erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Monday July 18, 2011

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris (2011)

WARNING: MOVEABLE SPOILERS

I never thought Woody Allen would make me this happy again. I thought he and I were done. I once wrote: “Our relationship has gone on too long and I know all his bad habits.” And that was back in 1998. Since then, after “Sweet and Lowdown,” a good film but hardly one that made me happy, he disappointed with “Small-Time Crooks,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else,” and “Melinda and Melinda.” He revived, ironically, away from New York, with “Match Point,” which, sadly, I never saw. I did see “Scoop” (eh), “Cassandra’s Dream” (bleh) and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which everyone liked and I didn’t, and I told myself that was it. Life was short, Woody was old, we were done. Move on.

poster for Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (2011)I didn’t believe the good reviews for “Midnight in Paris,” either. Hadn’t everyone liked “Vicky,” too? The people praising the film probably didn’t know Woody like I knew Woody. Eventually though, I succumbed. Paris and Hemingway? Rachel McAdams and Carla Bruni and Marion Cotillard? Porquoi pas?

Glad I did. At 75, Woody has finally found the leading man to replace himself. I never realized how Woodyish Owen Wilson’s inflection already was—but west coast rather than east coast; gentile rather than Jewish; laid-back rather than angsty.

Wow. A west coast Woody. What would Alvy Singer say?

Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter attempting a novel, and visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Early on, he waxes rhapsodic about Paris, particularly Paris in the 1920s, and she tells him, “You’re in love with a fantasy,” to which he responds, holding her, “I’m in love with you.” Both are true. Or: the she he imagines her to be is the fantasy. They’re obviously not suited for each other. She doesn’t like Paris, she doesn’t like Paris in the rain, her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are conservative assholes: the father is all about mergers and Bush-era Francophobia; the mother shops and carps. Gil and Inez have nothing in common. They’re the couple thrown together in the beginning of the film so the filmmaker can break them up in the end.

By this point, too, Woody has already picked sides by declaring his own love for Paris. The first few minutes of the film consist entirely of five-second shots around the city—the Arc d’Triomph here, Luxemburg Gardens there, Eiffel Tower everywhere—backed by a mellow jazz score. It’s “Manhattan” without the Gershwin grandiosity or Woody narration. It’s truly beautiful.

So Gil not only has to deal with a combative wife and her Republican parents but a perennial Woody nemesis: the pedantic blowhard after his girl, here named Paul and played exceptionally well by a bearded Michael Sheen. Paul is an expert, or “expert,” on everything from French wine (“too much tannin,” he says of the ’59) to Rodin. He even corrects (incorrectly) the tour guide at the Rodin Museum on whether Camille Claudel was Rodin’s wife or mistress. The tour guide, in a nice touch, is played by Carla Bruni, the former mistress, current wife, of the president of France.

Apparently Paul is also a great dancer, and he and his wife ask Gil and Inez along for a night of dancing. Inez accepts, Gil begs off, and instead walks the streets of Paris. Inez tells him not to get lost so of course he gets lost. As he’s sitting on some steps, tired and forlorn, a nearby clock chimes midnight, at which point, a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet, full of carousers, pulls up and pulls him in. They take him to a party where he meets a woman named Zelda (Alison Pill) and her husband Scott (Tom Hiddleston, Loki from “Thor”). Their last name? Fitzgerald. He points at them. “Huh, Same as...” They seem confused by this. They also seem very 1920s. And the guy on the piano singing the Cole Porter song (Yves Heck) sure looks a lot like Cole Porter.

It’s not until they go to another bar and meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that ... It’s less the other shoe dropping than the jaw dropping. It’s giving in to the fantasy, which Gil does when he asks Hemingway to read his manuscript. This Hemingway is a fully formed version who talks as Hemingway writes. When Gil praises his book—most likely “In Our Time”—Hemingway responds, “It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it's not only noble but brave.” Hemingway talks moveable feasts and Fitzgerald calls Gil “old chap,” as if he were Gatsby, which not only makes sense—since, you could argue, all of this is in Gil’s head, so he’s not dealing with the real Hemingway and Fitzgerald but his versions of them—but it’s fun, too.

Hemingway refuses to read Gil’s manuscript, claiming he already hates it—if it’s bad and untrue, he says, he’ll hate it; and if it’s good he’ll be jealous and hate it even more—but he promises to set him up with his mentor, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who will read it with a clear mind and heart. When Gil arrives there the next night, Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) is showing off the latest painting of his mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whom Gil falls for.

Everyone knows I love me some Cotillard, but her scenes, and Gil’s romance with her, actually slow the movie down. The greater romance—for both Gil and Woody—is with art and literature and 1920s Paris. Those are the scenes that made the movie for me. Offering Zelda Fitzgerald a valium. Running into Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Salvador Dali (a hilarious, scene-stealing Adrien Brody) at a local pub. Pitching Buñuel an idea for a later Buñuel film—“The Exterminating Angel” from 1960—and leaving Buñuel as perplexed as a film student forced to study Buñuel. “What do you mean no one leaves the room?” he says. “Why?”

The more immersed Gil becomes in 1920s Paris, the more estranged he becomes from Inez, who winds up in the arms of Paul. There’s a great scene in modern-day Paris where Paul bores everyone with his views of a Picasso painting—the same Picasso painting we saw at Gertrude Stein’s—and Gil corrects him as thoroughly as Marshall McLuhan corrects the pedantic fucker in “Annie Hall.” Again: fun.

Fun ... but light. Adriana, it turns out, loves La Belle Époque as much as Gil loves the 1920s, and she and Gil, wah lah!, wind up back there, where they run into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), and Gauguin and Degas (Olivier Rabourdin and François Rostain), who wax nostalgic for the Renaissance. A light goes on for Gil. No one is happy in their time. Most eras look great past their time. Thus Gil returns to 2010, for good now, breaks it off with Inez—Hemingway makes him realize she’s having an affair—and walks the streets, until, at midnight, he meets the usual unattached beautiful French girl (Léa Seydoux), and they take a walk together in the rain. The End.

It’s a nice fairy-tale ending. I liked it ... enough. It’s the movie’s lesson that feels less-than-satisfying to me.

Obviously a dramatist can’t leave his protagonist buried in a nostalgic past. At the same time, not all eras are created equally. I loved this version of 1920s Paris—who wouldn’t?—but, more, I loved the idea of traveling to a place where art and literature matter. Where it’s discussed, seriously and interestingly, all the time. In my own time, I just don’t see it or feel it. The artistic enclaves I’ve encountered tend to be full of the Pauls of the world, while the wider world, obsessed with wealth, power and technology, could give a shit. It’s harder and harder, in the digital age, to make a living as a writer, or photographer, or graphic designer. Even Philip Roth admits he doesn’t read novels anymore.

So I didn’t quite buy the lesson in the end. Even so: Thank you, Woody, for reminding me why I fell in love with literature in the first place. And why I fell in love with you.

Posted at 06:21 AM on Jul 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Thursday July 14, 2011

Movie Review: Bad Teacher (2011)

WARNING: HOT-FOR-TEACHER SPOILERS

Whoever produced the red-band trailer for “Bad Teacher” should get a prize. They managed to cull every funny moment from the movie and left us with, you know, this.

It should’ve worked. That’s the way with Jake Kasden movies, isn’t it? “The TV Set”: chronicling the ways TV networks butcher good shows. Should be good! “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”: a satire on every music biopic. Should be good! “Bad Teacher”: Cameron Diaz as a gold-digging, foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, smokin’ hot teacher. Should be good! But all of them are only trailer good. “The TV Set” not even that.

Poster for "Bad Teacher" (2011)What’s funny? Bluntness. Saying what everyone thinks but no one says. Example: Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith from “The Office”) and Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) are watching substitute teacher, and scion to a watch fortune, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), sit in with the teacher-only band “Period 5” at a local pub:

Lynn: I love how his eyes sparkle when he smiles.
Elizabeth: I want to sit on his face.

Elizabeth was going to marry another scion to another fortune but his mother intervened at the 11th hour and revealed her to be a heartless gold digger, so now she has to keep going with her horrible teaching job, which she does horribly. For the first half of the year she does nothing but show her students uplifting teacher movies (“Stand and Deliver”; “Lean on Me”; “Dangerous Minds,” etc.) while sleeping off the previous night’s drunk. Her goal is to get a boob job to better attract moneyed interests like Delacorte, but they cost, so she: 1) takes in a doofus roommate; and, 2) leads a school car wash in order to embezzle funds. Later she finds out that the teacher of the class with the highest score on the state exam gets a $5,000 prize, and, thus incentivized, she does a 180, drills her students hard and slams them for stupidity. In other words, she’s outrageous when she’s not trying and outrageous when she is. She, and the film, push the boundaries of good taste, as comedies do, to make us laugh. “Sign my yearbook, fucker,” she says to gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) at the end of the school year. He hands her his gym bag. “Hold my ball sack?” he asks innocently. Funny bit. Segel’s great. So is Diaz. So is Smith.

Here’s the problem. While riding the blunt, bad-girl honesty of Elizabeth, who says what everyone thinks but no one says, the film, like some polite Midwesterner, shies away from the thing everyone—or at least every schoolboy—thinks. Which is this:

I want to sleep with my teacher.

I’ll go first. I wanted to sleep with my second-grade teacher, my fourth-grade teacher and my brother’s fifth-grade teacher. This was before hormones kicked in. And none of them looked like Cameron Diaz.

In the car-wash scene, Elizabeth shows up in halter-top and short-shorts, does a Jessica Simpson all over the wet, soapy cars, and jaws drop. It’s as if they never noticed she was attractive before. Yeah. Cameron Diaz. These other characters have an innocence that is either annoying (rival teacher Amy Squirrel, played by Lucy Punch), endearing (Lynn), or unstated and all-encompassing (every student), and the joke in the movie is how Elizabeth rides roughshod over this innocence. But the innocence of her students, particularly as it relates to their budding sexuality and her full-flowered version, is such a lie as to make the entire film reek of falseness.

“Bad Teacher” is supposed to be a blunt, boundary-pushing comedy, but it not only doesn’t push this particular boundary—the “hot for teacher” meme—it pretends it doesn’t exist. It can’t go where Van Halen went 20 years ago. In the end, the movie is as prissy as Amy Squirrel.

Posted at 07:17 AM on Jul 14, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday June 20, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)

WARNING: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD SPOILERS

The problem with making a Spielbergian movie is that it gets compared to Steven Spielberg’s movies.

J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a total homage. It’s set in 1979, when Spielberg was at the height of his powers. The main character, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), is a sensitive boy who loses his mother as the movie begins, so the single-parent component is in place. He and his friends tool around on Huffy bikes, a la Elliott and his friends, and they encounter an extra-terrestrial that has crashlanded on earth, attacks humans as viciously as a shark, and just wants to go home. It’s “Close Encounters,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.,” all rolled into one.

Poster for "Super 8" (2011)But the magic isn’t there. We get magical components, but they’re just not connected properly.

Example. The movie is called “Super 8” because a bunch of kids in Lily, Ohio are making an amateur zombie flick with an 8 millimeter camera for a local filmmaking contest, and while they’re filming a scene at a train station, one of their teachers, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman, who played Mayor Royce on “The Wire”), drives his pick-up truck onto the tracks and into the way of a high-speed train. A massive train wreck results, the kids flee, but the camera, dropped on the platform, keeps filming.

What it films is the key to everything that happens from then on.

Cool! So when does this super 8 film come into play? At the 11th hour, when the entire town’s already been evacuated, when we’ve already had a half-dozen glimpses of the alien that escaped the train wreck, and when Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) has been imprisoned by the U.S. military for asking too many questions. And even then it only serves to convince one man, Deputy Lamb himself, that what he’s pursuing, what the Air Force is hiding, is an alien that escaped the train wreck. And it does this off camera.

Or take two scenes. Joe’s dog, Lucy, whom we’ve barely seen, goes missing, and Joe puts up a MISSING DOG sign on a community bulletin board. Then he steps back, the camera pulls back, and we see the entire bulletin board is filled with MISSING DOG signs. Spooky.

Later, Deputy Lamb is told by another police officer that Lucy has been found in another county. That’s true of all the dogs that have gone missing. He’s then handed a map with markers where all the missing dogs have turned up. Their town, in the center, is completely blank. Spooky.

The problem? Both of these scenes take place after we’ve seen one, possibly two attacks by the alien, which is a shadowy figure here, but which we know to be huge, powerful, fast, arachnid. (Super 8 legs, as it were.) We’ve seen a pack of dogs flee from its approach. We’ve seen it lift a cop car in the air and drag a gas station clerk from a mini-mart. Thus the community bullet board scene, and the scene with the map, which should be spooky moments, are really “No shit, Sherlock” moments. We’re given circumstantial evidence when we’ve already witnessed first contact.

Why didn’t Abrams combine the two “missing dogs” scenes and place them before the attack on the Sheriff? Lucy goes missing, we see the bulletin board, and instead of Joe doing nothing with this information (as in the movie), he goes to his father, from whom he’s estranged, and tries to tell him. But Jackson’s distracted, and he knows his son to be foolish and frivolous, so he doesn’t pay attention. Which is when the other police officer brings him the map. And Jackson looks at his son with something like respect, beginning the bond that will adhere by the end of the film, then back at the map with increasing concern.

Then you can go gas station, Maybe. I might not even have done that. It’s still too much of a reveal too early in the film.

That’s one thing Steven Spielberg knew: When to hide the alien/monster and when to reveal it. I’m not sure Abrams has that talent.

The kids in the movie are alright: Cary (Ryan Lee), the buck-toothed, braces-wearing, pyro kid; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the dull, tall kid cast as the adult in the film because he’s the dull, tall kid; and the fat, bossy director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), who’s the best friend of Joe, and who convinces Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the pretty girl in class, to join his cast to add “an emotional element.” Joe lights up around her in a way that’s pretty adorable, and their conversations together, or, even better, their silences, are also pretty adorable: sweet scenes of first love. That’s what Abrams gets right. He takes you back to a time when that other person could make you tingly with her mere presence.

The movie opens with a great visual shorthand: the local plant, where “Safety is our primary goal,” switching its “Days since last accident” sign to “1”: Joe’s mother. She was filling in for Alice’s father, Louis Dainard, a long-haired hot-rodder, and alcoholic, who’s already had several run-ins with Deputy Lamb, and the fact that he can’t make it to work this day, and Joe’s mother fills in for him and dies, seals the deal. Each man reminds the other of the tragedy. Each can’t abide the other. So as Joe and Alice get close, both parents, like modern-day Montagues and Capulets, warn their kid about the other kid; both warn the other kid to stay away.

I’m fine with all this. But when Joe finally argues back against his father, did he have to be so ... adult about it? There’s a vast unfairness in his father’s demands that would send any normal teenager into paroxysms of whining, but Joe responds as firmly and articulately as Gore Vidal arguing with William Buckley on “Firing Line.” He’s more adult than I’ve been in any argument in my life.

Eventually, after Alice’s final falling out with her father, she’s taken by the alien, and Joe and friends outmaneuver the U.S. military in the evacuated town to find her. Meanwhile, Deputy Lamb and Louis Dainard band together to find their kids. Then Abrams does two things I hate.

In the cab of the car, as Lamb and Dainard search the evacuated town for their kids and the alien monster, the two men reconcile. Dainard owns up and apologizes for missing that day of work; then the camera closes in on Lamb, who tells him, “It was an accident,” a thought which, a second later, he repeats with greater conviction. “It was an accident.” Just once in these types of movies, when one character tries to resolve a personal issue (a subplot) amidst a life-threatening, hugely momentous drama (the main plot), I’d like the other character to say, “Can you fucking concentrate? We’re trying to find our kids here! Before an alien monster kills them!”

That’s the first thing. Here’s the second thing.

The alien, it turns out, is subterranean, so Joe, smart lad, figures out he’s living underground, and finds a massive hole in the garage of a home near the cemetery where his mother is buried. He and Cary rappel down into it and find the alien working on alien technology, while its various kidnapped humans, including the Sheriff and Alice, hang upside-down like slabs of meat. Cary distracts the alien with an incendiary device, allowing Joe to scurry forth, release Alice, and breathlessly check to see if she’s alive. She is! She begins to breathe! Her eyelids flutter open! And she hugs him. (Awww.) And they have a heart-to-heart in the middle of the alien’s lair. (Huh?) With the alien seconds from returning, they unburden themselves emotionally, because surely this is the time and place to do it. Surely we would all do the same in their place. None of us would try to get ourselves and the others the hell out of there. It’s just the lair of an arachnid alien with superspeed and strength and intelligence who eats people. Unburden away.

To be honest I don’t remember much about the final 10 minutes of the movie. Joe and Alice begin to escape with the Sheriff and the others, but then the alien returns and picks up Joe and stares at him malevolently. And Joe, used to malevolent stares, calmly communicates with the alien. He uses his own tragedy, about losing his mother, to speak to the alien’s, about crashlanding on Earth and being incarcerated and experimented upon for 20 years. “We understand,” he says. The alien’s face, like a tiki god face, considers this and puts Joe down. With that issue finally resolved, the alien’s equipment begins to float away. The train wreck also released hundreds, maybe thousands of dimpled cubes, which twitch like Mexican jumping beans, and we’d seen one fly out of Joe’s bedroom and imbed itself in the town’s metallic water tower. Now these cubes all gravitate toward the water tower where they assemble themselves into a spaceship, which the alien climbs into. The spaceship is supermagnetized and all metals are pulled towards it, including cars, and including the locket, with his mother’s picture in it, that Joe has clung to throughout the movie. Joe holds onto this locket for a beat, two, three, before deciding, no, and letting it go, a symbolic gesture for letting the past go. Even though we’ve never gotten the sense that the past is weighing him down, and even though his mother has been dead only, what, five months now, still, it’s the end of the movie, and we need this meaningless symbolic gesture. And Abrams gives it to us. Which is odd, because he can’t even let go of his movie past.

And so the locket floats away. And so the spaceship floats away. And so the movie floats away.

Posted at 07:00 AM on Jun 20, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Saturday June 18, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern (2011)

WARNING: LET THOSE WHO WORSHIP EVIL’S MIGHT, BEWARE MY SPOILERS

I recently interviewed an attorney who talked about the seven-second rule: When meeting someone, we really only have seven seconds to make the right impression.

With that in mind, here is the opening narration for the new $200 million superhero film “Green Lantern”:

Billions of years ago, a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower. These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa. A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit. In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Together these recruits formed the intergalactic peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps...

Let’s break that down, shall we?

  • Billions of years ago...: During “Thor,” a transitional cue (“Where did he come from?”) led to the caption: “A thousand years ago,” and I burst out laughing. Now it’s billions of years ago? Apparently a billion wasn’t enough and a trillion seemed too much...
  • ...a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower: That sounds vaguely Third Reich-y. Or at least G. Gordon Liddy-y.
  • These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa: Why would immortal universe guardians need to create a world? Didn’t they have their own? Or did they need something more, I don’t know, in the center of existence to better watch over all of existence? And how did they come up with the name “Oa”? Noah without the nuh? Shoah without the shuh? A compromise between O and A?
  • A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit: Does this mean sentient beings in every sector of the universe have fingers? Or can one use another part of the anatomy? Man, a porno version of this movie is just dying to be made.
  • In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Psychotics welcome.

And there went Warner Bros.’s seven seconds.

Movie poster for "Green Lantern" (2011)This is the summer of second- and third-tier superheroes: Thor, prequel X-Men, Rainn Wilson. Now this. I could never understand anyone’s excitement over the Green Lantern. Even when I was a kid, he was a marginal figure in my DC Universe: not as cool as the Green Arrow, who was essentially a ripoff of Robin Hood, nor even the Green Hornet, who at least had a cool hat, car, sidekick. Green Lantern had a cool oath (“In brightest day, in blackest night ...”), but I could never wrap my mind around his powers. They were both marginal, because they weren’t his (they were the ring’s), and all-encompassing, since the ring could create anything to defeat the bad guys. Unfortunately, the Green Lantern, creatively challenged, usually imagined giant green versions of the following: a hammer, a saw, a broom. He patrolled the universe but his mind couldn’t get out of his local hardware store.

So what do you do this character? This is what screenwriters Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, director Martin Campbell, and all the good folks at Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, did: They doubled-down on dumb.

I mean, as bad as this opening narrative is, it’s worse. Because it’s full of lies.

It turns out one doesn’t have to be without fear to be chosen by the ring. And there is a force more powerful than will: fear itself.

Long ago, one guardian decided to experiment with fear and all of its wonderful yellowness (our color metaphoriticians were right!) and got consumed by it. In the process he created the intergalactic cloud monster Parallax. Which a member of the Green Lantern Corps, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), defeated and imprisoned on a faraway planet. Which was eventually explored by alien space travelers, who woke up Parallax. And Parallex consumed their fear and made its way out into the universe again, intent on revenge. Before we know it, Abin Sur is dead and Parallax has consumed worlds.

And what are the guardians of the universe doing during this time? Just hanging.

OK, so what do the Green Lantern Corps do to stop Parallax?

They hold a rally on Oa presided over by the purple, moustached, fussbudgety Green Lantern, Sinestro (Mark Strong), who speaks of willpower, after which all the Green Lanterns cheer and shoot their green beams into space and then shoot off into space themselves to take down Parallax. Yay! But they’re quickly defeated. Awww. And doubt fills Sinestro’s eyes. Booo. What happened to his willpower? That dissipated pretty quickly. And how does he survive Parallax? Did he retreat? Did he...?

Right. Back to our Green Lantern: Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds).

When Abin Sur was defeated by Parallax, you see, he managed to escape to the nearest planet, Earth, and, dying, he tells his ring to find someone worthy. The ring chooses Hal Jordan, who sleeps around, is late and irresponsible, and has daddy issues and possibly a death wish. His father was a test pilot but young Hal saw him blow up before his eyes. Now he’s a test pilot. We first see him going up against some high-tech, pilotless planes, and, after abandoning his wingman, former f-buddy Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), he takes the planes where he and they can’t survive, more than 50,000 feet straight up. Sure enough, they short-circuit and drop. So does he. But he shoots them down. He wins. Unfortunately, as he’s trying to regain control of his plane, he keeps flashing back to Daddy Dearest (“You’re not scared, are ya, Dad?” “Let’s just say it’s my job not to be.”), and is forced to bail out.

Watching this, I assumed that Daddy flashbacks would play out during the climactic battle with Parallax. Nope. He never has another one.

I also assumed he was a test pilot with the U.S. Air Force. Nope again. That’s private industry, Ferris Industries, and young, hot Carol, hotshot testpilot, is about to become its new CEO, taking over from her Daddy Dearest. Seems there’s nothing that a twentysomething girl can’t do.

Meanwhile, there’s a third Daddy Dearest, U.S. Sen. Hammond (Tim Robbins), who shows up all artificial smiles and handshakes at the test run. Later, we see a balding nerdlinger, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who is pulled from his late-night meal and online chess match by some FBI types, who take him to a lab, where, damn, there’s a purple alien just waiting to be dissected! “Why choose me?” he asks Dr. Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett), the ranking physician. Days later, the other shoe drops. Right. Dad. U.S. Senator. Forgot.

Question: Do Senate subcommittees really have that much pull? The most momentous scientific moment of a millennia and they’ll let just anyone muck around with it? During the dissection, of course, a bit of yellow gets on Hector and slowly turns him into a mini Parallax, with yellow eyes and a big throbbing head.

Meanwhile, Hal Jordan, now Green Lantern, travels to Oa for what amounts to basic training. He’s told, “Your will turns thought into reality.” He’s told, “The ring creates only what you can imagine.” Leaving one to wonder: So why doesn’t the ring choose someone with imagination?

GL is doing OK with his drill instructor, Kilowog (voice of Michael Clark Duncan), who, despite all the possibilities in the universe, talks and acts exactly like a PG-13 version of a Marine drill instructor, when Sinestro arrives. He says he will tolerate no weak links. He says Abin Sur was a great warrior and Hal Jordan insults his memory by wearing his ring. “You reek of fear, Hal Jordan,” he says. Then he leaves. Hal Jordan is a puddle by now. He returns to his apartment on Earth, takes off the ring, looks forlornly at his dad’s flight jacket. He couldn’t live up to his father’s memory. Now he has to live up to someone else’s?

Meanwhile, Hector grows more powerful and deformed; then he kills his father and moons after Carol Ferris.

Meanwhile the movie tries to glom off better DC products by revisiting the balcony scene from “Superman: The Movie,” and cadging a few soundtrack notes from same.

Meanwhile, during one GL/Hector battle, Parallax, in space, has its eyes opened (yes, it has a face), and veers toward Earth for the climactic battle with the drummed-out Green Lantern, who, in the interim, has figured out his strength is in admitting his fear, not pretending he doesn’t have any, and who finally defeats Parallax with a move similar to the move at the beginning: He flies close to the sun and Parallax is pulled in by its gravitation. GL would be, too, but there’s Sinestro and the other members of the Corps, finally, who create green bands to pull him to safety. For all the talk of the unity of the Corps, then, for all the bund rallies on Oa, it’s back to one dude who admits weakness, shows perseverance, and comes up with a daring maneuver. Our movies, like the ring’s creations, are limited only by our imaginations, which appear to be limited.

Let’s break this down for a second. The movie tells us that the Green Lantern Corps is made up of warriors without fear. Hal Jordan, a fairly fearless test pilot, is chosen to be a Green Lantern but is condemned for having too much fear. But somehow owning up to his fear makes him stronger and he defeats the fear-eating monster, which the fearless Green Lanterns couldn't defeat, by acting fearless.

A bit of a mixed message.

Worse, the movie gives us the billion-year-old Green Lantern Corps, the entire basis of the Green Lantern character, only to show us that it’s ... wrong. All that BS on Oa. Oa itself. Those worthless “guardians.” Not just boring. Wrong.

“Green Lantern” isn't exactly evil, but you should still let it escape your sight.

Posted at 10:04 AM on Jun 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday June 12, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

WARNING: CAN THERE BE SPOILERS IN A PREQUEL?

There’s a problem inherent in blockbuster prequels that “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t solve.

We all carry within us an assumption of human progress, the idea that, in endeavors such as athletics and technology, each subsequent generation eclipses the previous one. The 1855 record for the mile, for example, was 4: 28 by Charles Westhall of Britain. By 1914, it was 4:14 by the U.S.’s John Paul Jones. Britain’s Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954 with a time of 3:59.4, and the current record-holder is Hicham El Geurrouj of Morocco: 3:43.13. Progress.

Poster for "X- Men: First Class" (2011)In a prequel then, particularly a prequel about, oh, mutants developing powers, one would assume there would be regress. We’re at an earlier stage. Things are less developed. But the audience, and thus the marketplace, demands that each subsequent film, regardless of its chronological place in the storyline, contain ever more spectacular stunts and effects. So in the first “X-Men,” Magneto can, wow, flip over cop cars and turn dozens of rifles and guns against their users. Here? Forty years earlier? As he’s just learning his powers? He can lift submarines out of the water and turn hundreds of missiles against their users. It makes his cop-car trick look like paring fingernails. (See also: lightsabre battles between “A New Hope” and “Phantom Menace.”)

“First Class” begins in the same place—the exact same place—that “X-Men” began: Poland, 1944, young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) and his parents and the buckling metal concentration-camp gate. It was a great open 11 years ago but it left a question: “Didn’t the Nazis do anything with this kid with amazing powers?” Here we get our answer.

A silhouetted man in a window, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), watches and brings Erik before him. He speaks perfect German but he’s no Nazi. In fact he mocks the Aryan ideal of blonde hair and blue eyes because he knows there’s something better, and he knows Erik is it. But how to get Erik to access his powers as he did with the gate? Stress? Fear? Anger? He asks him to move a coin but Erik can’t. So he brings Erik’s mother before him and tells him to move the coin or he shoots the mother. He still can’t. So Erik’s mother is shot and killed before his eyes. That does it. Erik’s powers, Magneto’s powers, are unleashed: on the room, on the Nazi guards, on everything and everyone but Shaw, the man who killed his mother. We later find out that Shaw himself is a mutant, one who can absorb someone else’s energy, but in this particular scene we get no indication that he’s in fact doing this. Instead it looks like Shaw is walking through a holocaust unscathed. It looks like Erik doesn’t know what he’s doing.

So the movie answers one question (“Didn’t the Nazis do anything with this kid?”) only to raise another. The next time we see Erik it’s 1962, Geneva. He’s a man now (and what a man: Michael Fassbender), and, with Nazi coin in hand, he decides to search for Shaw and kill him.

Really? It took him 18 years to figure this out?

Meanwhile, Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) is hanging in Oxford pubs and using mental telepathy to attempt to pick up “groovy” girls despite the presence of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he’d first found starving in his parents’ house, and who apparently has a crush on him. At one point, when he objects to her objections, she tells him he has no friends but her. Again: really? He seems so likeable. And how did he know “groovy” would be such a hip word three years later? Can he also see into the future? Is that why his hair is longish before the Beatles even recorded “Love Me Do”?

I know. It’s a blockbuster. It’s a superhero film. But I can’t leave this aspect alone.

1962 is not 1964 is not 1967 is not 1974 is not today, but the movie gloms them all together and we wind up with a cultural and historical hodgepodge. Shaw in 1962 looks like a 1974 swinger. Banshee has a moptop. Miniskirts are already popular. London is swinging even though it didn’t begin to swing until, what, 1965? The CIA is known to all when, culturally, the acronym hadn’t quite stuck yet. (Cf., “Charade” (1963): “Mrs. Lampert, do you know what the CIA is?” “I don’t suppose it’s an airline, is it?”)

Should we talk race? In 1962, the real 1962, Pres. Kennedy had to send in the National Guard just to let James Meredith go to school, but here Armando Munez/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) shows up with superpowers and no one blinks. Apparently all mutants, even the bad ones, are colorblind. Apparently the CIA contains no racists. And, really, what’s Munez doing driving a cab in New York? Shouldn’t he be integrating Woolworth counters or marching in Albany, Ga.? He’s got superpowers! How can he just stand on the sidelines? I mean, does he identify himself as mutant first and black (or Negro) second? How about a dialogue where we talk some of this shit up? Instead: silence. For a long time the X-Men saga has been seen as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, with Professor X, in the Dr. King role, counseling integration, and Magneto, a la Malcolm X, suggesting war “by any means necessary.” Dudes: You’re in 1962. Give us the origin of the metaphor. Show Xavier watching King. Give us Magneto watching Malcolm X. Hell, have the two of them watching that famous MLK/Malcolm X debate from the period. Instead they play chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Deep.

Should we talk Cuban Missile Crisis? The X-Men, Xavier and Magneto united, spend the movie chasing after Shaw and his band of baddies, who are trying to start World War III by 1) suggesting that Americans put missiles in Turkey, and 2) suggesting that Soviets put missiles in Cuba. Problem? The U.S. put missiles in Turkey in ’61, not ’62, and the Soviets already had missiles in Cuba by the time we confronted them; they weren’t in the process of bringing them to Cuba, as the movie suggests. This second historical inaccuracy seems particularly odd to me. Why fudge the history? Because a U.S. Navy blockade of the island would be too tough to explain? Kennedy choosing the middle ground between war and diplomacy? Where’s William Devane and Marty Sheen when you need them?

Anyway, that’s the story. Shaw wants to start World War III so mutants can take over in the rubble, Xavier is trying to stop him, Erik is intent on revenge, and, in a late, good scene, he gets it, with the old Nazi-coin-through-the-skull trick. The Bad Guy is dead (Shaw), long live the Bad Guy (Magneto). The U.S. and U.S.S.R., seeing the mutants isolated and battling on an island, decide to wipe them all out while they can, which is when we get the turning-around-the-missiles trick. In the ensuing battle, Charles is shot and paralyzed, Raven/Mystique goes over to Magneto’s side, Magneto gets the helmet. The prequel ends in a place that can conceivably lead to the first “modern day” scenes in “X-Men.” Except, of course, we’re still 40 years away. What was Magneto doing all this time? Building his idiot contraption to turn humans into mutants?

I do applaud the casting of the principles. McAvoy brings charm to the Xavier role, while Fassbender is perfect as an angry young Magneto. (Comparing his humorless take to Sir Ian McKellen’s, I thought of the old Elvis Costello lyric: “I used to be disgusted/Now I try to be amused.”) I liked Nicholas Hoult as a young Hank McCoy, Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Lucas Till as Havok. Kevin Bacon looks like he’s having the time of his life chewing the scenery as Shaw.

On the other hand: Jennifer Lawrence hardly seems a young Rebecca Romijn; and while January Jones is as pretty as they come, and she does have a frosty demeanor that would suit a character like Emma Frost, the timbre of her voice destroys all illusions that she’s superpowerful rather than simply a semi-whiny Midwest girl. Sorry, JJ.

“First Class” isn’t bad but it’s second class and leads nowhere. I don’t quite see the point of it.

Posted at 07:42 AM on Jun 12, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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