Movie Reviews by Bob Garver
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies Program at New York University. More of his reviews can be found online at www.bobatthemovies.com.
By Bob Garver
I’ve found that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies benefit from low expectations. Take the original, “Curse of the Black Pearl” from 2003. At first, it seemed like a bad idea to invest so heavily in a pirate movie (two words: “Cutthroat Island”) based on a Disney theme park ride (three words: “The Country Bears”). But the movie pulled a huge upset and proved the naysayers wrong: it was funny, it was exciting, Johnny Depp got an Oscar nomination for playing the mischievous Captain Jack Sparrow, and it made a ton of money. Then came three sequels that were maybe good for a handful of chuckles and one or two decent action sequences apiece. The franchise got old and wore out its welcome. Early word on “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was that it was a pathetic, desperate attempt to extend the series. It’s not that bad. It’s on the same level as the first three sequels. It’s nowhere near as good as the first film, but it’s better than what I expected.
By Bob Garver
It was a poorly-kept secret that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) was going to be a part of last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” That didn’t stop her from getting a huge reaction when she finally appeared. It wasn’t even that the movie used her well, people just loved “that moment when Wonder Woman showed up.” Demand for Wonder Woman was high as if people already knew she had more to offer than the current incarnations of Batman or Superman. That demand was well-founded because Wonder Woman’s story is easily the best of the widely-disliked DC Extended Universe.
Diana (she’s never actually called Wonder Woman in the movie) is a mighty Amazon, raised in a bubble far from civilization, and also far from any men. Her tribe spends all day preparing for battle in case Ares, the god of war, ever decides to attack the world. Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) is opposed to her daughter becoming a warrior, but her aunt (Robin Wright) is greatly in favor of it. As a result, Diana grows up to be a talented fighter, but lacking the confidence that would come with her mother’s approval.
For over a decade, you knew exactly what you were getting with a “Fast & Furious” movie. You went to see one of these movies, you got fast cars, gratuitous shots of women, dumb one-liners, ruminations on family during the slow parts, and completely implausible action sequences. The movies were fun if you were in the right mood and grating if you weren’t, but they never aspired to be anything more.
Then things changed with “Furious 7” in 2015. Star Paul Walker died unexpectedly in a car crash, and although he had already filmed most of his scenes, the film needed to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity. And it delivered perfectly. The final moments of that film were so beautiful that they took the franchise to a level never before thought possible. Now comes “The Fate of the Furious” to put it right back on the level it was before. Maybe even a little lower.
By Bob Garver
A lot of people were unhappy with my review of “Sing” a few weeks ago. Many wondered how I could have so much disdain for a movie with positive messages about perseverance and following your dreams. There are two main reasons: 1) That movie is considerably less positive with its messages about stealing and avoiding responsibility, and 2) There are plenty of better movies with messages about perseverance and following your dreams. One such movie is “Hidden Figures.”
The film follows three African-American women who work at NASA in 1961. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematician and physicist. Mary (Janelle Monae) is a mathematician and engineer. Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician and essentially a supervisor, though she hasn’t gotten the appropriate promotion yet. The three work out of Langley, Virginia, during a tense time in the segregation era. They persevere and follow their dreams in order to help John Glenn (Glen Powell) make his legendary orbit around the Earth.
The three face obstacles typical of women and African-Americans in that era. Katherine needs to make crucial calculations, but the lead engineer (Jim Parsons) won’t admit that his own work might be flawed and redacts key information. Also, the nearest colored bathroom is fifteen minutes away, so she’s forced to take forty-minute breaks that cut down on productivity. Mary needs clearance to make necessary contributions, but can only do so if she gets permission from a judge to take a course at an all-white school. Dorothy’s contributions as a supervisor are marginalized by her boss (Kirsten Dunst), plus she needs to get off-limits books from a segregated library so she can learn how to program the monstrosity of an IBM computer that itself is threatening to put all the mathematicians out of jobs. On top of all that, they’re trying to put an astronaut into orbit, which is hard enough without all the added obstacles.
By Bob Garver
One of my biggest problems with “The Legend of Tarzan” is that it plays like a sequel to a movie that was never made. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that we’ve had plenty of Tarzan movies before and that many of them cover his origin. But we’ve never had a Tarzan movie in this continuity before, a Tarzan movie with Alexander Skarsgard as the ape-man and Margot Robbie as his beloved Jane. This movie takes place after the couple has been married for a few years, after Tarzan has left the jungle to settle down as a British aristocrat, and after he has begun to let his roots slip away from him. I would be much more inclined to buy this movie as the kickstart to a franchise if it started with an impressionable Tarzan rather than a rusty Tarzan.
The plot is that Tarzan is lured back to the Congo by an American envoy (Samuel L. Jackson) who needs someone with his jungle prowess to help investigate rumors of illegal slave-taking. Also needing Tarzan in Africa is Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian envoy who wants to deliver Tarzan to a bloodthirsty local chief (Djimon Hounsou) who will give him diamonds to save the fledgling Belgian government. Rom follows the typical villain plan of kidnapping the hero’s wife, and Tarzan follows the typical hero journey of going on an adventure to get her back, getting some help from his old animal friends along the way.
Skarsgard is disappointingly dull as the latest Tarzan. I’m guessing he was cast because of some vaguely ape-like facial features, because it certainly wasn’t charm. Waltz and Hounsou play the same villains they always play, a sophisticated sociopath and a growling brute, respectively. Ho hum. Jackson breathes some life into the sidekick, which is ironic because the movie thinks it’s funny to repeatedly have him breathlessly catch up to the action because the 67-year-old isn’t in peak physical condition. My favorite is Margot Robbie, who imbues Jane with an attitude that is maybe unfitting for a 19th century diplomat, but is welcome among this otherwise uninspired cast. Some will say she’s playing little more than a glorified damsel in distress (despite a specific claim to the contrary), though there were a few times where I felt like the bad guys were trapped on a riverboat with her instead of her with them.
By Bob Garver
A sequel to the 1996 alien invasion flick “Independence Day” has been batted around for years. It certainly made sense, the original climbed to #6 at the all-time domestic box office during its release. All that was needed for a sequel was a decent script and for Will Smith to agree to step back into the role of Captain Steven Hiller. Who am I kidding? “Independence Day: Resurgence” would have settled for a flimsy script as long as it got Will Smith. It ended up settling for a flimsy script and no Will Smith.
Returning characters include Jeff Goldblum as scientist David Levinson, Judd Hirsh as his comic relief father, Bill Pullman as now-former President Thomas Whitmore, Vivica A. Fox as Hiller’s widow, and Brent Spiner as comic relief scientist Brakish Okun. Okun is the most surprising return since he appeared to be killed in the original. Returning-but-recast characters include Jessie Usher as Hiller’s fighter-pilot stepson and Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s fighter-pilot daughter. New characters include Liam Hemsworth, Travis Tope, and Angelbaby as more fighter pilots; Sela Ward as the new President; William Fichtner as an over-pressured general; Charlotte Gainsbourg as a scientist and love interest for David; and my personal favorite, Deobia Oparei as an alien-obsessed Congolese warlord. I love it when otherwise villainous characters step up in the name of saving humanity.
The plot follows the expected format. The aliens from the first movie called for reinforcements, and they’re just now arriving. Earth takes the new aliens lightly and pays a steep price. Minor battles are fought where we achieve minor victories, but we also suffer heavy losses (outside of our heroes, of course). There are also a few times where we think we’ve won, the aliens come out with a bigger advantage than ever. It all leads up to a doomsday scenario and a clock counting down to the end of the world that’s going to get really close to zero.
By Bob Garver
The highlight of “Captain America: Civil War” is a six-on-six superhero-on-superhero battle. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call the sides Team Captain America and Team Iron Man. Team Captain America consists of Captain America (Chris Evans), The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). Team Iron Man consists of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
Why is everybody fighting one another? The seeds are planted when U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, a carryover from the Incredible Hulk’s portion of the Marvel Universe) suggests that The Avengers operate under the supervision of the United Nations. Iron Man believes in changing the team’s image from that of unsupervised vigilantes, but Captain America is jaded by the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. and not ready to answer to another organization. Another factor is The Winter Soldier. Captain America’s compromised best friend is apparently responsible for an attack on the United Nations that kills Black Panther’s father (the man is the least-harmed explosion victim I’ve ever seen) and is definitely responsible for an attack on the family of a member of Team Iron Man. But the biggest reason is that it’s simply time to break up The Avengers.
By Bob Garver
As a rule, movies based on video games are always terrible. There isn’t a single one that could be considered a critical darling. “Wreck-it Ralph” doesn’t count; it technically made up its derivative main characters. “The Angry Birds Movie” tries to buck this trend by being based on game with a non-traditional format (a phone app as opposed to an arcade or console game) and by featuring some impressive animation and decent voice work. It succeeds… in a way.
Red (Jason Sudeikis) is the only angry bird on the otherwise blissful Bird Island. But he’s only angry because everyone is a jerk to him. I’m going to avoid the obvious what-caused-what joke in this movie overloaded with jokes about fowl and what they hatch from. It’s actually a wonder there aren’t more angry birds, since everyone else on the island is so mean and inconsiderate that you’d think they would anger each other. Red freaks out at a at a birthday party and is forced to attend Anger Management Class. Wait, Red’s reputation has been defined by one trait his whole life and he’s just now having to attend Anger Management? That’s a stretch even by this movie’s logic. Anger Management is led by the aggressively peaceful Matilda (Maya Rudolph) and consists of the speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), the friendly-but-explosive Bomb (Danny McBride) and the terrifying Terence (Sean Penn). Two-time Oscar winner Penn has only to grunt to make Terence the most interesting character in the movie.
By Bob Garver
“The Boss” is a movie that features a montage of a girl being dumped on an orphanage, Melissa McCarthy break-dancing, an extended mouth-spreader gag, awkward flirting and dating, that gag you’ve seen in the trailers where McCarthy gets launched into a wall by a sofa bed, a crude term for a female fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, a Girl Scout battle royal, a female chest-slapping fight, an adult showing a child “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a possible poisoning via puffer fish, an exaggerated take on what a burglary will look like, Peter Dinklage in a katana fight, a gross makeout session, and lots and lots of profanity. Some of these are good ideas for gags, some of them aren’t, but most of them aren’t as funny as they could be none of them are connected to each other very well.
McCarthy stars as Michelle Darnell, millionaire businesswoman and celebrity mogul. In climbing to the top, she took a few shortcuts like stabbing people in the back and dabbling in insider trading. She goes to prison and forfeits most of her assets. She has nowhere to go upon release, and has to move in with her harried former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and her daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). She discovers that Girl Scouts make millions of dollars a year selling cookies, that Claire makes a killer brownie, and that most of the moms in Rachel’s troop are mean. She hatches a business plan: use the Girl Scouts to sell Claire’s brownies and do it independently of the troop so the moms will regret being mean to her. Her nemesis Renault (Dinklage) tries to stop her, even though he’s pretty much already won by ratting her out to the feds.
By Bob Garver
Last week I wrote that “The Hateful Eight” was “quite possibly the best film of 2015.” I made sure to say “quite possibly” because I considered it the best at the time, but there were still some major contenders left to see. This past week, I knocked out some of those major contenders, and while I’m not completely ready to call it a year (and even then I know I’ll never get to everything), I can say with a bit more confidence that “The Revenant” is quite possibly the best movie of 2015.
The film is the latest labor of love from director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. His last film, “Birdman,” was “quite possibly” the best film of 2014 and definitely the Best Picture Oscar winner. This film trades the relative comfort of the modern Broadway theater for the blistering wilderness of South Dakota in the early 1800s. Like “Birdman,” the film features a number of especially long takes that make the setting and situations seem inescapable. This style doesn’t make the film more “enjoyable” per se, but the obvious difficulty and dedication do not go unnoticed.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, guide for an ill-fated fur-trapping expedition. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the trapping party is attacked by Arikara Indians and its number is cut by more than half. Among the survivors are Glass, his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and embittered trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Things go from bad to worse (to put it mildly) when Glass is mauled within an inch of his life by a grizzly bear. Fitzgerald agrees to stay with Glass and Hawk to keep Glass alive as long as possible and give him a proper burial if necessary. He botches the task horribly. He nearly kills Glass out of mere convenience, kills the previously-healthy Hawk out of panic, and brushes some dirt on Glass and calls it a proper burial. Glass pulls himself out of the poor excuse for a grave and vows revenge on the escaped Fitzgerald. Not every aspect of the revenge journey makes sense, but think of how confusing it must be for the disoriented Glass.