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Saturday, November 19, 2011


"Puss in Boots"

By Bob Garver

            Seven years ago, swarthy assassin-turned-good-guy Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) stole the show in "Shrek 2".  The film itself was clever and funny and Puss made it even better.  As the series went along it the films became much worse and Puss became less appealing along with them.  Now the decision has been made to remove the ogres from the equation and see if the films are any better with Puss center stage.  The resulting film is about as unfunny as the lesser "Shrek" movies and proves that their critical failure had less to do with the choice of characters and more to do with the choice of writers. 

            I can see the logic in making an adorable kitty the main character for a kids' movie.  The character is highly marketable and with Christmas coming up there is no doubt that a stuffed Puss will be one of the season's hottest toys.  But for a full-length "Puss in Boots" film to work creatively, the character would have to undergo some major tweaking.  He has never been much more than a feline version of Banderas's Zorro, which was funny when he was a minor character three films ago, not so much now.  The film sees him as the same one-joke character he's always been, but this time the joke is staler than ever and the whole film is built around it. 

            Like the rest of the "Shrek" films, the story incorporates elements from various fairy tales.  Puss teams up with his old orphanage buddy Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and a declawed housecat (Salma Hayek) to steal the Goose That Lays Golden Eggs from atop the beanstalk while the villainous Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sederis) pursue them for nefarious purposes.  There's also a plot involving betrayal, revenge, and forgiveness stemming back to Puss and Humpty's orphanage days.  Two observations: 1) Every "twist" in the story is seeable from a mile away and 2) It might be easier to take Humpty seriously as a villain and a threat if the character was known for anything other than being irreparably damaged. 

            I wasn't crazy about the look of the film, especially when it came to the characters.  The animators seem to have focused much more on faces than bodies, resulting in overly sharp facial features and bodies that are poorly defined.  When the main characters are supposed to be cute and cuddly, we need to get a feel for what it would be like to cuddle them.

            The humor is as expected.  The "Shrek" series is known for toilet humor, this one has more of a litter humor.  Promoting the film, many of the stars have said that the film is funny for both kids and grownups.  Be weary of statements like this; what they really mean is that they've snuck in a few smutty jokes for adults that will probably go over kids' heads but are still present.  Still, a few gags are decent.  My favorite is the angle that the film uses to show the characters falling off the beanstalk.  And I guess it's hard not to like a background character's reactions to inflammatory actions. 

            "Puss in Boots" has a surprisingly dark and emotional climax with a depth badly needed in the rest of the film .  Still, there seems to be little point to the movie other than to get kids to laugh just hard enough that they'll want their parents to buy them toys.  It doesn't have nearly the imagination of the first two "Shrek" films and I'm afraid that the inevitable sequels will continue the downward spiral. 

Two Stars out of Five.
4:23 pm est          Comments


"Paranormal Activity 3"

By Bob Garver

            This is the third consecutive Halloween where we've gotten a "Paranormal Activity" movie and the door is certainly open for sequels.  I'm all for a horror franchise with annual installments, a tradition you can share with your family and friends.  It's the one thing I liked about the now-thankfully-dead "Saw" franchise.  And it's even better with "Paranormal Activity", a relatively nonviolent franchise that doesn't try to out-gore itself with every installment.  The films are content with scaring the audience with startling noises and baffling phenomena. 

            Structurally the movie is pretty much the same as its two predecessors, especially the second.  We start off with perfectly innocent home movie footage that establishes the characters.  Something mysterious happens during one of the shoots.  One of the characters thinks there might be something otherworldly going on and decides that the house needs 24-hour surveillance.  Over about the next hour, we see highlights of the footage from the next few weeks.  We jump about once every five minutes, usually from red herrings at first, but eventually from things that are unexplainable and dangerous.  Then whatever it is that's causing all the trouble decides to ditch the subtlety and completely terrorizes the characters.  The climax involves the main character running around with a handheld camera "Blair Witch" style as we jump about every five seconds. 

            The major difference this time is that the film is a prequel two the other two films, taking place in the 80s.  Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and Katie (Chloe Csengery) are just little girls who we know will grow up to be haunted adults.  This of course means that they'll live through the film, which takes away some of the mystery.  They live with their mother (Lauren Bittner) and her new boyfriend (Christopher Nicholas Smith).  Everybody is living peacefully except that Kristi behaves strangely, talking to her invisible friend Toby.  I say invisible.  Not imaginary.  Things start going bump in the night and you know the rest. 

            Knowing the rest does not work in the film's favor.  For a film whose success is based on startling people, it sure is predictable.  It's way too easy to figure out the film's sense of timing.  Watching the film, I kept saying things to myself like "It's early, so this has got to be a red herring",  "We're due for a big scare any second", and the one I repeated like a catchphrase, "This can't end well".  Although admittedly it didn't stop me from keeping my fingers in my ears and my eyes squinted for half the movie. 

            The audience saved the movie, as it usually does.  I picked up on a pattern to their reactions, one you can use to your advantage if you wish.  Many of them were so jumpy that they would scream at anything.  A split second later the entire theater would erupt in laughter because of the screamers, who by that time were laughing at themselves because they had screamed at something stupid.  Try to condition yourself to laugh as soon as you're startled, it will be that much more infectious.

            I won't argue that it's necessary to come out with a new "Paranormal Activity" every year since the movies don't lend themselves well to rewatching.  Once you know exactly where the big scares are, you can predict them down to the second.  The problem is that "Paranormal Activity 3" is so much like "Paranormal Activity 2" that I had too good of an idea of when the scares were coming.  I could usually predict them to within about a minute.  I want the filmmakers to keep the tradition of annual Halloween releases alive, but next time do a better job of keeping us guessing. 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five if you've seen the other "Paranormal Activity" films and have a general idea of what to expect.

Three and a Half Stars if you haven't.
4:22 pm est          Comments



By Bob Garver

            I'm told that this update on 1984's "Footloose" is a pretty faithful remake of the original, which I've never seen.  If that's true then the original wasn't very good either.  This version is dumb, poorly written, and doesn't have nearly enough dancing.  A good remake should make its audience want to see the original so they can study the source material.  This remake makes me even less likely to see the original for fear of basically seeing the same bad movie twice. 

            The premise seems like it was taken from a cartoon for toddlers.  The town of Bomont, Texas, has forbidden the act of public dancing.  Can our dancing hero save the day?  The film attempts to make a dance ban sound remotely plausible, explaining that the law was made hastily following the tragic deaths of teenagers coming home from a dance.  The screenplay is wasting its printed breath in these scenes, no amount of explanation is going to make the law seem like anything more than a ridiculous plot device.  It would have just been better say that the law is the law and make us feel that the film takes place in a completely different world rather than an idiotic version of our own. 

            In comes outsider Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) to cause trouble for the establishment.  He's just a kid from Boston who wants to have fun, but everything fun is against the law in Bomont, and he soon grown weary of the adults' condescending oppressiveness.  Ariel (Julianne Hough) is sick of the laws too, and she takes every opportunity she can get to act wild and irresponsible.  The rebellious Ren and Ariel quickly fall in love, which naturally doesn't sit well with Ariel's preacher father (Dennis Quaid).  This is especially problematic since he is the one responsible for enacting the anti-dance laws in the first place. 

            The adult actors in the film are okay, and Quaid is actually quite good, but the teenagers are horribly miscast.  This is one of those awful movies where they have actors in their mid-20s playing high-school students.  It's really distracting.  Even more perplexing is the casting of established adult Julianne Hough.  She was clearly out of high school when she rose to fame on "Dancing With the Stars" four years ago, why cast her as someone even younger now? 

            Maybe the movie needed Hough for her dancing skills.  That would be understandable if there was much dancing to speak of, but there really isn't.  The film is being marketed like it's practically a musical, but actual dance scenes are surprisingly few and far between.  There's dancing at the ill-fated opening social, an illegal party in a parking lot, a bizarre tantrum from Ren (intentional or not, the scene got a lot of laughs at my screening), a visit to a line-dancing bar, a requisite montage as a non-dancing character learns a few moves, and at a social event at the end.  But the dancing in these scenes is always brief, choppily edited, and usually focuses on Wormald (not that I'm denying his talents) instead of supposed ringer Hough. 

            The film gets slightly more bearable toward the end as the characters pour their hearts into their arguments, but we've grown so accustomed to them having no common sense that we only see the passion.  Bomont seems to be a town stuck in time, so this update on "Footloose" doesn't even feel modern.  There is no reason for the film to exist other than that someone knows people will pay money for the name recognition and familiarity. 

Two Stars out of Five
4:20 pm est          Comments


"Real Steel"

By Bob Garver

            Seriously, why is this movie about boxing robots called "Real Steel" and not "Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots"?  It's a brand name that people recognize, it might bring in some business from the nostalgia crowd, and the audience would be waiting breathlessly in anticipation of someone's Block getting Knocked Off.  Plus it couldn't hurt the sales of a reissued line of toys.  Just look at the way everybody won with the success of the "Transformers" series.  My only theory is that there was supposed to be a tie-in and then the Rock'Em Sock'Em people actually saw this lousy movie and bailed.  They likely felt that the film was not up to the high quality standards that people expect of Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots. 

            The worst thing about the film is the unreasonable leap of faith it requires you to take to buy into its very premise.  The film expects you to believe that in a mere twenty years robot boxing will be the most popular sport in the world and human boxing will be obsolete.  The halfhearted explanation we are given is that people wanted to see more violence and robots can pulverize each other without any risk to humans.  Not only does this logic insult the millions of fans who appreciate the science and legacy of human boxing, it also implies that lovers of bloodsports will automatically endorse robot boxing, which they won't.  Sports violence is nothing without human pain.  Metal getting ripped apart does not qualify as carnage.  If it did, footage of car compactors would be airing on pay-per-view.

            So the film is already off on a bad note.  Robots aside, the film follows the clichéd plot of the typical boxing movie.  The hero Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is a washed-up human boxer now down his luck in the robot racket.  He sees an opportunity to make some money selling the custodial rights to his son Max (Dakota Goyo) after the boy's mother dies and his rich aunt and uncle want to adopt him.  But he needs to take care of the boy for the summer.  Max hates Charlie, but loves robot boxing.  Charlie has to reluctantly take Max with him as he tours the country managing his prized new robot, who gets destroyed in his first fight.  Needing something new, the two rummage through a junkyard, leading to Max falling off a cliff.  He gets snagged at the last minute by a beaten-up robot called Atom, long forgotten, who Max decides will be the family's new meal ticket. 

            Though Atom is built to be a loser, Charlie and Max work together to make him a winner.  The work involves bonding and of course they develop an increasingly strong relationship.  Crowds love Atom because he's an underdog and because he dances (one guess which dance move the robot prefers). Soon Max and Charlie are winning fights and climbing ever closer to a title bout with world champion Zeus.  Zeus's owners are supposed to be bad guys, but they never do anything more evil than glare evilly.  The only proper villain in the movie is an old boxing rival of Charlie's who cheats him early in the movie and then shows up later like clockwork to ruin the party.  His comeuppance is lame and I immediately thought of a better one.  Charlie controls Atom by using a mimickry system and punching air.  What if the bad guy tried to jump Charlie during the big fight and Charlie delivered a legitimate knockout blow as Atom simultaneously got in a major shot on Zeus? 

            I give "Real Steel" two stars only because I grade on a curve if I see the movie with an audience that clearly loves it.  Some of the reactions I heard were so big that the theater floor was shaking.  So maybe there's something good about the film that I didn't see.  Maybe people are more eager to endorse the stupid fighting robots than I thought. 

Two Stars out of Five
4:19 pm est          Comments



By Bob Garver

            In theory, "50/50" is a film about the bright humor that can be found in the darkest situations.  The main character is diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly nothing in the world makes sense.  He now sees everything differently and the people around him see everything about him differently.  What used to be big things now seem trivial.  Minor details are clutched like precious memories.  It's a confusion that should make for a very funny film, and "50/50" would make for a very funny film if it didn't focus on the wrong type of humor. 

            Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a nice enough young man who seems to be looking forward to a long, productive life.  He takes pretty good care of himself (an early scene sees him jogging and not taking an unnecessary chance with a "Don't Walk" sign), and he's not worried about dying any time soon.  So he's perplexed when he finds out that he has cancer in his spine. 

            Adam is forced to break the news to the people he loves:  his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), who you can tell was just about to break up with him and now feels compelled to play the role of caregiver, his control-freak mother (Anjelica Huston), and his best buddy (Seth Rogen) who doesn't seem to be taking the issue seriously, not that he ever takes anything seriously.

            Adam starts making weekly visits to a psychologist (Anna Kendrick), who has just begun practicing and I believe is even younger than him.  The scenes with Kendrick are the best in the movie because they're the most honest, awkward, and realistic.  Plus I'm a big fan of psychologist humor.  Although it is clear very early that the doctor-patient relationship is going to turn romantic and for that the Kendrick character should have her license revoked. 

            Adam's emotional highs and lows come as he bonds with his fellow patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer).  He's inspired by the way they carry themselves through their disparaging circumstances and heartbroken when one of them passes away.  He's forced to come to terms with the fact that his own life may be ending without him feeling that it's really complete. 

            But what more does Adam want out of life?  We don't know because the film doesn't do a good job of developing him as a character.  His reactions are always generic and expected.  He's basically a straight man for the other characters to play off.  This is a poor creative decision.  The film cannot get away with having a main character like the one in "Drive", who is a cool blank slate. 

            The bigger problem with the film is its humor, specifically the kind delivered by Seth Rogen.  It's not that it's unfunny humor, it just doesn't fit with the rest of the movie.  It's a humor of the foul-mouthed, sexual, druggie, toilet variety.  Roles in movies like this are only right for Rogen if we go on his journey with him as he struggles to accept responsibility.  2009's "Funny People" (where he also played a friend to a character with cancer) is a good example of this, 2007's "Knocked Up" is a better one.  In this film, Rogen spends most of the time acting way too goofy and then does a sharp turn into sincerity at the last minute. 

            I wanted to like "50/50", I really did.  A good heartfelt comedy about a character finding humor in his darkest hour is always welcome.  Unfortunately "50/50" turned out to be a so-so comedy about a mopey character and the humor his friends find in his darkest hour.  About an hour into the film I realized that the underdog I was rooting for was the overall movie and not Adam. 

Two Stars out of Five.
4:17 pm est          Comments



By Bob Garver

            "Moneyball" is a pretty good movie about baseball, but a better movie about the baseball business.  The main characters are not players, not coaches, and there's barely any mention of fans.  It is a story of businessmen, men who are typically depicted as greedy tycoons in other baseball movies.  Everybody knows that wins and losses are the bottom line in baseball, but these are the men who have to make the hard decisions based on that bottom line.  There is still supposed to be an element of judgment, of intuition, of heart to their jobs.  The characters in "Moneyball" had to learn to take that last little bit of heart out of their decisions because they weren't caring enough about the bottom line. 

            Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager for the 2002 Oakland Athletics.  He had flopped as a player years earlier, but stayed in the baseball business for love of the game.  He has since learned that the game and the business are very different.  From a playing standpoint, his 2001 team would be considered relatively successful because they were one of only four teams to make it to the division championship.  From a business standpoint, it was considered unsuccessful because the team lost and three of their top players got drafted to other teams.  Billy not only has to rebuild the team, he has to build one that can win the World Series.  And he has to do it with A's money. 

            On an unsuccessful trading mission, Billy notices a young pencil pusher named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).  Peter has absolutely no background in baseball and it's surprising that he even knows any terminology.  Yet he seems to know which players should and shouldn't be traded based solely on statistics.  It's a new way of looking at the bottom line, assessing value with a computer with no intangibles.  In other words, no heart. 

            Billy hires Peter for himself and they assemble a new roster based on Peter's theories.    They make some controversial decisions that make them unpopular with everyone not in their positions.  They save so much money bringing in players that are only successful on paper that the theory becomes known as Moneyball. 

             The rest of the film consists mostly of smart dialogue exchanges involving Peter and especially Billy.  Other valuable players include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the team's coach and Chris Pratt as a stoked callup.  When we do get baseball scenes, they are great ones.  The team goes on an unprecedented 20-game winning streak and an unexpected home run late in the film caused me to laugh harder than any other film this year. 

               I mentioned the streak, which isn't a spoiler since it is a matter of historical record.  Also a matter of historical record is the team's poor performance in the postseason and Billy Beane's unwise rejection of a $12.5 million contract with a team that went on to win the World Series.  The massive failure really takes the inspiration out of the story that led up to it.  The film has the most depressing ending for a sports movie since the Jamaican bobsled team choked big time in 1994's "Cool Runnings". 

              Then again, a lot about "Moneyball" is the opposite of what you'd expect from an underdog sports movie.  For starters, you'd think the human beings would be trying to prove the soulless computer wrong.  But the point isn't really that they used a computer, it's that they went outside their comfort zone and used an idea that only they believed in.  The bottom line is that "Moneyball" is one of the most enjoyable films of 2011. 

Three and a Half Stars out of Five
4:15 pm est          Comments



By Bob Garver

            "Drive" is a hard movie to figure out.  That isn't to say that the plot is overly complicated (it's actually pretty straightforward), but the film goes in some directions creatively that come seemingly from out of nowhere.  These directions aren't always good or bad necessarily, but they at least represent different and interesting decisions.

            To start with, the main character has virtually no personality.  The unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) is pretty much a blank slate, going through the plot without letting the viewer pick up on any discernable traits.  He has so little personality that it cannot be the result of incompetent filmmaking, there has to be a deliberate reason for it.  Maybe the plot is supposed to carry The Driver, maybe we're supposed to be able to better figure out the other characters from the way they interact with him.  The lack of personality might make the character boring, it might make him mysterious and intriguing.  There are going to be a lot of opinions on both sides of that median.

            The Driver does have one trait, but it's so essential to the plot that it doesn't count.  He loves cars.  He works as a mechanic, a stunt driver, a race driver, and a getaway driver.  His getaway driving isn't always about tearing away from the cops, sometimes it's about being so evasive that he gets away with hiding in plain sight.  He is assisted in all his endeavors by his handler Shannon (Bryan Cranston).  It seems that no matter what role The Driver is fulfilling, Shannon is always playing the part of the used car salesman, 

            The Driver starts a casual relationship with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan).  Her convict husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and The Driver becomes a friend to both.   The husband is in trouble with some mobsters.  He needs to stick up a pawn shop to work off a debt.  The Driver offers to help him.  Things go wrong.  Now the mobsters are after The Driver.  The plot really is straightforward. 

            The two main villains are played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.  Brooks, known for comedic roles, plays a retired movie producer now connected to organized crime.  Perlman, known for action roles, plays a tough guy career criminal.  Which one do you think is going to go psycho with a collection of crude sharp instruments?  Wrong. 

            There are some extremely violent scenes in the movie.  These scenes will not just be disturbing to people who hate cinematic violence, they'll make everybody wince.  Some unusually brutal murder methods are used, but there's more to it than that.  Bullets, strikes, and screams are louder here than in most movies, but there's more to it than that too.  It's that there's a certain tenderness onscreen that makes you empathize with the characters' pain.  I'm not saying you'll scream, but your blood will run cold for a split second. 

            The violent scenes are all the more jolting because in general "Drive" is a surprisingly peaceful film.  That is the ultimate unexpected element to the film.  Everybody who goes to see the film is looking for an action movie.  Its main character is a getaway driver, the villains are violent mobsters.  Heck, the title is a verb, that alone implies excitement.  It turns out that the film loves to play with your expectations in that regard.  It is in fact a slow-paced film with extended takes where characters take long looks at each other and engage in minimal dialogue as harmless music plays.  It's not a thriller, it's a lullaby.  These qualities don't necessarily make the movie bad, they just take it in a completely unexpected direction.  I still can't figure out if I like it or not. 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:12 pm est          Comments



By Bob Garver

            No doubt about it, virus movies are a tough sell.  I'm not talking about action movies where the bad guy threatens to unleash a deadly virus and the hero has to stop him by riding a motorcycle and causing explosions.  I'm talking about movies that actually take a look at a virus and its effects on society.  Watching people get sick is not exciting, watching their families cope with loss is not fun, and merely thinking about a deadly virus in unpleasant.  The only way to get people interested in a virus movie is to tell a compelling story about what the virus brings out in people.  Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" does that to a degree, at least to the point where you'll have a more positive reaction than just saying "yuck" all the time. 

            The film has a lot of storylines going on all at once.  Matt Damon plays a loving father whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son are among the virus's first victims.  His story is the one you'll probably find most relatable and therefore disturbing.  He's a civilian, not a person who deals with viruses professionally.  When the virus takes his family away and his life is turned upside down, you'll have no choice but to picture him as a friend, a neighbor, or even yourself. 

            Laurence Fishburne is a Center for Disease Control official who investigates and analyzes the virus (it's a combination of bat and swine flu).  He's every bit the dedicated professional, exactly what you'd expect from a Fishburne performance.  But he keeps letting his heart get in the way of his objectivity.  He eventually slips up, if you can call saving lives a slip-up. 

            Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization official who travels to Hong Kong to investigate the source of the virus.  She gets kidnapped by some supposed allies who we're led to believe are out to whitewash their country's image.  It turns out their motives aren't so evil, but they're still playing a dangerous game. 

            Kate Winslet is a worker for the CDC, a colleague of the Fishburne character.  She travels to Minnesota to investigate the American cause of the virus.  Her storyline is much like Cotillard's minus the kidnapping.  Winslet is one of the most talented actresses in the world, I wish the movie had found something more interesting for her to do. 

            Jude Law is a health blogger who acts like a smug loudmouth at every opportunity.  He's in bed with a pharmaceutical company and makes millions lending his "humble outsider" endorsement to their product.  All the characters who die horrible deaths in this movie and he makes it a good long while. 

            Other characters include Bryan Cranston as a Homeland Security official, Elliot Gould as a scientist, Sanaa Lathan as another scientist, and the always valuable John Hawkes as a janitor friend of Fishburne's.  In addition, there are scenes of riots and related panicking that are not character-driven.  Juggling so many storylines isn't good for the movie, it's too easy to forget some of them when they're not shown for a while.  The Cotillard storyline in particular, while otherwise engaging, suffers from losing its audience after a long absence. 

            If I had been in charge of "Contagion", I would have dropped the Winslet character entirely, trimmed one of the scientists, and had Law meet his comeuppance around the halfway mark.  That said, "Contagion" is a decent film with competent acting, directing, writing, and editing.  I'm willing to call it a good movie, but it's not one I'd like to see again anytime soon. 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:10 pm est          Comments


"Apollo 18"

By Bob Garver

            I actually had high hopes for "Apollo 18".  After all, there aren't that many astronaut horror movies.  There are a few outer space horror movies like "Alien" where humans breathe comfortably in unfamiliar worlds and most of the action takes place in a cavernous spaceship.  But few play to the inherent dangers of being an astronaut.  If you're an astronaut, you're in completely uncharted territory, your supply of life-giving oxygen is limited, and a hole the size of a pinprick in your suit means instant death.  Astronauts have enough to worry about without aliens showing up.  Of course, this being a sci-fi/horror movie, aliens do indeed show up. 

            The film takes place in 1974, after the Apollo space program had supposedly been aborted.  NASA sends three astronauts on a secret mission to the moon.  There's vague explanation about how they're supposed to be spying on Soviets or stopping Soviets or something.  The astronauts don't care; they get to go to the moon.  We meet Anderson (Warren Christie), Walker (Lloyd Owen), and Grey (Ryan Robbins).  They don't have distinct personalities, but I'm willing to chalk that up to professionalism.  Anderson and Walker see to the mission on the moon while Grey monitors from the shuttle.  Aside from a few extras in early scenes, some voices over the radio, and the aliens, they are the only characters in the movie. 

            Anderson and Walker land on the moon and get to work setting up a lunar rover and collecting rock samples.  They take cameras with them everywhere and there are many more cameras back on the ship.  Yep, this is another one of those "found footage" horror movies where the characters supposedly document their own terror.  In this case, I have no idea how the footage gets to be found.  I can buy a video being found intact in the middle of the woods, but by the time "Apollo 18" is over all the footage should be lost in space. 

            Like clockwork, strange things start happening with Anderson and Walker.  Rock samples start to disappear, equipment malfunctions long enough to give them a jolt, they find weird footprints, they happen across a destroyed Soviet spacecraft and a dead cosmonaut, NASA starts getting evasive in their answers, etc.  It's the malfunctioning equipment that annoys me.  There's always a glitch when something interesting happens.  No doubt director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego will claim that he's building suspense and what we come up with in our imaginations is more terrifying than anything movie magic can create.  I've heard that song and dance before.  The real problem is that he doesn't have enough confidence in his special effects to give us a good look at them. 

            The only halfway interesting thing about "Apollo 18" is the aliens themselves, and we never even get a good look at them.  At their most vicious, they look like spiders.  Most of the time, however, they're able to camouflage themselves and hide in plain sight.  This adds an intriguing element to the film where you wonder if the aliens are in the shot and the characters don't realize it.  I could have sworn there were a few scenes where something crawled across the screen undetected. 

            "Apollo 18" is pretty standard for the "found footage" genre.  Things start off according to plan, we jump a few times, rational explanations start to slip away, things get psychotic at the end.  I was disappointed by the space setting.  The "moon" is clearly a desert somewhere and the characters' vulnerabilities aren't played up as much as they should be.  If you must see it, see it with friends and try to be the first to spot the undercover aliens. 

Two Stars out of Five.
4:09 pm est          Comments


"Spy Kids: All the Time in the World"

By Bob Garver

            It's hard to believe that "Spy Kids" was once a franchise with a lot of potential.  I actually really liked the 2001 original.  It had a funny script, the actors had good chemistry, and Alan Cumming was a memorable villain.  The first sequel was a disappointment and the second sequel was even worse.  Now comes "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" and it's the worst one yet.  Any charm that the series might have once has is long gone and the result is rather painful. 

            We get a fresh set of Spy Kids for this installment.  Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook) are the stepchildren of Marissa Wilson (Jessica Alba).  Marissa was a top spy working for D'Amo (Jeremy Piven), but she quit to take care of her stepchildren and have a baby with her new husband Wilbur (Joel McHale, the man who turns my from upside down every week on "The Soup").  She works hard to build a relationship with the kids, but their hearts are still with their late mother and they won't have any of it. 

            Because of a necklace that Marissa gave Rebecca, the kids are soon sucked into a plot masterminded by the evil Timekeeper (also Jeremy Piven, who plays several other roles in the film).  They soon discover that their stepmother is a spy and in fact her niece and nephew were the original Spy Kids.  We get cameos from Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, neither of whom have aged well.  The new Spy Kids get their hands on some old gear, and in no time they are humanity's last hope.  They are aided by a talking dog who I believe is also a robot named Argonaut (Ricky Gervais, his "explain the joke" style not welcome here).  Wilbur, meanwhile, hosts a TV show about catching spies even though he's an incompetent searcher and oblivious to the spy living in his house. 

            The humor is the kind you'll find in a typical bad kids' movie.  Bodily functions are played for laughs, especially when they involve the baby.  Rebecca is fond of playing pranks , which usually result in victims getting covered in something gross.  The siblings (both sets) constantly argue with each other, and even the dog points out that it gets old quickly.  And there are lots of slapstick gags where people get knocked down.  The only thing that's halfway funny is Marissa undertaking a mission while very pregnant, and it's only funny because it's so wrong. 

            The film has an Aromascope gimmick attached to it.  You get a card with eight numbered boxes, which you are instructed to scratch at various points in the film.  In theory, you are supposed to smell what the characters are smelling (bacon, salad dressing, disgusting stuff).  All eight boxes smelled like toothpaste to me.  The guy sitting next to me said he couldn't get his to work at all.  The film fails to stimulate your sense of smell, but maybe I can help stimulate your sense of taste.  Eat a piece of popcorn every time you think the movie is stupid.  You'll be down to the bare kernels before you know it. 

            "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" is a miserable installment of a franchise known for increasingly bad installments.  The humor is terrible, but I was able to take it somewhat in stride.  That's how bad "The Smurfs" was - it makes movies like this seem less painful by comparison.  As for the Aromascope, it's unnecessary, but there is one good thing about it.  I now have a good excuse to say that the movie stinks.   

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:05 pm est          Comments


"The Help"

By Bob Garver

            It is halfway crazy to release a movie like "The Help" in the middle of summer.  It is not a film with many blockbuster characteristics.  The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, an era devoid of much recognizable technology.  There is almost nothing in the way of special effects.  It is funny in parts, but it is not a "fun" movie.  It covers serious, depressing, and sometimes shameful subject matter.  It does not fit in with the eye candy released every week during the season, the kinds of movies that make over $50 million their first weekend.  And yet, it's also a halfway genius move to release it in the summer because it is so refreshingly different from the blockbuster eye candy. 

            There are three main characters in the story and their lives intertwine.  Skeeter (Emma Stone) is a white, well-to-do recent college graduate pursuing a career in journalism.  Kind, wise Aibileen (Viola Davis) is a black maid working for unfit mother Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly).  Outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) is another black maid working for villainous segregation advocate Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Skeeter notices that her "friends" Elizabeth and Hilly have a condescending attitude toward their "help" even though the maids give so much of themselves to their employers.  She decides she wants to write a book on why people should respect these women, even though pro-integration literature is illegal in Jackson. 

            All three are faced with trials in their lives.  Skeeter has trouble finding maids to come forward for interviews, putting the whole project in jeopardy.  She also has to deal with her sick mother (Allsion Janney) who wants to marry her off and is hiding something about the disappearance of the family's own maid (Cicely Tyson).  Aibileen becomes a pariah among her fellow maids when news spreads that she is a part of Skeeter's book.  Minny is fired after using Hilly's "whites only" bathroom and has to go work for dim-witted trophy wife Celia (Jessica Chastain).  This actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise since Celia apparently doesn't know that she's supposed to look down on Minny.  But the job comes with unique challenges all the same. 

            A few logistical issues hold the movie back.  The chronology of the plight of a fellow maid who wants to send her kids to college is out of order.  It's hard to keep Skeeter's shallow friends and would-be lovers straight.  And there's a believability issue involving a pie that Minny makes for Hilly after she's been fired.  Minny is furious with her former employer, but she makes her a pie as a supposed peace offering.  Hilly eats the pie not knowing that Minny has tainted it with a disgusting ingredient.  It is beyond a reasonable suspension of disbelief that Hilly would not immediately be able to pick up on the ingredient.  She should be able to figure it out based on its smell alone. 

            "The Help" tells the story of three women who persevered in order to open the eyes of America.  One discovered the importance of perseverance, for the other two, perseverance was a way of life.  The performances by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are first-rate, they have already begun generating deserved Oscar buzz.  The film isn't as heavy as it could have been, we never see any haunting examples of true hate crime.  Perhaps portraying the film's world as uncomfortable instead of downright evil makes the maids' problems more relatable and more likely to instill sympathy.  If you're ready for a touching movie that needs to be taken seriously amidst all of summer's raunchy comedies and goofy blockbusters, see "The Help".

Three Stars out of Five.
4:03 pm est          Comments


"Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

By Bob Garver


            "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a scary concept.  I'm not talking about the plot (although I guess the idea aggressive, super-intelligent apes taking over the planet is kind of scary), I'm talking about the idea of the movie itself.  Nobody was asking for a prequel of the 1968 Charlton Heston classic and unnecessary updates are all too common these days.  To make matters worse, many viewers still have a bad taste in their mouth from Tim Burton's disastrous 2001 remake (with its infamous Ape Lincoln finale).  Yet despite the apprehension of much of its audience, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has turned out to be one of the better action-adventure films of the summer. 

            The live-action star of the film is Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist at one of those evil movie drug corporations where he's developing a risky new drug that makes people healthier, stronger, and smarter.  A disaster strikes one of his testing apes and he feels so guilty that he takes her baby (Andy Serkis, the genius of the motion-capture performance) home with him.  Will is a scientist with a conscience, showing respect for all living things and looking after his sick father (John Lithgow).  Naming the ape Caesar, Will quickly notices that he inherited some of the drug's effects from his mother.  Will raises the ape like a son, soon winning the heart of an animal-loving veterinarian (Freida Pinto).  I kept waiting for a scene where Caesar got frustrated sharing Will's affection with his new girlfriend, but the film never capitalizes on the opportunity. 

            Caesar's life of domestic bliss comes to an end when he attacks an angry neighbor.  Sent to live in a prison-like animal shelter, he is too tame to fit in with his fellow apes.  Even worse is the abuse he suffers at the hands of the guard (Tom Felton).  Using his advanced intelligence, Caesar teaches the bully apes a lesson, thus gaining the trust and respect of all his ape brethren.  He also breaks out, sneaks into Will's house, and steals more of the drug, which he shares with the other apes.  Now you've got an army of apes who are super-smart and super-dangerous.  They are destined to take over the world, though it turns out their "Rise" is not as forceful as we'd all assumed.  For now, all the apes want to do is be free.  But that's not to say they won't go through the humans to make it happen. 

            The human characters are about what you'd expect for this kind of story.  Where "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" really shines is in the scenes with the apes.  At no point does the film come off as humans interacting with special effects.  These apes are characters, Caesar being the most relatable character in the movie.  Though they (mostly) don't talk, their expressions and body language give away their thoughts and emotions at all times.  And the scene where Caesar no longer has to rely on body language has already rightfully been called one of the most powerful of the year. 

            "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" actually has very little to do with the rest of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise.  The iconic line from the original is reused here, but it sounds annoyingly forced.  The film is merely a very enjoyable summer blockbuster that tells the story of apes who rise above their limitations.  At its best, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is one of the most surprising and refreshing special effects extravaganzas of the season. 

Three Stars out of Five.
4:02 pm est          Comments


"Cowboys and Aliens" and "The Smurfs"

By Bob Garver

            Early estimates indicate a virtual tie for the number one position at the weekend box office.  With two new releases enjoying equal success, I feel it's appropriate to take a look at both of them. 

            "Cowboys and Aliens" is the third big alien invasion movie of 2011 after "Battle: Los Angeles" and "Super 8".  We've seen aliens defeated by modern soldiers and we've seen them defeated by kids in the 1960s.  To even the playing field, director Jon Favreau sets the film in Arizona in 1873.  The aliens have technology that is futuristic even by today's standards, the humans are still six years away from Thomas Edison's version of the light bulb. 

            I'll give credit to the team that designed the aliens, they have created some nasty creatures.  They're ugly of course, and they have the surprising feature of extra appendages hidden in their torsos.  It's practically a requirement in these movies that the aliens' insides make disgusting squishy sounds.  But it's more tolerable than usual in this movie because the aliens are perfectly fine with making humans' insides make squishy sounds as well. 

            Humanity shouldn't stand a chance, but we have Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig.  Craig's purpose is to fight aliens and he does a decent job of it.  Ford's purpose is to act like Harrison Ford and he does a hacky job of it.  Just like in his last few movies, he's all growling and surliness, and he's lost a few steps when it comes to action sequences.  I think Ford has finally reached the point where he can no longer carry action movies. 

            A number of popular outer space movies like "Star Wars" are heavily influenced by Westerns, and I think "Cowboys and Aliens" is supposed to be something of an opposite; a sci-fi movie set in the West.  It's also opposite from "Star Wars" in that it's impossible to find a decently-written human character and the aliens once again have no personalities.  "Cowboys and Aliens" may have a unique premise, but the dull characters ultimately make it an uninteresting movie. 

Two Stars out of Five. 

"Cowboys and Aliens" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of Western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity, and a brief crude reference.  Its running time is 118 minutes. 

            There is nothing good about "The Smurfs".  If you have seen so much as one trailer or advertisement for the film, you already know that.  I give you fair warning, this film is every bit as painful as you're afraid it is.  If not more. 

            The Smurfs are cutesy little blue creatures that live in a hidden village in a land far away.  Uni-traited Smurfs like the fatherly Papa Smurf, the contrarian Grouchy Smurf, and the female Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry, a casting move that probably tripled the movie's kid appeal) all live in harmony.  One day Clumsy Smurf gets himself and five other Smurfs sucked through a vortex along with their sworn enemy Gargamel (Hank Azaria).

            The Smurfs end up in New York City where they befriend a cosmetics executive (Neil Patrick Harris) and turn his life upside down with their Smurf antics.  They were annoying enough in their own element, it is super-irritating watching them adapt to our culture.  And I'm pretty sure the film has a dreaded breakdancing scene.  I can't be positive since I spent so much time trying to look at anything but the screen. 

            The humor in the movie is grating, perhaps most unfunny and inappropriate is a running gag about the word "Smurf" itself being profane in certain contexts.  Then again "The Smurfs" is such a crime against cinema that I can see regarding it as an obscenity. 

One Star out of Five

"The Smurfs" is rated PG for mild rude humor and action.  Its running time is 109 minutes.
3:59 pm est          Comments


"Captain America: The First Avenger"

By Bob Garver

            Another week, another superhero.  Ho-hum.  2011 has been so cram-packed with comic book movies that I've lost count and I've definitely lost interest.  I know tickets to superhero movies sell like hotcakes, but "Captain America" could have used some more time to cook. 

            The film stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a kid in 1940s Brooklyn with dreams of going overseas and fighting some no-good Nazis.  The problem is that the Army won't take him because his body is alarmingly underdeveloped (not to be confused with most of the film's characters, whose personalities are underdeveloped).  He's short, he's skinny, and he has a laundry list of medical problems.  I'll say this much for the film - it does a good job of making the fit Evans look wimpy in the early scenes.  Then again I should probably be giving the credit to Evans for playing a wimp so well. 

            Steve catches the attention of a scientist (Stanley Tucci) who wants a feeble young man for an experimental procedure.  He goes to boot camp in preparation for the procedure, where he is scoffed at by the gruff Col. Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) and barely given the time of day by the beautiful Peggy (Hayley Atwell).  For the procedure, he is given a series of injections that make him bigger, stronger, and with enhanced physical abilities.  I'm sure there are many Captain America fans out there who will be eager to explain how this treatment is different from steroids.  Following the procedure, the previously disciplined Peggy practically throws herself at Steve and his impressive new physique, while Col. Philips remains gruff as only a Tommy Lee Jones character can. 

            Although Steve is decidedly improved, the government decides that someone as buff as him shouldn't be wasted on combat.  He is dubbed "Captain America", given a silly costume, and paraded around the country as a spokesman for war bonds.  Most superhero franchises have to wait a few movies to do a "shameless sellout" storyline, but I'll forgive it this time since I'd be happy without any more Captain America movies. 

            Captain America quickly makes an enemy, a German megalomaniac named Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving).  Schmidt breaks ties with the Nazis after learning that they don't share his vision of a world ruled by Johann Schmidt.  Schmidt underwent an unsuccessful version of the same experiment that turned Steve into Captain America, so the two are bonded in a way.  He now considers himself superhuman and all other humans expendable.  Weaving plays Schmidt with a constant piercing glare, his facial expressions showing less range than when he wore sunglasses all the way through the "Matrix" trilogy or when he wore a mask for the entirety of "V for Vendetta". 

            Captain America can't stay the showman forever, as Schmidt's campaign of evil soon forces him into action.  Forgoing a traditional weapon, Captain America instead arms himself with a shield, a symbol of his nonviolent nature.  The shield is designed by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who yes, is the father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man.  It wouldn't be a Marvel comic book movie without throwing in a reference to a fellow Avenger and a plug for the upcoming "Avengers" movie. 

            Actually, the upcoming "Avengers" movie is the only reason for "Captain America" to exist.  Marvel wants to introduce us to as many characters as possible before the film comes out in 2012.  Perhaps it would take too long to make so many movies with the tender loving care they require, so "Captain America" was fast-tracked and released for the sake of getting released.  It would certainly explain why "Captain America: The First Avenger" feels like one of the more poorly thought-out comic book movies in a season where we're already sick of comic book movies. 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:57 pm est          Comments


"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"

By Bob Garver

            For nearly a decade the "Harry Potter" series has been working a unique brand of magic.  The films based on J.K. Rowling's beloved book series about a boy wizard have made for perhaps the most consistently entertaining movie franchise in recent memory.  The franchise has consisted of eight films, all made with care and all box office hits.  Now the time has come for the grand finale.  It is indeed bad news that we won't get to enjoy any more of Harry's adventures, but the good news is that the series is going out on a strong note. 

            When we last saw Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), he was on a quest with his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).  Voldemort had divided his soul into seven pieces called Horcruxes which must be found and destroyed before he can become mortal and therefore stoppable.  So far only three of the Horcruxes have been compromised and Voldemort's terror attacks have become more and more brutal.  It's do or die time. 

            "Deathly Hallows Part 1" saw our heroes searching for the Horcruxes somewhat aimlessly, they have plenty of direction in "Part 2".  An early sequence sees them breaking into a bank vault, but the locale soon shifts to their magic school, Hogwarts.  Given the prominence of the institution over the course of the series, it is the only fitting place for the climax.  Of course, it is a much uglier Hogwarts than the one that Harry fell in love with all those years ago.  Gone is the kindly, wise Professor Dumbledore and in his place is high-ranking Voldemort henchman Severus Snape (Alan Rickman).  Still, most of the students show the highest loyalty toward Harry and the forces of good when Voldemort himself invades the grounds for a final showdown with his arch nemesis. 

            Unlike the other "Harry Potter" films, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" takes place over a relatively short period of time.  Most of the other chapters unfold over the course of the school year.  This one is almost entirely confined to a 24-hour window, excluding the epilogue.  This is a good thing because the storytelling here doesn't feel so rushed, a problem that plagued the last few installments.  The shorter time frame gives some of the heavier moments a chance to sink in.  It's a refreshing change of pace, literally.  One complaint: the Battle of Hogwarts sequence could have used more detail.  After eight films, even the most minor of characters are important to us.  We want to see how they fare in this, the most crucial experience of their lives. 

            I mentioned that the film has heavy moments.  The theme of sacrifice has run throughout the "Harry Potter" series, but it has never been more prevalent than it is here.  Some characters even make the ultimate sacrifice.  This is by far the most emotional of the "Harry Potter" films.  It is so emotional in fact that certain audience members were heard audibly sobbing during a particular scene.  People can argue about whether or not that's an appropriate reaction for a movie about fictional wizards, but the bottom line is that legitimate crying occurred.  It cannot be denied that the film has that effect on people. 

            And so we say good-bye to the "Harry Potter" series.  There really is no franchise quite like it.  The mere fact that eight films were made in under a decade is an impressive feat, and then the films are all impressive in and of themselves.  "Deathly Hallows Part 2" is a respectable conclusion to a film series worthy of a great deal of respect.  It's almost as inspiring as reading the books.    

Three Stars out of Five.

3:55 pm est          Comments

"Horrible Bosses"

By Bob Garver

            "Horrible Bosses" is so far the funniest R-rated comedy in a year crowded (some would say overcrowded) with R-rated comedies.  Already this year we've had "Bad Teacher", "Bridesmaids", "Hall Pass", "The Hangover Part 2", "Paul", and "Your Highness".  "Horrible Bosses" tops them all.  It isn't a film I would recommend to people who hate raunchy comedy (one of the characters even has an unprintable name), but if you're its target audience, you're in for a good time. 

Jason Bateman plays Nick, who works for Harkin (Kevin Spacey).  Harkin is a condescending taskmaster who refuses to let Nick advance at the company and promises to destroy him if he tries to get another job.  Jason Sudeikis plays Kurt, who works for Pellit (Colin Farrell).  Pellitt recently inherited the chemical company from his late father and plans to shirk safety regulations while using the company as his personal piggy bank.  Charlie Day plays Dale, who works as a dental assistant for Dr. Julia (Jennifer Aniston).  Dr. Julia is a nymphomaniac who wants Dale to cheat on his fiancée with her.  Why she wants Dale of all people is beyond me, maybe she's just attracted to men she can't have. 

            The three disgruntled employees commiserate at a bar.  One makes a joke about killing his boss.  The others agree that their lives would be easier without their bosses.  Then they agree that the world would be a better place without their bosses.  Slowly but surely the subject becomes less hypothetical and they agree that they need to murder their bosses.  Unable to find a hitman, they settle for a "murder consultant" (Jamie Foxx), who can teach them how to pull off clean murders themselves. 

            Of course, to pull of the perfect murder, one has to be clever, confidant, and coordinated.  These characters are clumsy, panicky, and have a knack for saying stupid things and making bad decisions.  Any success they enjoy can be directly attributed to dumb luck.  They manage to make a mess out of their simplest plans, and you giggle with anticipation for how they're going to mess up the complicated ones.  The trio is stupid in the situation, but it's a believable stupidity. Too often comedies will annoy you with characters that are so stupid you wonder how they even function.  With this film you really get the feeling that the gravity of the situation is making fools out of the characters.  You can sympathize with their mistakes. 

            Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day all complement each other with excellent chemistry, maybe the best I've seen in a long time.  I do feel that their characters could have been more developed to the point where they had distinct personalities.  All three characters have essentially the same traits and they go through the same range of emotions simultaneously.  Spacey, Farrell, and Aniston all have unique characters to play as the villains, why can't the same be said of our heroes? 

            "Horrible Bosses" deserves to enjoy a lot of success in theaters, but I feel it will also enjoy a lot of success as home entertainment.  Every one of the actors is funny and director Seth Gordon fills the film with a consistent comic energy that is unfortunately rare these days.  I think the film will lend itself well to repeat viewings.  There are so many funny moments in the film that as your favorites slowly lose their punch (because you've been repeating them in your head for so long), you'll gain new appreciation for several others.  You might even discover new funny moments that you missed the first time.  The audience at the showing I attended laughed so hard that they missed a few perfectly good gags.  The R-rated comedy might not be for everyone, but otherwise "Horrible Bosses" is worth watching once in theaters and then again and again at home. 

Three Stars out of Five

3:52 pm est          Comments

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