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March '09
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RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAINMISS MARCHWENDY AND LUCYWATCHMENCHEFANBOYS

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Race to Witch Mountain
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

In 35 years, people probably will have forgotten Race to Witch Mountain the way my generation has amnesia when it comes to its 1975 predecessor Escape to Witch Mountain.

I saw the former when it originally opened and have only fleeting memories. That said, it might be better than Race to Witch Mountain because the more recent movie is already fading into oblivion, and it just opened today.

As with the original, which itself was based on the book by Alexander Key (The Forgotten Door), a pair of young space aliens are rushing to be reunited with their own kind. This time around, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb, Bridge to Terabithia) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) have recruited a surly Las Vegas cab driver named Jack Bruno (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and a frustrated scientist (Carla Gugino) to help them find an extraterrestrial version of a thumb drive so that they can take the data back home and save their planet.

Initially, Jack’s willing simply because he’s an ex-con who could use the massive amounts of cash the youngsters are offering him. The three quickly discover that getting the data back home won’t be so easy. When Jack sees the aliens’ outpost, he’s understandably incredulous because the film’s production designers have created a place that looks a more like a T-Rex restaurant than a space colony. Perhaps space aliens like overpriced food and animatronic dinosaurs as well.

Overcoming Jack’s skepticism isn’t the only obstacle. There’s a Department of Defense official named Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds) who’s leading a force of warriors who’d like to use the space kids as lab rats. And a lone assassin from the kids’ planet is also in pursuit.

Despite the intergalactic stakes involved, the fight to save two planets isn’t that much fun to watch. For a movie like this to work, it has to create an otherworldly feel to the aliens’ belongings. To be fair to the filmmakers, that’s a lot harder to do in 2009 than it was in 1975 because there was a flood of science fiction films shortly thereafter. Trying to find a design someone else hasn’t conceived is a tall order.

Not that anyone appears to be trying here. The computer-generated effects give themselves away, and some of the storytelling basics seem to have been neglected as well. Johnson, a former wrestler who has shown some genuine promise as an actor, is stuck with weak wisecracks like, “Lay off on the human bashing. Some of best friends are human.” Director Andy Fickman, who oversaw Johnson’s The Game Plan, isn’t doing his leading man any favors. The action scenes are staged in a pedestrian manner, and Johnson isn’t asked to do anything but look cranky.

There are some fun cameos throughout the movie. Alert viewers can spot original Witch Mountain stars Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann. This is also a problem because the cameos wouldn’t stick out as much if the rest of the movie were sufficiently interesting.

Like a lot of science fiction entries these days, Race to Witch Mountain feels like the filmmakers have phoned it in instead of phoning it home. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 3/13/09)

 


Miss March
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger


It’s a strange irony that any movie aimed squarely at an allegedly adult audience usually features enough gags involving feces and urine to delight six year olds for hours.

Those of us who have passed puberty won’t be so delighted.

Apparently, Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore, the duo who wrote, directed and starred in Miss March are under the impression that bodily discharges are inherently amusing on their own.

The two figure that no one wants to sit through snappy banter, likable characters or clever gags when they waste time that could be spent exposing bosoms or featuring dogs peeing. With that combination, it’s hard to see how this film can miss its target demographic of mental first graders.

On second thought, that sort of audience might be too mature for this one.

Cregger and Moore play Eugene Bell and Tucker Cleigh, a pair of South Carolina high school misfits, who each have issues with women. Tucker despite his lame pickup lines (which result in more raised middle fingers than returned affection) is an incorrigible but proud lecher. He also appears to be a sexual harassment charger waiting to happen. Eugene is so traumatized by his older brother’s bad sexual experiences that he’s now fanatically abstinent and even leads seminars on the subject, where the crowds appear to be about 10.

If this sequence makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t worry. The rest of the movie is equally squirm-inducing.

Eugene’s equally virginal and apparently horny sweetheart Cindi (Raquel Alessi) finally asks him to end their mutual innocence. Before you can say “wishful thinking,” Eugene has a freak accident that leaves him in a coma for four years. When he awakens half a decade later, Eugene discovers that the only person who has been to see him in the hospital is the annoying Tucker, and his own father has left town.

Worse, the boys discover that Cindi is the latest centerfold in Playboy. Tucker figures the logical thing to do is kidnap the bedridden but now conscious Eugene and take him to the Playboy Mansion in California to find Cindi. There is some urgency because Tucker’s long-suffering girlfriend (Molly Stanton) is now out for revenge and won’t be happy till both of the lads are dead.

It is hard to watch Miss March without hoping she’d succeed. Tucker is supposed to be a likable rogue. Instead, he’s an irredeemably selfish boor. This is a guy who takes family photographs at an apartment store and adjusts the mothers’ breasts for a photo.

Knowing that the actor who plays the role is partly responsible for the script and direction only makes his scenes even more appalling. Apparently, Cregger and Moore think epilepsy, misogyny and ethnic stereotypes are a hoot. It’s not hard to imagine Hispanic orderlies, Eastern European lesbians and rap entourages joining the homicidal fire fighters (don’t ask) trying to stop them.

Playboy founder Hugh M. Hefner gets to play himself, and he’s about the only person involved in this venture who emerges with his dignity intact. Perhaps lousy films like this one have led him to spend considerable time and expense preserving old classics. At least the filmmakers had the decency not to spoil the J. Geils Band classic tune “Centerfold” by including it in this movie.

Cregger and Moore should have thought twice before taking a break from their day jobs at the sketch comedy series “The Whitest Kids U Know.” Like most sketch comedians, Cregger and Moore climax too quickly and can’t form a lasting relationship with genuine humor. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 3/13/09)


Wendy and Lucy
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Because it features a captivatingly unaffected performance by Brokeback Mountain star Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy is the sort of story that could be dismissed as despairingly gloomy if it weren’t set in an environment where merely getting by seems triumphant.

Williams’ Wendy is a young woman of limited means who winds up in Oregon on her way to Alaska, where she hopes a job canning fish in Ketchikan and change her apparently dismal luck. She’s been traveling alone with only her dog Lucy for company and support. On the few moments she encounters other people, she says very little about her past or why she’s miles from her home.

Wendy is traveling so lightly that she sleeps in her dilapidated car and occasionally feeds Lucy with food that she taken from the store using a five-finger discount. In Oregon, she finally gets caught, and after she’s released from jail, she discovers that Lucy has disappeared.

To say her fortunes collapse from here would be a gross understatement. Director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and Jonathan Raymond (working from his short story “Train Choir”) put Wendy through so many calamities that the film doesn’t have the dramatic momentum it should. Because the light at the end of her tunnel appears to have burned out, it’s as if she’s doomed to nothing but sorrow. She may not always make the wisest decisions (stealing dog food when you have a few bucks in your pocket), but fate keeps taking a disproportionately heavy toll.

Considering the growing joblessness out there, tales like Wendy’s are all too common and more plausible as family and friends aren’t there to help. Still, the film would have been more involving if even her modest, reasonable goals weren’t unattainable.

Thankfully, Williams manages to keep the film from being as tedious as it is somber. With her threadbare clothes and her flat, short-cropped hair Williams dives completely into the role. She looks less like a Hollywood actress passing as drifter than the genuine article. She also wisely underplays the role, apparently realizing that the situations she’s in are dramatic enough without embellishment.

The support cast is similarly convincing. Even familiar performers like Will Patton (Remember the Titans) can pass as regular Joes and Janes instead of moonlighting stars.

The dull, grainy look of the film is just about right for the sobering tale. If Wendy and Lucy isn’t the most dynamic movie around, at least its tone and approach are sure-footed and appropriate. The film’s conclusion is undeniably moving, and Reichardt realizes that we don’t have to admire Wendy to hope that she gets past her current purgatory. It may be easier to identify with Wendy simply because her plight is becoming less of an anomaly. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/16/09)


Watchmen
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

When Alan Moore’s dystopian anti-hero comic-book series Watchmen came out, yours truly was a full-blown D&D playing, Marvel-comic collecting high-school geekboy. That series, along with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, were some of the first attempts to keep up with their maturing audience, who often abandoned X-Men or Peter Parker: Spiderman after that first week at college when they discovered girls and beer.

Rumors of a Watchmen movie have rolled around for decades, taunting and teasing us, only to fall apart as quickly as a Uwe Boll movie. Some blame Mr. Moore, who has openly shown scorn for any and all movie versions of his work. Sometimes he seems right on in his complaints (He has always slammed product tie-ins, and given that you can by both Night Owl Instant Coffee and Doctor Manhattan blue-tinted condoms online, he has a point), but other times he frankly seems like a whiny bitch. Certainly, the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was pure crap compared to the awesomeness of that series but then the live-action V for Vendetta was far better than the comic, which was slow and suffered from a lot of crappy artwork.

So here’s the question: Does director Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead) turn a beloved comic book into a faithful and engrossing film, or is this yet another childhood memory that Hollywood has raped for a few quick bucks? Well, like the novel the film’s ending is far from happy, and the coolest characters end up dead or worse. Plus, at a length of over two and a half hours a lot of moviegoers are gonna fidget in their seats, not to mention that Iron Man and The Dark Knight have already inundated the scene with superheroes. Does that mean Watchmen is dead in the water?

The plot starts simple: the year is 1985, Richard Nixon is in his forth term as president, and the world is teetering on the edge of an all-out nuclear war. Out of the blue a retired superhero named the Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan) is violently murdered. Once a member of a super-team called the Watchmen, his death is investigated by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), an ex-teammate who believes someone is out to kill the ex-“masks.” After joining up with fellow heroes Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), they begin unraveling a conspiracy that eventually leads them to a stunning and horrifying conclusion.

Now that being said, it does not even scratch the surface of Zack Snyder’s direction here. As in Alan Moore’s original vision, this is not your father’s super heroes. The most powerful of them all, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who through a physics accident has become an almost all-powerful nude blue dude who can control matter itself, is now America’s main nuclear deterrent. He also happens to be loosing his humanity bit by bit, and is becoming more and more erratic as the world races towards oblivion. Rorschach, a kind-of Batman without the cool toys, is a paranoid psycho who is obsessed with a religious righteousness in his ever-violent actions. Night Owl has become a pudgy, impotent middle-aged man with faded memories of glory. Even the Comedian is shown in flash-backs to be far more than just a cigar-chomping wise-cracking joker (Yes, that reference is intentional).

There’s so much here this review could go on longer: The acting is superb, particularly so for Jackie Earle Haley, who makes Rorschach both terrifying and pathetic. The visuals are stunning, the fight scenes are fantastic (Matrix-style, and completely void of the hyper-shaky camera work so favored lately), and fans of the original will recognize several frame-by-frame scenes straight from the books.

This is a fantastic, dark, thrilling ride that is as exhilarating as it is entrancing — as is said several times here, “Who watches the watchmen?”

That would be me, as many times as I can. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 03/06/09)


Che
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If anyone deserves a four-hour movie, it’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Thanks to an iconic 1960 photograph by Alberto Korda, where El Che stares unflinchingly above the viewer’s sightline, he’s on more T-shirts than most rock bands or rappers.

Because of his uncompromising belief in armed struggle against what he saw as the oppressive influence of American capitalism, Guevara has become a symbol of rebellion. He’s also justly despised for killing those who opposed him during his guerilla campaigns, including fellow insurgents he considered disloyal. He also oversaw executions at La Cabaña prison in Cuba.

Thankfully, director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen have devoted their lengthy opus to a more nuanced depiction of Guevara’s brief but eventful life, even if they have to split it into two films: Che: “Part One: The Argentine” and Che: “Part Two: Guerilla.”

Che also features a typically mesmerizing performance by Benicio Del Toro, who effortlessly captures the revolutionary’s commendable and contemptible traits. In the hands of a less charismatic performer, the title character might have been an abrasively egotistical bore, but Del Toro makes Guevara’s outcome compelling even when destiny is simply giving him what he deserves.

In the first and stronger segment, Soderbergh and Del Toro present Guevara as an effective if unlikely leader in the Cuban Revolution. Most armies wouldn’t have admitted him as a soldier because of his occasionally debilitating asthma. Further, his training as a doctor is too valuable to be lost in a battle.

Yet, Guevara, who hails from Argentina, gradually builds a following in Cuba. He fights in the front lines despite being a commander. Guevara even takes on dictator Fulgencio Bastista’s army when his own arm is broken. He also gives many poor villagers their first real medical care and stresses the value of education.

While Part One chronicles Guevara’s rise, what makes it intriguing is that a careful viewer can spot the signs of his ruin. He can snap at subordinates and seems fatally in love with the spotlight.

In addition, Guevara’s narrow view of the revolution and its goals wouldn’t have gained much support if it weren’t tempered by the pragmatism of Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir). Bichir effectively imitates Castro’s mannerism but also projects a paternal tone that makes it believable that he could reign in his determined lieutenant.

Soderbergh also toys with the chronology, juggling the Revolution’s origins in Mexico, Guevara’s eloquent defense of Cuba in front of the United Nations in 1965 and the long path to victory. Because the outcome of the story is preordained to anyone who has at least glanced at the cover of a history book or surfed Wikipedia, this approach gives the narrative some momentum it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Part Two covers the final period of Guevara’s life in the order it happened, so the story feels more burdened by its predetermined conclusion. In this segment, he takes his movement to Bolivia in hopes of leading his native continent away from imperialism the way Simon Bolivar did more than a century before.

No such luck.

While rural Bolivians suffer severe poverty, they aren’t eager to embrace him and the small band of outsiders he’s brought with him. Even the head of the Bolivian Communist Party (played by an unrecognizable Lou Diamond Philips) would prefer that Guevara would just go home.

Worse, his old nemesis the CIA has seen through his assumed names and occasionally clever disguises and is happy to help the Bolivian government take him down.

Because of the impending doom, Part Two could have used a shorter running time and suffers from a distracting cameo from Matt Damon as a priest. While Damon doesn’t embarrass himself, his recognizable face and voice (even when he’s speaking Spanish) take viewers out of the movie.

Soderbergh presents both segments a documentary-like style. He also shot both films (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). By using handheld cameras, he gives the battle sequences an appropriate energy but thankfully doesn’t shake the screen as if his equipment was resting on Jell-O.

The filmmakers also present Guevara’s less savory traits, even if they choose not to dwell on them. The film acknowledges that Guevara leaped into his guerilla struggles without a thought to either of the two women he married or their children. He even berates fellow revolutionaries who want to leave and take care of their families, feeling their commitment is inferior to his own. Guevara and other characters also briefly discuss the atrocities of the Cuban justice system under Fidel Castro, even if the deaths remain off-camera.

Soderbergh and his colleagues might be faulted for trying a viewer’s patience with the length of Che, but Guevara is too fascinating an individual to be confined to a story that can fit on a bumper sticker. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted 02/27/09)


Fanboys
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Fanboys is a good example of why the mainstream movie system just can’t get it right with the SF/Fantasy geek-audience (that goes for critics, as well) no matter how hard they try.

See, Hollywood makes comic book or fan-fiction-based movies with about as much love and thoughtfulness as a five-dollar prostitute and quietly takes the millions and millions of dollars of profit. Then completely ignoring them come awards time (Heath Ledger does NOT count — he got it for OD’ing after partying all night — sorry, sorry, for “passing in a tragic and untimely manor”). That’s why all those geeks, freaks, fanboys and such completely ignore mainstream critics and get their info from more knowledgeable online sources while flaming each other on various blogs.

Indeed, Roger Ebert dissed Fanboys hard, which is fine because it’s not a very good movie, but then he went on to slam fanboys themselves, basically calling them losers … and guess what happened? Yup, Ebert got flamed like no tomorrow and quickly issued an apology. Let me repeat: One of the most powerful critics in America apologized for his opinion and that just don’t happen often.

Like many geeks, I heard and saw most of Fanboys months ago, as the makers have been showing it at various conventions for a while now. Based around the highly anticipated release of the first Star Wars prequel, it centers on four friends who venture off on a road trip to sneak into the Skywalker Ranch and watch the film before it comes out. There’s plenty of geeking on trivia, and some clever cameos, but much of the movie still falls as flat as Jar-Jar Binks.

Really, the worst scenes involve Seth Rogan. He shows up a couple of times, acting stupid and wearing fake teeth. It’s like he thinks he’s Jerry Lewis or something. Kirsten Bell, the supposed-female geek in the group falls for Windows (just a guess, but I think that nick-name comes from John Carpenter’s The Thing), the goofiest nerd in the bunch, which is both hackneyed and unlikely.

There’s another subplot involving terminal cancer (Yes, you read it right.), which is just unnecessary and the whole thing often devolves into a bunch a hit and miss skits. A good example is a big nerd fight between Star Wars and Star Trek fans, which is funny, but completely misses the geek fact that such fans fight amongst themselves far more than with each other, something that goes against this film’s own supposed “geek” creds.

Maybe if they had tried less to make this movie mainstream and just let it fully wave its freak flag, it might be more entertaining.

Now, just for my own geek-cred: I was the only reviewer in the audience who recognized that Security Guard #2 was Ray Park, a k a Darth Maul, and by the way — don’t you ever called Han Solo a bitch. Ever. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/27/09)


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.
 

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