Sunday, May 31, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian / ** (PG)

Larry Daley: Ben Stiller
Amelia Earhart: Amy Adams
Jedediah Smith: Owen Wilson
Kahmunrah/voice of The Thinker/voice of Abraham Lincoln: Hank Azaria
Teddy Roosevelt: Robin Williams
Ivan the Terrible: Christopher Guest
Napoleon Bonaparte: Alain Chabat
Octavius: Steve Coogan
Dr. McPhee: Ricky Gervais
Col. George Armstrong Custer: Bill Hader

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG (for mild action and brief language).

I read a user comment about “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” on posted by Digory from Philippines. It was titled “An Afternoon in the Theater: The Battle to Stay Amused”, and there is perhaps no better description of this sequel to the 2006 box office hit “Night at the Museum” than that title designed to mock this new adventure. In fact, it describes the original film pretty well too. Rarely have I seen a cast of characters and special effects battle so relentlessly to amuse than in these two movies, and rarely have I seen such effort produce such little effect.

The plot of the first film couldn’t be more basic. Ben Stiller (“Tropic Thunder”) is Larry Daley, the new night security guard for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Once he takes the job he discovers the museum houses the magical tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), which brings all the exhibits to life after sunset. Of course, someone realizes the power of such a device and tries to steal it. Daley must thwart the villain to save the exhibits in the museum; all the while dealing with all these displaced historical figures’ personality quirks.

“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” is pretty much a Xeroxed copy of that plot, but instead of the Museum of Natural History coming to life, the tablet has been moved to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.—the largest museum on Earth. Since the MONH has decided to replace most of its exhibits with interactive holograms, most of the cast from the original has been shipped to storage under the Smithsonian, creating a convenient loophole allowing fans to see all their favorite characters in this new adventure.

Although to refer to any of the figures in the movie as characters is a stretch. They are really just personality representations of the actors playing them. There are so many personalities in this movie that there is really no attempt to get to know any of them, including the leads. Stiller’s Daley is as much a nobody in this picture as he was in the first. He seems to exist only for his verbal disbelief reactions to all the craziness around him. He has a good moment where he attempts to steal a security pass from one of the Smithsonian guards played by Jonah Hill (“Superbad”). Poor Hill is never seen again after that scene, however.

In fact, most of the performers are only given a moment or two to prove their worth before being discarded. Bill Hader, of “Saturday Night Live” fame, shows up to give life to General Custer and only gets a bit where he can’t seem to pronounce Sacajawea’s name properly. Christopher Guest (“This is Spinal Tap”) is cast as Ivan the Terrible and is neither terrible nor funny. Not his fault, he’s never given anything funny to do or say. French comedian Alain Chabat is brought in to make every short joke about Napoleon Bonaparte that has already been made. Haha, hehe. And the talented Hank Azaria plays the main villain, Kahmunrah with a lisp that seems contrived to disguise his voice from those of the other characters whose dialogue he provides. Or perhaps he didn’t want the villain to sound like Moe from “The Simpsons”.

Returning to add little to this adventure are the wasted talents of Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, Ricky Gervais (HBO’s “Extras”) as MONH curator Dr. McPhee, Steve Coogan (“Hamlet 2”) as the miniature Roman soldier Octavius, and Owen Wilson (“Marley & Me”) as a miniature cowboy. Coogan and Wilson seem to be switched more to the setting of annoy than amuse. Again it’s their material that’s lacking, not their talent.

The only thing I found remotely worth watching here was Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) as Amelia Earhart. Adams may very well possess the ability to make anyone fall in love with anything. I now think Amelia Earhart must have been the most precious American resource this country ever lost, but her character actually seems to have been given some attention by screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (both formerly of the sketch-comedy troupe “The State” and currently performers and writers for the “COPS” spoof show “Reno 911!”). They’ve given her clever dialogue, spoofing the movie speech style of the 1930s. Plus, she is the only character with a clearly defined philosophy and dramatic arc.

For a movie with no character development, I’ve certainly spent a good deal of time discussing the characters; but there’s very little else to discuss with this movie. Certainly the 19 museums and 9 research centers that make up the Smithsonian gave director Shawn Levy (“The Pink Panther”) a good amount of material to exploit for action and special effects sequences, yet only three of the museums are prominently featured in the movie. And there seems to be an awful lot of huffing and puffing going on to provide the audience with an adventure they won’t forget, but huffing and puffing is really all there is here.

“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” isn’t really a bad movie, just forgettable. I’ve been to the Smithsonian, and I would recommend you save your money from not seeing movies like this, so you can go to the Smithsonian yourself. Even if you only see one of their exhibits, it will stick with you much longer than this movie will.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation / *** (PG-13)

John Connor: Christian Bale
Marcus Wright: Sam Worthington
Kyle Reese: Anton Yelchin
Kate Connor: Bryce Dallas Howard
Blair Williams: Moon Bloodgood
Star: Jadagrace
Barnes: Common
General Ashdown: Michael Ironside
Dr. Serena Kogan: Helena Bonham Carter

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by McG. Written by John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris. Based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language).

The “Terminator” series has become increasingly difficult to analyze in terms of stand-alone episodes throughout its various incarnations. For non-followers I imagine this series has become an incomprehensible maze. For the devoted, “Terminator Salvation” is so immersed in the mythology of the series that it holds some disclosures many will never realize. And, it’s also a nearly incomprehensible maze of that mythology.

Many will accuse “Terminator Salvation” of being nothing more than an effects laden summer actioner, and in essence, that’s what it is. But it’s a much better action flick than the previous “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”. It is more technically proficient and intense. Unlike the third film installment, it doesn’t try to replicate the success of its predecessors. “Terminator Salvation” has placed itself apart from the other films in the series by attacking its storyline on its own terms, rather than by referencing the situations and story structures that have come before.

That is not to say that this fourth adventure doesn’t make any reference to the other “Terminator” movies. Although it takes place in the future, we get to learn many of the origins of some of the series’ one liners, such as “Come with me, if you want to live,” “If you’re going to point a gun at someone, you better be willing to use it,” and “I’ll be back.”

Set in 2018, some years after the nuclear war begun by the machines of Skynet against the human race, the story centers around the fate of a young resistance fighter named Kyle Reese. Some people may recognize Reese as rising star Anton Yelchin, who was Chekov in the recent “Star Trek” reboot. In a double storyline, we follow two men whose fates are set on a collision course because of this boy. John Connor, to focal point of “T2” and T3”, has not yet become the leader of the resistance as prophesized by the previous films. Connor searches for Reese with the knowledge that one day he will send Reese back in time to protect his mother against a Skynet plot to send a terminator back in time to eliminate her so he will never exist. Connor is also aware that Reese will father him while protecting his mother. Without Reese, not only will Connor never lead the war against the machines, he won’t exist at all.

Marcus Wright is a mystery man, who appears at the beginning of the film on death row in 2003. He donates his body to a program run by the company Cyberdyne, and then appears unaged in 2018 from the wreckage of a Skynet base. It is Marcus who first discovers Reese’s whereabouts. Although Marcus appears to have no knowledge of what has happened to the world in his absence, he takes to protecting the boy.

Eventually Connor comes across Marcus in his search for Reese, but the terminators have already captured the boy. Although Marcus has earned the trust of one of Connor’s pilots by saving her life, Connor discovers something very disturbing about the mystery man that puts the two at odds. However, since the resistance high command is determined to annihilate the very Skynet facility that holds both Reese and the answers to Marcus’s secrets, the two must trust each other to reach their objectives.

Much has been made about Christian Bale’s involvement as John Connor. As with his role as Batman, he provides an intense performance as the pivotal character in the “Terminator” mythology. Aside from a couple of brief scenes with Bryce Dallas Howard (“Lady in the Water”) as his wife Kate, he isn’t really given a whole lot to do beyond looking mean with a gun. It’s Australian actor Sam Worthington (“Rouge”) as Marcus who has the meatier and more significant role of the two. While I will not reveal his secret here, anyone who has seen a preview of the movie already knows it. Worthington does an incredible job of balancing conflicting motivations of detachment and compassion to his role.

Director McG (“We Are Marshall”) is not much interested in bringing a sci-fi thriller based on ideas to the screen. His primary purpose is to combine the best special effects in the business with the most action sequences he can fit into his two-hour running time. In those goals he has succeeded with great proficiency.

What this “Terminator” lacks where the others succeeded rather well is a strong connection with the characters’ humanity. There was a great deal of humor in the previous films and very little in this one beyond its references to lines used in the other movies. The apocalyptic setting works against the goal of engaging an audience. The setting alienates the audience in the way the “Resident Evil” or “Road Warrior” franchises do to present their dystopian societies. Those films depicted the decay of humanity, while the “Terminator” series represents only a misstep by man that suddenly rips away our power over our environment. This should highlight our humanity against the cold, heartless machines.

There are no passages of introspection in this “Terminator” as there were in the previous three. And while the movie is thrilling, it seems empty of the science fiction themes that initially inspired James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd to create these characters. Some of those ideals are represented in the character of Marcus, but the spotlight here is clearly focused on the action-packed surface of the movie. As a fan of the series, I can’t say I am disappointed with “Terminator Salvation”, but I can’t imagine it will last long in the memories of the unconverted.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues / **** (NR)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Narrator #1: Aseem Chhabra
Narrator #2: Bhavana Nagulapally
Narrator #3: Manish Acharya
Sita: Reena Shah
Dave/Dasharatha/Ravana/Dhobi/Valmiki: Sanjiv Jhaveri
Surphanaka: Pooja Kumar
Rama: Debargo Sanyal
Mareecha/Hanuman: Alladin Ullah
Luv/Kush: Nitya Vidyasagar
Nina: Nina Paley
Kaikeyi: Deepti Gupta

And featuring the songs of Annette Hanshaw

Your Name Here presents a film written and directed by Nina Paley. Based on the Ramayana. Running time: 82 min. No MPAA Rating.

Roger Ebert suggests in his review of the animated movie “Sita Sings the Blues” that he wasn’t initially enthusiastic at the prospect of watching a “version of the epic Indian tale of the Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw.” When I first heard of the film through a blog review written by Ebert last fall, I was quite intrigued. Perhaps that’s because Ebert was gushing praises about this film he at first questioned. I was lucky enough that Ebert invited the film to his 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival, which I attended last month.

Like Ebert, I was unfamiliar with the Ramayana—a story that’s said to be known by every school child in India. I was also unfamiliar with the seductive and suggestive vocal styling of the once popular jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw. I was in for a treat.

Writer, director, producer Nina Paley hails from Ebert’s hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Ill. But her feature film debut follows her all the way to both modern and ancient India in a surprisingly autobiographical way with animation that recalls “the greatest breakup story ever told” and parallels it with her own journey through divorce. In spanning this broad time range and the diverse cultures of India and America, Paley utilizes a variety of animation styles and storytelling techniques to tell two stories.

The modern sequences employ a herky-jerky style of animation that reflects the scattered emotions of Paley’s failing marriage. Some of the Ramayana story is depicted with traditional Indian drawings animated like pasted cutouts, while the main thrust of the story is told with bright bold images and musical numbers set to Hanshaw’s sexy vocals. And the entire affair is narrated by three Indian-accented shadow puppets who argue and debate throughout as to just how the story is supposed to go.

The three arguing narrators seem to get at much of the essence of what Paley is attempting to do by adapting this fable to the screen. They bicker and nit pick about certain details of the story, often realizing they don’t really know exactly what they’re talking about. Everybody has her own version of this story and Paley finds a unique and quite brilliant way to tell it through animation with Annette Hanshaw’s songs. She also finds the story in her own life with her failed marriage and surprisingly charismatic cats.

But just what is the story of the Ramayana? Well, I didn’t know it going in and was still quite absorbed by it, but I suppose I should attempt my own little version in the spirit of the film. I’ll leave the bickering points to those joyous shadow puppet narrators, but basically Prince Rama is exiled from his kingdom and his loyal wife, Sita, joins him. Once in their wilderness sanctuary, Sita is kidnapped by a lustful (and occasionally 10-headed) king. An army of monkeys helps Rama rescue her; but once they are reunited, Rama decides Sita is tainted despite passing an absurd test of her purity.

While that doesn’t sound so blasé, nothing I’ve written conveys the freshness and vitality contained within this movie. There is so much humor, so much artistry, so much depth portrayed here that it seems a shame for Paley to just give it away for free. But that she has done, an artistic donation to the world via the Internet. Of course, people who visit Paley’s site are encouraged to donate money for the free downloads, but admission is not required.

Considering that Paley had to pay some $50,000 for the rights to use Hanshaw’s recordings, I’m sure she would greatly appreciate any money audiences are willing to pay. And considering how much those recordings add to this pleasurable gem, any expense is worth it. While I—like Paley—agree the big screen is the best place to see “Sita Sings the Blues” (a schedule of theatrical screenings is also available on the website), there is no movie currently playing in wide release that is as enjoyable as this one playing on PCs and Macs anywhere.

Download, order DVD copies, and donate at

Friday, May 08, 2009

Star Trek / ***½ (PG-13)

Kirk: Chris Pine
Spock: Zachary Quinto
McCoy: Karl Urban
Uhura: Zoë Saldana
Scotty: Simon Pegg
Sulu: John Cho
Chekov: Anton Yelchin
Serek: Ben Cross
Amanda Grayson: Wynona Ryder
Pike: Bruce Greenwood
Nero: Eric Bana
Spock Prime: Leonard Nimoy

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Rodenberry. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content).

The eleventh installment of the “Star Trek” film franchise arrives with no subtitle. No “The Wrath of Kahn”. No “Nemesis”. Not even a “The Motion Picture (Again)”. It could be titled “Star Trek Origins”, but Paramount may not want to associate it with the hack job 20th Century Fox is currently doing to the “X-Men” franchise. Perhaps “Star Trek: Tabula Rasa”.

Of course, to limit the history of the “Star Trek” universe to just the motion pictures is to ignore a long account of one of the most prolific franchises in Hollywood. Spanning two different crews in the previous ten movies and five television shows (six including an animated series), “Star Trek” has become a genus of entertainment of its own with a rich and diverse mythology to live up to. All of that was built upon the foundation of the original “Star Trek” television series, which teetered on the edge of cancelation for three years before the axe was finally dropped. That series thrived through syndication to develop into the phenomenon it is today.

What drew audiences to that high concept show that claimed its subject’s mission was “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations — to boldly go where no man has gone before."? That is certainly what gave the series the legs to blossom into its multiple incarnations. But more likely the visceral characterizations of the original core crewmembers that embodied such a diverse pool of personalities (not to mention racial representation) was what drew audiences to find something to relate to in just about every episode. Even the show’s villains embodied a degree of human empathy that engaged its audience to actually think about what life might be like from the “bad” guy’s point of view.

Some “Star Trek” purists may argue that much of the spirit of the series has been compromised for this new version of the original crew’s adventures. They may say that the message of “Star Trek” has been omitted for a more action-oriented blockbuster formula that finds the characters engaging more in fisticuffs than in ideas. As an admitted enthusiast, I will agree that the only disappointment I found in this new “Star Trek” was that there did not seem to be some form of overall observation about our society as a whole, no lesson to be gleaned from this particular “Star Trek” adventure. But, “Star Trek” has never been this much fun before.

What this new Trek does succeed in doing is it revisits the original crew with a new cast for the old set of characters in a way that takes what has already been established about them and sets them in a fresh new light. It expands upon their identities and motivations without betraying anything that has come before.

The story begins before any of the characters have even thought about entering the service of the Starfleet Command for the Federation of Planets, although the Earth-based galaxy uniting organization seems quite well established at this 23rd Century date. After an action-packed but deliberately confusing opening sequence, we meet James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine, “Bottle Shock”), a delinquent whose father died at the helm of a Starfleet vessel in that first scene. He was committing a selfless act to save over 800 people. Kirk has taken the rebellious route out of the shadow of his father’s deed, but Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood, “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”) of the U.S.S Enterprise sees the potential for greatness in him and convinces him to join the Starfleet academy.

Meanwhile, on the Federation alien planet named Vulcan we meet the young Spock (Zachary Quinto, NBC’s “Heroes”). He has a human mother and a Vulcan father and is persecuted for being a half-breed. The Vulcan culture is one based on pure logic. Emotions are thought of as distractions from the perfect discipline of logic. Spock becomes the first half-Vulcan to be honored with an invitation by the High Council to attend its Scientific Academy. Since he can’t seem to avoid blatant prejudices, even when being offered the Vulcan’s highest honor, Spock declines the invitation and turns to Starfleet instead.

The story centers around the differences between Kirk and Spock, who are polar opposites. Spock operates entirely based upon rational thought, while Kirk’s acts are informed primarily by his emotions. Pine and Quinto are perfectly cast in these iconic roles.

Pine embodies the passionate warrior and lover even better than the young William Shatner did in the original series. He does not mimic Shatner’s mannerisms as so many comedians have throughout the last thirty years, but he captures the same essence, and—with the help of screenwriter’s Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”)—provides a solid basis for why he is who he is.

Quinto has the difficult challenge of portraying Spock in a storyline that also has Leonard Nimoy reprising his original role from the series, travelling back in time as an elder Spock to join the adventure. But Quinto never misses a beat of the character that has been so strongly defined by Nimoy throughout his career. And, the famous story of Kirk becoming the only cadet to pass the Kobayashi Maru test is finally depicted on film as a defining moment in his relationship with Spock.

The rest of the Enterprise’s original crew is also fleshed out. We see the instant friendship struck up between Kirk and Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban, “The Lord of the Rings”) and even learn where his nickname “Bones” comes from. Lieutenant Uhura’s role as the ship’s communications officer is greatly expanded from Nichelle Nichols’ incarnation. Zoë Saldana (“Vantage Point”) is smarter and sexier as Uhura. She shares a deeper relationship than you’d expect with one of the other leads. Sulu (John Cho, “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”), after a shaky start at the helm, proves to be a valuable asset to the enterprise crew. Chekov (Anton Yelchin, “Charlie Bartlett”) may be a poor choice to give the ship’s announcements but proves to be a capable navigator, amongst other talents. And Scotty (Simon Pegg, “Run Fatboy Run”) is the only man inventive enough to be the engineer of a ship under Kirk’s command.

As for the villain, Nero, Eric Bana (“Hulk”) is plenty heavy enough to chew the scenery of his ominous ship on a mission inspired from the empathy that I mentioned earlier for villains of the series. However, director J.J. Abrams (“Mission: Impossible III”) isn’t as interested in being as innovative with Nero’s storyline as he is in using the Romulan as a catalyst for action sequences.

It’s impossible for me to look at “Star Trek” from the point of view of the uninitiated. As such, I cannot tell whether this movie will work for audiences that are new to the series. It certainly seems designed as a fresh start. Pretty much all of “Star Trek” history as it is known up to this point is entirely wiped clean by the events depicted here. This may be a move that leaves long time Trekkies feeling a bit betrayed. For me, however, it opens the series up to a whole new future, one that isn’t tied to what has come before, something akin to the undiscovered country or the final frontier. It may not be the logical choice of direction in which to take the series, but it’s unpredictable enough that I believe Captain James T. Kirk would approve.

Monday, May 04, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine / *½ (PG-13)

Logan/Wolverine: Hugh Jackman
Victor Creed/Sabertooth: Liev Schreiber
General Striker: Danny Huston
Kayla Silverfox: Lynn Collins
Remy LeBeau/Gambit: Taylor Kitsch
John Wraith:
Frederick J. Dukes/The Blob: Kevin Durand
Chris Bradley/Bolt: Dominic Monaghan
David North/Agent Zero: Daniel Henney
Wade Wilson/Deadpool: Ryan Reynolds

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Gavin Hood. Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods. Based on characters from Marvel comic book publications. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence and some partial nudity).

So I’m sitting in this bar in Chicago with my best friend two weeks ago trying to salvage the evening after the heartbreaking Game 2 loss of the Bulls to the Celtics. The Blackhawks are giving the bartender an even harder time in the NHL, so he says, “We’re watching something else. You guys seen ‘Wolverine’ yet? I got it. We’re watching it!”

Now, I find myself in a bit of a conundrum having just written a diatribe railing against movie piracy and the stupidity of critics who would so brazenly write a review based on one of these pirated copies. I submit my opinion that I would rather not see it at this point in time, but my friend and the only other guy in that bar are game. I’m not really sure I want to see what might happen to the heavily tattooed and elongated earlobed bartender’s mood if he’s forced to watch the Hawks blow it any longer, so I don’t protest much.

For the next hour and a half or so we proceeded to perform our own version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on the fourth X-Men installment. What we took such pleasure in ridiculing as we guzzled our late night High Life was not the over 400 unfinished special effects shots, the temporary score, or the unfinished color timing; it was the script and B-movie story by David Benioff (“The Kite Runner”) and Skip Woods (“Hitman”).

Of course, I couldn’t really review the movie seen under those circumstances, so I went to see it when it opened in theaters. And even with the finished special effects in their dazzling glory (properly color timed mind you), the final score, and my own sobriety, the screenplay brings the whole production crashing down. The script is spectacularly bad.

I suppose a brief synopsis is a necessity, so here it goes. Wolverine started out life as a little boy named Jimmy a long time ago and through a melodramatic event discovers that a) he has the mutant power to grow six claws from between his knuckles at will and has the power to heal himself; and b) he has an older brother Victor with similar powers (although the brother’s claws are his fingernails). The two fight every major war in American history together. This is shown through montage during the film’s credits and is the best sequence in the movie, perhaps because there is no dialogue.

After surviving the firing squad in Vietnam for killing a superior officer, the two are approached by General Striker to join a covert team with “special privileges,” which are never quite explained. Now Jimmy looks like a buff Hugh Jackman (“Australia”) and Victor looks like a scary redneck version of Liev Schreiber (“Defiance”), both sporting matching muttonchops. The group enables Victor’s violent tendencies and Jimmy leaves the team to pursue a normal life with a girlfriend (Lynn Collins, “The Number 23”) and an axe.

Six years later, someone is killing off the team and Striker (Danny Huston, “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”) recruits Jimmy to join the Weapon X program where the unbreakable metal adamantium is fused to his skeleton creating the nearly indestructible Wolverine that we all know and love. The assassin Wolverine is assigned to hunt down is, of course, Victor.

Now, that took me longer than expected, but aside from the adamantium skeleton part, all that plot takes place in the first 15 minutes of the movie. The remaining 90 minutes of the movie is amazingly similar to the first 15 minutes replayed over and over again with different mutants thrown into the mix and a great many “secrets” that nobody is willing to divulge until Wolverine knocks them down and shoves those claws in their faces. If you don’t really know what a mutant is, well you’re out of luck, because the filmmakers show little interest in explaining the socio-political environment of the world of the X-Men beyond the fact that General Striker hates them but is willing to use them for his dirty work.

In fact, from this movie it would seem that other than Striker, just about everybody in this world is a mutant. Now, that may serve as a bit of a spoiler about Wolvie’s “normal” girlfriend, but that secret isn’t really anything that the filmmakers don’t try to beat into your head with a frying pan during a scene where she diffuses a fight between Jimmy and a big guy making a redneck cell phone call, which would involve blocking the road with your vehicle while you converse with another person from your drivers’ seats. And you know, I’ve seen it twice now, and I’m not sure when people stopped calling him Jimmy and started calling him Logan. Maybe someone can help me out there.

But details such as what names people are going by can easily be missed between eye rollings with banal lines like these to sit through:

“We didn’t sign up for this.”

“You can’t just walk away.”

“Embrace the other side.”

“You’re gonna die for what you did to her!”

“All the horrible things in your life... Your father, the wars, I can make all this go away. You can live knowing that the woman you loved was hunted down, or you can join me. I promise you will have your revenge.”

“You’re not an animal, Logan.” What is he? The Elephant Man?

And one of my favorites, “If I learned anything about life, it's this: always play the hand you’re dealt. My name is Gambit... and I play for keeps.” Now, I just can’t wait for the Gambit movie!

But the clichéd and hackneyed script isn’t the movie’s only flaw. There’s a huge cast of characters and instead of actually introducing them, director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) just throws Wolverine and Victor in amongst them to do their thing, regardless of what anyone else is doing. All the other characters are just window dressing for the action scenes. With the plot to kill off the special unit the warring brothers were a part of, it would be beneficial to actually get to know some of these guys so we might actually care if someone is out to knock them off.

Ryan Reynolds’ (“Adventureland”) involvement as one of Striker’s mutant unit is completely inexplicable considering the capacity his character serves. He comes on for one action sequence in which he cracks wise a couple of times to set up a joke at the end of the film when a completely different actor is actually playing his character. Of course, they cast Reynolds so they might be able to develop a spinoff for his mutant character known as Deadpool.

Gambit (Taylor Kitsch, NBC’s “Friday Night Lights”), beyond his laughable introductory line, is another completely wasted character. The effects in his scenes are beyond dazzling, but what is the point of including such a powerful mutant character to take Wolverine to an island that Wolvie could easily have found on his own if Gambit had simply told him its name?

But I’ve gone on too long. While the special effects are good for the most part, the only real joy I derived from watching this film, I got during that initial drunken bash session of the unfinished project. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” doesn’t add anything meaningful to the X-Men mythology or to comic book-based movies in general. All it is good for is as a subject of ridicule while you’re sitting in a bar getting drunk with your friends.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Ebertfest Report #6: Let the Right Movie In

A one point late in the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival Roger’s wife Chas address the capacity crowd in the historic Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, Ill. simply by saying, “Amore!”

“It’s about love,” she continued, speaking of a common theme that seemed to permeate all of the entries in this year’s festival. She described several relationships that had started at Ebertfest throughout its 11-year history and were still going strong. “[Ebertfest] is about people getting together to change the world with the values of peace and understanding,” she said.

Love is certainly a driving force in four of this festival’s most exquisite and mesmerizing pictures.

“Frozen River” is the story of two mothers’ love for their children. A love strong enough to drive these women to do just about anything to ensure their children’s well being. The women are suffering from a desperation to secure this for their children. It is desperation that brings these two women together under just about the only circumstances that would even have them speaking to each other, and desperation that forces them into the illegal activity of smuggling aliens across the Canadian border into the United States.

“Frozen River” is a stark film, but at its center is warmth that emanates from these two mothers. One is a Mohawk woman who has had her one-year-old boy taken from her by her tribal council as retribution for a tragedy in which she was involved. The other is a white woman who has promised her two sons a new mobile home, a dream that is threatened to be dashed when her gambling-addicted husband takes off with all their money. Neither woman is really at fault for their problems, but they take the responsibility for the actions of others for the sake of their children and follow the only solutions they can find.


In “The Fall” a suicidal man enters a friendship with a young girl recovering at the same hospital as him. He tells her stories in order to get her to smuggle him drugs. He tells the stories one way, but she interprets them in her own way, with the innocence of a child who is also unaware that she is being used for darker purposes. This movie comes from the mind of Tarsem, who found early success as a music video director and directed the visually stunning thriller “The Cell”.

The story the man tells to the girl is changed and manipulated by the girl into a love story of sorts, but the real bond of love formed in the movie is between the little girl and the man. There is a heartbreaking scene when the man confesses to the girl what he was using her for. In it he changes the story to reflect his suicidal tendencies and the performances by both actors are heartbreaking. There is a bond of trust formed by love here that is being broken and it hurts in only the ways that love can.

The actress Catinca Untaru revealed in the question and answer period following the screening that during most of the production she thought the man’s injuries were real. Late in the production the filmmakers allowed her to learn that he was only pretending to be paralyzed, and she felt a similar sense of betrayal as her character. But children are forgiving by nature, and she soon admired her costar again.


“Nothing But the Truth” was perhaps my favorite film of the festival. It is one of those political pictures that looks at the rights we think we have in this country and makes you see them from different perspectives and wonder why we do or don’t have them. It centers around three main characters played amazingly well by Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, and Vera Farminga. It is inspired and somewhat based on the real life case of former CIA agent Valerie Plame and New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who refused to reveal her source that outted the undercover agent.

While being an effective drama that makes you think about our right to free press and the national interests of our country to protect its citizens through covert operations and freedom of knowledge, the real strength of this fictionalized version of those recent events is in the motherhood of these two women. There are children and families involved in their struggles to both reveal and conceal the truth. It is those families that are ripped apart both by those trying to cover up the truth and those trying to reveal it. While the women don’t act in each other’s interest throughout the film, they are always acting in the interest of their children. It isn’t the prime focus of the film or each of the women’s character arcs, but always their decisions and actions are motivated at their foundations in the interest of their children. Some of their decisions backfire against their children and they must live with the consequences as mothers. But always they are mothers.


Vampires and love have gone hand in hand since the creation of their mythology. Often the blood lust and the sexual lust get paralleled in their stories, but always there is the sadness of love in their myth. Yes, the sadness of love, and perhaps no vampire is sadder in love than the vampire in “Let the Right One In”. Why is she so sad? Because she is twelve, and she’s been twelve for a very long time.

Regardless as to whether “she” really is a she or not, she sees a kindred spirit in the very mortal boy who lives in the apartment next to her. In fact “Let the Right One In” is really Oskar’s story, not Eli’s, the vampire. But it is unclear whether the title refers to Oskar letting Eli in or Eli letting Oskar in. I suppose the important thing is that they let each other in and in doing so begin to free themselves of the sadness that is each of their existences.

“Let the Right One In” is haunting, not just because it is a horror movie and an effectively scary one at that, but also because of its mood and atmosphere. It’s haunting because it focuses on two people who don’t fit in to the world they inhabit and the silent wintery Scandinavian environment of the movie reflects that. Perhaps there are other lost souls within this story (there certainly are), but since it’s all about love, let’s concentrate on the positive. Whether or not Eli truly loves Oskar or she is just replacing her older servant with a fresh new one, it seems they each let the right one in.


In closing, I couldn’t be happier that I let these movies in with a film festival that is more than just a celebration of love for film, but also a celebration of love for life, community, and the freedom of living in a place where values and compassion are celebrated. Animator and advocate for literally free expression Nina Paley, who attended with her movie “Sita Sings the Blues”, said it best when she said that Ebertfest “was the coolest way to visit Urbana.”