of five. 

9:20 am edt          Comments



By Bob Garver

            "Rio" is an animated film similar to many other animated films before it.  Our hero is a pampered pet who has never even met another of his own kind.  He is rudely yanked out of his comfort zone and forced to embark on an adventure if he ever wants to get back home.  His best ally is a shrewd female of the same species who hates him at first, then takes pity on him, then becomes his friend, then needs rescuing, then officially falls in love.  The hero, meanwhile, gains an appreciation for the world he's discovered on his journey.  Maybe this new life isn't so bad after all. 

          How many times have we seen this formula lately?  "Rango" had it.  "Madagascar", "Beverly Hills Chihuahua", and "Alpha and Omega" had variations on it.  "Ice Age 2" had it and it was made by the same team that made "Rio".   Thankfully "Rio" stars a cast of colorful birds and takes place in the midst of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.  It has enough eye candy to make you forget that the same story has been done many times before. 

          Here's how the film fills in the blanks.  Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue macaw that was poached from the rainforest as a baby.  He wound up in the caring hands of Linda (Leslie Mann), who over twenty years loves him unconditionally and never seems to be bothered by the fact that he can't fly.  Now Linda is contacted by an ornithologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) who convinces her to take Blu to Rio de Janeiro so he can meet a female macaw and save the nearly-extinct species.  Blu has never been outside Minnesota, but goes along reluctantly. 

         Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the female macaw, takes an immediate dislike to Blu and hates him even more when she discovers that he can't fly.  She also hates that they're locked in a rainforest simulator at a Rio research facility.  She wants to be back in the wild where she belongs.  The setting is about to get a lot worse as both birds are soon poached and chained together.  The poachers are clumsy humans, but they employ a vicious cockatoo named Nigel (Jermaine Clement) to make them threatening villains.  Poaching was probably good for Blu the first time (he got to live a comfortable life with Linda instead of being a flightless bird alone in the wild), but he wants to be back with Linda and Jewel just wants to be free.  The pair get away, but they're still chained together and the poachers want them back. 

          The rest of the film is spent on the quest to make things right again.  Blu and Jewel are helped by a family-man toucan (George Lopez), a pair of partying songbirds (Jaime Foxx and will.i.am), and a friendly but revolting bulldog (Tracy Morgan).  Sparks eventually fly between Blu and Jewel as well as between Linda and Tulio who have an adventure of their own as they search.  The action eventually takes everyone to a Carnival parade where the searching and chasing mixes with dancing and silliness.

        There's a lot to like in "Rio".  All the color and creatively-designed birds are a treat for the eyes.  Most of the jokes are a treat for the ears.  We even get a few musical numbers.  The film's humor is family-friendly.  Kids will get all the jokes while adults will only be minimally annoyed.  I laughed loudly myself a few times.  I was disappointed by the overly-familiar story, but other aspects of the film made up for it.  The year is far from over, and this isn't saying much, but so far "Rio" is the best movie of 2011. 

Three stars out of five.   

9:18 am edt          Comments



By Bob Garver

            Has the world ever decided on what the Easter Bunny does exactly?  We all know that Santa Claus has a specific function and an elaborate backstory, but the Easter Bunny is little more than a mascot for a holiday that falls on a Sunday and therefore does not automatically get kids out of school.  In fact, you rarely hear about him unless he's mentioned alongside Santa and a leprechaun on a list of ridiculous holiday characters.  Now along comes "Hop", a film where the Easter Bunny is finally center stage ready to introduce the audience to a world all his own. 

            According to "Hop", the Easter Bunny spends all year supervising workers in a factory until one special night where he rides a sleigh to deliver goodies to the children of the world.  How imaginative.  The Bunny lives on Easter Island (of course), the sleigh is shaped like a big egg (of course), and the factory makes candy (of course), including jelly beans (of course), marshmallow chicks (of course), and Hershey's Kisses (surprising - I thought those were made five minutes from the  Hershey Cocoaplex where I saw the film).  No mention is ever made of hiding or searching for Easter Eggs, an opportunity wasted by the film. 

            According to the film, there has been a proud lineage of official Easter Bunnies throughout the ages.  The current Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie) is getting on in years and is ready to pass the title to his son E.B. (Russell Brand).  But E.B. is a slacker and isn't ready for the responsibility.  He doesn't even know if he wants to be the Easter Bunny.  At the moment, he's leaning toward becoming a drummer.  Tired of the pressure from his father, he runs away to Hollywood.  This is bad timing because Easter is right around the corner and a power-hungry chick (Hank Azaria) wants the Easter Bunny title for himself.

            In Hollywood lives another slacker, a human named Fred (James Marsden).  Fred knows he needs to get a job, but there aren't any jobs he likes.  His parents push him out of their house, but his sister gets him a sweet gig housesitting for her boss.  Driving over to his temporary digs, he accidentally runs into E.B.  The two form an uneasy bond even though Fred is a lazy live-action human and E.B. is a flamboyant cartoon rabbit. 

            The bond may be uneasy for the characters, but it's even more uneasy for us.  Marsden and Brand have nowhere near the chemistry needed for their banter to come off naturally.  And don't tell me I should be forgiving just because the actors weren't in the same room together.  I remember the seamless relationship Bob Hoskins had with his animated costars in 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?".  Plenty of other actors have achieved excellent performances despite challenges with special effects, I just use that example because of the species involved. 

            There are other problems with "Hop", mostly involving the script.  Details and subplots are dropped without warning and most of the jokes are outright painful.  The best thing I can say about the film is that Russell Brand in voiceover sometimes rises above the material and gets more laughs than his dialogue deserves.  Brand is funny after all.  He has to be.  Katy Perry didn't marry him for his looks. 

            Since "Hop" is the first and only Easter Bunny movie, it is by default the best and definitive Easter Bunny movie.  This means that it will be played on television annually and kids will regard watching it as a sort of cultural tradition.  I don't want to put up with "Hop" every year.  The only way to stop it is for a better Easter Bunny movie to come along and takes its place.  America never needed an Easter Bunny movie, but now someone needs to spend time and money making a better Easter Bunny movie just to cancel out "Hop".

Two stars out of five. 

9:16 am edt          Comments

"Sucker Punch"

By Bob Garver

            "Sucker Punch" is one of those movies that likes to think of itself as "challenging" when it is really just needlessly complicated and unfairly confusing.  It is heavily implied that most of the film is a delusion for the main character as she tries to cope with her horrifying reality.  The action of the fantasy world is supposed to be symbolic of her real struggles, but there is too much inconsistency and contradiction for the two to be taken seriously as parallels.  The film is like a poorly-written fairy tale.  We know that we have to suspend our disbelief and the film still betrays our trust. 

            The main character is Babydoll (Emily Browning).  Her evil stepfather has her committed to an asylum after she accidentally kills her sister (she was trying to stop him from killing the sister himself).  She is supposed to be in the care of Dr. Gosrki (Carla Gugino), but her new world is really ruled by a cruel orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac).  The stepfather doesn't want Babydoll talking to the police, so Blue arranges for a lobotomist to come take care of her at the end of the week. 

            The film should have given us more time in the asylum.  Except for Blue, we never get a feel for any of the characters' personalities or their day-to-day lives in this frightening world.  We need this information as points of reference for the inexplicable change of venue that comes next.  Without warning, the film suddenly takes place in a burlesque club.  Babydoll and the other girls are all dancers, Gorski is the choreographer, Blue is the manager, and a "High Roller" client is coming to take Babydoll's innocence at the end of the week. 

          At least the asylum was scary, the club is just silly.  There is no good reason for this to happen to the story except that the girls now get to wear leotards and lingerie instead of dingy uniforms.  The worst thing about this development is that the girls are all now innocent prisoners and they spend their days working on their dancing.  But without knowing who they are or what they do at the asylum, we don't know what various elements of the club are supposed to symbolize. 

        Don't get too attached to the club either, because the scenery is about to change even more drastically.  As she practices dancing, Babydoll escapes into a world where she can plot an escape without Blue's knowledge.  This world can take the form of anything from a Shaolin temple to a railroad on a distant planet.  She is mentored in all versions of the world by an old wise man (Scott Glenn) who I'm guessing represents her own courage, undiscovered until now. 

          The master plan involves the other girls to retrieving important items while Babydoll dances.  For some reason this means that the other girls come into the fantasies with her to accomplish symbolic missions.  These fantasy missions comprise the film's action sequences.  The girls don a series of sexy outfits to fight armies of ugly monsters, usually in slow-motion.  The sequences are visually interesting and the constant shooting might make you forget that the rest of the movie is a total mess.  Still, there has to be a less convoluted way of setting them up.

         "Sucker Punch" gives us four good action sequences and then abruptly robs us of what should have been at least one more.  The film's last act is so ill-fitting that I seriously wonder if director Zack Snyder just ran out of money and couldn't give us the ending we deserve.  But then again almost no parts of the movie fit well with any of the other parts.   I wouldn't go so far as to say that I feel like I've been punched, but I definitely feel like a sucker. 

Two stars out of five.

9:13 am edt          Comments



By Bob Garver

            You know that move you do with your hand when you're unimpressed with something?   The one where you stick your palm down, you either lay it flat or cup it slightly, and you tilt it from side to side?  Perhaps no film has ever made me want to do that move more than "Paul".  When the film ended, I did that move from my seat.  Nobody saw me do it, but I didn't do it to be seen or validated.  I did the move simply because "Paul" deserved it. 

            The film stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, best known for the British comedies "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz".  The other main character is Paul, an alien voiced by Seth Rogen.  I knew going in that Pegg and Frost would have excellent chemistry, but I was pleasantly surprised with how seamlessly Paul fit in.  He's animated well enough for you to forget that he's animated at all, and there's no awkwardness in his dialogue with humans.  Not bad considering that Rogen probably recorded his lines months removed from production. 

            The ensemble includes Jane Lynch (who managed to win an Emmy for "Glee" with hardly any singing), Jason Bateman (star of one of my favorites, "Arrested Development"), Sigourney Weaver (this is an alien movie, she's in her element), Joe Lo Truglio (not a name I'm familiar with, but clearly just as funny as anyone else in the cast), Kristen Wiig (the outstanding female member of the current "Saturday Night Live" cast), and Bill Hader (also on "SNL" and maybe the coolest celebrity I've ever met).  The director is Greg Mottola, whose "Superbad" was arguably the best of the Judd Apatow-fuelled Golden Streak of R-rated Comedy from last decade.  There is no doubt that all the elements of a great comedy are in place. 

             The plot involves two sci-fi geeks (Pegg and Frost) who encounter Paul as they travel across the country in a Winnebago.  Paul is a fugitive from the government and he needs their help to get to a ship that is coming for him.  The nerds recognize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the three embark on a road trip.  The trio is pursued by a shady government agent (Bateman) who is shadowed by two bumbling rookies (Hader and Lo Truglio).  Along the way they kidnap the Christian manager of an RV lot (Wiig) who eventually falls for one of the geeks.  Everyone's world is turned upside down as Paul tries to go back to his world and make things right. 

          The film is directed competently, all the scenes are staged right, and the visual effects are better than expected for a lowbrow comedy.  The actors do a good job too.  They get the maximum laughs from their lines, especially when they're swearing.  The film will be remembered best for its unique combinations of obscenities.  Wiig gets the best of the diatribes since her character embraces swearing midway through the film. She's the MVP of "Paul". 

         One problem I definitely have with the film is the way it mocks Christianity.  It's bad enough that the film portrays Christian characters as stupid, but then Christian stupidity is treated as self-evident.  Late in the film, someone says "God be with you".  The other characters don't even bother mocking him, the line is treated as a joke in and of itself.  Like most of the film, it isn't funny. 

        There are some things that "Paul" could have done better.  It could have avoided the insults toward Christians, it could have used its talented comedic actors for more than straight roles, it could have laid off the road movie clichés, predictable nerd stereotypes, and tired Seth Rogen pot jokes. But what makes "Paul" truly mediocre is that its humor just falls flat.  Some of the jokes may be well-constructed, but when the movie was over I realized that I hadn't laughed once.   

Two stars out of five.

9:10 am edt          Comments


"Battle: Los Angeles"

By Bob Garver

            If you go into "Battle: Los Angeles" expecting science fiction, you'll be in for a disappointment.  Yes, the film's villains are aliens who come to Earth in a spaceship and have an arsenal of robotic weapons, but the movie isn't about them.  The movie is about a group of Marines who fight an unprecedented enemy.  The aliens are basically faceless villains.  Come to think of it, I don't think the aliens even have faces.  They are literally faceless villains. 

            The film begins a few hours before the invasion.  This means we have to endure several irritating minutes of the Marines at relative peace before their lives are changed forever.  One is getting married, one has a kid on the way, etc.  Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) recently botched a mission in the Middle East and is ready to resign in disgrace.  Don't bother memorizing the other characters, they wear helmets for the whole movie and don't have distinct personalities

              There's a brief mention on the news of some unexplained meteors.  The situation quickly snowballs out of control, and we roll our eyes at roughly the same speed.  The aliens land, and Los Angeles finds out the hard way that they aren't friendly.  Our Marines are deployed to escort straggling civilians to a military safe zone before the Air Force bombs the city.  The aliens can blow up whatever they want, so I don't like the chances for the Marines, the Air Force, or the "safe zone". 

             The aliens are attacking Los Angeles because they want the Earth's water. Shouldn't they be invading the ocean?  They should come to Earth in spaceships with big straws that they can dunk into a water supply.  They can just hover a few feet above the Pacific and suck up what they need.  It has to be easier than a drawn-out war with the entire human race.  And don't tell me it's an unrealistic idea, this race has mastered intergalactic travel, they can build spaceships with built-in straws.  By the way, if the aliens can't survive without Earth's water, how have they survived long enough to attack us? 

            The Marines don't have time to care about the aliens' lousy logic, they have humans to protect.  It's awfully late in the game, as there is little to no life in the streets.  Many have already escaped, but bodies still litter the ground (even in neighborhoods that are curiously unincinerated).  While a few civilians are holed up in a police station, the human lives the Marines have the most trouble protecting are their own. 

It should come as no surprise that the film's favorite method of conflict resolution is shooting.            Occasionally something blows up, just so the film can mix it up a little.  But I never believed that there were ever any shootings or explosions, nor did I believe that there were any aliens or spaceships.  The film's special effects are terrible.  The use of green screens is fairly obvious.  Shaky camerawork is used to disguise the poor rendering of the aliens.  I can picture the actors being told to react to things that would be added in later.  They thought they were reacting to something impressive. 

          For months I loved the cryptic trailers for "Battle: Los Angeles".  They did a good job of keeping me in suspense; I thought the movie would do the same.  I should have been curling into a ball and sticking my fingers in my ears.  All any film has to do is make me think something scary is going to jump out at me and then prolong it when I expect it most.  But I was annoyed by all of the film's attempts to keep me in suspense.  "Battle: Los Angeles" didn't have anything legitimately scary to jump out at me and prolonging any potential scares just ate up more of my time watching this dud of a movie.

One Star out of five
9:05 am edt          Comments



By Bob Garver

            Don't be fooled by the kid-friendly PG rating attached to "Rango".  Don't be fooled by the kid-friendly Nickelodeon Studios logo attached to the film.  Don't be fooled by the ads that paint "Rango" as a kid-friendly animated film with a cute chameleon lead.  "Rango" is not kid-friendly.  Don't be fooled into taking your family to see it. 

            The film opens with an unnamed chameleon (Johnny Depp) living a life of contentment inside his terrarium.  The terrarium is in the back of a car, the car hits a bump, the terrarium goes flying, it shatters, and the chameleon is left stranded in a desert in the middle of nowhere.  The sequence is intense but necessary since we know that the chameleon is going to be removed from his comfort zone somehow.  Then we see the bump that the car hit.  It's an armadillo, his midsection flattened, still able to groan.  It is the first of many gruesome sights in the film. 

            Wandering into the desert, the chameleon meets a lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher).  Beans is tough, determined, and she talks a mile a minute.  She is also prone to freezing in a trance when her emotions run high.  The chameleon is smitten with her, and throughout the film he uses these trances as opportunities to touch her affectionately, putting his arm around her and giving her a peck on the cheek.  He waits until she is borderline unconscious and then he touches her.  What a horrible example to set. 

            Beans takes the chameleon to the impoverished town of Dirt where he visits a seedy saloon swarming with unfriendly locals.  Eager to garner acceptance, he regales them with bogus tales of heroism, giving himself the mysterious-sounding name Rango.  He is then attacked by a hawk.  Quite accidentally he kills the hawk and the town proclaims Rango a hero.  The mayor (Ned Beatty) declares him sheriff and his legend quickly escapes even his control.  He gets a swelled head and we realize that this is going to be yet another animated movie about a cocky protagonist who learns humility. 

            Much is wrong in Dirt.  There is a crippling water shortage and the populace lives in fear of overbearing outlaw Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy).  Rango uncovers a conspiracy that may mean less water and more Jake.   One thing Dirt has going for it is that the different animal species mostly live in harmony.  The town is populated by small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, bugs, and birds.  Except for the hawk at the beginning, there isn't much threat of the characters eating each other, even if two creatures are natural enemies.  Then again, most of the characters are so poorly animated that I couldn't tell what type of animal they were supposed to be. 

            The characters might not think of each other as food, but they attack each other for their own reasons and they do it often.  This is a film that treats a woman getting punched in the face as slapstick.  I've already mentioned the gunplay and the roadkill, but there's plenty more.  Most disturbing for me was a minor character with an arrow stuck through his head.  There's also the matter of Rattlesnake Jake, who is a constant threat of crushing, strangling, biting, and poisoning with venom.  It's almost enough to make one forget that has a volitale temper and a high-powered gun for a tail.  He's way too intense for a kids' movie.   

            Death and violence are always in the air in "Rango".  Kids will be terrified and parents probably won't approve of some of the language and humor.  The few kid-friendly moments in the film feel like they were tacked on at the last minute when director Gore Verbinski realized that the film was too dark for young audiences.  "Rango" can fill a TV commercial with what it has to offer kids, but like Dirt's dwindling water supply, it's a minimal amount that masks a dangerous shortage. 

One Star out of Five
9:02 am edt          Comments


"Hall Pass"

By Bob Garver

            I once ate six chocolate donuts as my breakfast.  I also laughed a few too many times at "Hall Pass".  Both made me feel guilty, and both were disgusting in retrospect, but both are undeniably true. 

            The premise of "Hall Pass" is appalling in and of itself.  Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are married, but they can't stop looking at other women.  This is a constant embarrassment to their respective wives Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate).  In addition to being embarrassed, the wives are also worried that their husbands are beginning to regret their decision to settle down with one woman.  A friend suggests that they give their husbands a one-week "Hall Pass", where they have no obligation to marital fidelity.  The women scoff at the idea, but change their minds after one act of borderline disloyalty too many.

            Rick and Fred have the week to hook up with other women.  This is supposed to get cheating out of their system and make their marriages stronger, but there are plenty of holes.  What if they like the women they meet more than their wives?  What if they strike out?  Will they regret getting married if they figure their marriage took them away from meeting other women?  There are a lot of potential disasters with a Hall Pass, but the men can't see past the thrill of getting to hook up with other women. 

            The rest of the film is mostly Rick and Fred and their attempts to get action.  The guys are at least in their mid-30s, so they're out of touch with the dating scene.  They mistake chain restaurants for singles hot spots (funny as an idea, but dragged out too long).  They use ultra-cheesy pick-up lines (hit and miss).  They abuse drugs and alcohol because they think it will calm their nerves (very funny when they turn out to be total messes).  Fred has an embarrassing experience at a massage parlor (predictable).  Rick has a disaster at a health club (predictable but exaggerated to where it works).  They meet up with an old friend (Richard Jenkins) who is an expert at picking up loose women (funny only for the sight of the blinged-out Jenkins).  They get on the wrong side of a coffee shop jerk (Derek Waters) who later becomes a real threat  (funny although things turn dark).  I certainly can't say that these scenes are in good taste, but I also can't deny that many of them are funny. 

              Fred is fine with the idea of hooking up with a random girl, Rick has a specific one (Nicky Whelan) in mind.  As far as I could tell this was the only difference between the two characters and the only justification for having two leads.  I guess the film wants us to see two types of approaches to the situation.  Apparently the film wants us to give serious thought to what a Hall Pass can do for a marriage.  This is a mistake, since the film is too dumb to lend any kind of unique insight to the concept of marital fidelity and its boundaries.

                "Hall Pass" isn't at its best when it tries to be sweet or serious.  It is little more than a dirty, morally-deprived comedy, and it should have done more to embrace that label.  The thing is that it actually works as a dirty, morally-deprived comedy.  Sudeikis is funny almost every time he opens his mouth and Wilson gets his share of laughs as well.  The directors are Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who built their careers on vulgar jokes and gross-out gags, and the film will be remembered for having several notorious variations of both.  I can't say for sure if you'll enjoy "Hall Pass", but I can guarantee that you'll feel dirty afterward. You're the film's target audience if you take that as a recommendation. 

Three stars out of five
8:59 am edt          Comments


By Bob Garver

            Early on in "Unknown", the film's main character suffers severe brain damage.  He is still the smartest character in the movie.  The man is quite possibly a biochemist named Dr. Martin Harris and he is definitely played by Liam Neeson.  The film is one that is quick to present us with a number of mysteries.  Is the man Harris?  Is someone else Harris?  Why would someone else pretend to be Harris?  If the man isn't Harris, then who is he?  Are the bad guys just as confused or do they have the answers? 

You're supposed to care deeply about these questions, because the film wants you to see it just to get the answers.  It doesn't promise to be funny or beautiful, it just promises mystery.  It doesn't even claim to be an entertaining mystery, just a mystery.  Since you won't go into the movie caring about Martin Harris or anyone else, all the suspense surrounds the idea of an answer instead of the answer itself.  Will the answer be simple or complex?  Will they reveal the answer at around the hundred minute mark or will they wait until the last second?  Will the answer be open to interpretation?  Will any part of the story turn out to be just a dream?

            The story begins as Harris (I'll refer to the Neeson character as "Our Harris" from now on) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) travel to Berlin for a biotechnology conference.  She goes to check into their hotel, but he realizes that he forgot his briefcase at the airport.  He jumps into a cab driven by a girl named Gina (Diane Kruger) to go retrieve it.  But the car crashes off a bridge and Harris wakes up in the hospital four days later with severe head trauma. 

            The doctor warns him that he might have some false memories as a result of the accident.  Harris just wants to get back to his life.  He returns to the hotel only to discover that his wife is with another man.  The man is a biochemist named Dr. Martin Harris (Aiden Quinn).  Neither of them claims to know Our Harris.  Our Harris is at first terrified that someone has stolen his identity, but then remembers what the doctor said about false memories.  Now he doesn't know what to think.  On top of that, there are people trying to kill him.  Perhaps Gina the pretty cab driver knows something...

            The bad guys make lousy villains if they can't kill Our Harris.  Not only is Our Harris mentally disoriented as a result of the crash, he's physically disabled.  He should be a sitting duck.  But their idea of an attack on Our Harris is to try and catch him when he's a few feet from the door to a train that's about to leave its station.  These people quickly eliminate sympathetic witnesses (so we know that they are indeed bad guys) and then take their time with Our Harris so he can escape at the last minute.  They have a higher motive than killing Our Harris, and they're laughably bad at executing that plan too. 

            "Unknown" is little more than a two-hour wait for answers to its own questions.  Most of the film is useless, its dialogue and action are generic.  Its plot is full of twists, which ironically are completely expected in such a mystery.  As for the ultimate answer, I guess it technically fits with the plot, although it does mean that some of the film's characters have been lacking in common sense.  Then again, no one is about to accuse the film's characters of possessing common sense (Our Harris suffered head trauma, what's everyone else's excuse?).  "Unknown" is not a movie where you leave feeling cheated, but you do leave knowing that you could have spent your time and money on something better.

Two stars out of five

8:57 am edt          Comments

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