Monday, June 27, 2011



- It's been an interesting Summer for big-screen comedies, with a spate of high-profile, R-rated films hitting the box office - many of them shaking up the usual formula a bit. Bad Teacher follows the lead of Bridesmaides, in that it recasts roles typically given to male comic actors with female leads. Whereas Bridesmaids took a typical, Judd Apatow-style sweet-meets-salty premise and turned it on its ear, with Kristin Wiig filling in for a Seth Rogen or Steve Carell, Bad Teacher takes an idea explored in movies like Bad Santa and School of Rock, but brings in Cameron Diaz to play the part of the proverbial bad role model. It's interesting, because it's a role that set off a great debate about post-feminism in comedy and about whether a movie like Bad Teacher is a step forward or step back for women-in-film. Personally, I like the premise at the core of the movie. Recent articles and editorials have talked at length about how both girls and guys - according to conventional wisdom - are put off by watching women acting rude, crude, awkwardly, and/or behaving badly in general. To me, that's rubbish. If the part is written well, then I'm as happy to see women be dorky, vulgar, or whatever as I am men. That said, Bad Teacher definitely has a self-awareness that its premise is not something we see a lot of. The movie gets a lot of laughs from its shock-value alone. I guess that's why my biggest complaint is that it doesn't go far enough.

Bad Teacher casts Diaz as a woman who's fairly unashamed of her worst qualities. She's lazy and half-assed when it comes to teaching, but aggressive and take-no-prisoners when it comes to using her sexuality to get what she wants. In this case, what she wants to do some gold-digging. After being dumped by her wealthy, sad-sack husband, Diaz has a new pursuit - a dorky-but-loaded trustfunder played by everyone's favorite pop-star-turned-movie-star, Justin Timberlake. In an odd twist of events, Diaz thinks that she can only win Timberlake's affections if she shells out the dough to make herself more, well, well-endowed. And so, Diaz uses every dirty trick in the book to raise the money for a boob job. All the while, she's trying to stave off her uppity rival - a prissy teacher played by Lucy Punch.

Diaz is great in this role - in fact, I think this is the kind of role that she was born to play, but doesn't often get to. Why? Who knows - maybe an actress of Diaz's star power isn't "supposed" to be playing an over-the-top comedy character like she does here? But Diaz has always seemed goofier and crazier than a lot of her peers, and this is a role that takes full advantage of that. It makes you wonder why someone like her is so often stuck playing the personality-less girlfriend or wife role. Lucy Punch is also a great comic foil to Diaz - she walks the line between love-to-hate and, occasionally, flat-out annoying. But, this is definitely a stand-up-and-take-notice sort of performance from Punch. Phyllis Smith from The Office also shows that she has great comic timing and delivery, even when removed from the confines of Dunder-Mifflin. As Diaz's repressed sidekick, she's hilarious.

Unfortunately, the movie's main male characters are a lot less well-drawn than their female counterparts (rare, I know). Justin Timberlake's character has some funny moments, but he's also sort of a mess. You never quite get who this character is supposed to be, or why Diaz is so fixated on him at the exclusion of all other potential suitors. Meanwhile, Timberlake playing an eccentric, goofy dork is a bit much - his performance feels too much like him playing dress-up for an SNL sketch, and not enough like a fully-realized character. At the same time, Jason Segel feels a bit wasted in the movie. As always, he plays a likable schlub - but he gets little screentime and almost no believable opportunities to show chemistry with Diaz. Why do their characters fall for each other? Who knows.

And that brings me to my chief critique of the movie. It's a little bit dark, a little bit twisted. But ... it doesn't go nearly far enough. The movie is at its best when it's being totally subversive (I cracked up, for example, when Diaz grades her students' crappy papers with - instead of letter grades - marks of "Are you %$&#'ing kidding me?", etc.). But somehow, the characters keep getting pulled out of the darker, more memorable movie that moments like this represent, and into a much more standard, paint-by-numbers comedy that (not-really-a-SPOILER) has Diaz and Segel getting together, well, just because that's what happens in movies.

I would have liked to have seen Bad Teacher go to as dark a place as, say, Bad Santa, but it only flirts with that level of depth. That said, there are a number of moments - as mentioned, particularly those with Diaz in the classroom, in full "bad teacher" mode - that are genuinely inspired and darkly hilarious. As is, Bad Teacher could have been something really great. I mean, the premise alone is so simple-yet-novel that you can't help but like it. But the movie's potential is kept in check by some script and casting issues that hold it back from being as good as it could be. Still, this one is worth checking out - it has enough laughs that it should send you home happy. And as far as the potential it opens up for more comedies with female leads every bit as crazy, smart-assed, or vulgar as their male counterparts? I say bring 'em on.

My Grade: B

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A BETTER LIFE: It Doesn't Get Much Better For Movies This Year


- A note to all fellow tough guys, macho men, and would-be badasses: prepare to get uncontrollably misty-eyed and emotional while watching A BETTER LIFE. And movie fans, listen up: run out to see this one if it's playing at a theater near you, because this is one of those classic American stories, a moving, emotional, riveting story of father and son. A Better Life is a knockout of a movie - expertly directed, phenomenally acted, and packing a bigger emotional punch than any movie I've yet seen this year.

A Better Life is the story of Carlos Galindo and his son, Luis. Carlos is an illegal immigrant from Mexico living in east Los Angeles - he scrapes together a living by working as a gardner for rich residents of Beverly Hills. Carlos looks like the kind of person you see all the time here in LA and elsewhere - a hard worker, a quiet man, never wanting to draw undue attention to himself. Meanwhile, Luis - born in America - is a fifteen year old who is stuck in a poor school system, surrounded by crime, gangs, and drugs. Even as he's being pulled towards that life by his friends, Luis is starting to realize the sacrifices that his father is making so that he may lead, well, a better life. Still, Luis is in many ways a typical teenager - he's too busy thinking about his next makeout session with his girlfriend, Ruthie, to think too much about the bigger picture of where he's headed and how he can carve out a good future for himself. Early in the film, Carlos' boss at the landscaping company he works for tries to convince him to buy his truck, with all of his gardening tools included. The boss - also Mexican - has saved up enough money from his little landscaping business to buy a farm back in Mexico, and he's planning to leave the States. He tries to convince Carlos that if he spends the $12,000 to buy the truck and the tools, he can be his own boss, make back the money and more, and do right by him and his son. Of course, Carlos doesn't have that kind of money. And even if he did - would Carlos even want to have the truck? On one hand, it could be his ticket to a better life. On the other hand, it could be risky. If he was to get pulled over by a cop while driving the truck - what would happen then? Until now, Carlos has been content to fly under the radar - to be a simple laborer and nothing more. But here was a real opportunity to move up - to live the American Dream. And so Carlos is left to ponder what to do, how to make his life choices worthwhile for he and Luis.

What happens from there on out, I'll leave to you to discover, but man, is it ever an emotional rollercoaster. The story being told is a relatively simple one, but the way the story is told is pitch-perfect. The script saves its big speeches for the end - for most of the film, we simply get to know Carlos and Luis through little moments that give us real insight into their characters, and into their world. And - wow - the movie contains an absolute powerhouse of a performance from actor Demián Bichir as Carlos. I wasn't familiar with him prior to this film, but this is a truly great, Oscar-worthy turn. Bichir plays a true leading-man role - a man's man role if there ever was one - but he does so without any hint of Hollywood glamour or vanity. His Carlos is weathered, beaten-down by life, and, usually, a man of few words. And yet, there is a quiet pride that you can see swelling up inside him, a strength of will, a gleam of intensity in the man's tired eyes. There's a bit of repressed anger. A wise observational power about his place in Los Angeles, in America, in life. Carlos is the kind of character that is fully-drawn, and yet, a man who any of us can see a bit of ourselves in. Anyone who's been pushed around, anyone who's felt held back, anyone who ever wanted to make a mark on the world, odds against us be damned - can understand the kind of man that Carlos is. And dammit all, when Carlos sets off on his unique sort of quest in the movie's second half, when he plays the part of blue-collar, man-on-a-mission action hero - well, just prepare for one of the most cathartic, applause-worthy, can't-stop-smiling-like-an-idiot moments you'll see in any movie this year.

Similarly good is young actor José Julián as teenaged Luis. Julian was actually in the audience of the screening I went to at the Arclight theater in Hollywood, and I couldn't help but smile when I saw him beaming after the movie, as crowd members shook his hand, snapped photos with him, and thanked him for his astounding portrayal of Luis. All of the attention was well-deserved, because Julian nearly matched Bichir in terms of making his character a layered, flawed creation who you nonetheless couldn't help but cheer for when push came to shove. I will say that some of the other young actors in the film seemed a little cheesy and/or flat at times, but Julian outshone most of them and really held his own.

Director Chris Weitz also does a fine job with the film, giving it a stark, gritty look and feel that pulls no punches in its depiction of inner-city LA. Weitz very effectively uses scenes of Carlos driving across LA to poignantly illustrate the disparity between the slums that Carlos and Luis live in and the posh neighborhoods of Beverly Hills only a few miles away - though the areas may as well exist in separate universes. Weitz also really captures and frames his actors effectively - he takes full advantage of Bichir's quietly expressive face to convey emotion simply by letting the audience read the lines next to Carlos' eyes or the furrow in his brow. Weitz has had a pretty unique career thus far - having worked on everything from American Pie to Twilight to About a Boy. But A Better Life is undoubtedly his crowning achievement to date. I also give a lot of credit to the movie's smartly-written and well-structured screenplay - a fine piece of work that really tells a great story in a well-paced manner that never feels overwritten or melodramatic.

On that note, I anticipate that some critics will deem this movie overly schmaltzy. Personally, I feel like I have a pretty good radar for when movies try to shove unearned melodrama down our throats. I don't think that's the case with this one. There are a couple of big, emotional, break-out-the-hanky story moments, but to me they work. To me, A Better Life is simply an example of small-scale storytelling with a huge heart and a big emotional core. The bleak moments are tempered by moments of humor and intensity, and it's only after we've been through a lot with these characters that the movie really cranks things up to another level. Really though, I found this film to be just a great father-son story - one of the best I've seen. This is a movie about being a Man, and about what it means to be a Man in the traditional sense. And there's something powerful about the concept that this blue-collar illegal immigrant, Carlos - he's a quiet man, a simple man, a man just trying to do what's right. And slowly but surely, we realize that while he seemed unremarkable at first, Carlos' sheer sense of determination to make a life for himself, his desire to care for his son, his refusal to just sit back and let life beat him up - well, that, ultimately, makes him one hell of a badass.

That being said, I don't think that A Better Life is really a political movie, but I could see how some will end up either praising or demonizing it because of some perceived feeling that this is a statement movie about illegal immigrants in the US. To me, this is a very specific story about one man who is stuck with the decisions he's made, and now, all he can do is try to figure out how he can do right by his situation, so that his son is given more of a chance than he was. As mentioned, I think the larger story here is about fathers and sons - it's right there in the title - A Better Life. I don't think the movie tries to manipulate us one way or the other on the fundamental "rightness" of illegal immigration as a whole. In fact, some of the other illegals portrayed in the film are wholly unsympathetic. But with Carlos, there is that doubt about whether he should ever have come to America in the first place, and there is doubt about many of the choices he made as a young man. But now, what he's left with is a simple choice: what can he do in his current situation? If he does have an opportunity to be something other than what he is - should he take it? How can he not if it means a better life for his son, even at some sacrifice for himself?

A Better Life is a system-shocker. With a memorable, heavyweight performance at its center, and a simple-yet-powerful story at its core, this is a movie that tugs at your heartstrings - it makes you cry, makes you cheer, and makes you think long and hard about the world we live in. This is perhaps the first honest-to-goodness great film of 2011.

My Grade: A

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Winning BEGINNERS ...


- Amidst all of the big, loud, crazy summer blockbusters, we often get some smaller, quieter, indie flicks that give an early preview of what Oscar season might look like. Here, to me, is one of those Oscar-worthy gems - a movie that I'd urge everyone to seek out and soak in. Beginners isn't perfect, but it's a funny, poignant, thought-provoking little film that I really enjoyed.

Beginners tells the story of a father and son - Oliver and Hal - and their respective journeys through different stages of life. Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, is a graphic artist and a perpetual commitment-phobe. Despite nearing 40, he's living what seems like the life of a twenty-something - no real attachments, no real prospects, just sort of adrift. Meanwhile, his father, Hal - played by an outstanding Christopher Plummer - is 75, and, following the death of his wife, has revealed to his son and to the world at large that he is, in fact, gay. Finally, after a lifetime of repressed feelings and of hiding his true self, Hal can begin his life's third and final act - and it's poised to be his best one yet. However, Hal is struck by a cruel twist of fate. Just when he is finally free to live life the way he wants to, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. And so Beginners is a story about siezing the moment, about valuing the time you have, and about making the most of each day. As Oliver looks back on his father's final years, it inspires him to finally make changes to his life that have been a long time coming as well. After meeting an alluring French woman at a party, Oliver looks to his dad's example. Like Hal, can Oliver turn a corner and start a new chapter? Or will he stay stuck in a rut?

Beginners could have been sappy and preachy, but it's mostly anything but. The key is a funny, sharp script that cuts to the core of a lot of the eternal, Big Questions that so many movies touch on, but fail to address in any truly meaningful or insightful way. I think most people will come away from the film seeing something of themselves in Oliver, and maybe even Hal. It helps that the actors bringing these characters to life do a uniformly phenomenal job. For one thing, Christopher Plummer is outstanding as Hal, and this is really one of those roles-of-a-lifetime for him, I think, even in a career filled with notable turns. Plummer and Ewan McGregor also have a great chemistry together - filled with touching but also oftentimes hilarious banter between them. Hearing the senior Plummer tell his son about his first experiences at a gay night club, for example ... you can't help but crack up at the newly-liberated - but still wizened and dignified - Plummer's observations. McGregor also has a great, dynamic chemistry with Melanie Laurent, who plays Anna - his new girlfriend. At first, Laurent's Anna seems like the stereotypical manic-pixie-dreamgirl type (with a foreign French twist), but the script does a great job of giving her a lot of depth and dimension as the movie goes on. Some of her initial quirkiness borders on cheesy, at first, but again, the movie takes great pains to peel back the layers and make her feel real and alive. What Beginners does so well is depict all the little moments in Oliver and Anna's relationship that are in fact Big Moments. The movie expertly shows us the evolution of their love story with slice-of-life scenes that are moving, funny, and almost always authentic-feeling. Laurent is great in the role, and again, does a great job of making Anna more than just a magical foreign princess - she isn't afraid to deglamorize the character at times and show her different sides.

Meanwhile, writer/director Mike Mills presents the film as a tapestry of images and scenes, weaving back and forth between different time periods and characters, not sticking to any strict, linear form of storytelling. It's a neat trick, and Mills mostly pulls it off - gradually shifting the focus of the film from a father-son story to a love story, but always keeping the lessons of Hal the father looming in the foreground. The one area where the movie sometimes tiptoes into pretentiousness is when Mills presents collages of the years in which certain events take place. As we flashback to 1955, for example, we see images of the politics, the pop-culture, the society of the time. Sometimes it can get to be a bit much, but mostly, I think it does help to put some of the film's elements into a sort of larger cultural context. It's interesting to see how Hal and Oliver's respective struggles with identity are, in many ways, directly tied to the eras in which they came of age. I think we all look back and contrast the era we live in now to that in which we grew up, and that in which our parents grew up. To that end, Mills unique, at times artsy directorial style works - it certainly gives you a lot to think about. I think I probably could have done without some of the more surrealist touches (Oliver's nonsequiter conversations with his dog were a little much), but again, I really appreciated the movie's nontraditional storytelling style overall.

Mostly, Beginners does a fantastic job of mixing humor with pathos, and about three quarters through the movie it builds to an emotional crescendo that will have just about anyone getting a bit misty-eyed. What I liked about the film though is that it never felt overly manipulative - it builds the drama and the characters subtlely and carefully, and you can't help but find yourself rooting for Hal, for Oliver and Anna. I do think that the movie reaches a point that would have made for a powerful ending, but then, as often happens, the movie goes on for another twenty minutes or so, outstaying its welcome just a bit. But even if it drags a little at the end, Beginners kept me captivated for most of its running time. And it really struck me emotionally more than any movie I've seen in a while. Like I said, there is humor and quirkiness, but there's also an emotional intensity to the movie that snuck up on me. I think it's thanks to the great performances and to the smart, authentic-seeming script. Ultimately, this is a sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but ultimately life-affirming sort of movie that I highly recommend.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, June 23, 2011

SUPER 8 - Is It Super Great or Did I Super Hate?

SUPER 8 Review:

- Super 8 exists as a living, breathing tribute to the kinds of movies that you just don't see a lot of anymore. It's an homage to all things Spielberg, 80's, and Amblin - an attempt to make a new sci-fi family film that falls squarely into the filmic cannon alongside the likes of E.T. and The Goonies. Writer/director JJ Abrams - a man whose name is associated with high-concept sci-fi like Lost, Fringe, and the recent Star Trek reboot - bathes this movie in a warm glow of nostalgia. Everything from the cinematography to the dialogue is directly lifted from the old-school Spielberg playbook, and it's very much appropriate that Spielberg himself serves as producer. The movie itself is set in 1979, so the nostalgia-factor is even more heightened. I was born in 1982, but for me, seeing the kids in this movie - their world, their clothes, their haircuts, the movie posters on their walls - I was instantly flooded with a huge sense of nostalgia. Partly for the days when I was a kid (which increasingly feels like another world from the one we live in today), and partly for the movies that I watched and loved as a kid. Movies like E.T. and The Goonies - they were kids films, family films. But there was a dark tinge to them as well. They depicted broken families - divorce, loss, loneliness. They put their kid protagonists in real danger against dark and menacing forces. They had kids acting like kids - i.e., the kids in these films were mean, vulgar, and often getting into trouble. In today's world of candy-coated kids movies, you just don't see these types of movies anymore - the movies that capture the real sense of darkness, of adventure, of possibility, of fear - that's inherent in childhood. And really, this is where Super 8 squarely hits its mark. The best part of the film, by far, is the interplay between the kids at the center of the story. This may not be a great sci-fi film, but it is a great kid-adventure story. And after seeing Super 8, you'll be feeling that childlike sense of wonder and adventure that you don't get much these days in this era of CGI lightshows.

Young actor Joel Courtney is, to that end, the heart and soul of Super 8. He's the classic Spielbergian kid character - somewhere in the middle of the sliding scale of geeky emo kids. Courtney does a fantastic job though as pre-teen Joe Lamb. He's a slightly awkward kid, still reeling from the death of his mother in a factory accident, but with a lot of bottled-up emotion inside of him. Joe spends most of his free time with his group of friends - a bunch of sorta-nerdy outcast types who get together to make homemade movies on a Super 8 cam. Charles - a big, chubby kid with a nasally voice, is their defacto leader - the director of the movies and Joe's best friend. Charles has a crazy family - teenage sisters, an overbearing mom, but they're like a surrogate family to Joe. Cary is the crazy one of the group - he loves lighting things on fire and plays the monster in all of the kids' movies, because he's their go-to stuntman. Preston is the quiet one - he sort of tags along with the others - you get the sense he wouldn't fit in with anyone else. And then there's Martin - he's the big kid of the group - taller and more mature than the rest. He's sort of like a kid Clark Kent - his dorky glasses and awkwardness barely hide the fact that he's a big, good-looking kid who the other kids look up to. It's an absolutely great ensemble of kid actors, not a weak link in the bunch. Riley Griffiths is superb as Charles - he has many of the best lines and is very funny, but he's also not a Chunk-like caricature. To JJ Abrams' credit, all of the characters feel real and well-rounded. Ryan Lee as Cary is another standout - totally goofy-looking but inevitably reminiscient of that one kid you knew growing up who always had one hand clutching a lighter.

The monkeywrench that gets thrown into the group is Elle Fanning's character, Alice. Alice meets the group of boys for the first time, when they cast her in their zombie movie. But Alice and Joe's family have history. Alice's father worked in the factory where Joe's mother was killed. and Joe's dad seems to hold him partially responsible for what happened. Suffice it to say, there's bad blood between them. And yet, Joe (and all of his friends) immediately begin crushing on the slightly older Alice, and there are a lot of great awkward adolescent / first-love sort of moments between Joe and Alice. I am pretty sure at this point that amazing acting ability runs in the Fanning family veins. Elle Fanning is phenomenal as Alice - turning in a mesmerizing performance as the gifted yet haunted character. I was very impressed with Elle in the recent film Somewhere, but this might be her defining performance to date. Again, it's sort of a trademark of those old 80's kid-adventure movies to have the token girl / love interest hanging out with the mostly-boys club of characters. But JJ Abrams evolves that role to be much more substantial than what you'd see in your typical 80's kids flick - and Fanning makes the most of that opportunity.

JJ Abrams beautifully captures the dynamic between the kids, and he throws in some great adult roles as well. Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame is pitch perfect as Joe's still-in-mourning dad - and his presence is sort of interesting in that it's a role reversal from the absentee father in E.T. But that broken family dynamic is certainly very Spielbergian in nature. Ron Eldard also does a nice job as Fanning's dad-with-a-drinkin'-problem. Personally though, I loved seeing Noah Emmerich (recently of The Walking Dead) show up as a gruff army official. Emmerich brought a much-needed dose of tough-guy gravitas to the film, and gave a little personality to the mostly faceless military operation that was sweeping small-town Ohio in light of some recent strange occurences.

And about that ... if Super 8 falters in any respect, it's that the sci-fi element feels a little bit half-hearted. Abrams tries to give the movie a bit of Fringe-esque mythology, feeding us a rather bare-bones backstory of an angry alien captive held by the US government against its will. But I felt a slight, Lost-like sense of emptiness as we began to learn a bit about the alien. Honestly, I think the movie could have gotten away with telling us little to nothing about the creature at the center of its plot. But through Lost-style archival film-reels, we learn just enough to provoke about a hundred additional questions about the creature's origins, and then, nothing. It's funny, too, because Abrams focuses so much on the kids and their relationships that the movie's ultimate attempt to forge an E.T.-like relationship between Joe and the alien feels a bit rushed and hamfisted. It makes their big, "E.T. phone home" moment feel overly cheesy and not exactly earned. Plus, whereas E.T. was a cute, unassuming little creature, Super 8's alien is a monstrous killer who spends most of the movie picking off innocent victims, Alien-style. It's hard to feel much sympathy or love for him by movie's end. It's an example of how Super 8 is trying to pay homage to so many genre touchstones that, sometimes, it feels like it doesn't quite have its own voice. This is most evident whenever the alien creature is front and center, because the film can't seem to decide if it's a monster or a victim - and in turn, is this a monster movie, or an E.T.-style boy-and-his-alien sort of thing? Because a lot of the alien-related beats feel a bit rushed, the movie never gets to have its big, memorable, kids-riding-on-flying-bicycles type of moment. I know JJ Abrams loves his slow-building mysteries, but in a two hour movie of this nature, so much secrecy can make it hard to deliver the right kind of emotional payoffs.

All that said, there is so much charm inherent in Super 8 that it's hard to hate too much on it. From the sense of awe and wonder that the movie is able to evoke, to its amped-up, old-school action set-pieces (with shades of movies like Jurassic Park and Close Encounters thrown in - hey, like I said, this movie could have been called "Ode to Spielberg"), to the vintage, late 70's-era sets, costumes, and soundtrack - Super 8 is the kind of movie that will keep any movie fan, any twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty-something grinning throughout. Even the end credits are great, as we get to see the hilarious zombie movie that Joe and Charles and their crew ended up creating together. That little piece of bonus footage alone is nearly worth the price of admission. Look, I think Super 8 lacks the originality of vision or a sharp-enough premise to be considered a classic in the same vein as the movies it pays homage to. But, in a summer that's seen a lot of flash and little of substance, I can't help but think that Super 8 is a very welcome reminder of what movies used to be - not merely spectacles, but adventures.

My Grade: B+

Monday, June 20, 2011

Brightest Day? Blackest Night? GREEN LANTERN - Reviewed!


- Green Lantern is a movie that I desperately wanted to love. To me, the prospect of a Green Lantern movie - one based on the epic space-opera adventures that writer Geoff Johns has helped craft over the last several years in the comics - was infinitely exciting. Don't get me wrong, I've always liked GL, and got into the character as a kid during the whole "Emerald Twilight" storyline (where Hal Jordan turned evil/insane and killed all of his fellow GL's - ahh, the 90's). For years after Emerald Twilight, I followed the adventures of Hal Jordan's successor - Kyle Rayner - who would become the sole bearer of the Lantern legacy in those post-Jordan years. I was also a huge fan of Guy Gardner - the GL-turned-Justice League member who brought smartass attitude, a warrior's spirit, and a hopelessly dorky bowl-cut to his adventures. I collected the entire run of Guy Gardner's 90's-era comic book, and was a pretty consistent reader of the main Green Lantern title as well. While there was a huge - seriously, huge and LOUD - outcry from longtime comics fans when Hal Jordan went bad - to me, as a kid new to comics, this was exciting stuff. Hal as a good guy had always seemed boring to me. He was sort of a wet blanket, personality-wise, a straight-arrow from the Silver Age of comics who was drawn with streaks of gray in his hair. Hal's costume, too, always struck me as super-lame, with the green and black design looking like a guy wearing a female swimsuit over a black leotard. So for me, I loved the reinvention in the 90's of Hal as uber, world-conquering villain. He made an awesome nemesis for the DC Universe and for Kyle Rayner, and was the driving force behind many of DC Comics' most well-remembered, 90's-era, big-event storylines - Emerald Twilight, Zero Hour, and Final Night - in which Hal went out a good guy, sacrificing himself to reignite earth's dying sun. To me, for all the outcry around Jordan's storylines in the 90's, his turning evil had been the driving force behind all of DC's most exciting events of the time. And, Kyle Rayner in many ways made more sense as a Green Lantern. He was an artist - more sensitive, more emotive than Jordan - but a more natural fit to wield a power ring that could create any sort of construct that one could imagine. Hal's old adventures were filled with giant fists and boxing gloves and anvils. Kyle would tap his artist's imagination to really show us what the ring could do. I was a Kyle fan, and a Guy fan. I never cared that much about Hal Jordan, except as a cosmic villain, as a hero-gone-bad. That is, until Geoff Johns reinvented the Green Lantern franchise in the 00's.

Capitalizing on the early 00's resurgence of Silver Age characters and sensibilities in the world of comics, Johns brought the then-deceased Jordan back from the grave, in a rip-roaring storyline dubbed Green Lantern: Rebirth. Rebirth brought back Jordan, but the focus was not just on his arc of redemption, but on creating a whole new, epic mythos out of the Green Lantern legend. For decades, we'd had the concept of the intergalactic police-keeping force, the Green Lantern Corps, with Hal and the other Lanterns of earth being just a few of a group of thousands of alien heroes. But Johns gave the mythos a new sense of scope and scale - revealing that Parallax, an ancient entity of fear, was in fact responsible for Jordan's previous, villainous transformation to the dark side. By making former GL and Jordan archmesis Sinestro into the master of this same primal force of fear, Johns reestablished Sinestro as a cosmic threat of epic proportions - the Darth Vader of the GL universe. Eventually, the books took on an even more epic, Star Wars-like tone. The green light of willpower and the yellow light of fear were shown to be only two of many primal forces that could be shaped into rings of power. Johns introduced red, orange, blue, and indigo Lanterns, among others. And suddenly, there was a whole universe of ring-slinging factions, each at odds with the others. Johns' run on GL just kept building and building momentum - reaching its peak with Blackest Night - when the zombiefied Black Lanterns were introduced - the ultimate threat that Hal and co. had faced thus far. This was truly the Star Wars saga of DC Comics - a cosmic tale that seemed tailor-made to be the next huge sci-fi movie franchise.

I give you this preamble not just to establish my own personal connection to / fanboyism for all things Green Lantern, but also to set the stage for the fact that really, all the material is there to make Green Lantern into not just the next great superhero franchise, but something above and beyond - the next huge sci-fi / fantasy saga on par with a Star Wars. And man, the movie we got ... it has certain elements, certain moments, that strongly hint at that possibility. Whether it's Mark Strong's fantastic performance as a pre-villainous Sinestro, or the moments on the planet OA where we see thousands of alien GL's united and ready to fight off evil. There are those moments where GL feels like the cosmic epic we all wanted. And you know what, there is still a lot of potential here. The cast is good, sometimes great. The design work is really nice. OA and the Lanterns all look superb. And really, the straight-from-the-comics storyline is, big-picture, handled pretty well - all the seeds are planted for one hell of a sequel or two. In these respects, Green Lantern gets the job done.

What kills the movie is simply how rushed and messy it feels. The pacing is all over the place, there's little sense of scope or scale - few moments to simply drink in the awe and wonder of these alien worlds and creatures. Director Martin Campbell does a workman-like job, but there's little grandeur or majesty. There's less of a 2001 vibe and more of a Saturday morning cartoon one.

And that's not to say that a Green Lantern movie needs to be slow-paced or deadly serious. I appreciate that this is a "fun" franchise with big, broad, out-there concepts at its core. I wasn't looking for this to be The Dark Knight. I was looking for a great outer-space adventure movie. And again, I just think the pacing of GL is so all over the place that you never quite get the proper sense of scale. Let's look at some of the main issues behind this:

- Ryan Reynolds is too much of a fun-loving "everyman," and not the Indiana Jones-esque icon that he should have been. Reynolds works in the role of Hal because he does bring a lot of charisma and likability to the table. But the film seems too indecive about who Hal Jordan is. Reynolds' natural acting mode is to be likably goofy. But Hal's character is such that we want him to be larger than life - a fearless test pilot who shrugs off danger and laughs at death. I was worried about this from the moment I saw the first trailers for the film - would Hal Jordan - the tough-as-nails fighter pilot, really rattle off teenage-appropriate dialogue like "I know, right?", when showing his friend Tom his new ring-generated costume? There are moments in the movie - like when Hal runs off to try to save the dying alien Abin Sur - where he feels like the Hal Jordan from the books. But there are too many parts throughout the film where Reynolds - and the often lame dialogue he's given - undermine the type of character that the movie wants him to be, and that the mythos demand him to be - a man's man, a tough guy, a man without fear.

- Too many characters, and too many characters given the short shrift. It's an ongoing problem in superhero films - too many characters crammed into the film, and some characters having their potential wasted. In Green Lantern, a movie packed to the gils (literally, in the case of the fish-like alien Tomar-Re) with plot and high-concept story, did we really need the added, earthbound element of the goofy/grotesque looking Hector Hammond and his ever-expanding noggin'? While Peter Skaarsgard puts in a lot of effort to make Hector a fun character, he just feels shoehorned into the already-crowded plot. As a character, Hector feels like a time-filler - an effort to include a more traditional, Marvel-style super-baddie in an already overstuffed plot. We touch on Hector's longstanding crush on Hal's boss /love-interest Carol Ferris, get a taste of the tension between him and his congressman father (a mostly wasted Tim Robbins) - but with Mark Strong totally stealing the show as Sinestro, you keep wanting more time with him, with GL trainer Kilowog, with the mysterious, blue-skinned Guardians of the Universe, as opposed to Hector. The other character I have to mention is Angela Bassett as Amanda Waller. If you only know Waller from this movie, you'd think she is a marginally-important side character - and why not? She's given little personality (and a horrible-looking hairdo) in the film. But given that "The Wall' is played by the very-capable Bassett, and given that Waller is one of *the* all-time great characters of DC Comics (as written by the great John Ostrander in Suicide Squad), it hurts to see her barely utilized in the film. I think a lot of people thought that Waller would act as the DC film version of Marvel's Nick Fury. Like Sam Jackson, Bassett as Waller would show up in various DC films and help provide that fanboy-enticing link between them. But no hint of that was given here. Fans who knew Waller from the comics or the cartoons would surely walk away disappointed in the character's role (or lack thereof) in GL.

- The pacing is too jumpy. Again, things that felt like they should have been given a lot of screentime were glossed over to the point of craziness. One of the truly blissful moments in the film is when Hal is on OA training with Kilowog and Sinestro. But the scene lasts barely a few minutes - and it's not even like we get a montage of Hal's further training. The movie makes it feel like Hal gets to OA, trains for five minutes, goes back to earth, and then a little while later he's singlehandedly saving the universe from Parallax, doing on his own what Sinestro and an elite squad of trained Lanterns could not. What's more, Hal's trips from earth to OA happen at rapid pace - there's the feeling that Hal is travelling across deep space in the blink of an eye - and the initial wow-factor of this earthman going to a strange new world is quickly diminished. There's another scene in the film where Hal is at a party, but it's unclear what exactly is going on. We soon learn that it's a birthday party for his nephew, at his brother's house. As a comics fan, I enjoyed the nod to Hal's brothers and nephew (who figured prominently into his origin story as written by Geoff Johns). But in the movie, the scene felt completely random. His brothers and nephew are never heard from again beyond this one scene, and we never even hear them mentioned before or after. It's instances like that that give the film a hastily-assembled, thrown-together quality. A made-by-commitee sort of quality. It felt like a much-better "director's cut" could eventually be edited together. But what we got here felt rushed and all-over-the-place.

- The f/x feel rushed as well. And look, a lot of the CGI does look good, and I really liked the overall art-design of the film. OA in particular looks awesome, and the one scene in the film that truly gave me chills is when Hal and Tomar-Re soar through the spires and cityscapes of the iconic alien planet. But some of the CG just looks weird. There are scenes of Hal flying where he seems to transform from actual human to videogame character in mid-flight. There is an opening scene of aliens being wiped out by Parallax that seriously looks like a shoddily-done videogame cut scene. And Parallax himself looks sort of ugly. In the comics, the Parallax entity is a giant, insect-like creature. Here, he is just an amorphous blob of yellow energy - looking like a leftover effect from The Mummy 1.

This isn't to diss on the f/x overall. Just seeing the Green Lantern constructs brought to life is thrilling, and the film does a great job with the ring-charged battles. The GL costumes actually look pretty good overall - much better than in the first footage shown to fans. Again, the character designs are uniformly excellent. Tomar-Re, Kilowog, Sinestro - they all look by and large perfect. Even the GL's in the crowd-scenes represent fun characters from the comics with pinpoint accuracy, with favorites like Green Man, Bzzt, and others making an appearance.

And the cast, overall, is good, sometimes great. Blake Lively is not bad at all as Carol Ferris. She has a good chemistry with Reynolds and makes a likable leading lady. Geoffrey Rush voicing Tomar-Re, and Michael Clarke Duncan as Kilowog? Note perfect. And of course, Mark Strong is the real star of the film as Sinestro - totally awesome in the role - essentially the comic book character come to life. Do I wish that more time was devoted to Sinestro's character arc, so that the final reveal involving him was a better pay-off? Hell yes. Do I wish that more of a relationship was developed between Hal and Sinestro? Definitely - again, everything with the character felt far too rushed. But, it was no fault of Strong - he ruled it in the part, plain and simple.

I also think that Reynolds should be given some credit for really giving Hal Jordan a lot of personality. It may not have been the exact *right* personality, but look, Reynolds does a lot to make the movie feel fast-paced and engaging even when the script and editing isn't really clicking. I'd like to see him be less Peter Parker and more Han Solo in future installments, but overall, this movie showed me the potential of Reynolds to be a great Green Lantern *if* he and the script can reign-in his usual Ryan Reynolds-ism, and challenge him to be a different sort of character than he's necessarilly played before.

And you know what? Despite the messiness of the film, despite some of the glaring issues ... I still find myself surprised to see just how much venom is being spewed at the movie by any number of critics. The movie had some issues, but man, it really had some ambition as well. It didn't shy away from the crazier elements of Green Lantern. And although Reynolds had some cheesy jokes and one-liners, the movie mostly took itself seriously, allowing you to suspend disbelief and buy into its universe-spanning mythology. I mean, remember, if you will, that several years ago WB execs wanted to make a GL comedy starring Jack Black. My god. The fact that we actually got a Green Lantern movie, with characters and themes that are mostly true to and respectful of the source material - that is pretty awesome. And I did love this movie for the sheer comic book-iness of it all. A lot of the big themes - the talk of willpower vs. fear, for example - felt directly lifted from the GL comics. And the weirdness of GL - the funky aliens, the pink-skinned villains, the bright colors and costumes, even the Guardians in all their millenia-old craziness - all of that was here, preserved, for a new generation of kids to enjoy and discover. And you could almost feel the push and pull in the movie. You could feel a really shoddy script and a really badass one fighting it out. I am pretty sure that someone, at some point, crafted a goofy, cheesy GL movie with a wisecracking lead and a conventional, earthbound storyline. But then, later on, someone (Johns, most likely) was brought in and insisted that all of the cool stuff about GL be put in there - they insisted that this was not DC's Spiderman, but its Star Wars. And though some traces of that crappier, less-ambitious movie remain, there is enough of that second, more kick-ass movie that shines through to make Green Lantern a fun and at least semi-satisfying movie. I could sit here and nitpick at things that bugged me about the film all day, but I could also rant and rave about what a sequel could be, about all the possibility for awesomeness that this franchise is just bursting at the seams with. I don't know if I'd keep Martin Campbell onboard - get someone with a bigger, more cosmic sensibility. Get ONE writer who gets GL and loves the Johns comics (maybe Johns himself) to write the script. Pump up Strong's Sinestro as the big bad. Smooth out the f/x. And damn, you'd have yourself one hell of a movie. This one isn't brightest day nor blackest night, but it is a movie that has enough potential that, I think, it deserves support from fans. Despite its flaws, this is a fun movie that is hard to hate and easy to root for.

My Grade: B

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Is the New X-MEN First Class? X-MEN: FIRST CLASS - Reviewed!


- Fanboys will debate from now until the end of eternity what they thought of the original trilogy of X-Men movies. While the second film is generally held up as one of the all-time greatest superhero movies, there's a lot of, shall we say, differences of opinion on the first and third. Personally, I've never quite understood the conventional wisdom regarding the series. Personally, I enjoyed the much-maligned X-Men 3 as much if not more so than the previous two movies - certainly more than Part 1. I grew up reading the occasional X-Men comic book and was a devoted viewer of the 90's-era Saturday morning cartoon. I liked my X-Men over-the-top, colorful, and science-fiction-y. I understood that the whole stuggle of mutants versus humans could be used as a metaphor for the sturggles of other minorities in the real world, but to me that was always just one layer of the X-mythos. The other layers were comprised of the soap-operatic, heavily-serialized storylines of writers like Chris Claremont, who sent the X-Men to space, through time, to other realities. The X-Men I loved as a kid had the biggest personalities, the wildest origins, the most elaborately gaudy costumes (thank you, Jim Lee) of any other superheroes out there. And so, as much as I enjoyed Bryan Singer's muted, more realistic version of the famed mutants (particularly the more epic-feeling, better-written X2), I also never really loved those movies outright. X3, though cheesy at times, also had a more anything-goes type of feel - big action, more color. Hell, it had Kelsey Grammar as Beast in the part he was basically born to play. So sure, X3 was far from perfect, but I enjoyed it. But, even though I am an apologist for that Brett Ratner-directed film, I found virtually nothing to like in the wretched waste of time that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That movie sucked and sucked badly, and, I think helped to further drag the franchise down in the public eye. People were already skeptical after X3 (which again, was not that bad, in my opinion), but Wolverine may have nearly killed the golden goose. Nearly being the key word. Because The X-Men are a resillient bunch, and let's face it - people love 'em. And so, like the Phoenix (yep, I went there), the franchise rises from the ashes with a brand new prequel - X-Men: First Class. Not a reboot! Not a restart! But instead, a 1960's-set film that is clearly set in the same universe as X-Men 1-3 (obligatory continuity errors aside), and that looks to give the franchise a fresh injection of super-soldier serum (hey, same universe). The result? What First Class lacks in recognizable characters and big-name stars, it easily makes up for in the form of an awesome cast, an intriguing plot, and some badass action. Long story short, this is summer blockbuster moviemaking done right - a popcorn flick that adds high drama and serious intensity to the mix.

First Class takes us back to the swingin' 60's - a time when tensions were mounting between America and the Soviets, the times they were a-changin', and Professor X - then merely Charles Xavier - was still sporting a full head of hair. But first, the movie opens with an intense and chilling prologue set at a concentration camp in the midst of the Holocaust. A young Erik Lehnsherr is forced into a horrific situation at the hands of a sadistic scientist working with the Nazis - a man we'll later come to know as Sebastian Shaw. In this haunting opening, we see Erik endure the sort of traumatic torment and pain that will eventually lead him to become uber-villain Magneto. Meanwhile, we see a similarly young Charles Xavier in his Westchester estate, where he first encounters Raven - the blue-skinned shapeshifter who will one day be known as Mystique. The movie nicely sets up the contrast between Xavier and Erik - two very smart, very strong-willed men who each see their mutant powers as an opportunity to change the world. And as we flashforward to the 60's, where the duration of the movie is set, we watch as these two iconic figures first meet and become friends.

If you're at all familiar with X-Men, then you know where the story of Charles and Erik is headed. But what keeps things interesting - and what gives the movie much of its energy and momentum - is the relationship between the two, as brought to life by two great actors in James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Both actors really knock it out of the park, and really help to carry the film. As the younger version of the character that the great Patrick Stewart played in the original X-films, McAvoy surprised me with the wit and depth he brought to the eventual founder of the X-Men. It was a bit jarring to see the usually wise and zen-like Xavier portrayed as something of a sly smartass - smirky, cocky, a bit of a ladies man, even. But to McAvoy's credit, he evolves the character over the course of the movie. When all is said and done, he hasn't magically transformed into Stewart's wizened version of the character, but the groundwork has been laid. Fassbender, meanwhile, just flat-out owns as Erik. This, to me, was a huge, starmaking turn for the charismatic actor. I've seen him kick ass before in movies like Centurion, but here, Fassbender really steals the movie and, honestly, is neck and neck with Sir Ian McKellan in terms of the best version of Magneto. Fassbender is likable, charismatic, but also intense to the point of being scary. He really conveys the idea that Erik has a sort of righteous fury, but also that his darker impulses are being kept in check by the sanctity of his mission of revenge against his former tormentor, Sebastian Shaw. All through the movie, you have to wonder - once Shaw is dispensed with, then what? Well, we as X-Men fans know, but you wonder how longm, exactly, will Erik remain on the side of the angels. Not knowing exactly where this movie was headed, I admit that I was somewhat surprised at the answer. Suffice it to say, this was one hell of a performance from Fassbender - and in this version of Magneto he creates one of the most compelling comics-to-screen character transitions we've yet seen.

McAvoy and Fassbender alone are worth the price of admission, but luckily they're surrounded by a very good supporting cast. Jennifer Lawrence in particular is excellent as Raven / Mystique. Those who didn't see the superlative Winter's Bone will now get a hint of why she is an Oscar-caliber actress. Because, even though Mystique is perhaps a tad undwritten in the script, Lawrence brings that extra depth and vulnerability to the character to make her a standout. I was also really surprised by Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. He did a fantastic job as the movie's main villain - convincing as both a Nazi collaborator in the movie's prologue, and later as an eternally youthful, James Bond-style villain.

First Class is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was famously supposed to have directed X3, before he backed out and was ultimately replaced by Brett Ratner. Many have long speculated what an X movie directed by Vaughn would look like, and now we have our answer. Sure, First Class is a lot smaller scale in some ways than the Phoenix Saga-riff X3 might have been, but still, this is another Vaughn movie that benefits from his knack for fast-paced plotting, bouncy pacing, humor and wit, and imaginative action scenes. Despite a long running time, First Class feels faster-paced than the first two X-movies, and overall it's a bit brighter, a bit more stylized - with a little bit of a 60's pop-art feel. A number of retro touches sometime make the movie feel like a modern-day take on The Avengers (the TV series, not the comic book).

However, where First Class falls short is in its handling of some of its less prominent characters. Second-stringers like Havok, Darwin, Riptide, and Banshee all felt pretty bland and mostly useless. Banshee got one or two cool scenes in which to show off his powers, but the other characters seemed like mere cannon fodder. Particularly noticeable was the very-rushed character arc for Angel - a seemingly interesting character who ends up the victim of very sudden and hasty-seeming plot twists. Same goes for Emma Frost - a great character from the comics who, played flatly by January Jones, is pretty much diamond-encrusted window dressing in the film, and another who is never given much in the way of motivation or character, despite being crucial to several key moments in the movie. Another example is Moira MacTaggert, an American agent who seems to develop a bit of a thing with Xavier. Rose Bryne did her best to make the character interesting, but ultimately, she was very forgettable. I don't know, I just found it disappointing that the movie managed to such a great job showing us the motivations of Xavier and Magneto, yet seemed to somewhat half-ass it when it came to many of the other featured characters. Finally, I thought the movie did in fact do a pretty nice job with Hank McCoy, aka Beast, in terms of giving him a meaningful character arc ... and yet ... I just didn't love the character as portrayed here by Nicholas Hoult. He looked the part when he eventually made his transformation into the furry blue braniac we all know and love from the comics and cartoons, but he just didn't feel like that same Beast in terms of personality. Beast always seemed professorial, confident - this just seemed like a different character.

One weird but fun thing about the casting ... the movie had a crazy number of great actors in even the smallest of roles. Oliver Platt as a CIA guy. Ray Wise (!) as a random givernment official. Hell, even AARON by-god PIERCE from 24 shows up at one point, and yes, folks, I shouted and pumped my fist in joy at the sight of him. Oh, there are also a couple of great little cameos that I won't ruin here. But I'll just say that one of 'em is so great that it substantially adds to my overall assessment of the film, with one of the great uses of the F-bomb in a PG-13 movie in quite some time, in a scene that will surely have audiences cheering.

I will also say that I liked a lot of the visual stylization in the film. All of the f/x work looked great for the most part, and there was a lot that was noticeably refined from the earlier films (Mytique's transformations, for example). I also thought a couple of the characters were just plain awesome looking - in particular the demonic Azazel, one of Shaw's right-hand baddies. Beast, Mystique, Angel ... all looked great and pleasantly comic book-y when in full mutant mode. Emma Frost's diamond form is the one mutant power that still looks super-wonky to me, but maybe that's just personal preference.

At the end of the day, I think people who go into this one skeptical will emerge very pleasantly surprised. The movie may not be a ripped-from-the-comics X-Men epic (and I'd still love to see a balls-to-the-wall, insane X-Men sci-fi epic, colorful costumes and all), but it is a pretty groovy, ripped-from-the-history-books look at a slightly altered version of the Cuban Missle Crisis and the very-real events that almost led to nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia back in the day. Seeing the MLK Jr. vs. Malcolm X-esque clash of ideals between Xavier and MAgneto play out in this setting is pretty fascinating, and the dynamite job that McAvoy and Fassbender do in bringing these characters to life only adds to the intensity of the story. I do think that the movie damn near achieves greatness, but falls just short due to all the Magneto and Xavier coolness being surrounded by too many other characters, plotpoints, and twists that feel a bit too bland, generic, and/or by-the numbers. But that doesn't stop the movie from being a hell of a ride while it lasts - certainly worthy of an "Excelsior!" or three.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Spending MIDNIGHT IN PARIS - A Look at Woody Allen's Latest


- The modern Woody Allen film is always sort of an oddity in the current cinematic landscape. Stubbornly refusing to change or adapt to the times, Woody Allen in the last decade has continued to crank out a number of charmingly - sometimes annoyingly - anachronistic tales that capture his particular brand of nostalgic neurosis. Yes, Woody has ventured into serious drama on occasion, with movies like Match Point. And he's tried his hand at more romantic, less farcical stories - like Vicky Cristina Barcelona (one of his recent best, I think). But he's also continued, with mixed reviews, to put out those trademark Woody Allen romps - movies like Anything Else, Scoop, Whatever Works, and now, Midnight in Paris. To his credit, I think Midnight is Woody's best "classic-style" Woody movie in many a moon. Its fantastical time-travel premise suits Woody's unique brand of light-hearted comedy, and the dual Paris setting - Paris of the present day and Paris of the 1920's - continues the director's streak of gorgeous-looking films set in Europe that also function as veritable travelogues. To that end, Midnight in Paris may not wow you, but it's the sort of movie that's perfectly pleasant - that will keep you smiling, and that will make you want to pack your bags and travel to another place, and maybe, even, another time.

The story here concerns a Hollywood screenwriter, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, who ends up on an extended trip to Paris with his fiance and her parents. Being in Paris makes Gil's desire to quit working in Hollywood and take up novel-writing that much stronger, as he dreams of what it might have been like to be an ex-Pat in France in the 1920's - trading writing tips with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, talking art with Picasso and Dali, or sharing a drink with Ernest Hemingway. By some unexplained twist of fate, Gil gets his wish. While walking alone one night he is transported back to the 1920's, and finds himself hobnobbing with his literary and artistic heroes - even falling in love with an alluring woman who's been romantically entangled with Picasso. What follows is a funny, sometimes fascinating rumination on past versus present, a meditation on nostalgia brought to you as a romantic comedy and a comedy of errors.

Owen Wilson plays the traditional Woody Allen stand-in here, but he infuses a lot of his own wide-eyed personality into the role as well. Wilson does a great job, and even when his dialogue gets a bit too wordy or awkward, he somehow pulls it off. What's fun here though is that with Wilson in the lead, and Rachel McAdams playing his shrewish, unsupportive fiance, it's easy to get suckered into thinking you're watching a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. But this being a Woody Allen movie, things don't really go according to typical Hollywood formula - because Woodly loves his twists. For example, McAdams does such a great job of making her character come off as snooty and unlikable that I was dreading the moment where, after arguing with Wilson, she has a change of heart and the two fall back in love. Luckily, Woody isn't afraid to go in a different direction altogether. And then, after that, throw in yet another curveball. It's a pleasure just to watch a movie that has elements of a romantic comedy, but that doesn't strain itself just to ensure that its main characters end up happily ever after by movie's end.

So yeah, Wilson is great, and McAdams is so effectively bitchy that it's going to be hard to look at her the same way. But aside from those two, Midnight in Paris is filled with fun characters played by supremely talented actors, who all seem to be having a blast. Michael Sheen is always great, and he is once again a scene-stealer here as McAdam's old friend whom she happens to run into while in Paris. Sheen is very funny as a snobbish know-it-all, and he and Owen Wilson play really well off of each other. It's also nice to see veteran actor Kurt Fuller get a nice little role here as McAdam's disapproving father - such a great actor (Noah of Noah's Arcade in Wayne's World, anyone?). Of course, once Wilson travels back in time ... that's where the real fun begins. We're treated to hammy, funny turns by Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alison Pill as his batty wife Zelda, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, and Adrian Brody - hilarious - as Salvador Dali ... among others historical figures from the era who pop up (one other show-stealer: Corey Stoll, hilarious as the perpetually-ready-for-a-fight Ernest Hemingway). And then there's Marion Cotillard as Adriana - the stunning muse of Picasso whom Wilson's Gil quickly becomes enamored of. Cotillard makes Adriana into a striking character with some surprising depth - and credit to Woody - always with a knack for creating interesting female characters - for doing so once again with this out-of-the-past French mystery woman.

The movie is genuinely fun and funny, with a degree of fish-out-of-water humor but also a lot of amusing banter and character-derived humor. Like the more intense Vicky Cristina Barcelona though, Midnight In Paris is chock-full of amazingly-shot scenery and locations. I'm not Francophile, but it was nonetheless easy to just sit back and get lost in the lingering shots of winding backalley streets, squares, fountains, shops, and cafes. Once the movie veers into the past, the richness of the film increases even more, with tons of interesting period detail. Sometimes, the movie's glimpses of the past are a bit cartoonish, sure, but it all adds to the film's almsot fairy-tale like quality.

Where Midnight In Paris falters, I think, is that, like some other modern-day Woody films, it sometimes feels like its striving for authenticity yet feels like it takes place in some alternate Woody-verse version of reality. Whether it's dialogue that feels dated, or young characters whose pop-cultural awareness seems to have ended fifty years ago (which is noticable when the whole movie is obstensibly about pop-culture), sometimes there's just that feeling that things are, well, a bit off. McAdams and her snobby parents are almost too much at times - like Woody is trying to imagine what really annoying rich people are like in 2011 but not quite hitting the mark. Wilson's dismissal of Hollywood is a bit much as well - again, he's presented as a character who has to choose between Hollywood hackery on one hand and The Great Gatsby on the other - with no middle ground in between. I mean, do the Coen Bros. exist in this movie's universe? And, one other thing that is a long-running point of contention about Woody Allen movies -- the fact that, no matter how odd, how issue-laden, how neurotic his leading men are, they always seem to have their pick from a long line of smart, beautiful women eager to fall in love with them. Sure, nobody films beautiful women with quite the eye for the female form as Woody, but at the same time - as Owen Wilson seemingly glides from one impossibly good-looking lady-suitor to another - at some point you stop and think to yourself ... "really?".

Midnight in Paris is, ultimately, a fun movie that's vintage Woody Allen - mostly in a good way. The premise is fun and farcical, the comedy mostly works, and the cast is superb from top to bottom. And despite the couple of criticisms above, I think the film's magical-realist premise helps make even its harder-to-swallow elements go down pretty easy. There's definitely an old-timey, happy, nostalgic sort of magic that permeates the movie. It will leave you thinking of other places and other times. It's a trip, I think, that's well worth taking.

My Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Do You Need Beer-Goggles to Enjoy THE HANGOVER PART II ...?!?!


- The Hangover Part II is already one of the biggest box-office success stories of the summer - and that is certainly no big surprise. A few years back, the first Hangover film was a runaway success and a genuine pop-cultural phenomenon. But I think people got much too carried away in pronouncing the first movie as being the next great thing in comedy. I mean, The Hangover was pretty funny, but to me, its moments of genuine hilarity were somewhat offset by the fact that the comedy in the movie was - let's face it - douche comedy. The characters were uniformly douchey, and never all that likable. On one hand, the movie seemed to be actively telling me that "The Wolfpack" was a group of cool dudes who I might like to hang with. On another level, after a few minutes of the film, I quickly grew to dislike all of them, and began to resent the fact that the movie mostly laughed with, but rarely at, its cast of grown-up fratboy characters. I think that's part of the reason why Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow was such a fun, breakout character - we were sort of supposed to root against him, and yet since he was the one character who was given full license to be a totally insane wildcard, the movie never had to worry about making him sympathetic or empathetic. In any case, here we are with The Hangover Part II - and now, suddenly, the critical consensus seems to be that the franchise has taken a sudden nosedive. Reality check: this movie is very, very similar to Part I, with about the same quality of humor, the same number of funny gross-out gags, and the same quotient of less-than-likable characters. You won't care whether they get their happy ending, but you'll laugh as they get shot at, go crazy, and wreak havoc in Bangkok. Here's the deal: The Hangover Part II is a slight step down from the first film. But, the fact that it even exists - and that it retreads so much familiar ground - serves as a reminder that this franchise, these characters, this premise - was only ever mildly funny to begin with - and that, I think, is where some of the newfound critical hostility is coming from.

The Hangover Part II very quickly notifies us of its inherent obnoxiousness by establishing that Ed Helms' character, Stu - supposedly a mild-mannered dentist (at least on the outside) - is now engaged to a personality-less woman played by Jamie Chung. Yes, Jamie Chung, the smokin' hot actress last seen fulfilling fanboy fantasies in Sucker Punch, is set to marry dorky Ed Helms the dentist, and the movie acts as though this is perfectly natural and unremarkable. And, oh yeah, her family is apparently comprised of super-rich Thai folks who throw elaborate, torch-lit weddings on private beaches. And I thought Ed Helms trying to win the affections of Ellie Kemper on The Office was a stretch ... Anyways, that's sort of a random tangent, but it's like ... this is the universe that The Hangover takes place in, you know? It's a douchey place, a sort of mean-spirited place, a snobby sort of place filled with overpriveleged yuppies and bro-tastic bro humor. It just feels like, for all the crazy, embarassing situations that the movie's main characters find themselves in, the movie just won't quit trying to make us think that these guys are, like, soooo awesome. Why? I don't know, exactly, but there's a certain cockiness in the way these movies present themselves that, personally, I find to be a turn-off and not something that's conducive to great comedy.

Nonetheless, a good gross-out gag is a good gross-out gag, and The Hangover 2 has some fairly memorable ones. The first movie made waves for daring to cross certain lines of graphic raunchiness, and its sequel has similarly shocking moments that are not for the prudish. I certainly saw one or two things in this movie that I can't say I've seen in a mainstream comedy before. And hey, some of the shocks are pretty damn funny. Ed Helms coming to terms with the unspeakable acts he's committed with a Thai stripper - one who isn't quite what she seems - was particularly guffaw-worthy. Ken Jeong is also back and once again very amusing. Even though he sometimes suffers from "trying too hard" syndrome, his ridiculous way of talking and total lack of shame or inhibition still makes me laugh.

On the other hand, I have to say that Zack Galifinakis' lovable-idiot act is wearing pretty thin - and the fact that the other characters haven't murdered his goofy character, Alan, by movie's end is in fact pretty remarkable. The movie strains to make him seem lovable ... but is he? Not at this point, and especially not once he time and again seriously screws with his would-be buddies and fellow Wolfpack members. (And by the way, I hate the whole "Wolfpack" thing, because it feels like it just materialized out of someone in the studio marketing department). Anyways, Zack's deadpan stupidity is the kind of thing that gets super annoying if the lines he's given aren't brilliant - and here, they are more often than not merely mildly-amusing at best. But I think that the main problem is, again, that Alan quickly crosses the line from love him to hate him, and the inevitable aww-shucks-let's-all-be-friends reconciliations that take place after he commits multiple acts of idiocy, betrayal, and ineptitude don't feel earned in the slightest. The character never really has a big "hero" moment or anything. Everyone just ultimately accepts him, well, just because, and we as an audience are meant to buy into it. After seeing some surprisingly well-drawn comedy characters lately in movies like Bridesmaids, having to endure the one-dimensional antics of The Hangover's motley crew felt like a bit of a drag. And hey, speaking of Bridesmaids, not to get too ra-ra here, but I did find it a little off-putting at just how nonexistent this movie's female characters were. I mean, again, why the hell is Jamie Chung marrying Ed Helms? Perhaps if she was given any depth, we wouldn't have to scratch our heads wondering about this the whole movie.

As for the other actors in the film - guys like Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha ... well Cooper basically just acts as the enabler for the seemingly-docile Helms. And Bartha just sits around, left out once again of the bulk of the adventure. Paul Giamatti shows up as a crime boss who gets mixed up with the main characters, but doesn't make much of an impression except to give us that "Hey! Paul Giamatti! Maybe this movie is about to get better!" moment of brief but ultimately futile hopefulness. And poor Jeffrey Tambor, who so often these days shows up in thankless roles that seem to just cash in on his leftover goodwill from Arrested Development. Stuck playing Alan's overly-supportive, wealthy dad, Tambor shows up all too briefly and is given nothing much to do. And as I alluded to earlier, the women in the film are uniformly used as nothing but attractive window dressing - too bad, in my book.

Still, I didn't think that The Hangover Part II was *horrible.* It chugged along at a decent pace and had a pretty steady stream of laughs, giggles, and chuckles. There's even a pretty good, nicely-staged car chase in there. And there's even a monkey that does silly stuff. But at the end of the day, it's a pretty shallow, by-the-numbers movie that - other than the exotic Thailand setting - doesn't do much to differentiate itself from the original. It's like eating a big box of Panda Express Orange Chicken. When it's fresh and piping hot, it's good. But as you eat more and more, and the chicken gets cold, you start to feel a little queesy, and you start to wonder why the hell you're eating it in the first place. When it came out, I gave The Hangover a just-barely-earned grade of B+ ... a few years later, the beer-goggles have worn off a bit, and it's down a letter grade. Sorry, guys.

My Grade: C+