erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Monday April 04, 2011

Movie Review: “Sucker Punch” (2011)

WARNING: DON’T GO SEE THIS MOVIE. OH, SPOILERS, TOO.

“Sucker Punch” combines the worst aspects of American culture in one movie. Bravo. There’s violence without consequence, titillation without release, a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen.

We get a scene, for example, where the five female leads, with names like Baby Doll and Sweet Pea, wearing fetishistic gear such as bustiers and fishnet stockings, walk in slow motion through the Allied trenches of WW I. In the air, bi-planes swoop and dirigibles soar. "Sucker Punch" theatrical posterOne of the girls has a bare midriff, another sucks on a lollipop. Around them, the doughboys stare with dead expressions. They’re not fighters, these soldiers, but the girls are, and they’re about to take on the Germans, who are zombies now, in order to retrieve a map, which is merely the first step in their journey. The fact that within the movie none of this is really happening—it’s all in the head of Baby Doll as she dances her erotic dance for customers, which, by the way, isn’t really happening, either—doesn’t excuse it. The insult to history is so overwhelming I wish someone had copywritten WWI and could sue.

As awful as all this is, though, the most awful aspect of “Sucker Punch” may be its form rather than its content.

Since storytelling began, around whatever campfire or inside of whatever cave, our stories have tended to the horizontal: this happened then this happened then this happened. Recently, for a generation now, our most popular stories, video games, have tended to the vertical: you go to this place, then advance through four levels to get to the next place, where there are more levels. “Sucker Punch” is like a video game except we have no control over it. Alas.

Here’s the horizontal story: A girl is committed to a mental institution, where, after five days, she is lobotomized. The End.

Here’s the vertical story: Baby Doll (Emily Browning), petite and blonde, with big eyes and full lips, deals with her incarceration in a mental institution by escaping into a fantasy world, in which her doctor, Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), is a Russian dance instructor, and an orderly, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac, in full throat), is a gangster who runs an erotic nightclub where all the girls are forced to dance. Why is this her fantasy—this odd mix of “Showgirls” and “White Nights”—rather than, I don’t know, the fantasy of writer-director Zack Snyder (“300”; “Watchmen”) and most of the fanboys in the audience? Sorry. Stupid question. I’m assuming Baby Doll is a three-dimensional character when she’s just a two-dimensional avatar for Snyder to move about to places where cool shit happens.

The cool shit, and most of the movie, doesn’t happen in the erotic nightclub, by the way. It happens in the fantasy world Baby Doll escapes into so she can perform her mesmerizing dances in the erotic nightclub. It’s the fantasy of her fantasy. And in this fantasy, she’s student to a wise man, known only as Wise Man, who is vaguely Oriental—she first meets him sitting in a temple in the lotus position and surrounded by Chinese characters and Japanese swords—but he’s played by Scott Glenn of Pittsburgh, Pa. Speaking in vaguely wise bromides with a tendency toward the American vulgar (e.g., “Don’t write a check with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass”), he sends her on a quest to find five items: a map, fire, a knife, and a key. And the fifth thing? “The fifth thing is a mystery,” he tells her. “It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory.” Then he sends her off to fight three giant samurai warriors in slow-motion

The actions in this double fantasy world correspond, in some fashion, to the actions in the fantasy world. So while, in Fantasy II, the girls steal the map from the zombie German commandant, in Fantasy I, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) steals a map out of the office of Blue Jones. One assumes this map-stealing corresponds to actions in the real world, the world of the mental asylum, but we barely see that world. We’re mostly just trying to get to the next level: first, World War I (map), then medieval castle and dragon (fire), then high-speed train (carrying a bomb: codenamed, clumsily, “kitchen knife”). Mom! Don’t bug me about the real world! I’m trying to get to the next le-vel!

It’s on the highspeed train that the fantasies fall apart. Rocket (Jena Malone), scrappy kid sister to Sweet Pea, dies on the train, and so dies in the kitchen of the erotic nightclub, and so, one assumes, dies in the mental asylum. And that’s our last double fantasy. The nightclub owner—read: nasty orderly—is onto the girls’ escape plan, and kills two of them. But then Baby Doll sticks a kitchen knife in his neck, sets a fire as a diversion, and uses his master key to unlock the doors to freedom. Except—still in the nightclub fantasy—there are too many 1940s gangstery dudes hanging out front. Which is when Baby Doll realizes what the fifth thing is. It’s herself. So she uses herself as a diversion to allow Sweet Pea to escape. And the moment the biggest gangster dude is about to shoot her in the head is the moment the doctor (Jon Hamm, of all actors) gives her a lobotomy.

That’s pretty much it. There’s some comeuppance for the nasty orderly, and, through the blissful face of a lobotomized Baby Doll, we see, in an apparent mix of Fantasy I and Fantasy II, Sweet Pea trying to board a bus to freedom, being stopped by cops, but being saved by the bus driver, the Wise Man, who uses subterfuge (an old Jedi mind trick) to send them away.

Meanwhile, the narrator (still Scott Glenn, I believe), asks the audience a series of questions about who holds what key to where, then gives us the answer that Baby Doll figured out for herself. “It’s you,” he says. “You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!” Cue: blast of hard rock/rap and the words “Directed by Zack Snyder.”

You know the guy at school who thinks he’s cool but is just ridiculous? Like Mike Damone, the ticket scalper, in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”? That’s “Sucker Punch.” “Sucker Punch” is the Mike Damone of movies.

What’s with this final message anyway? Yes, kids. Be like this movie. Go home, turn on your video game console, and fight.

Me, I went home, took a shower, and tried to wash this shit off me.

Posted at 06:32 AM on Apr 04, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Friday March 25, 2011

Movie Review: “Poetry” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” begins with the sights and sounds of a river flowing toward the camera. It’s the opening shot, one assumes, because it’s a nice poetic image that represents beauty, and the flow of life, and yadda yadda. Then one realizes the sound of the water is similar to the Korean word for poetry (shi), so it has that going for it, too. Then we see the body. This body—who she was and what happened to her—will drive much of the film, so the opening image does what the best poetry does: It also serves a purpose.

“Poetry” is a slowly devastating film. I went hoping for some uplift, as per the trailer, but the trailer lies. Trailers, particularly trailers for foreign films, tend to lie.

Poster for the Korean film "Poetry" (2010)Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee, in her first role in nearly 20 years) is a 66-year-old woman caring for her worthless college-age grandson, Wook (Lee Da-wit). She also works part-time as a housemaid for an apparent stroke victim, and generally views life with a kind of childlike wonder. That won’t last.

As the film begins, she visits a doctor because her right arm feels prickly. “It’s like that thing passing though,” she says, and when the doctor asks, “What thing?,” she points to the light bulb. “Electricity?” the doctor asks. She nods, adding, with a small, apologetic smile, “I keep forgetting words.” For her arm, the doctor recommends some exercises. For her memory loss, about which he’s much more worried, he runs a series of tests. Halfway through the film she finds out she’s in the early stage of Alzheimer’s.

Is there a correlation between mental illness and poetry? Why did I think that was part of the point of the film? Because it’s not here. Mija takes a poetry class at the local cultural center, because, she says, “I do like flowers and I say odd things,” but she finds the lessons of the teacher hard to fathom. On the first day, he tells his students that the most important thing in life, in poetry, is seeing. He holds up an apple. He asks them what it is. He asks them how many times they’ve seen an apple. A thousand? Ten thousand? He shakes his head. “Up until now you’ve never seen an apple before. If you really see something you can feel it.” He talks about the joy of white paper, “a world before possibility,” and the joy he has sharpening pencils. He tells the class that for their month-long class, “Everyone has to write one poem.”

At home, while Wook and his five friends hang out in his room with the door locked, Mija studies an apple, ponders it, before deciding, “Apples are better for eating than looking at.” But she keeps at it. She sits outside her apartment with a notepad, looks up at the trees, feels the wind, sees the leaves shaking. When she expresses frustration in class, the teacher tells her to find beauty. “Every one of you carries poetry in your heart,” he says. This is said right before Mija attends an impromptu meeting with five other men, the fathers of Wook’s five friends, who confer on the best way to handle the problem. Oh? Doesn’t Mija know? That girl who killed herself by jumping off the bridge and drowning in the river? According to her diary, she’d been raped, repeatedly, by their six children. The school, of course, doesn’t want a scandal, and no charges have been filed yet so the police aren’t involved. So if they can raise the money to pay off the girl’s mother, a small farmer, their boys will be off the hook. They’ve offered ... 30 million won. Five million each. What does Mija think of that? But Mija has already wandered out of the restaurant, stricken with horror.

The horror stays. As Wook keeps shoveling food in his face, watching crap TV and listening to crap music, as the stroke victim finagles a way to make his baths more interesting, as the fathers finagle a way out of the trap their sons have set for themselves, she stays horrified. She attends a sparsely attended funeral service, a Christian service, for the girl, and steals away with a framed photo of the girl in her purse. The fathers send her to deal with the girl’s mother but instead she engages the woman, working in the fields, in conversation about a crushed apricot she found on the path. Initially we don’t know if she’s involved in subterfuge—a way to get close to the woman first—but after she turns and begins to walk away, smiling at this small connection she’s made, she suddenly remembers, and the look of horror, accompanied by panic, returns. Does she go back and confront the woman with their tawdry offer now? One can feel her dilemma. One senses how impossible her task is, and, back in the city, she lies to the fathers, telling them the mother simply wasn’t home.

But she confronts Wook. She confronts him about the girl, shakes him, asks him why he did it, puts the girl’s photo on their breakfast table. She studies the photo. She visits the school and presses her nose to the window of the science room where the rapes occurred. The girl is the crushed apricot on the path. She is the apple the teacher talked of at the beginning of class. People have seen the girl thousands of times but no one sees her. The boys saw her as one thing, the fathers as something else. The mother as something else? Mija studies her the way the teacher told the class to study the apple—not because it’s an assignment but because she can’t help it. She can’t get over the horror of it.

Is the poem she writes a great poem? It’s not bad. Is “Poetry” a great film? It’s a good film that never suggests sentimentality. It simply shows us what it needs to show us.

The IMDb.com synopsis reads as follows: “A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class.” But this is like the trailer: full of uplift (“strength”; “purpose”) that doesn’t exist in the actual film. The synopsis should read: “A heinous family crime forces a sixty-something woman to write a poem.” That seems dismissive but it’s what happens. She sees the girl, she feels the girl, in a way others do not. Out of this, poetry arises.

Posted at 07:19 AM on Mar 25, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday March 23, 2011

Movie Review: “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” (2010)

WARNING: SCHPOILERS

At the Seattle Jewish Film Festival screening of the documentary “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” the only character onscreen who was razzed by the mostly Jewish audience was not Adolf Hitler, who made his usual appearance as counterpoint to Hank Greenberg slugging 58 homeruns in the summer of ’38 (“every one a homerun against Hitler”), but current baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who bought majority ownership of the Seattle Pilots in 1969 and promptly moved the team to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers. As Selig, a talking head in the doc, proudly discussed the move, the hissing began, slowly at first, then winding its way through the auditorium as other, less-baseball-savvy viewers picked up on what was actually being said.

Way to go, Bud. Not many Jews can get razzed more than Hitler by Jews.

“Jews and Baseball” is a welcome doc, a fun doc, but it arrives with two strikes against it. The first is Aviva Kepner’s superlative documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (2000), which covers a lot of the same ground: baseball as avenue to Jewish assimilation; the name changes and anti-Semitic slurs and leatherlungs; the debate over whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the pride that “one of our own,” etc., etc., tall and broad-shouldered and good-looking, etc. etc. If you know “Greenberg” like I know “Greenberg,” a lot of “Jews and Baseball” will be familiar.

Poster for the documentary "Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" Where it differs, of course, is taking in the whole 150 years of baseball history. So we get not only Hankus Pankus but Barney Pelty, the Yiddish Curver (1903-12), and Moses Solomon, the Rabbi of Swat, John McGraw’s Jewish answer to Babe Ruth, who hit 47 homeruns in the Southwest league in 1923, played two games for McGraw, got into a salary dispute, and left for football. Zay gezunt. We get Al Rosen, who had a helluva year in ’53, then went through salary disputes with, of all people, Indians’ GM Hank Greenberg. We get Ron Blomberg, baseball’s first DH, and Shawn Green, signing autographs for the kids, and snippets of Denis Leary’s great, anti-Mel Gibson rant as Kevin Youkilis played a superlative first base. And, of course, we get Sandy Koufax, the Left Arm of God, who broke decades of silence to become a talking head in this doc.

But this 150 years is actually the second strike against it. How do you create a cohesive story, an arc, from that 150 years? Written by Ira Berkow and directed by Peter Miller, “J & B” inevitably goes for the chronological approach, which isn’t bad; but as we chomp our way through the years, we take two huge bites (Greenberg and Koufax), some mid-sized bites (Rosen), and then a lot of what the candy-makers call “fun-sized” bites. They’re not that much fun. I would’ve liked to know more about Pelty, for example, or all those Cohens who changed their names in the '10s, and what they went through. I suppose I’m asking for that which doesn’t exist, or which might not be that interesting.

A counterpoint to my critique is provided by Elliott Maddox, who played everywhere in the 1970s, and who first shows up giving shit to Blomberg for ruining baseball with his DHness. Ronnie, we know, is Jewish. But Maddox? Turns out he converted and his Christian mother is glad he did. She’s happy he believes in something. As if to prove his Jewishness, he also has one of the funnier lines in the doc. He talks about being a good two-strike hitter because he lived his entire life with two strikes against him: He was black and Jewish.

So two strikes against it but the doc is a good two-strike hitter. I’d call it a clean single or a looping double. (“Greenberg” is a homerun.)

The Al Rosen section is good if incomplete. Too much of his shortened career is blamed on Greenberg.

I liked learning that, Adam Sandler aside, and despite a Jewish wife and two bat-mitzvahed daughters, Rod Carew never converted.

Both Moe Berg and Marvin Miller probably deserve their own docs.

It’s the Koufax section that recommends the movie, but not necessarily because of him. He’s fine as a talking head. He’s aged incredibly well. (Although I’m curious how his arm is after all these years, since that was the reason for his shortened career: the fear of losing that arm.) But the greater insight comes from his catcher, Norm Sherry, who talks about that moment in a 1961 spring training game when he told the usually wild Koufax that he should forget about speed and just throw the ball over the plate ... and Koufax promptly struck out the side with pitches that, Sherry was quick to inform him, were faster than when he was trying to throw hard.

Ron Howard, of all people, adds insight to this section. He was a national figure himself in the early 1960s, as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and, living in L.A., Koufax became his favorite player. He talks about the poetry of Vin Scully’s perfect-game call: how Scully kept mentioning date and time as a way of letting late-arriving listeners know that something historic was happening without jinxing the proceedings by bringing up the dreaded words “no hitter” and “perfect game.” More, when Koufax and Drysdale unprecedentedly held out together in the spring of ’66, and there was bad press because of it, and little Ronnie Howard was inevitably disappointed because of it, he still got out pencil and paper, did the math, and realized that he, working on “The Andy Griffith Show,” was actually making more money than the great Sandy Koufax. He knew that wasn’t right.

Is it odd that the best talking heads in the doc tend to be gentile? Where are the guys like Don Shapiro and Bert Gordon, two Tigers fans, who helped make the “Greenberg” doc such a joy? Where is Jane Leavy, who wrote the great book on the great Koufax? Where is Rod Carew?

I do think baseball fans should see “Jews and Baseball” if they get a chance. There’s enough here for them. For everyone else, I offer a noncommittal Jewish shrug.

Posted at 06:57 AM on Mar 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday February 23, 2011

Movie Review: “The Housemaid” (2010)

WARNING: REVENGE-SERVED-HOT SPOILERS

Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” (2010) is based upon Kim Ki-young’s “The Housemaid” (1960), a classic Korean film that was only recently discovered by cineastes in the West. Both “Housemaids” are about the horror that results when a new maid has an affair with, and a pregnancy from, the man of the house; but there are two major differences in terms of story.

In the original, the family is middle-class. They’ve finally bought a home, which they’re fixing up, but the husband has to work two jobs and the wife takes in sewing. At the same time, they’re happy. It’s the housemaid, a sexually predatory femme fatale, who instigates the affair, and ultimately destroys both happiness and family. Basically: it’s how a singular, outside corruption destroys a collective, familial innocence. Meaning it’s a story as old as the Garden of Eden and as oft-told as “Fatal Attraction,” “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” and the tabloid exploits of Angelina Jolie.

In Im Sang-soo’s new version, the family is fabulously wealthy and powerful, and their home is vast, clean and cold, with an elongated fireplace that seems to produce no heat. The housemaid, Eun-Yi (Jeon Do-yeon), is an innocent, and it’s the husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), who instigates the affair. Basically: it’s how a singular, outside innocence is destroyed by a collective, familial corruption. Meaning it has more in common with most westerns than it does with Kim Ki-young’s original.

The housemaid as outside malevolence who destroys a familial innocence (above, in the 1960 original), and as an outside innocent who is destroyed by familial malevolence (in the 2010 remake).

The new “Housemaid” begins in almost cinema verite fashion. On what looks like a Friday night in Seoul, an unnamed and unknown woman moves out on a four-story ledge as, below, vendors prepare food, girls frolic in a second-story danceteria, and couples wonder where to go for the evening. A minute later she jumps. It causes a minor stir but life, such as it is, goes on. One of the vendors, Eun-yi, with her friend, visits the scene of the crime: a chalk outline stained in blood. Is this what spurs her to improve her position and get the housemaid job? This reminder of the shortness of life? She doesn’t know it, but looking up to the height from which the woman jumped, she’s looking into her own future.

We’re introduced to the family piecemeal. Here’s the older housekeeper, Mrs. Cho (a glorious Yoon Yeo-jeong), who is herself so entitled she enters Eun-yi’s apartment without permission before hiring her. Here’s the young mother, Hae-ra (Woo Seo), with huge, swollen belly, doing pregnant yoga and reading picture books on Matisse. Here’s the young, stoic daughter, Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyun), acting less childlike and more knowing than Eun-yi, who dotes on her. Finally, here’s the father, Hoon, or Mr. Goh, arriving late, walking before two bowing associates, drinking his expensive red wines and playing his Beethoven sonatas.

Is there a correlation between the westernization of the Gohs and their corruption? Have they lost their Koreanness and thus their souls? Jean-Michel Frodon of Cahiers du cinéma compared the original director, Kim Ki-young, to Luis Buñuel. Is Im Sang-soo, in this regard, the Korean Olivier Assayas?

We know what’s going to happen, of course. We’ve seen the poster—Eun-yi crouched before a bathtub, all bare legs and apron, something breathless in her face—and we’ve read the synopsis, full of words like “erotic” and “steamy.” That’s what draws us in. That’s why we’re in the audience. But those adjectives are slightly misleading. At a mountain resort, yes, Mr. Goh enters the servant quarters with a bottle of wine, demands Eun-yi reveal her body, feels her up, demands and receives oral sex. But nothing is particularly “steamy.” This is a cold thriller. It’s filmed cold, its people are cold, they live in a cold mansion. Dark blues and steel dominate. The first words in the movie, in fact, are “It’s cold, where should we go?” Only the revenge at the end is served hot.

A question: If Eun-yi is truly innocent, why does she go along with the affair? Her own answer, to her friend, is compartmentalization. She tends to the Mrs. during the day and the Mr. during the evening. Mr. Goh, meanwhile, deals with any romantic thoughts she might mistakenly have by tucking a check into her shirt. I pay for this, too.

We also know the affair will blow up—badly. The question: Who will be ally to Eun-yi and who an enemy? Or is she surrounded by enemies?

Mrs. Cho is the wild card. Early on she seems as dismissive as the family; but then we get a great scene in the bathroom of the servant’s quarters. Eun-yi is on the toilet while Mrs. Cho, cigarette going, holds forth from the bathtub. She calls the job RUNS (Revolting, Ugly, Nauseating and Shameless), and counsels Eun-yi away from it:

“You get up in the morning and think about what you have to endure and [grimaces] it makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.”

Mrs. Cho already knows about the affair; and it’s while eyeing Eun-yi in the bathroom that she figures out she’s pregnant. What to do with this information? She goes to Ha-rae’s mother (Park Ji-young), even more beautiful than her daughter, who is full of distant, flutey compliments about Mrs. Cho’s son becoming a prosecutor, but who proves to be the most villainous element in the story. She knocks Eun-yi off a ladder, and watches her fall two stories to the cold, marble ground. She is never far from her daughter’s ear, into which, Lady Macbeth-like, she pours her calm, poisonous thoughts. “I should’ve pushed her from someplace higher and ended things,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s the matter-of-factness that’s scary.

Ha-Rae fixates on the affair and its various betrayals (“with a common maid,” etc.), but her mother sees the baby as the real problem. It gives Eun-yi power, makes her a rival, almost an equal, and they can’t abide that. Eventually they confront Eun-yi, who is now aware that she’s pregnant, and give her money for an abortion; but Hae-re, eyes opening, recalls the way Eun-yi talked baby-talk to her own swollen stomach, and figures Eun-yi will want the baby. The poisoned thoughts of her mother become literal poison, which she slips to Eun-yi, which induces a miscarriage. It happens in the bathtub. “No, don’t do this,” Eun-yi cries as she tries to hold it all together. “No, baby!” It’s a heartbreaking scene.

Now the family is through with her but she’s not through with them. “I can’t get it out of my head,” she says later. “What happened here. It’s so horrible.” So she does to them what they did to her. She creates an image so horrible they can never get it out of their heads.

“The Housemaid” is melodrama, and occasionally over-the-top, but it’s anchored by great performances, including Jeon, whose Eun-yi is, sweet, childlike, and slightly off throughout, and Yoon’s Mrs. Cho, whose stoic demeanor hides, not a secret smile for her employers, but a secret hatred. (Yoon, recently seen stealing the show in “The Actresses,” also played the lead in Kim Ki-young’s second housemaid film, “Woman on Fire,” in 1971.)

Woo, meanwhile, managages to coat Ha-Rae’s nastiest lines with a topping of sweetness. When she slaps Eun-yi for the affair without mentioning the affair, and Eun-yi apologizes for the affair without mentioning the affair, she comes back with a faux innocent, “For what?” She wants Eun-yi to say it. She can’t forgive Mrs. Cho, either, for going to the mother rather than her with the bad news, and for the rest of the movie wears her down. “Mrs. Cho,” she says in her dreamy, singsongy voice, “why are you chattering on late at night with that annoying voice of yours?”

Ultimately, for all its “erotic” and “steamy” qualities, this is a movie about class, and how the very rich are different than you and me—although Mrs. Cho would probably flip that cause-and-effect order. “Scary people,” she says at one point. “Probably why they’re so rich.”

The epilogue is a dreamy sequence right out of David Lynch, as the Gohs, seemingly mad, celebrate Nami’s birthday outside in the snow, with champagne, Hollywood art and English. No one speaks Korean. Their corruption is complete. They are homeless now.

Posted at 06:47 AM on Feb 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011, Movies - Foreign
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Tuesday January 18, 2011

Movie Review: “The Green Hornet” (2011)

LET’S ROLL, SPOILERS

The Green Hornet has always been the lamest of superheroes. He was created in 1936 by George W. Trendle, co-owner and managing partner of Detroit radio station WXYZ, as a modern update of Trendle’s previous creation, the Lone Ranger. Like the Ranger, the Hornet wore a mask, fought crime (often posing as a criminal himself), and relied upon a faithful companion: a Japanese valet named Kato, who became a Filipino valet after Pearl Harbor and a Korean valet for the 1940’s movie serials. The Hornet’s real identity, debonair newspaper published Britt Reid, was even posited as the grand nephew of John Reid, the Lone Ranger’s real identity.

I first came to know the character through syndicated re-runs of the 1966-67 TV series, starring Van Williams as The Green Hornet, and Bruce Lee as Kato, which was created in the wake of yet another successful series: the camp classic, “Batman.” This Hornet had a couple of things going for him. He rode in a cool, black Mustang; he looked cool in his black mask and fedora; his theme song, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” was cool, while his sidekick, Kato, wearing his own black mask and chauffeur’s cap, was way cool.

But even as kids we knew something was wrong: The Green Hornet didn’t do anything. Kato drove the car. Kato was the bad-ass in fights. Basically the Green Hornet was his own Robin. He was the superhero overshadowed by the sidekick.

Thus the obvious task before screenwriters Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg (“Pineapple Express”), director Michael Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Sony Pictures Entertainment: How to update this lame character for 2011 audiences?

Their answer? Make him lamer.

It’s not a bad answer, actually. They just don’t go far enough with it.

This Britt Reid (Rogen) is the spoiled son of a crusading newspaper publisher, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Brit is put in charge of “The Daily Sentinel” but he’s hardly read it. What has he done with his life? Not much. He likes to party with beautiful women. Who doesn’t? He likes beer. Ditto. He’s basically an everyman with gobs of money. He also likes a nice cappuccino in the morning with a leaf design in the foam. But the morning after his father’s funeral, the leaf is gone and the coffee’s shite, and after throwing a tantrum he learns that a servant named Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou), whom he fired the day before, always made his morning cappuccino. So he hires him back. That’s how they meet.

Kato, it turns out, is not just a master barista. He’s a martial arts master, a scientific master, a guy who redesigns the father’s black mustang with the material of shark tanks. Reid can barely keep up. “I was born in Shanghai,” Kato says. “Love Japan,” Reid responds. Not a bad in-joke for a movie that gives its Chinese character a Japanese name.

Their first night-time excursion is collegiate and Oedipal, and recalls an episode of “The Simpsons”: James Reid was buried next to a giant statue of himself; so the son, still fuming that daddy was considered a great man, cuts off the head of the statue. Then he witnesses an attack on a nice couple by a gang of cackling idiots. He confronts them and runs. They’re about to kill him. But Kato to the rescue.

Then the cops chase them from the scene. But Kato’s souped-up car to the rescue.

And we’re on. Britt has his grand idea to “pose like villains and act like heroes.” He also decides to be his own J. Jonah Jameson: He will turn this character who decapitated his father’s statue, seen on grainy, green footage, into a villain. And he will call him: The Green ... Bee!

Kato to the rescue again with a better name. The Green Hornet is born.

The two take on the L.A. underworld, run by a man named Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, in his first role, and it’s a thankless one, since winning best supporting actor for “Inglourious Basterds). Reid as the Green Hornet gets in a couple of blows now and then, but it’s mostly Kato, as fighter, or Kato, as designer of high-tech weapons and cars, who gets the work done. But Reid never seems to notice this. He still thinks he’s the hero. He’s as deluded as Ronnie Barnhart, Rogen’s character from “Observe and Report.” Is this the new Rogen role? The guy who’s scary in his delusions? The ostensible hero who isn’t really a hero?

At one point, Kato designs a gas gun but only makes one for Reid. When Reid questions him on this, Kato implies (rightly) that he doesn’t need one. Now it’s Reid who chafes under the idea (a correct one) that he’s the weaker half of the duo. So he promptly shows his worth by shooting himself in the face with the gas gun. He’s out for 11 days.

Should we look at their relationship symbolically—as a backdrop to geopolitics? The American is rich, talentless and stupid, but with a sense of privilege. The Chinese guy knows everything, can fight anyone, and can even make a damn good cappuccino, but he has to listen to the American. Who thinks he’s Japanese. No way the filmmakers weren’t aware of this dynamic.

A shame they didn’t press this theme. Instead, what breaks the two up is ... wait for it ... a girl, Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), a temp who becomes full-time secretary to Reid because she knows things like “how much trouble newspapers are in these days.” Both men make plays for her: Reid obviously and thus humorously; Kato subtly and thus creepily. She’s not interested in either.

There are grand, meaningless subplots. Was James Reid in the pocket of the corrupt local D.A. (David Harbour)? Will Kato accept a $1 million assignment to kill Britt Reid? Blah blah blah.

Reid’s stupidity is magnified through two laugh-out-loud bits. At a sushi bar with the corrupt D.A., we get a high-tech flashback of Reid piecing everything together. At which point the corrupt D.A. says something like, “I can see by the stupid look you’ve had on your face for the last five minutes that you’ve finally pieced everything together.” It recalls, like the decapitated statue, “The Simpsons,” specifically Homer.

At the same time, Reid manages to get the corrupt D.A.’s confession recorded, and he and Kato, reunited, are chased back to The Daily Sentinel, where Reid can upload the audio onto the Internet. The damage done to the building so he can perform this simple task is insane. But he’s doing it. As Kato holds off the bad guys, we get the traditional “Hollywood bar of upload,” with the hero saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” to technology he doesn’t understand. In the audience, I’m thinking, “How can they make this interesting? What can we get at the other end that’s unique?” Answer? A pop-up window: NO DATA RECORDED. “I’m so stupid!” Reid says, slapping himself in the forehead.

Unfortunately the movie fudges Reid’s Homer Simpson moments by allowing him Kato’s power at the end: In a moment of crisis, time slows down, and, boom boom, he is able to take care of the bad guys. What took Kato a lifetime of training, Reid simply stumbles into. It’s the American way.

Question: Is all of this simply humorous or truly subversive? I.e., are the filmmakers pandering to the audience (“Idiots like you can be heroes!”) or are they trying to slap sense into them (“Your hero is an idiot, Idiot!”)?

My hero of the film, anyway, doesn’t wear a mask. He’s Axford (Edward James Olmos), an editor at The Daily Sentinel, who, after James Reid dies, is forced to watch the newspaper he’s worked on for decades, and which is barely surviving as is, become the plaything of three people who know nothing of journalism: Reid, Kato and Lenore, who is suddenly holding forth at edit meetings as if she’s Ben Bradlee. He is made redundant. At this point he tries to set Reid straight, and begins: “I know you think my experience ain’t worth shit...” Truer words by the American workingman to his boss were never spoken.

 

Earlier incarnations: 1940 (left) and 1966. The updated version contains two homages to Bruce Lee, the 1966 Kato. Can you name them?

Posted at 08:14 AM on Jan 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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