Thursday, June 16, 2011

Green Lantern ** out of Four

While I can't say I'm a huge reader of comic books (despite considering myself a superhero geek), Green Lantern is one I've read, and very much enjoyed. Plus, he's the last of the Super Friends to get a live-action incarnation. And director Martin Campbell is, to me, one of Hollywood's more underrated talents, having given us the delightful Mask of Zorro, and by far the two best James Bond films of the past 30 years, GoldenEye and Casino Royale. So I was excited for the Green Lantern movie, despite the somewhat bad buzz.

But sometimes buzz is bad for a reason.

Green Lantern isn't awful, but it doesn't work, either as an adaptation of the source material, or as a stand-alone movie. It's so choppy as to be hard to follow, the characterizations are both shallow and over the top, the script is lacking in wit and intelligence, and there is no emotion to be found, despite a theme of will over fear that could easily resonate. Ryan Reynolds stars as Hal Jordan, a hotshot pilot who meets a dying alien named Abin Sur, who tells him that his 'power ring" has chosen him to join the Green Lantern corps, a group of intergalactic peace keepers. To do this, Jordan most overcome his long list of cliched character traits (he's selfish, doesn't commit to thing, is afraid of comparisons to the heroic father he barely knew, yadda yadda yadda) and earn the mantle of Green Lantern.

I've been amibivalent about Reynolds in the past, feeling he had a good sense of comic timing, but not convinced he was a strong actor who could carry a film. I still am not won over to the idea that he's a great actor by any means, but the failings of the film are not his fault. He gives it his all, and aquits himself nicely. Blake Lively, as love interest Carol Ferris, also does the best she can with the the material. The actor who is embarrased here is Peter Saarsgard, whose villain character is appalingly over the top even for a comic book film. Every time he's onscreen, the movie is almost unwatchable.

The action scenes are relatively fun, and the effects are probably pretty good if you seem them in a 2-D presentation. Director Campbell's penchant for making his bluescreen shots REALLY look like bluescreen shots hinders the work here, and it's as bad a post-production 3D conversion as I've seen. Strangely, the effects shots seem kind of flat, whereas the live-action dialogue sequences have that annoying "Viewmaster" effect, where the people stick out from the background but still have the depth of cardboard cutouts.

Still, all of these things could be forgiven if I were engaged in the material. If I were excited to fly with Green Lantern, if I felt stirrings of childlike excitement when he came to save the day. Because I love superheroes, there's a tiny element of that excitement, but only because of my pre-existing attachment to the character. it's hard for me to imagine the completely uninitiated falling in love with this the way the did with X-Men or Iron Man. This feels more like Daredevil. It wreaks of studio mandated cuts (I suspect editor Stuart Baird had more say over the final cut than director Campbell), and I found myself wondering whether an expanded directors cut might make more sense. it's not a good sign if you're familiar with the source material and still have no idea what's going on half the time.

All this said, I don't mean to imply that Green Lantern is a Michael Bay-style travesty. It's an acceptable diversion, the kind that's worth the price of admission at a dollar theater. While I have no particular intention to see it again in it's theatrical release, this isn't a Transformer 2 where I'd go to great lengths to avoid that. It's not a terrible film, just a very weak one. If you love superheroes, or see a lot of movies, it's probably worth a look. But if you're the type who is likely to only see two or three (or fewer) movies this summer, I would strongly recommend prioritizing films like Super 8 and X-Men: First Class, or even the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean far ahead of this one. It's the most forgettable superhero movie I've seen in a while. And, above all else, I judge this as a movie buff, not as a fan of Green Lantern. It's not that it strays so far far from the source material to offend the purist in me. It's that it fails badly enough as entertainment to disappoint the moviegoer in me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Super 8 **** out of Four

In 1979,  in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, a preteen boy named Joe Lamb is trying to cope with the recent death of his mother, who was killed in a factory accident. Much to the frustration of his father, the town’s deputy sheriff, Joe copes by immersing himself in a project lead by his best friend, Charles. That project is a horror film, shot on a SUPER 8 camera, and Charles has enlisted the help of not only Joe, but the rest of his misfit friends, and has surprised everyone by talking Alice Dainard, the prettiest girl in school, into playing the hero’s wife.  On the night of the first big shoot, the would be filmmaker witness a train crash. Pretty soon, the town of Lillian is swarmed by military men, who won’t tell anybody what is going on.
Abrams and Spielberg may be the only two people in Hollywood who still know how to keep a secret, so I won’t spoil that by going into the plot too much further. But I will say that Super 8 lives up to every bit of hype and expectation surrounding it. This is a beautifully crafted, emotional, funny, scary, thrilling movie that enthralls an audience the ways Spielberg’s 80s classics did. And this is coming from someone who has been accused of “worshipping” Spielberg. Abrams has recreated the look and feel of vintage Spielberg expertly, down to the last detail. For a Spielberg fan, it’s an absolute joy to behold.

But Abrams somehow manages to do this without completely sacrificing his own unique voice as a filmmaker. It’s got the twists and turns of Lost, the personality of his Star Trek, and, like most Abrams projects, a leading lady who propels the whole thing. In this case, it’s young Elle Fanning, who, as Alice, projects such a genuine combination of childlike innocence and ahead of her years maturity, that you can’t take her eyes off of her whenever she’s on screen.  The entire cast is terrific, especially Joel Courtney as Joe, and Riley Griffiths as Charles, but Fanning steals the movie. We become completely involved with these characters in a way we rarely do with adult Hollywood heroes. I found myself caring every bit as much about the budding romance between Alice and Joe as I did the more spectacular events of the film.

And it is spectacular. Abrams and Spielberg give us action/suspense scenes that evoke Spielberg’s classics Jaws, Jurassic Park, and E.T. They also come as close to the emotion of E.T. as any film of this type has done since then. Super 8 is the kind of film for which the cliché “You’’ll laugh, you’ll cry” was invented. If you’re a child of the 80s and complain that they don’t make movies the way they did when you were a kid, well, Abrams and Spielberg have done exactly that.And Michael Giacchino further establishes himself as one of the best film composers to come along in years. His score soars with emotions and build suspense in the vein of (of course) John Williams.

I also have to take a moment, as former amateur child filmmaker, to talk about how well rendered that aspect of the story is. It certainly added an extra level of enjoyment for me that I vividly remember the days of trying to make my own blockbusters with nothing but a camera, a few friends, and wildly overactive imagination.

It's worth mentioning, by way of warning (especially to parents) that Super 8 is rated PG-13 for a reason, namely the intensity, and for an E.T./Goonies like tendency to have the kids swear. Most audiences will get past this, but certainly some will not, and I'm absolving myself of any complaints. 

Movies like this are the reason I love movies. In an age when trailers give away everything, Super 8 unfolds before us, capturing us in its spell, and never letting go.  It’s an unforgettable movie experience. A film to be treasured,

P.S. Industry insiders are saying that Super 8 is "tracking soft", meaning marketing analysis shows it will open fairly small. I hope they're wrong about this, and also that word of mouth helps it hold on. But if you're one of those people who complains that trailers and ad campaigns show too much and give away the whole movie, you can don something about it: See Super 8 weekend. It's very rare for a Hollywood movie to leave so much to this imagination in it's advertising, and if Super 8 fails, that will be the end of that for the forseable future.  

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class ***1/2 out of Four

The first two X-Men films were about as good as super hero movie get. Smart, funny, exciting, made with filmmaking prowess by director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects). When Singer took a break from the franchise to direct Superman Returns, Fox hired director Brett Ratner to direct X-Men: The Last Stand, and every aspect of the series took a downward turn in quality. Perhaps it was just because my expectations were lowered, but I found the follow-up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine to be a little more enjoyable, but it was still extremely problematic. The bloom was definitely off the rose for what had once been one of my favorite franchises.

When it was announced that Singer wanted to come back for the prequel, X-Men: First Class, I dared to hope that there might still be some life left in the X-Men. and, even though Singer had to relinquish the director's chair (due to other commitments) to Matthew Vaughn, it's still Singer's vision of the world and the characters in it that makes First Class a welcome return to form. It's not quite as good as the first two films, in my opinion. But it's a huge step back in the right direction. Interestingly, there are enough blatant contradictions of events and details from part 3 and 4 that it indicates those may now be considered apocryphal. Or, more, likely, those things will just never be addressed. Either way, this is a sequel to the first two movies that all but ignores what came after.

James McAvoy plays young Charles Xavier as a much more cocky, energetic character than the one we've come to know, but we certainly see the seeds of Patrick Stewart's iconic characterization. Michael Fassenbender's Magneto is almost the Wolverine of this movie: the dark, brooding anti-hero who seems uncertain of which side he's on. Jennifer Lawrence is certainly adds more layers to Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever did, and her brother-sister relationship with Xavier, and her budding romance with Beast (Nicholas Hoult), both add depth and humanity to the film. It's also great fun to see Kevin Bacon as smarmy villain Sebastian Shaw.

Director Vaughn gives the film a "groovy" 1960s style reminiscent of a Sean Connery James Bond film, and has a very good handle on the suspense and action. The movie isn't tacky and garish like Brett Ratner's Last Stand. And it's not sloppy and half-baked like Gavin Hood's Wolverine. It's solidly crafted, quality summer entertainment, and for the first time in years I'm excited to see where X-Men goes next.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 **** Out of Four

While Dreamworks Animation certainly hasn't given us the consistent greatness that it's arch rival, Pixar, has, I feel that those who dismiss Dreamworks outright are mistaken. Tehy've made some high quality animated films (last year's How To Train Your Dragon was genuinely up there with some of the better Pixar films), and what they do is consistently better than most non-Pixar kids fare. And, this summer, Dreamworks gives us another one of their very best films, a triumphant adventure/comedy that's as appealing to adults as it is to kids.

The story essentially picks up where the first film left off, with our hero, Poh (a panda voiced by Jack Black), now having found his place in the world as the Dragon Warrior, protecting China alongside his heroes, the Furious Five. But China is threatened by a new evil: Lord Shen, a peacock (voiced by Gary Oldman) has harnessed the power of fireworks to create, well, a weapon of mass destruction. Poh and his cohorts must spring into action. At the same time, Poh, raised by a Goose, is beginning to wonder where he came from, and who he really is.

Kung Fu Panda 2 features some of the most spectacular and thrilling action scenes any movie has given us in a while. Notice I didn't throw in the modifier of "animated" film. This dwarfs most of what we're seeing in live-action, including the adventure films I've seen this summer, which generally have been a lot of fun. Of course, it's easy to do that in animation. There are no boundaries of safety, practicality, or gravity. But, while we see the benefits of that in most animated movies of today, those films typically lack the sense of intensity and peril that puts us on the edge of our seat in an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie. Here, the stakes are that high, and you're actually left with the the feeling that one of the Furious Five could lose their life in the proceedings.

That may seem like a liability to some. While my 4 to 6 year old niece and nephews, who saw the film with me, were fine, this could possibly be too intense for some little ones. In particular, one plot element is surprisingly disturbing:


When Shen first began experimenting with fireworks, a soothsayer prophesied that he would be defeated by a warrior of black and white. This lead Shen to go all Ten Commandments on the Pandas of China, leaving Poh orphaned and seemingly alone among his race. It's handled tastefully and without on-screen carnage, but, still, the idea of a panda holocaust is awfully intense for kids.


One of the biggest strength of the film is, of course, its humor. If only Jack Black were still anywhere near this funny in his live-action films. I found myself laughing out loud routinely. And, amazingly, while the running gag is that Poh blows every big hero moment by doing something stupid or clumsy, that never undermines the dignity of the character, or the more dramatic moments in the film. And there are some very dramatic moments. Poh's adopted father is one of my favorite characters in animation, and I admit I shed a few tears over the relationship between them.

Kung Fu Panda 2 entertains and engages on every possible level. It's the best film of the summer so far, and trails on Robert Redford's criminally underrated The Conspirator on my list of best films of the year.