June 30th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

One question kept occurring to me as I watched this movie. Why does the movie industry, for the most part, think the military is run by a bunch of complete morons? There are a few exceptions, but for the most part when the military shows up in a movie, you can count on them to do whatever thing is the worst possible choice for the situation.

And coming along for the ride on that scenario is the idea that government offcials are either idiots or evil villains. At best, government officials in movies might be portrayed as amoral rather than evil, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movies I’ve seen in recent years where someone in the government was actually the good guy.

Frankly, I don’t even want to debate the question of how realistic this portrayal may or may not be. To be honest that’s besides the point. Ultimately, the real problem is that this portrayal is getting boring. It long since stopped being merely predictable; the average movie viewer can easily foresee what’s coming whenever a government official or military leader has to decide some plot point in a movie.

In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the alien Klatuu comes to Earth to decide the fate of humanity. Is anybody watching surprised when the military shoots him 5 seconds after he walks off the boat, empty-handed at that?

The basic idea in this movie is that Klatuu has come to Earth to figure out if humans are going to manage to get their act together before they completely ruin the Earth’s ecosphere. If he doesn’t think the planet will survive humanity’s influence, he’s going to remove them from the equation. Apparently there’s some sort of galactic civilization out there and they’ve banded together to ensure that viable habitable planets, which are quite rare, are not destroyed by emerging native civilizations.

I saw the original movie when I was a kid, but the main thing that has stuck with me over the years is the scene near the beginning where the spaceship has just landed and Gort has come out to defend Klatuu. So I don’t really remember if that version had anything like the same basic idea behind the alien’s motivations.

Jennifer Connelly plays a scientist who is called in by the government when they figure out that an alien spaceship is headed their way. The government is assembling a team of experts in various fields to help analyze and deal with the situation. Consequentally, she’s at the front of the line when the ship lands and Klatuu emerges.

Klatuu is played by Keanu Reeves. Basically, he’s an alien whose conciousness has been moved into a more-or-less human body for the purpose of interacting with the people of Earth. Presumably the idea here is to avoid freaking out the natives, as if the arrival of a huge spaceship in New York’s Central Park hasn’t already taken care of that.

From the moment that Klatuu emerges from his ship, the movie largely takes a turn towards the cliché. First we have the spooked soldier who fires his gun at an unarmed Klatuu after he comes out of his ship, despite orders to the contrary. Then we have the government representative who actually thinks he’s the one driving this situation and who wants to take the alien into custody and treat him like they’d just caught Osama Bin Ladin. And of course, we have the spunky scientist who rescues the alien, followed by the big chase where the government tries to get them back. That’s about as much information as you’d get from watching a trailer or TV commercial, so I’ll stop before giving anything away.

Maybe these characters and plot conventions weren’t so cliché when the first version of this movie came out in the 50’s, but they certainly are now, and modern special effects and a more environmentally aware outlook doesn’t change that. And neither does adding in references to modern scientific concepts like nanotechnology. However, if your primary concern about a movie is originality, you’re probably not watching a remake in the first place.

I do like the basic idea that the galactics’ basic motivation is to preserve the earth’s habitat, but I have some questions. First, if habitable planets are that rare, then new sentient species must be even that much more rare. Why don’t the galatics have the same protective nature towards them? If the galactics are going to protect the planet from the humans, why can’t they protect the humans from themselves as part of the bargain? Certainly they must realize that the fact of their arrival on Earth would have a huge change on the overall psychology of humanity.

Some of the other reviews I’ve seen about this movie have said things like Jennifer Connolly was “unbelievable” as a super-scientist, but since the movie never really depicts her doing anything especially scientific, I can only imagine that what they really meant was “she’s way to pretty to be smart” and all I have to say about that is, shame on you other reviewer! She does a fine job. Better, really, than the movie really deserves.

Likewise, other reviews I’ve seen have refererred to Keanu Reeves’ performance as “shallow” or “wooden” and I even saw one that said “lacks humanity”. Well the obvious response to that last is “duh”. Supposedly, after being brought into the project, Reeves worked with the screenwriters to improve the character. I don’t know if that helped, or hurt, or if they just didn’t take it far enough. I think the real issue is the character moreso than the actor. Ultimately, the character of Klatuu is like a building or fire inspector. He’s been sent here to do an inspection and write up a report. Some interaction with the natives is inevitable, but mainly he just wants to look around and take his notes without people bugging him.

The video and audio quality of the Blu-Ray disc was excellent and I would imagine that the DVD version is as good as you could expect. The “special features” were somewhat lacking, unfortunately, and if anything only served to illustrate that the filmmakers took themselves way too seriously. One of my favorite “special features” for any movie is the gag reel, a collection of outtakes and flubbed scenes. It seems like you only see these for comedic movies, and that’s just wrong. I think it should be a standard “special” feature for any movie.

, , , , , ,

April 14th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

Sigh… I guess I have to admit it.  I’m a “creepy old guy” who watches Hannah Montana.  Let the jokes fly now and get it out of your system.  But it’s not my fault!  I blame TiVo.  Are you familiar with the TiVo “suggestions” feature?  Basically, if it knows you like one show, it will automatically record other shows that are tagged as being similar.  Last year I recorded some movie on the Disney Channel, and before you knew it, the TiVo had recorded a bunch of other shows as well, including a couple episodes of Hannah Montana.  The TiVo was otherwise fairly empty at the time, so I decided to watch an episode.

I grew up watching classic 70’s shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, and All In The Family. As a result, I have always been a fan of the traditional situation comedy.  Alas, that kind of show is in fairly short supply these days where most new TV is some stupid “reality” show.  So any time I find a halfway decent scripted show, I’m inclined to give it a chance.  Even if it doesn’t seem like an obvious choice at first.

hannahmontana-002I’ve occasionally watched other shows on the Disney Channel, so the first thing that I noticed about Hannah Montana was that the show wasn’t quite the usual thing you find there.  The writers take the premise seriously and use it to drive the storyline, rather than simply using it as background material for general silliness.  In many ways the show’s heritage is really classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy and the others I mentioned before.  Almost every time Miley and Lilly get into some wacky situation, I can’t help thinking of something Lucy and Ethel once did.

While I’ve been watching the TV show for the last several months, I wasn’t really planning to run out and see the movie.  Sitting in a crowded theatre full of screaming pre-teen and teenage girls isn’t my idea of a fun time.  I like kids just fine.  In small doses.  But a big crowd of them screaming and running around?  Not so much.  However, this last Thursday night I happened to go by the bookstore that’s next to my local theatre, and I noticed that they had a midnight showing scheduled.  After leaving the bookstore I noticed there was nobody in line at the box office, so I stopped and asked the clerk how many tickets they’d sold.  She told me it wasn’t a lot and that she didn’t know why they were even having a midnight opening for a movie aimed at kids.  Well, it was less than an hour before midnight at that point, so I decided what the heck and bought a ticket. I figured this was probably my one chance to see the movie before it comes out on disc without having to deal with a ton of kids.  

The first thing worth mentioning about this movie is that it’s very much an extension of the TV show.  Even more so than with most TV to movie transitions, there’s virtually no setup for the basic premise, the history of the characters, or the character relationships.  You’re expected to know what’s going on already.  But that’s fine, because most of the audience will.  And aside from that, the main thing you need to know is the basic premise.  For those adults who don’t have any clue what that is, here’s Hannah Montana summed up:

Robbie Ray Stewart (Billy Ray Cyrus) was once a successful country-western musician from the small town of Crawley Corners, Tennessee.  He gave up performing to be with his family and is now primarily a successful songwriter for other artists. His wife dies, leaving him to raise their two kids Jackson (Jason Earles) and Miley (Miley Cyrus). Back in Tennessee, young Miley used to sing at events like the county fair and wants to pursue a musical career. The family moves to Malibu, California as Miley starts to achieve success. Having seen her father’s fame and its effects, Miley knows that becoming famous herself would mean the end of having a normal life, so she invents the stage persona of “Hannah Montana“.  As she gains success as Hannah, she’s still able to take off the blonde wig and colored sunglasses and revert to being regular girl Miley Stewart.  Now she has to juggle high school, the career of Hannah Montana, friends, family, and keeping the secret.

The premise is fairly simple, and yet it pulls in elements from a wide variety of sources.  But at the heart of things, we have the Clark Kent/Superman secret identity thing, even right down to the laughably minimal disguise.  In the first show or two, Hannah wore colored sunglasses along with the blonde wig, but they dropped that shortly thereafter. So now the only remaining difference between Hannah and Miley is blonde hair versus brown.

Movie Plot Spoiler Warning!

Ultimately, this a coming of age movie about a teen who has different problems than most.  Miley is usually a very well behaved kid, but as Hannah becomes more successful, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for her to meet the obligations of plain-old-Miley and harder still to keep a level head.  Making things worse is a new publicist, played by Vanessa Williams, who thinks any publicity is good publicity, and who would be happy if her client gave up being Miley Stewart altogether.

hannahmontana-001

Act 1, the opening segment, is fairly brief.  We see Miley sneaking into her own concert because someone forgot to put “Miley Stewart” on the VIP list!  Later, as Hannah, she gets into a public fight with Tyra Banks in a shoe store while shopping with her publicist in Beverly Hills.  This causes her to miss brother Jackson’s departure to college and to be late for best friend Lilly’s 16th birthday party.  These are apparently only the latest in a recent string of transgressions because Robbie gets really ticked off.  When Hannah is supposed to be on her way to New York, Robbie redirects their private jet to Tennessee, where he lays down the law and tells Miley she has to take a two week break from being Hannah.  She balks, but has no choice but to go along with it.

One big surprise about the opening segment and the movie in general is that we never see any of the familiar sets from the TV show at all, and except for Emily Osment in the role of Miley’s best friend Lilly, and Miley’s brother Jackson, played by Jason Earles, we don’t really get to see any of the other supporting characters except for a couple of brief cameos.  Also, in the TV show, we’ve seen a variety of guest stars playing family members visiting from Tennessee, such as Robbie’s mother, played by Vicki Lawrence, and his brother “Uncle Earl”, played by David Koechner.  However, this time around it seems they’re visiting Miley’s mother’s side of the family, so we don’t get to see any of those familiar faces.  Ultimately, it comes down to Miley, Robbie, and Lilly for most of the film, with an occasional dash of Jackson.

Act 2 of the movie is about Miley trying to rediscover her roots in her old hometown. There’s a houseful of family and friends on hand when they first arrive, but Miley is uncharacteristically disdainful and unwilling to interact with them at first.  If we had any doubts that Robbie was right about Miley needing to take a break, this pretty much does away with them.

Oddly, there seems to be just one person around who is her own age that who she used to know before moving to California, oh and gosh don’t you know that he’s the handsome young cowboy Travis who’s just started working on Grandma’s farm.  Not at all surprisingly, he turns out to be the romantic interest as things develop.

After a rough first day or two, Miley settles in and starts to appreciate the small-town Tennessee life she’d left behind.  And yet, she still can’t escape Hannah.  A major portion of the town is the target of a developer who wants to bring in a shopping mall.  The town is trying to raise money to avoid that scenario.  During a confrontation with the developer, Travis tells a crowd of people that Miley knows Hannah Montana, so she gets cornered into asking if Hannah will come to town for a benefit concert.  Now Hannah has to make an appearance in Miley’s old home town.  Enter Lilly to the rescue.

Act 3 of the movie is all about how Miley deals with having to play Hannah in front of family members, friends, and townspeople who mostly are unaware of her secret, and the conflict that arises when she can’t quite figure it all out.  She’s increasingly uncomfortable with the lies that she has to tell to keep her secret and not quite able to pull off the requirements of being two people in two different places at the same time.  Oh, and did I mention?  While she’s dealing with all that, there’s a reporter from a tabloid snooping around.  He’s been following Hannah everywhere trying to figure out what big secret she seem to be trying to hide.

I won’t give away what happens, but the movie ends on a note that doesn’t necessarily have to affect the TV show at all.  They could either ignore it or pick it up and expand on it.  Personally, I thought it was a tad implausible in several respects, but much more so than the whole premise in the first place.  More importantly, for the most part it’s an ending that should satisfy most Hannah Montana’s fans. 

The Acting, The Writing, The Music, & More

On the TV show, especially in more recent episodes, Miley comes off as very relaxed and comfortable in her role.  It seems mostly effortless and you get the impression that what you see on screen is probably reasonably close to her real personality.  I’d have to say that the movie required somewhat more acting range than the TV show normally does, but she seemed up to the task.

hannahmontana-003However, I did notice that the movie largely does away with many of the little bits of personality from Miley that we’re used to seeing in the TV show. I’m talking about things such as her frequent use of catchphrases such as “Sweet Niblets” or “Someone say what?“, to name but one example. This applies to the personality of other characters too, as well as certain interactions between characters we’re used to seeing, like the way Miley and Jason Earles make faces at each other sometimes. If you watch the show, you know what I mean.  If you don’t, apparently you’re ready to start writing the screenplay for the next movie.

Since this extends to all the familiar characters, I doubt it has anything to do with an acting choice by Miley or the other actors.  Rather, I suspect this is because neither the lead writer, Daniel Berendsen, or the director, Peter Chelsom, had any experience at all writing for the TV show.  Those bits probably never made their way into the script and to whatever extent they may have been improvised during filming, they were probably discouraged as being off the script.  Maybe some of those bits do exist in alternate takes of some scenes, but got dropped on the editing floor.  Either way, it’s a shame, because a little more attention to those little details could have made a decent movie all that much better.

As for the supporting cast, they get the job done, but frankly the writing for most of them wasn’t really very inspired.  Lucas Till plays young cowboy Travis.  He’s not really given that much to do but he gets believably mad in the one scene that calls for it.  Regardless of his skills acting-wise, the young girls seem to love him.  Margo Martindale plays Grandma Ruby in what is probably the best performance from the supporting cast.  Melora Hardin is the new female foreman for Ruby’s farm who gets romantically entangled with Robbie Ray.  She seemed a bit out of place but I think it was more a matter of casting than her performance.  Barry Bostwick plays the mall developer and manages to do nothing interesting with what must be the movie’s most stereotypical role.  I thought it’d be more entertaining if he played it bigger and more evil, but maybe that’s just me.  Peter Gunn plays the tabloid reporter and does a better job than one might expect with another stereotypical role.  Also somewhat stereotypical is Vanessa Williams as the heartless Hollywood publicist.

Other than the bit about Miley’s missing personality traits, my main complaint would be that we didn’t get to see more overlap with the TV show in other ways.  The Stewarts live in what’s supposed to be a fairly decent sized Malibu beach house, but on TV we’ve only seen a few rooms.  Show us the rest of it!  And why relegate the supporting cast to such small roles?  Where’s Hannah’s celebrity sidekick Traci?  We see Miley at school briefly in the opening, but there’s no familiar faces around but Lilly.  Why no Amber and Ashley, who have significant parts as Miley & Lilly’s rivals in the TV show?  And most of all,  why so little Oliver and Rico?

The movie didn’t seem overly long.  It could have easily spent another 10 or 15 minutes in Malibu towards the beginning and still come in at under two hours.  In fact, I think it might have done a better job of setting up the rest of the movie if we’d seen more reason for a Hannah vacation than the stupid shoe fight, which in all fairness was really started more by Tyra Banks than by Hannah.

Of course, there’s a CD’s worth of new music from Miley/Hannah in this movie, and a few songs from other artists too, including Taylor Swift.  There are a few new versions of old hits, but mostly its new stuff along the same lines as the teen-oriented pop that she’s done in the past.   However, there are a few more grown up songs here too.

I think it’s safe to say that kids who are Hannah Montana fans will love this movie fairly unconditionally.  Those things I’ve complained about will either never occur to them, or they simply won’t care.  As for adults, parents stand a pretty good chance of watching it with their kids at some point, and if they’ve watched the TV show a bit and have an open mind, they may just enjoy the movie.   If they haven’t watched the show, they’ll probably be lost for awhile but their kids can fill in the blanks.  My guess is that most other adults won’t have any great interest in this movie, even if only because they’ll automatically dismiss anything they see as being made for kids.  But it’s their loss, as this movie is a nice little non-violent way to spend a couple of hours, have a good laugh or two, and enjoy a few good tunes.

, , , , , , , , , ,