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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of May 20

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EARTH This feature-length spinoff of the BBC series Planet Earth has been playing Europe since the summer of 2007, yet it was only released in the U.S. on April 22, 2009 (Earth Day). Hmm, perhaps its British creators deemed it pointless to release such a pro-environment documentary in a country then ruled by a heinous Republican administration bent on the destruction of our natural resources? At any rate, the picture has finally been released stateside by Walt Disney Studios under its new Disneynature label, a welcome throwback to the days when Walt himself would personally supervise such Earth-friendly fare as The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. And while it's hard to urge moviegoers to spend money on something they can basically catch on the Discovery Channel for free, there's no denying that the magnificence of the images on display is even more impressive when presented in a larger-than-life format. With his majestic voice, narrator James Earl Jones introduces us to the animal protagonists of this globe-spanning piece – among them polar bears, elephants, humpback whales and a particularly scary shark – and discusses the various challenges most of them face, whether from other animals or from global warming. Earth is an enjoyable experience, but it would be wrong to simply digest the picture as a complacent moviegoer. So here's my contribution to the cause: A frequent friend of big business, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would have been right at home in the Bush Administration (what was Obama thinking when he picked him?), given his abysmal indifference to wildlife and specifically his approval of a Bush Administration plan to slaughter endangered wolves. Protest his actions at www.doi.gov/feedback.html or make a contribution at www.savewolves.org. ***

FAST & FURIOUS The best part of Fast & Furious is its tagline – "New Model. Original Parts." – which means that the studio wonk who created it deserves the big bucks more than anybody who actually appears in the film. It's a catchy line because it advertises the fact that all four stars of 2001's The Fast and the Furious – Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster – have reunited for this fourth entry in the series. Unfortunately, this is one star vehicle that seems permanently stuck in "reverse." The best performer of the quartet, Rodriguez, disappears from the proceedings fairly early, as director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan apparently decided to make this even more of a Toys for Boys romp than its predecessors – Brewster's character is, as before, an utter stiff, while the other women (occasionally seen making out with each other) are merely decorative props. That leaves more time for Diesel (as outlaw hot-rodder Dominic Toretto) and Walker (as lawman hot-rodder Brian O'Conner) to engage in competitive bouts of piston envy, each trying to prove to the other that only he has a crankshaft large enough to take down the drug kingpin responsible for the murder of a close friend. The opening vehicular set-piece is a doozy, but subsequent racing sequences resemble nothing more than video game sessions. Diesel tries to recapture the brooding brand of charisma that made him a star, but he seems to be losing his grip on that elusive quality. As for Walker, he's more boring than ever: His acting is so somnambular that even his car's steering wheel stands a better chance at grabbing an Oscar nomination. **

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has more to offer than Matthew McConaughey's past rom-com dalliances; it's still formulaic, disposable nonsense, but at least it benefits from a stellar supporting cast to prop up its leading player and a reliable source – Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol – to steer it in the right direction. McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a fashion photographer who goes through women the way viewers of Titanic went through tissues. His boorish behavior threatens to ruin the wedding of his younger brother (Breckin Meyer), but his womanizing Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) returns from the grave to show him there's more to life than just wooing the women. A more versatile actor would have sold this material more efficiently than McConaughey; as it stands, his tanned, aging-frat-boy routine allows his character to remain such an unrepentant, misogynistic creep for such a good chunk of the running time that almost all sympathy has been lost for this character by the time he finally begins to see the light. Luckily, co-star Jennifer Garner is a step (or 10) up from such vapid past co-stars as Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez, and she works hard to coax out his rakish charm. She succeeds more often than not, meaning a small measure of genuine warmth enters the frame during the latter portion of the film. While she (and Meyer) provide the emotion, others pick up McConaughey's slack by providing the laughs – especially indispensable are Robert Forster (as the father of the bride) and Douglas, both amusing as dissimilar examples of aging, curdled machismo. **1/2

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