Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To Mimic a Copycat

I'm not touching Cars 2. Transformers Dark of the Moon is out, but I haven't had the chance to see it yet. I've viewed just about everything else in theaters worth watching (and a few that aren't). All that adds up to today heralding a Mr. Anderson Retro Review, this one for the 1997 sci-fi horror film Mimic. I didn't see this title when it was first released. Mimic's origins come from a proposed trio of short films, two of which were turned instead into full-blown motion pictures. Impostor, the other full-length title, was a box office dud that isn't remotely remembered today. Mimic, however, got enough of a push that its mention doesn't draw blank stares, even if its box office numbers might not have impressed by any means. It even spawned two direct-to-DVD sequels, unlikely though to have made their way to any home-owned shelves. Discovering Mimic on Netflix Streaming turned out to be a pleasant surprise, almost as much as learning that acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro was behind the creation of it. These days del Toro has become something of a film legend, with his unique style of directing and ability to capture beautiful dark images making a legacy out of his career, including such titles as Hellboy, The Devil's Backbone and the widely-praised Pan's Labyrinth. Even when he's involved in films that he's not directing, he carries an obvious influence that adopts his touch into something recognizable as his work. Back then, Mimic was only his second feature film, and his first heavily promoted one. This of course caused me even greater anticipation for the film, as even if I wasn't destined to like it, there would surely be much to admire and respect.

Happy Birthday! Awww... you're DEAD!
After introducing a genetically-bred strain of insect into the sewers under New York City to help combat cockroaches spreading Strickler's Disease, a plague that is targeting small children, Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) is hailed as a hero to the people, with only a small minority taking umbrage with her "playing God" by creating a new life form. Still, it produces results, and years later the disease has been eradicated. However, a new plague stalks the city's underbelly. Tyler's bugs, thought to have been infertile and died out, have evolved, mimicking their prey to eradicate them, with humans next on the food chain. Confronted with this, Tyler and her husband Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) venture into the sewers to discover just how far the creatures have come and to stop them from escaping the sewers of New York and eradicating the human race in the long run.

The first thing you might notice about Mimic is that it feels like something you've seen before. As a typical monster/slasher flick, you could easily draw comparisons to a number of similar films, most notably the Alien series with its insect-like horrific creatures. Mimic similarly spends a lot of time in dark, claustrophobic places, mostly in the sewer and subway tunnels under New York, a labyrinth that includes everything from Mole People habitats to abandoned rail tunnels. The creature effects are also strikingly similar, not surprising considering the easy comparisons drawn between Mimic's shape-changing bugs and Alien's environment-blending death-dealers. They even secrete the same sticky resin that - while hardly unique to either race - lets the audience know that they're nearby when a characters steps in it.

When you get out of this, I recommend investing a little money in some shampoo.
The similarities to other films extend even to Mimic's lead role. Dr. Susan Tyler is a smart, resourceful woman who battles her own demons and issues of motherhood. Ellen Ripley, anyone? Sarah Connor? Though not physically as strong as either of those characters eventually became, Susan still shares many of their themes, and more represents their early weaknesses and damsel in distress situations here. If Mimic had become a legitimate franchise, the character might have adopted their stronger traits and become more of a heroine, but alas that was not meant to be. Regardless, Sorvino is good enough to match talents with Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton as she offers a great performance, one that netted her a Saturn Award nomination for best actress that year. It's scary to think that she could easily have had Jennifer Aniston's career, as watching her in this film is like seeing Friends turned into a blood-soaked horror-fest, with monsters cast instead of Davis Schwimmer, with nobody noticing the difference.

Yes, Mira, the New York sewers will probably be dirty.
You can't have a heroine in distress without a manly hero who actually saves the day, and Jeremy Northam fills this role fairly easily. Despite looking like an MIT nerd and with a job to match, Northam does a decent job for a character with preciously little time developed. Josh Brolin and Giancarlo Giannini play a police officer and a father who's son has been taken by the monsters, respectively. Neither plays a large role in the story, with their side parts only leading to their eventual demises. Another throwback to the Alien series is the casting of Charles S. Dutton, who had starred in Alien3 five years earlier. Dutton plays a disgruntled T cop, one who for good reason doesn't want to be stuck down in the sewers with these things. F. Murray Abraham makes an appearance as well in a small role as a doctor condemning Tyler's methods for eradicating the Strickler's Disease. Most of these supporting roles come off as hollow caricatures, even if they are well-acted caricatures. It's a shame that Dr. Tyler is the only one with a developed persona, but unfortunately, that's the way it panned out.

I don't look THAT much like Rachel!
The effect del Toro brings to the table is difficult to ignore, and even at a relatively young age he possessed the talents to create perfect camera angles. His darker elements are also readily present, and you can see where the elements to many of his future projects began to take shape. While Mimic is not a perfect movie (or even one the director was happy with), I certainly enjoyed it for what it was. A somewhat derivative throwback horror film with a truly scary monster, Mimic is good enough to wish it had performed better, though it is far from one that I'd consider re-watching, unless del Toro ever releases a director's cut a la David Fincher's Alien3. If you haven't seen this film but you like the genre, I definitely give Mimic my seal of approval.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bad... Just Bad

Sometimes as a film reviewer I absolutely KNOW when I'm going to hate a movie well before I've purchased a ticket for entry. While some films have surprised me as to the levels of their suckitude, such as Sucker Punch, many more have met expectations well below even baseline standards, their ranks flush with titles like The Eagle, Your Highness, and Red Riding Hood. At a certain point I can only justify so much, and often I go into a theater knowing that I won't emerge pleased with the experience, ready to warn you my readers of crimes against your sensibilities and your wallets. Bad Teacher is another in that growing list of titles in which I knew any preexisting standards would be too high. For one, I can't think of a single film I'VE seen where Cameron Diaz has proven her star status. Sure, she was good in The Mask, but what has she done lately that has been remotely interesting? Secondly, the trailers seemed to rely on vulgarity over anything actually comedic, a sad trend to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Finally, the story that was presented came down to a complete insult to educators in general, portraying the "hero" of the tale as someone who doesn't care at all about her students, only bothering with them when there's something in it for her. As someone who is friends with teachers and holds great respect for the work they do, I couldn't help but feel like this subversive fantasy paints these hard-working sorts in a negative light with little to no redemption on the horizon.

So who's the bigger tool?
Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) dislikes her chosen profession as a teacher, a career that she for some reason at one point chose. After a failed engagement to a rich sucker ended an early attempt to quit teaching, Elizabeth is forced to return to the classroom she hates. Determined to escape, she tries to gain the attentions of the new substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who has a substantial family fortune, and to that end is trying to save up for a super expensive boob job. Elizabeth is confronted on many sides, however; the teacher across the hall, Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), suspects the worst in Elizabeth, while gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) vies for her affections.

Diaz won this year's "Wrinkled Fish" competition hands down
I'm really not sure where the appeal for this type of film lies. It's certainly not in the storytelling, which is haphazard and all over the place like a drunk driver on New Year's Day. That's an appropriate comparison to Elizabeth, who is so unlikable that it's amazing that she's portrayed as the hero of the tale, not to mention a potential romantic interest for not one but two characters. Is it me, or is the whole notion of the "good guy" being the person who has no compulsion to help her students out of the goodness of her heart while the "bad guy" is one who actually has the interests and well-being of the children in mind completely insane? Not helping matters is the focus of the film. Concentrating on the three least sympathetic characters does Bad Teacher no favors, with the story and dialogue failing to provide amusement through either comedy or commentary. There's nothing here about the rigors, excitement or rewards of being a teacher; students are mere caricatures and the people making up the faculty aren't much better.

The most balls the film can muster
A little bit of humanity wouldn't have hurt, especially distributed among the main cast. What attracted Diaz to this offensive role is in serious question, as she usually chooses more audience-friendly fare in which to be seen, such as the crowd-pleasing Charlie's Angels. I guess she liked the idea of being part in such a foul-mouthed comedy, but there's very little to the character Elizabeth Halsey that is either challenging or deep. Diaz is fine as a uncaring educator, but this is just more proof of a low-ceiling role that Diaz takes to make a buck while neglecting to challenge herself, which is why she's not and will never be a top-flight talent. Timberlake is similarly wasted, as even his trademark charm does him no good with the realization that his character is a brainless tool, deserving of neither Elizabeth's nor our admiration. Unlike last year's Social Network, which utilized near the entirety of Timberlake's charisma, there's no reason this film couldn't have cast a nobody performer; the audience probably wouldn't have noticed the difference. Punch is the best of the three, but of course her character is villainized due solely to her opposing Elizabeth. She does get a few moments to shine, but she's neither a well-known enough actress nor particularly consistent enough to engage us.

No, those aren't Muppets with Segel, but I can see what you're talking about
It's with the secondary characters of Bad Teacher where you can start to see where things could have gone right for the film. Jason Segel is great in his smallish role of the gym teacher with interests in Elizabeth. Segel does a great job with these "nice guy" roles, further evidenced here with a character that is as fun to watch as he is underutilized. This also comes through as the film uses its smaller roles to inflict its best impacts upon the audience, with Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet, The Office's Phyllis Smith, and Reno 911's Thomas Lennon sharing not only the best dialogue and comedic elements, but the film's best overall acting talent with Segel

Why do I suddenly have Fountains of Wayne going through my head?
I could go on for paragraphs about the twisted morality of rooting between the characters of Elizabeth and Amy Squirrell, but I have no interest in giving this film more attention than it deserves. Among the worst that 2011 has so far offered, Bad Teacher could have been more than the obtuse, crude fantasy for the teachers out there who really hate their jobs, but not by much. This is likely the worst from director Jake Kasdan, and since he was responsible for the farce that was Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, that says a lot about what I thought of this Bad Teacher. There are a lot of forgivable crimes in the world of film and Hollywood, but a comedy that isn't funny doesn't get a lot of respect or leniency from me, and it shouldn't from you, either.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Games to Play Again: Sid Meier's Pirates

Sometimes I get bored with the current generation's crop of gaming goodness provided to me and look for a change of pace. Often that change comes from purchasing and downloading a new video game, but often I find myself delving into my collection and picking something out that I haven't played in a very long time. Many of the titles in my possession are good ones, but have the unenviable task of keeping my attention until I can finish them, which as you can surmise from that statement is harder than it would at first appear. I love huge-story RPG's like Baldur's Gate or any title in the Final Fantasy series, but I couldn't tell you the last one I actually completed. With those games, when you go back to them you almost feel like you have to go start all over from the beginning like an unfinished novel, lest you forget the small details that allow the story to make sense. But when you go return to a game like Sid Meier's Pirates, which was released in 2004, you easily can hop right back in where you left off, not at all the worse for wear. It's what makes the game so much fun, and what makes me eager to write about when it was a light week for movies.

What kind of pirate tale would this be without a tavern, complete with wenches?
A remake of the 1987 computer game of the same name, Pirates is an open-ended adventure first conceived by legendary game creator Sid Meier. Meier, whose other work includes popular titles Railroad Tycoon, Alpha Centauri and Civilization (which had at one point entranced not only me but several good co-workers). The idea behind Pirates was a basic one: live the life of a pirate captain during the Golden Age of Piracy, and eventually retire in the lap of luxury. Your path there is where the game excels, as you can pursue those goals through whatever means are available to you, from capturing and sinking ships, to sacking towns and ports, seducing Governors' daughters and launching furious land battles. There's also a background story involving missing family members and evil Spanish lords, but we'll get to that later. Pirates allowed you to ally yourself with any of the major nations, turn on them, gain favors and have bounties called down on your head. Becoming the most notorious scalliwag of the Seven Seas is no easy task, but if you play your cards right, you could become the most feared scourge in the Caribbean and STILL retire in the comfort of a Governor's mansion.

These boys will be loyal to you for LIFE... or at least as long for as you can pay them.
A new game begins with a small backstory; when the fleet under your family's power is lost at sea, the debt they owe to the evil Marquis de Montalban is called, and he enslaves the whole clan. Only you, a young boy at the time, escapes. Ten years later and as an adult, you sign on with a ship of the nationality you choose (Spanish, English, French or Dutch), headed to the New World. When the ship captain's harsh ways incite a mutiny, the crew names you their new leader. Upon reaching the Caribbean, you can then run your ship (and eventually a fleet) as you see fit, allying with nations constantly at war with one another and perhaps even battling the sinister Marquis and his right-hand man Baron Raymondo to rescue your family. Or you can choose not to do that, and wage an ongoing battle with galleons, cities, and whoever will supply you with their well-earned finances and goods.

The world of the Caribbean will either be your oyster or your death bed, so be careful
The first and most important skills to learn are sailing and navigation. Moving from place to place is relatively easy in Pirates, especially once you get used to checking the navigational charts for where you want to go. Cities are clearly marked for their allegiances (so you know whether to avoid or head to a city that is friendly or hostile towards you), and so are ships, which constantly prowl the sea lanes beyond every port. You'll occasionally be directed towards particularly profitable ventures, but hey; if you want to attack that random Spanish Trade Galleon, even if your parent nation is currently at peace with Spain, go ahead! Sea combat is a cat and mouse game of trying to fire your cannons at the enemy without getting in their sights as well. Like every other minigame you'll be presented with, its easy to learn but difficult to master. Swordfights crop up everywhere, from scrims with sea captains to routed criminals, to a drunken Captain of the Guard. Obviously being proficient at wielding such a sharp instrument is as necessary for you in the game as it was for real-life pirates back in the day, though back then it probably wasn't nearly as fun..

If you wanted it you should have put a ring on it
Governor's daughters are another tool to learning information, receiving useful gifts and gaining major brownie points. Most major cities and ports have one, ranging from plain to beautiful, with beauty seeming directly related to bust size. Getting invited to the ball and successfully completing dancing mini-games (which are a lot of fun once you get the mechanics down), you're well on your way to seducing a bride to be, complete with a big wedding inhabited by your foul, grog-swilling crew. And if you're feeling particularly... polyamorous, the game allows this, though it's a shame there's no penalty for wives discovering one another's existence. It's still one of the better-rounded aspects of the game, and I find myself skipping friendly ports to avoid a particularly unattractive spinster.

"En garde! Touche!" ...oh, that is so cliche.
There are some less-than perfectly implemented tools in here as well. While land combat can be a lot of fun, the units are chosen for you, and you can't sort them out to your liking. You can adjust your starting location, but that really only slightly adds to the strategic element, making for a section of the game far too easy for those with any reasonable experience in strategy gaming. Sneaking is also a weak feature in my opinion. If you are trying to enter a hostile port and either don't have the manpower or don't want to launch a land attack, you can optionally sneak into the city yourself and try to reach places like the tavern or the governor's mansion. I've never been a fan of stealth as a gameplay mechanic, however (my forays into the franchises Thief, Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid have been unsurprisingly short), and here the feeling is compounded by uncertainty involving where you are and are going. If I could just see where I was trying to go, I would be more forgiving, but it's a useless tactic most of the time, one to be avoided.

...who from then on has absolutely nothing to do with your reprobate ways.
Like many of Sid Meier's games, the violence and lewdness is alluded to, but never actually shown in a graphic manner. Rated E for everyone means that sword strikes draw no blood, cannonballs merely sweep men off the decks into the water, and victory ends in an enemy being incapacitated or knocked overboard, not killed. It also means that the women may get ogled in a Jessica Rabbit manner, but otherwise are not overly-sexualized, so any looking for some kind of "hot coffee" mod need not apply. Meier's games have always attempted to be family-friendly, and this one was no exception, as gamers of any age can step in and enjoy.

Whatever you do, don't get distracted by the cleavage
The plot mentioned earlier may have little to no impact on your style of gameplay. If you want to rescue the members of your family and get revenge on the Marquis, you can, but you can just as easily let them rot and the game will think no less of you. After all, the city of Nevis needs you to bring in a new Governor! The more fame you gather, the more notorious a pirate you become, with one or more nations levying a bounty on your person and sending pirate hunters after your head. Also occupying the world with you are nine famous pirates, from the dreaded Blackbeard and Francois L'Olonnais to the charismatic Bart Roberts. Sadly these names are scarcely as difficult to face as the other ineffective enemies the game throws at you. This is disappointing since they would have likely represented the best challenge to be had, but really are no different than the average privateer on the high seas. It's one of the few real problems this game has, but thankfully it's not a death-dealer.

That reminds me... Mr. Anderson needs a butler...
So many years after its initial PC release, you can pretty much get Sid Meier's Pirates on any gaming system other than the PS3 (add this to the multitude of Sony's sins), with the game having come out for the Xbox and Wii systems and even made available for you silly Mac users. If you're a PC gamer like myself, you might want to check out the Steam Store, which currently has this fun title available for only $9.99. Easy to pick up, difficult to put away, and with only a few miscues, this is a pirate-y adventure you should do yourself the favor and play at LEAST once.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Stroke of Midnight


After my regular theater conspired against me seeing Midnight in Paris last week, I used my recently-gained time off to go out of my way to rectify that particular situation. Once again my destination was the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, a mere twenty-five minute walk from my apartment. Because it doesn't play the blockbusters, it's not my usual film-going destination, but if I want to see an indie release and the big boys can't deliver, Coolidge hooks me up. I honestly didn't know going in that it would be worth it, however. I'm not so much a fan of Woody Allen's directing these days. While his early works are among the most heralded films in Hollywood, more recent releases have hardly made splashes, with even the well-regarded Vicky Cristina Barcelona over-hyped save for the stellar acting by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz and the beautiful Spanish setting. Even when his films have been critically acclaimed, they often don't attract nearly the attention from audiences that most Hall-of-Famers pick up. Sure, some of them make money, but when you consider that he puts out at least one movie a year, it's shocking how little overall attention his career actually gets. Part of that has to do with his public persona. I'm sorry, but there was no way the whole "breaking up with Mia Farrow and then marrying her adopted daughter" was ever going to take on a positive spin. Actors still seem to want to work with him, which is positive at least (but then again, some also want to work with a convicted child rapist, so there's your counterpoint); still, the idea of a "Woody Allen" picture can hardly be appealing these days since his name neither guarantees success nor publicity. But enough about box office grosses and paparazzi politics; Midnight has had almost no ill spoken of it, hence my desire to catch this before it completely slips my mind and I have to scrounge for it in three months on DVD.

It's gonna be a long night
Following her parents on a business trip to the capital of France, successful screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) travels along with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) to what he considers the greatest city on the planet. Wishing to avoid interacting with Inez's pompous friend Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil wanders the streets of Paris alone until he hinds himself lost. When the midnight clock strikes, he finds himself magically transported back in time to the 1920's, what he considers Paris' greatest era. Gil interacts with the famous artists who frequented the great city during that time, and the more often he visits the past, the less he wants to remain in the present, where he feels unwanted and under-appreciated by the people around him.

"Would you like a little more pretentious attitude with your Cabernet?"
The trailer for Midnight in Paris is a good example of one that doesn't do the parent product justice. While in the two minutes you're given to decide whether you want to see the film, Midnight comes off as unfunny, dull, confusing and perhaps a bit trite, certainly not the epitome of entertainment that the critics' circle would have you believe. What actually comes out is shockingly fun; not only is the dialogue clever and the story sound, but Allen really lets you see why he considers Paris to be such an amazing city. Many camera shots are beautifully realized, either allowing you to wonder at  the city's beautiful skyline or marvel at the maze of its enclosed streets. Allen doesn't let you get the idea that Paris is anything less than a MAGICAL city, and that means the human drama centering around the location's charismatic aura feel more honest and natural, not unlike Vicky Cristina Barcelona's love affair with Spain.

Yes, that's Allison Pill. Very different from her Scott Pilgrim role
One of the best aspects of Midnight is actually meeting the many writers and artists who Gil is inspired by on the big screen. From F. Scott and Zelda Firzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stall) and Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Gil is at first terrified of the implications that he has become trapped in the past, but eventually grows comfortable as he discovers that he is where he wanted to be all along. He's reliving a golden period in Paris' history, and we get to see the combined fruits of that labor. It helps that the actors convincingly portray the more characterized of these in the few scenes in which they appear. Though they may not be the most important part of Midnight, they are still an entertaining and charming element, crucial to the success of the picture.

Dammit, now I want to be there NOW
The acting present here is also better than you might initially think. I can't remember the last time I've been excited to see Owen Wilson in ANYTHING (just that it's been a LONG time...), but it's little surprise that he can take on Allen's written dialogue and come out on top. Though it would be easy to dismiss Owen as a Woody Allen knockoff, he really does seem to make the role his own, and not come off as just a cheap copycat. Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Adriana, a 20's Parisian whom Gil falls for and is also in love with the French capital. It's not the strongest Cotillard role I've ever seen, but she still manages to exude the same charm that has powered her Hollywood career. McAdams and Sheen are good in their roles, though both are essentially portrayed as "the bad guy" and are shown having no redeeming qualities. It's one thing for Sheen, whose character Gil can't stand due to his pompous nature. But one of the themes Midnight introduces is the idea that someone can be in love with two women at once, and while it's easy to see our intrepid explorer falling for Adriana, it's equally difficult to see him having fallen in love with Inez. There's no reason given for Gil to fight for Inez, a seemingly strange omission when that theme is so obviously struck.The coup that casting directors pulled off was hiring former model and singer Carla Bruni to play a small role. I don't know how they managed to secure President Nicolas Sarkozy's wife for the part, but the gorgeous Bruni does a good job, even if her involvement in the film itself is more than a bit surprising.

Bruni can read books to be any day
Spending my afternoon seeing Midnight in Paris ended up being much more entertaining than I could have imagined, as the storytelling, acting, and surprising humor kept me intrigued and attentive throughout the entire film's run. Sure, it's a bit fantastical and at times a bit to-the-point (especially during the present day scenes), and some scenes are slightly out of context with the rest of the story, but I honestly never expected in this day and age to love a film featuring BOTH Allen and Wilson. Honest and charming, it falls in at #8 for 2011. For Allen, Midnight in Paris might be his best work in years, or at least his most deservedly attended. After all, far too many of his works have fallen by the wayside, never to be recovered. Does anyone out there even REMEMBER Cassandra's Dream? Or Scoop? Melinda and Melinda, anyone? If you do go ahead and give yourself a gold star, but I guarantee you most people DON'T. That's the real tragedy of Allen's career; in the decades to come, much of his work will likely fade into obscurity, while James Cameron's Avatar will sadly be remembered for generations to come.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Brightest Day or Blackest Night?

Are we getting sick of comic book films yet? That question will have been answered this past weekend when the take from the opening of DC Comics' Green Lantern has been counted out. Reported to be a $200 MILLION picture, its creation represents a huge risk, especially since there are only a handful of films released this year that earned that much. A large number of superhero/comic book films have been released this year as well, as titles from the mediocre Green Hornet to the excellent X-Men First Class making 2011 unparalleled for like releases. To top things off, Green Lantern has always been a B-class superhero for DC comics, with the company rotating the emerald mantle among a number of different characters to attract readers (Alan Scott, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, Kyle Ranier; take your pick). The point is that Green Lantern is a nice idea for a movie, but doesn't quite pack the anticipation for an audience comprised of more than your local fanboys (you know who they are). Despite these concerns I was still interested in seeing this film (and scoffed at by any who were told), not only because I'm a pseudo-comics fan, but because I was also attracted to the talented cast that featured Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively and Mark Strong. I also heard nothing but good things about Peter Sarsgaard as the film's villain, and with those combined talents I simply couldn't say no to an opening weekend show. I was surely only one of a few (my theater was sadly half-full) but sometimes you go into a film anticipating little more than visual spectacle; sometimes that's all you get. Other times you may come away with something more.

I hereby induct you into the Society of Bro's
After panicking and mentally freezing during a training exercise, test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is grounded and unable to come to terms with the fear that has plagued him his whole life. That makes the next series of events even more unbelievable, with the arrival of a dying alien, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), and a cosmic power ring that he hands to Jordan, naming him the newest recruit to the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force that protects the innocent. One of the Corps' greatest enemies, a being powered by fear called Parallax (Clancy Brown) has escaped imprisonment and is building strength before attacking the Lanterns outright. With Earth square in Parallax's path of destruction, Jordan must overcome his fears and save the universe, proving he has the mettle to be a true hero.

Hal's awkward prom years...
Though this title is far from the first comic book film released this year, Green Lantern did have one distinct advantage out of the gate; it was the only major property from DC Comics to have a release for 2011. In the past, the products of DC's rival Marvel Comics have often made for poor films, while DC has enjoyed great success, especially with the franchises born from their greatest heroes, Superman and Batman. For a long time, it seemed like their products could do no wrong (Yes, I am ignoring Steel, starring former Celtic Shaquille O'Neal). In recent years, it has been the opposite, as DC has barely maintained a minimum quality to their theatrical releases, with the obvious exception of the Batman reboot. Green Lantern gives the comic company a potential frontline unit, to build not just one but a series of films around.

Yeah, if I were you I'd get that looked at...
On the casting front, at least Green Lantern sports the right names for the job. Hal Jordan for years as a comic character was kind of square, so shoehorning Reynolds into the part works out exceptionally well. Reynolds brings the same blend of talent and humor that he brings to every role, resulting in an entertaining performance that screams "leading man". His natural charisma of course is the reason he's been so successful in the first place, but he really tries to stretch himself to new heights here. It's too bad all his best jokes were revealed in the film's several trailers; many funny moments elicited nary a titter from the audience. Lively again forces herself away from the Gossip Girl spotlight in a more mature role. After being underrated in last year's The Town, Lively doesn't quite ascend to those lofty heights; however, she still acts beyond her years as Carol Ferris, who thankfully is no mere love interest for Jordan, as she's too smart, strong, spunky and brave to be stuck in that gutter. She would probably be seen as the best part of the cast, if it weren't for Sarsgaard. The actor, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for the 2003 film Shattered Glass, does a wonderful job playing Hector Hammond, an acquaintance of Jordan and Ferris who unwittingly becomes exposed to the influences of the film's main villain and becomes one of Green Lantern's nemeses. It helps that the role is sympathetically written, as you actually feel sorry for Hammond over the course of the film. Sarsgaard takes that aspect and runs with it, and how this man hasn't had a high-profile leading role astounds me (mayhaps our good friend Elmo has something to do with it, Sarsgaard being married to Maggie Gyllenhaal, his longtime object of affection). Some of the supporting roles are chocked with talent, but don't do a whole hell of a lot. Angela Bassett is wasted on DC supervillain Dr. Amanda Waller, who doesn't do much more than deliver dialogue in a sardonic manner. Same with Taika Waititi, who plays one of Jordan's best friends but only appears in the few scenes where Ferris doesn't fit in. Morrison may be best known as Jango Fett but does a good job in the small role of dying alien Abin Sur. The Green Lantern Corps as a whole doesn't really do much more than that, with Strong once again putting forth a strong (sorry) performance as Sinestro, and Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan doing some suitable voice work on the side. You get the feeling that if there are future films, they will hold a larger role, but here don't have as much of an impact.

How does one best admit that he has a magic lantern and flies around in tights all day?
And impact is mostly what's missing from Green Lantern, both in the visuals and in the narrative. It's obvious that a lot of money was spent rendering and polishing all the animation and converting it into yet another 3D film. More than a few of the visuals however look unfinished, especially those that take place in space and on the Green Lantern planet of Oa. Though the imagery is better than several similar films over the course of 2011, this was already a film that relied on visuals more than story, and to falter even slightly in that respect makes for an underwhelming experience. The main story's focus on overcoming fear is hardly strong enough to stand on its own, although it is at least done in a realistic manner. Green Lantern also takes some darker turns in the final act which feel out of place amid the rest of the story. Finally, the film doesn't feel like a standalone product, with Parallax and Hector Hammond seemingly holding the fort until a real villain comes along, presumably in a sequel.

A childhood dream of being known as "The Crimson Avenger goes unfulfilled
But a sequel would seem unlikely, given the circumstances. Instead of introducing a new superhero to the masses, Green Lantern only manages to appeal to diehard fans of the character, and even the groundbreaking comic series Sinestro Corps and Blackest Night over the past few years hasn't raised his popularity to the point where a movie is necessarily a great idea. Still, the film is better than it probably has any right being, and overall I enjoyed myself in the theater despite its multitude of flaws. It will probably be remembered as among the weakest superhero films of 2011, but people shouldn't take that as a sign that is a bad movie. It had a good if not great time, and if you can't wait until it comes out on DVD, do yourself the favor of at least not paying premium rates to see it in 3D.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Everybody's Still Kung-Fu Fighting

Okay, today's post SHOULD have been about the new Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson as a man who falls in love with the French capital. It's been critically hailed as Allen's best directorial effort in years. So how did I go from that to seeing Kung Fu Panda 2? Sigh. I really have nobody to blame but myself. On Tuesday, when I had the choice of seeing either Paris or The Tree of Life, I chose the latter. My reasoning was that Allen's film had been enjoying some success; with Tree likely relegated to the limited release and indie theater circuit for the time being, and Paris getting more or less a wide release treatment, there was a better chance of Tree's showings winding down quickly, while Paris would get a little more time in the spotlight. So I decided to drag myself through Tree, thinking full well that a viewing of Midnight in Paris would be readily available only two days later, which was the next time I'd get the chance to head in town to the theater.


Turns out that in only two days everything changed. With my daily schedule only allowing me to see something in the mornings, I was upset to discover that the theater, which had been showing daily matinees of Midnight in Paris for the past couple of weeks, had NO morning showings on this particular Thursday. Dammit. So I was left with a conundrum. No backup plan, no interest in the latest rentals (heck, I saw most of them in the theater anyway), and very few options. Well, I did have one BIG option, but there was a reason I had been avoiding it. When the original Kung Fu Panda came out in June of 2008, it was critically acclaimed and exceeded all expectations when it came to the box office. It even broke box office records in China, becoming the first American-produced film to make over 100 million Yuan. Yet I ignored the film when it came out for two reasons; one, it looked like a kid movie, and not one that adults could really get into as well; the second reason is that I've never been a big fan of Jack Black, and anything featuring him in more than a supporting role I usually can write off completely. Still, an awards pedigree (the original was nominated for both the Golden Globe and Academy Award) plus a lack of real alternatives forced my hand, and for the second time this year (the first was Rango) I ventured into a theater where the median audience member age was less than would be legal to consume alcohol in Massachusetts.

Oh, that panda! He's so CRAZY!
The film begins with an opening montage that describes the backstory for the film's villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Shen, an heir to the throne who was exiled due to some shockingly not-for-kids genocidal acts committed in the quest for power, has returned to his family's throne bearing a new weapon, one that threatens to destroy all of Kung Fu. Meanwhile, Dragon Warrior Po (Black) and his allies the Furious Five are asked to investigate the death of one of the greatest martial arts masters, and Shen and his secret weapon may be somehow involved. Additionally, Po learns that the goose Mr. Ping (James Hong) is not his biological father and searches for the answer to who he really is and who his parents were.

Semblematic to the amount of plot they tried to cram in there
It's this last part that actually generates the most interest for this film. While it was odd enough to think that a goose would have a panda son in the first film, this idea was mostly ignored, with the anthropomorphic element so in play that the question didn't even follow. With the revelation that Po was discovered and adopted, the story turns in parts to Po's identity and where he comes from, a sweet and subtle story that has him remembering bits and pieces of his childhood before he ended up in his adopted father's care, and seeking his original family out. While adoption stories are not infrequent plot threads, the execution here is one of the few shows of perfection the film possesses.

Yeah, yeah, we get it. The panda is crazy.
With that exception however, the rest of the film proves to be almost an almost complete mediocrity. Although there is one inventive fight scene early on that has the heroes battling in a village of musicians (and has some of the background music performed by a direct result of the action), much of the settings and story feel unoriginal and uninspired. The setup for the story is rushed and without surprise, and the whole thing would have benefited if we HADN'T been told the entire backstory up front. Even worse, the jokes fall flat, and most of the film slips between unfunny comedy and too-serious drama. Tack on less than spectacular visuals and you don't come up with a very entertained viewer.

About to take this franchise behind the shed to hide it from the children
One of the worst things an animated feature film can do is load itself down with celebrity voices, because hey, who cares if they'll never actually see the actors on screen? Sure, you can argue that you're getting the best people for the job by hiring Hollywood's elite, but your argument goes down the tubes when that "elite" talent does very little over the course of the film. Black is better than expected in a leading role, with Po easily being one of his deepest performances while still allowing him to retain his usual brand of laid-back enjoyment. And Gary Oldman is wonderfully malicious as Lord Shen, his presence perfectly voiced for the role. It's the rest of the cast that is either misused or overpaid, as Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Dustin Hoffman having little to no character development, meaningless and unfunny dialogue, and more or less being paid top dollar for replacement level jobs. Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme are other big names brought in whose talents are unrecognizable on screen and therefore unnecessary. Essentially it's money thrown out the window, and doesn't do the film any favors.

Those pesky Jehovah's Witnesses never learn...
Despite authentic appreciation for ancient Chinese customs and kung fu action films, there's not a whole lot to invest yourself in when it comes to Kung Fu Panda 2. Cheesy and unfunny dialogue and an average story mean that your first impression upon seeing trailers for this film were most likely spot on. Kids might get some fun out of it, thanks to second-grade physical humor, but rationally-thinking adults would probably be better off with a good book. Unless your children are begging, skip it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Eternity of Boredom

There are dozens of films I've been looking forward to this year. Some of them, like X-Men First Class, Bridesmaids and Win Win have matched or even exceeded my early predictions of excellence. Others, like Sucker Punch and The Mechanic, didn't even come close. And then there are the films that have come out of nowhere to surprise and appease my defiant spirits, sporting titles like Insidious and Source Code. Director Terrence Malick's latest film (his most awaited since 1998's Thin Red Line) The Tree of Life wouldn't fall into either of the first two categories. I was neither enticed nor impressed by the film's trailer, which included a number of various images focusing not only on the birth of a universe but a random 1950's family and showcasing the names of legitimate stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The only real draw was Malick's association, which was ascertained afterwards, and only by my film-knowledgeable friends like Brian of Moving Picture Trash. In any year, a director of his caliber releasing a film should be a big deal. It would be like throwing out legendary names Scorsese and Spielberg, but with far more talent behind the camera. I still wasn't convinced that The Tree of Life would be a film worth watching, but at least I had a reason to go to the theater and give the whole thing a shot.

The story composed by The Tree of Life is at first glance somewhat complicated. It begins with the birth of our universe, chronicling the eons chronicling the Earth's beginnings and slowing down once we reach the lives of a seemingly random Waco, Texas family during the 1950's. They're a classic American family, with the hard-working father (Pitt), stay-at-home mother (Jessica Chastain), and three sons, with the story focusing on the eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken). The film tells the story of Jack growing up and figuring out his route through life; that of his innocent and modest mother's, or his determined but emotionally unstable father's. Meanwhile, the story is told through the memories of the eldest son in modern days (Penn) while remembering his deceased younger brother.

As I stated before, the film essentially begins with the Big Bang, the birth of the universe and Earth as we know it. The photography Malick uses is amazing, and he captures amazing images of volcano eruptions, crashing waves and meteor impacts that simply stun the audience into submission. The evocative visuals of cell division, cosmic dust and planetary birth are given almost biblical treatment, a welcome blend that allows for both science and religion to co-exist (of course, the even brief inclusion of dinosaurs means that anyone on the Religious Right is sure to name it their worst 2011 film). As outstanding as anything Nova or National Geographic can put out, I easily could have put up with this type of movie for two hours and discarded the human element altogether.

Sadly, the human story is both necessary and where the film falters. While Malick does a commendable job at disjointing the story with seemingly random bits and pieces that aren't really part of the story yet accurately reflect the jumble that is the human memory, this element of Tree is marred by boring stretches and yet another trite coming of age story. The question that constantly rears its head (by the main characters, no less) is to the existence of God, why He allows evil to happen, and if He does, why should the characters care to be good? Young Jack will either go down the way of Grace, the path of goodness and charity that his mother has lived, or the way of Nature, the self-serving but strong and profitable route that his father has tread. Unfortunately, this must be explained by voice-over narration, because otherwise the audience would have had an even more difficult time understanding than many of the people in my theater already did. Malick is often guilty of making films that are too intelligent for even some of the smarter audience members out there, and sometimes needs to spell things out to keep these folks engaged.

When the story DOES get cohesive, it becomes unbearable to watch. Frankly, I didn't CARE about this random 1950's family and their issues, religious or otherwise. If I wanted more of that, I'd watch Mad Men. I didn't even care as much about the rampant religious doubt that at first takes over the film and is then seemingly discarded for more mundane issues. Sure, I know I'm not the most religious individual out there, but there could have been some interesting conversation between the film and its audience that for some reason doesn't fully materialize. I would have been more interested in more cosmic images rather than a twenty-minute sequence in which Jack breaks into a neighbor's hose, then feeling guilty about it.

At least there is some good acting to offset the frailties of the story as a whole. Pitt once again surpasses his previous set bar, and his complex portrayal of Jack's well-meaning but distressed father is one more accolade to add to his steadily more impressive resume. Many sons grow up both loving and resenting their fathers, and Pitt captures that essence that makes you feel the same for him even as an adult watching. Chastain is definitely a surprise, the young actress making her mark this year here and in the upcoming The Debt. Though her character is sometimes referred to as naive, Chastain carries a knowledge about her, wisdom that supersedes her innocence. She's easily one of the film's best parts, and when the film focuses on her it's often to the benefit of all. The three sons are each ably played by the young men involved, but only Jack is really focused on, and Hunter McCracken (in his feature film debut) is just good enough to carry the weight of the narrative on his back. I may not believe that Sean Penn really deserved those two Oscars he has been awarded, but he's still a very talented actor in the right situation. That situation isn't here however, and I frankly could have done without the modern day Jack storyline, as while I recognize its importance I still fell the film could have been just as stable without it.

There are those who will commend The Tree of Life for its ambition and vision, those who will cement in their minds that this was indeed the best film of 2011. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, it was greeted with much praise and even won Malick the prestigious Palme d'Or award for being best in show. It has received just as much scrutiny, however, and I fear I must add my voice to that mix of folk who didn't appreciate it nearly as much a the film's backers would hope. If it was all down to technical wizardry, The Tree of Life would have it all, with an amazing mix of wonder and amazement that was fun to see but shouldn't have had to carry the film. With the lackluster human tale in the mix, however, it's more of a wash than it should be. With a thoroughly confusing finale and too much snooze time to contemplate how the film could have been shrunk into a more manageable format, I can't recommend it very highly. I'll stop short of calling it pretentious, but only because I can see from where that impression might come. If you REALLY feel you can understand the effect Malick is going for, or if you are a fan of his previous works, then you can possibly sit through all 138 minutes of The Tree of Life with little to no problem. If however you think Pirates of the Caribbean was the best movie you've seen this year, then you can and should probably skip it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

School's Out for Summer

This weekend didn't afford me any time to venture to the theater and see one of the few big screen releases I haven't yet seen (Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life will come soon), so it was up to Netflix to get me through the void. This time the film in question was another pick by Southland Dan, the 2001 camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer. I remember almost nothing about this film when it was first released, only the cartoonish movie poster and bad reviews that accompanied it. The same weekend Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes opened to the tune of $65 million, Wet Hot American Summer made less than the big screen re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which I actually DID see. A critical and commercial failure, the film released in only twelve theaters across the country, drawing in less than $300 thousand. Created by members of one-time MTV comedy troupe The State, it eventually became a cult hit, mostly on the strength of its satire and all-star cast. Despite it being Dan's favorite film, I was unsure how to proceed. After all, Dan and I miss more often than we hit, and often the reason one of us likes a film is the reason the other hates it. There's a reason I refer to him as "Southland Dan" in the first place, and it isn't because of a film we agree on.

Just before her career went nowhere
Taking place in 1981 at Camp Firewood, a Jewish summer camp, the story (if you can call it that) follows the final day of camp activities before the campers go home to their parents and the counselors go home to theirs. Of the vast amount of input shown, there are two distinct storylines. In the first, Camp Director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) tries to capture the eye of associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce) who just happens to live near the campgrounds. In the second, nice guy counselor Coop (Michael Showalter) falls for camp hottie Katie (Marguerite Moreau), who is involved with bad-boy Andy (Paul Rudd). Both lead up (along with a half dozen non-sequiter asides) to the big talent show that caps off the final day of summer, which might also be the camp's last day of existence.

It's time to play: Name That Preppie!
Let's ignore the fact that this camp is run by the kind of teens who pretty much created Jason Voorhees, and that the film contains far too many stories to be encapsulated within a single day. That's obviously intended. In fact, it's obvious how inspired the filmmaking process was by sketch comedy, as most sequential scenes had little to nothing to do with one another, and often seem to break logic probes in their desire to tell the next joke. Sure, that's hardly a knock with this type of film, but it does make the whole thing feel disjointed and unbelievable. A little of that is okay; a lot of that spoils the milk.

Camp Firewood's entry-level Jedi program
The film does feature some funny stuff in between long pauses of wait, and of course almost none of it has anything to do with the main tale. Tops is easily Christopher Meloni as a disgruntled short-order cook who talks about surviving the Vietnam war and utters unintentional self-revelations to those around of him. If you ever wanted to see Law & Order: SVU's Elliot Stabler comment on his "dick cream" or announce that he's about to hump a refrigerator, then that would be more than enough to recommend this film. Other good scenes include sex-driven Victor (Ken Marino) undergoing off-screen heroics to save a raft full of kids, Andy (Rudd) disposing of witnesses to his supervisory negligence, and a scene in which many of the counselors visit the local town "if only for an hour". It's a shame that these scenes have far too much of a break between them, as the vast majority of the film is utterly unfunny, lacking even in interest.

Yes, this is a pre-stardom Elizabeth Banks. No, she was no good then, either.
The really sad thing is there simply wasn't much interesting for this talented cast to do. Future stars like Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks mixed well with veterans like Molly Shannon and Michael Ian Black, but there simply wasn't enough for the various characters to perform. Some, like Rudd, were at least a part of the main story, while Shannon was segregated into her own private skit for much of the film to the benefit of no one. And it doesn't help that the funniest thing Janeane Garofalo ever did was associate with Ben Stiller. Am I the only one who doesn't get how she became a big star, even if it was only for a short while? I get the feeling that if Wet Hot American Summer had been produced as a regular television program instead of a motion picture, the storytelling would have worked much better, and the film's aimless approach to narration would have felt much smoother. Instead we have a movie that could have been funny being merely silly, and not always in a good way.

I don't think he likes where his hand has gone...
I suppose I should have seen this coming. Dan almost certainly should have seen this coming, but to be honest I'm not sure how he couldn't. I barely made it through Wet Hot American Summer, a poor film with some good bits that is more interesting for what came after it than the actual film product itself. There are some films that I can understand becoming cult hits; this isn't one of them. I know I'll have those who disagree with me on this, but I can't in good conscience recommend this to anyone, as it's not funny enough for comedy fans and not even the parody and satire aspects are good enough to recommend. If you have to see it, fast forward to the Chris Meloni scenes and a particularly humorous road trip. That's all you really need from this film, and even that's more than most people really deserve to see.