erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2012 posts

Saturday March 31, 2012

Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Is there some cinematic law whereby the more lifelike the mythological creatures the less lifelike the human counterparts? The greater the special effects, the lesser the story? Let’s call it Michael Bay’s law.

There’s no Kraken that can be released in “Wrath of the Titans,” but we do get fire-breathing lion-dragons, giant cyclopses, and—finally!—the titular titans, which appear to be whirling devil dervishes that land as meteors and battle Greek forces with two or three bodies on one trunk. While whirling. It’s actually pretty cool.

The main villain, meanwhile, isn’t Ralph Fiennes as in the first movie, but his father, Kronos, who is portrayed as a giant lava man that growls. He’s CGI. And he erupts and he fulminates and he takes out dozens of lesser characters, but there’s no personality there. There’s no there there. What’s his goal? Revenge upon his sons, who imprisoned him? Then why does he take out dozens of Greek soldiers but miss Zeus and Hades? And why are they humanoid while he’s, you know, a giant lava man? Basically he serves the function of the Kraken in the first movie. We hear about him, and hear about him, and then he appears, giant and monstrous, and causes chaos for a minute or two; then Perseus (Sam Worthington) unleashes the necessary weapon—Medusa’s head in the first movie, the combined weapons of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades in this one—and takes him out in like 10 seconds. You blink and it’s over. Crisis averted. Except for the crisis in popular cinema.Perseus isn’t a character. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy. We get faint outlines and actions but everything else about him is blurred. It’s the CGI that’s sharp and in focus.

Perseus, the demigod, last seen killing the Kraken, is living a simple life as a single father to a 10-year-old boy, Helius (John Bell), and as a humble fisherman, on the Greek coast. His wife, Io (Gemma Arterton), died between movies. We see him genuflecting by her tombstone. It reads: “I’m not doing the sequel. I can’t go into it. I’m just not.”

Then up pops biological Dad Zeus (Liam Neeson), who confesses that with people praying less, the gods are weakening. This means all of their work is being undone, including the underworld prison Tartarus, which holds both titans and Kronos. And if they escape? “The end of the world,” he intones.

Perseus shrugs and goes back to fishing and gazing with pride and love at his son. End of the world, schmend of the world. He doesn’t connect “end of the world” to his world until a two-headed dragon shows up and threatens his son. Then it’s off to battle.

Too late. Another disgruntled, jealous son of Zeus, Ares (Edgar Ramirez of “Carlos”), along with Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who has never forgiven his brother for condemning him to the underworld, have teamed up with Kronos, the giant lava man, and taken Zeus captive. He’s chained in the underworld now. His arms are slowly turning to lava while his hair is quickly turning white.

Thus when Perseus prays to the gods at the Mount of Idols, only Poseiden (Danny Huston) shows up, tells him what’s going on, and gives Perseus his task. Then he dies. Poor Danny Huston. He must’ve had five lines between the two movies.

The task? Gather all the demigods in the world for a frontal assault on Hades. Sorry, that’s not it. That would make sense. No, he’s instructed to gather just one demigod, the half-human son of Poseidon, Agenor (Toby Kebbell, who is our comic relief but isn’t funny), along with a more battle-ready Andromeda (Rosamund Pike taking over for Alexa Davalos), plus a few meaningless others, and, with this rag-tag team, travel to a distant island to battle giant cyclopses and get Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), the architect of Tartarus, to hand out blueprints. Unfortunately, at the last second, Ares arrives and kills all but Perseus, Andromeda and Agenor, who, together, stumble, for what seems like an eternity, toward hell.

Meantime, in hell, Hades and Zeus are bonding. I guess they just needed quality time together.

The big battle takes place on Earth. Kronos erupts, here come the Titans, and the Greek forces (HOO-ah!), along with Agenor and Andromeda, and eventually Zeus and Hades battling side by side, do their best to hold them back, while on the Mount of Idols, Perseus fights Ares to get the final weapon with which to destroy Kronos.

Early in the movie Zeus tells Perseus, “You will learn that being half human makes you stronger than a God.” Then he adds, “not weaker,” so we know what stronger means.

But it’s total bullshit. On the Mount of Idols, Ares, a full god, kicks Perseus’ ass. It’s not even close. He could break him in two. Why doesn’t he? It’s not in the story. Perseus has to become the underdog before he can win. He has to overcome great odds, and even greater pain, to become the demigod version of Rocky Balboa or John McClane. Because that’s what we want. We want the folks—like us, we imagine—who keep coming and coming despite the odds. Perseus isn’t a character. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy. We get faint outlines and actions but everything else about him is blurred. It’s the CGI that’s sharp and in focus.

On the IMDb boards, people are asking if this movie is better than “Clash of the Titans,” which has to be one of the saddest questions ever. Is it smarter than George W. Bush? Does it taste better than poop? Do I like it more than banging my head with a hammer? The sadder answer? “Clash of the Titans” was horrible but “Wrath” is worse. At least in the first we had Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham. They added something. This one gives us uncomic comic relief, a battle-ready Andromeda who can’t battle, and a Perseus who forgets his entire raison d’etre from the first movie. In that film, Hades killed his adopted parents and sister, and Perseus burns to take him out. He has the chance here. Zeus is dead, Hades is weak, Perseus eyes him. With revenge? Will he take him out now? Will he even reference his raison d’etre from the first movie? No. “All my power is spent,” Hades says. “Who knows? I might be stronger without it.” Then he walks away. Perseus watches him and smiles.

Oh, Hades, you old so and so. Nothing will keep you down, will it?

Then Perseus goes and kisses Andromeda. Because he’s supposed to. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy.

The era of the gods is ending, we’re told in “Wrath of the Titans,” but it’s also true of our movie gods. We have characters by committee and corporation now. They’re copies of copies of copies of copies. Pray for them.

Banner poster for "Wrath of the Titans" (2012)

Posted at 09:24 AM on Mar 31, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Tuesday March 27, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’m surprised “John Carter” is as good as it is.

It really shouldn’t work. Writer, director and creative force Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) adapted a 100-year-old sci-fi/fantasy story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which was serialized in 1912, before world wars and the modern assembly line and women’s right to vote, and made a good 21st-century adventure yarn out of it. Sometimes that yarn is a bit threadbare, sure, but mostly it’s solid. Given the source material, it has no right to be.

Poster for "John Carter" (2012)Yet Disney is going to lose $200 million on it. It’s the biggest bomb of the year, the decade, the century. This. Not any of the “Transformers” movies, not any of the “Twilight” series, but this. That’s what I don’t get. It’s not that audiences decided to stay away from “John Carter”; it’s what they go to.

Battle of the HBO stars
I admit I cringed during the opening. We watch a mid-air battle, very swashbuckly, while a voiceover attempts to sort out who’s who on Mars. Zodanga? Barsoom? Helium? It made me long for a “Star Wars” crawl so I could read it all myself. It made me long for simple phrases like “Rebel” and ”Empire” so I’d know who to root for:

Mars. So you name it and think that you know it. The red planet, no air, no life. But you do not know Mars, for its true name is Barsoom. And it is not airless, nor is it dead, but it is dying. The city of Zodanga saw to that. Zodanga, the predator city. Moving, devouring, draining Barsoom of energy and life. Only the great city of Helium dared resist, stood strong, matched Zodanga airship for airship, holding fast for a thousand years. Until one day the rulers of Zodanga became cornered in a sand storm and everything changed.

Sab Than (Dominic West) seems set upon, and he’s played by that McNulty dude from “The Wire,” so I should root for him, right? Wrong. He’s from Zodanga, the predator city, and he’s cornered. But then Matai Shang (Mark Strong) appears, and gives him a crackly, veiny blue weapon from “the Goddess,” with which he routs the Heliumites. Because it’s Mark Strong, we know it can’t be good. Does that guy ever play someone who’s not totally evil? Can’t a brother get a romantic comedy now and again?

At this point we get title, JOHN CARTER, boom, and cut to Earth, New York City, 1881, and a “Sherlock Holmes” vibe. We see our title character (Taylor Kitsch) sending a telegram to his nephew, and introducing himself in James Bond fashion: “Carter. John Carter.” He’s also being followed. Then all of sudden he’s dead, and his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabra, who has a kind of Paul Dano vibe), is directed to read his journal. Which is how we get the rest of the story.

It begins, truly begins, in Arizona in 1868, when, instead of being a rich sonofagun, John Carter is a former Confederate cavalryman, and current gold prospecter, who simply wants more supplies. But he’s mocked at a supply outpost by two rowdies and a fight ensues. Then the U.S. Army shows up, tries to take him, and a fight ensues. Stanton uses humor and quick cuts to give us a sense of who John Carter is. He’s a fighter, humorless but hapless. His instinct, when threatened or trapped, is to punch and bolt. He’ll do this for much of the movie. It’s a good bit.

The Army, in the person of the equally hapless Col. Powell (Bryan Cranston), wants Carter to re-up, but John Carter is through with war. Civil War? Indian wars? He doesn’t care. But when several cavalrymen are set upon by a group of Indians, Carter returns to save Powell and we get this well-worn exchange. Powell: “I thought you didn’t care!” Carter: “I don’t!” Not a good bit.

They’re chased into a cave, the legendary Spider’s Cave, it turns out, which Carter has been searching for; and inside he finds what he was searching for: gold. He also finds a being with a crackly, veiny blue medallion, whom he kills. As it’s dying, he repeats its dying word: Barsoom.  Poof! He’s transported to a different desert, a Martian desert, where the gravity is so light he has trouble walking. His tendency is to leap.

Freedom is short-lived. He’s quickly captured by Tharks: 10-feet-tall and green, with four arms, two tusks, and no noses. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), tries to communicate with the odd, jumping creature. He introduces himself, in the Thark language, then John Carter does the same in English: John Carter of Virginia. For much of the movie, he’ll be called “Virginia.” Another good bit.

Pretty soon we have our scoresheet filled out:

  • The Zodanga is the bad city, led by Dominic West of HBO’s “The Wire,” but really led by the villainous Mark Strong of “Sherlock Holmes,” who is a a kind of shapeshifter. He, it turns out, is the leader of the Therns, who feed off the wars of other races—like that alien entity Capt. Kirk and Kang laughed at in “The Day of the Dove” episode of “Star Trek.” Maybe Jerome Bixby was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan.
  • Helium is the good city, peopled by tattooed folks who starred in HBO’s “Rome” (Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy). Ciaran, as Tardos Mors, is the leader, but he’s leading a losing war and is listening to offers, from Sab Than (“Wire” dude), for the hand of his daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). She’s hot and smart and wants to keep fighting. She totally hates the “Wire” dude.
  • The Tharks are a semi-brutal race who live in the desert. In the overall metaphor, they’re the Indians, the neutral observers in the civil war between the Martian city-states. They want the humanoids to destroy each other and leave them in peace.

Tharks have their own issues, of course. Thark babies appear to be born, or hatched, in an incubator in the desert. Those who don’t hatch on time are killed. “They are not our kind,” Tars Tarkas says of the slow hatchers. I love this detail. Most moviemakers would leave out such moral complexity but not Stanton. And Tars Tarkas, by the way, is the good one.

When the Martian civil war enters Thark territory, John Carter, using his super power, his amazing strength and jumping abilities, gets involved against his better judgment. He battles Sab Than, saves Dejah Thoris, discovers that he’s on Mars, gathers clues for how to get back to Earth. Then he and Dejah Thoris, and John Carter’s ostracized handler, Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), along with a big lumbering animal that is akin to a dog, with a monstrous head and a big blue tongue, are exiled to the barren Barsoom landscape. It’s a motley, bickering crew. Fun.

Is it a “Wizard of Oz” crew? “Oz” metaphors are overdone (see: “Star Wars”) but it seems to work here. The dog is the Cowardly Lion, Sola is the Scarecrow, Dejah is the Tinwoodswoman—her heart is revealed in the end—while our Dorothy, John Carter, somehow wound up in this strange place, where the rules don’t apply, and just wants to go home.

The world’s first superhero
I had no clue where the story was going. I liked that. Sure, I knew that JC and Dejah Thoris would get together; and I assumed he would eventually choose a side in the Martian civil war, despite his earlier admonitions against such actions, and that the side would most likely be Dejah Thoris’; and he would defeat McNutty and somehow get back to Earth, since, you know, we saw him there. I also began to wonder if maybe his death on Earth in 1881 wasn’t really a death. Another teleportation to Mars maybe?

But in terms of the A, B, C of the story, the “this-then-this,” I had no clue. This world was as new to me as it was to John Carter. Something to be said for that. “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty,” said Andrew Stanton in his TED talk earlier this year. That’s what he gives us.

Apprently Stanton pitched the movie as “Indiana Jones on Mars,” and it’s true: freeing himself from one trap, JC, like Indy before him, always winds up in another. Makes sense, too. Both “John Carter” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are based upon serials, magazine or movie, which foster this tendency as a means to encourage return visits by customers. The 1966 “Batman” TV show satirized this formula; we were too smart for it then. A decade later, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg streamlined it and popularized it for a whole new generation and we were hooked. We haven’t escaped their trap yet. We’re still living in their world.

In a sense, we’re still living in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ world. Much of “John Carter” points to the past—the Civil War, the swashbuckling. the princesses—but it also points to the future of cinematic storytelling: interplanetary travel and superheroes. Was John Carter the world’s first superhero? An argument can be made. He’s a reverse Superman 25 years before Superman. His powers increase away from Earth. He leaps tall Martian buildings in a single bound.

And yet: biggest box-office bomb of the century. Moviegoers go for its descendants: “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” and “Superman.” The original of what you want isn’t what you want. Someone should do a study.

Posted at 06:29 AM on Mar 27, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Monday March 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

WARNING: MAY THE SPOILERS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR

Why didn’t anyone tell me “The Hunger Games” was a sequel to “Winter’s Bone”?

Jennifer Lawrence is once again playing a tough girl acting as mother to a younger sibling in an Ozarks-like land of poverty and muted colors, where she has to risk everything, particularly herself, to ensure her younger sibling’s survival. It’s a dystopian future rather than our dystopian present, but otherwise it’s “Winter’s Bone” all over. J-Law has a right to wonder: Where the hell are the moms in my movies? Do I have to do fucking everything?

She plays Katniss Everdeen, elder sister to Primrose (Willow Shields), whom she comforts from nightmares, and to whom she sings lullabies, before sneaking into the woods to hunt for food. She’s a whiz with a bow-and-arrow and has a deer in her sights when guy-pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth)  shows up to commiserate, flirt, and above all scatter the deer. This is supposed to be a brutal world, kill or be killed, but the filmmakers want to keep Katniss as sympathetic as possible, and you don’t do that by shooting Bambi’s mom. Too bad. I was intrigued for a moment. Are they gonna...? No. They’re gonna fudge it.

Psst. They fudge it for most of the movie.

The 99%
Poster for "The Hunger Games" (2012)Katniss and Primrose live in the 12th of 12 districts surrounding a glitzy metropolis, where, every year, each district holds a lottery to choose two tributes, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to battle to the death in the nationally televised “Hunger Games.” Twenty-four kids go into the woods, one comes out, and everyone watches on big-screen TVs in the public square. Apparently no one can afford their own TVs anymore. Apparently the authorities think it’s safer to gather the masses into a mass, where, you know, they might rebel.

Why “The Hunger Games” in the first place? We get an inkling in a conversation between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the show’s producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley):

Snow: Seneca, why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca: What do you mean?
Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner?
[Pause]
Snow: Hope.
Seneca: Hope?
Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.
Sencea: So?
Snow: So ... contain it.

The “it” that needs containing is, of course, Katniss.

This is the first year Primrose is eligible for the Games—thus the nightmares—and, oops, she’s chosen. Distraught, Katniss volunteers in her place. The second D-12 tribute isn’t Gale, thank God, but Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a local baker boy, whose name I assumed was “Peter” throughout; and off they go, by train, to the Capitol, where everyone dresses in bizarre Tim Burton/“Wizard of Oz” fashions: teeny hats and curlicue beards and excessive makeup. It drives home the phoniness and effeminacy of the Capitol’s inhabitants. They’re the Haves. Have Nots? Dance.

In the Capitol, mentors are assigned—including, for Peeta and Katniss, former District 12 winner, and current drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The tributes are then trained, primped for the crowds, and made to compete for “sponsorships” that might aid them in time of need.

All tributes aren’t created equal, by the way. Tributes from Districts 1 and 2, including Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), have trained for this since birth. They’re the Cold-War Eastern Europeans in the Olympics but they act like asshole rich kids in any high school movie. They’re Socs. They’re Cobra Kai: tall, white, good-looking, and deadly, and they develop alliances a la “Survivor”: banding together to take out the weak kids. What kind of strategy is that? Shouldn’t a strong tribute form alliances with weaker tributes to take out real potential rivals? Instead, Cato roams the woods, cocky and bullying, as if he can trust Marvel and Clove standing behind him with knives in their hands.

As for our heroine? Once the games begin, it’s the deer all over again. She kills only in self-defense, and only those who deserve killing. She bonds with an adorable 12-year-old girl, Rue (Amanda Stenberg), who has no chance, and who is killed with a spear by one of the Cobra Kai. She bonds with Peeta, who is injured, and nurses him back to health. Here’s how my 10-year-old nephew Jordy put it in his review:

You will care for the characters that the movie wants you to care about, and you will hate the characters that the movie wants you to hate.

That sentence describes almost everything Hollywood makes, but it’s particularly true, and particularly annoying, here. The characters don’t act as they should given the circumstances. They act for us, the audience, so we’ll either like them or hate them. They dance for us.

Watching awful people watching the story we’re watching
So what’s the meaning of all of this? Analogies abound.

There’s the reality-TV analogy, in which “The Hunger Games” is a deadlier version of “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” and other people’s pain, or death, is aired for our entertainment. There’s the business analogy, in which, after training, 12-18 year-olds are set loose in the bigger world, where, as Bill Gates knows, there can be only one winner.  There’s the 99% metaphor referenced above, in which the masses dance for the few. There’s even the Tea Party metaphor, in which the plain, honest folks of the country are controlled by the painted, effeminate fools of the city.

Of these, the reality-TV analogy is most obvious. It’s also the most problematic.

Before the Games, the tributes are interviewed by smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, dressed as an Oompha-Loompa), who tells their stories to his TV audience. It’s similar to the way Bob Costas tells us, during the Olympics, that this athlete’s father is dying of cancer, and that one cared for her dying mother. It gives the audience rooting interests. Katniss’ heart-tugging story is obvious: she volunteered in place of her sister. Awwww. Peeta’s? That he’s actually in love with Katniss. Oooooo!

The reduction of the individual to a rootable storyline is presented as a form of phony manipulation and pageantry when the movie does the exact same thing. What Caesar Flickerman feeds to his audience is just slightly more reductive than what writer-director Gary Ross feeds to us. Both audiences lap it up. We just take ours with a extra dollop of hypocrisy. We watch a story about awful people watching the story we’re watching. How awful those people are.

Rule changes
I should add that the gender reversal is pretty interesting. The boy is all mushy love, the girl is all “meh”; and in the end the villain uses the boy as a hostage to bargain with the obviously stronger girl, who has him in her sights, bow drawn. J-Law makes it believable, too. Katniss is another Lisbeth Salander. Our strong, silent types are now girls.

But the movie fudges too much. I say this as someone who hasn’t read the books. I say this as someone who didn’t even know, going in, that “THG” was a trilogy. All I knew, from the trailer, was the stuff leading up to the start of the Games. So I wanted to know what most people want to know with a story: What happens next? I wanted to know if they could make what happens meaningful.

They don’t.

Early in the Games, Katniss travels far afield and waits things out. She’s safe. So the production folks create a forest fire to drive her back to the battle. They know how to deal with this contingency. But they’re completely flummoxed by a contestant who refuses to kill in cold blood? They never ran into that contingency? I don’t buy it. As a result—in part, as a sop for the audience, who supposedly likes the “star-crossed lovers” storyline—they change the rules in the middle of the game: two contestants are allowed to live. This is not only a cheat in their reality but a cheat in ours. Author Suzanne Collins’ and director Gary Ross may blame the rule change on the two-faced nature of producer Seneca Crane, with his munchkin beard, but I blame them. They couldn’t come up with a better ending.

Posted at 07:42 AM on Mar 26, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Saturday March 17, 2012

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“21 Jump Street” is the kind of movie that garners an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com because 87% of movie critics, most of whom are guys, think it’s pretty good. Hey, it’s kinda funny. It’s got funny bits here and there. I laughed. As did I. But nobody’s overwhelmed. Most everyone knows it’s a not-bad bromedy, another light comedy with tons of dick jokes, that doesn’t really go anywhere. The only one that sounds enthused, really, is that 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.

Its humor is scattershot. It’s best when it’s aping its genre—the same way that “The Other Guys” was best when it was aping its genre—but eventually it gives in Poster for "21 Jump Street" (2012) with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hillto the genre’s demands. All mainstream satires do. It’s Hollywood eating its cake and having it, too. It’s the movie business spending 45 minutes telling us, “Oh, you’re too smart for this,” and then telling us, for another 45 minutes, “OK, you’re not.”

It’s right both times.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, in his third movie this year) are recent Police Academy grads on bike patrol who long for something better. After a bust of a drug gang, the One Percenters, goes awry, they’re scuttled off to another unit. “Where do we report to?” Jenko asks. “Down on Jump Street,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) declares melodramatically from behind his desk. “37 Jump Street.” Pause. “Wait, that doesn’t sound right.”

Hardy gets in another good line. Since the squad is a revival of an undercover program from the 1980s, he adds, “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice.” A few people in the crowd at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle laughed knowingly at that one. For a few minutes, we hold out hope.

We get a few more of these in-jokes, these “You’re too smart for this” lines and moments. I suppose my favorite is when our boys are being chased on the LA freeway by a motorcycle gang, and, one by one, gang members crash into things like, you know, trucks full of gas canisters, or they slide, sparks flying, into a leaking oil and gas tanker, and Schmidt and Jenko tense, anticipating the ensuing explosion. But nothing happens. They’re constantly amazed that nothing blows up. Until the very end when almost everything does. That’s the “OK, you’re not” part.

(Why, by the way, do cinematic explosions appeal to the Big Jim McBobs and Billy Sol Huroks of the world? Does anyone know? I get nothing out of it.)

The “Jump Street” squad—for those unfamiliar with the ’80s TV series that propelled Johnny Depp to fame—uses baby-faced cops to infiltrate high schools where drugs are being sold and crimes committed. More in-jokes here, since Tatum, 32 in April, hardly seems credible as a high school student. Hill, 28, is a bit better. And it helps, of course, that the other high schoolers are also played by twentysomethings: Dave Franco, 26, plays Eric, the popular kid who’s dealing the drugs, while Brie Larson, 22, plays his kinda girlfriend, Molley Tracey, who winds up with the hots for Schmidt. Yes, Schmidt.

That’s another ongoing gag. Way back in 2005, both of these guys were seniors in high school, where Jenko was the stupid popular jock and Schmidt was the Eminem-loving, unpopular nerd, who was the sole member of the Juggling Society (“One man, three balls.”) Apparently times have changed. Today’s kids, besides texting instead of phoning, and putting up party invites on something called “Facebook,” appreciate the following: reading comic books; environmental awareness; being tolerant. They don’t like bullies. Schmidt prospers and hangs with the cool kids; Jenko is ostracized and hangs with the science geeks.

But shouldn’t the science geeks...?

Never mind.

I like a line of Schmidt’s early on, when he realizes his path away from high school has led him back to high school: “It was too fucking hard the first time,” he says, shaking his head. Most people can identify.

Part of the point of the film is that, no matter your age, no matter your maturity level, when you return to high school you become as childish as you were in high school. I like that concept ... but Schmidt and Jenko are never mature. They never stop being childish. They’re doing drugs as bike cops. They’re shooting guns in the air in city parks. It doesn’t take high school to turn them into adolescents, they’re already there. Would it have worked better if our heroes had been mature when they first arrived? Or would it have just cut back on the comedy.

Many of the original “21 Jump Street” stars get their cameos, including one hilarious shocker, and we get the usual hip comedy alums, such as Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show” and Ellie Kemper of “The Office” as a teacher with the hots for Jenko. The movie has its share of laughs. But that sound you hear throughout is the sound of cake eating itself.

Posted at 06:47 AM on Mar 17, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Wednesday February 15, 2012

Movie Review: Chronicle (2012)

WARNING: FOUND SPOILERS

“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ben Parker tells his nephew, Peter, in “Spider-Man” (2002).

“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power,” Dr. Carl Erskine tells Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011).

Cue Josh Trank and Max Landis (son of Jon), the first-time director and screenwriter of “Chronicle,” clearing their throats.

They imagine a Peter Parker raised by an alcoholic, abusive, former firefighter instead of kindly Uncle Ben. They suggest that a weak man knows the value of strength because it’s been used against him his entire life. And once that strength is his? He might not be so nice as Peter Parker.

I suggested as much in my review of “Captain America” last year. After quoting Erskine’s line I wrote:

I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?

So I should be a fan of what Trank and Landis, both of whom will turn 27 this year, have done with “Chronicle.” They’ve reimagined a superhero storyline in which three teenagers gain powers through telekinesis, and then, rather than put on costumes and fight crime, act poster of "Chronicle" (2012)like assholes. They film themselves pulling pranks in a toy store: lifting a teddy bear in the air and having it dance before a frightened girl. They move a woman’s car in the parking lot so she has trouble finding it. They do impossible tricks at their high school talent show to become popular. Then they begin fighting each other.

Their story is told through found footage, the point-of-view of the young (and of January/October releases), which means someone, usually Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), our weak teenager who knows the value of strength, always has to be filming what we see. Initially this worked. It lets us know how lonely and abused Andrew is. But the deeper we go into the story the more problematic it becomes. Really? He’s filming this argument? He’s filming this funeral? He’s filming himself crushing this car in the junkyard? If the traditional superhero tends to hide his identity from the world and do good, Andrew tends to film everything for the world and do bad. He’s Peter Parker as supervillain. He’s a male “Carrie” with a camera.

Our other two leads are Andrew’s handsome cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who likes to pretend he’s not shallow by quoting philosophy 101; and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the popular black guy who’s running for class president. Andrew is the pick-upon one. But one night he goes to a party, with camera, and Matt and Steve find a hole in a valley in the woods and bring Andrew along to film what they find. Inside they discover ... well, probably a spaceship. But then things go crazy and zzzzttt, the camera stops working, and when we’re back to filming again in someone’s backyard (with a different camera?), the three teenagers are able to move things with their minds. And Andrew is the strongest of the three.

If they push themselves too far, they get nose bleeds. Sometimes if Andrew pushes himself too far, Matt gets the nose-bleed. So they’re linked symbiotically. At one point, for example, Andrew uses his telekinesis to fly into the sky during a lightning storm, and Steve just senses he’s there and joins him and tries to talk him down. Sadly, this is the moment Steve gets zapped and dies, and Andrew, blamed by Matt, turns more inward.

Andrew also has a sick mother, like Aunt May, who needs medicine, like Aunt May, but it costs: a $700 co-pay. So where can a boy with super-powers find $700? Well, first he robs the local drug dealers but it’s not enough. (Lousy drug dealers.) Then he robs the local food mart, but the proprietor comes out with shotgun blazing, sets the gas pumps aflame, and sends Andrew to the hospital.

I.e., for a nerdy boy with superpowers, Andrew isn’t the brightest bulb. So what is he?

This may be the biggest problem with “Chronicle.” It’s not that the three teenagers never worry about long-term health issues after exposure to the radiating alien spaceship. It’s not that, with their great power, comes great irresponsibility. It’s not that, of this irresponsibility, none of it is the kind most randy, teenage boys would pull—i.e., removing the clothes of girls, a la “Zapped”—meaning the film feels false even as it strives for authenticity.

No, the biggest problem is that the boys don’t have any identity beyond the initial one. Steve’s the popular black guy, Andrew is the unpopular nerd who likes to film shit, Matt is somewhere in between. And that’s all they ever are.

Does Andrew like comics? Sci-fi? Is he a “Star Trek” or a “Star Wars” guy? Does he read science or poetry? Who knows? He’s just a picked-upon virgin. He has resentments. In one of the movie’s better, creepier moments, he films himself in a bathroom stall analyzing the brutal removal of a bully’s teeth: how that tooth broke in half, too bad, but this one remained whole, which is how you want to do it. A second later the plot kicks in and he’s searching for the $700 and winds up in the hospital, where his father lets him know that his mother died, for which the father blames the son, for which Andrew blows a hole in the side of the hospital and drops the father 10 stories. But Matt’s there to save the father and battle Andrew high above the city of Seattle (Vancouver, B.C.).

At least by this point Andrew has stopped filming. The found footage is now culled from various sources: hospital tapes; the video-blog of a local girl; all of the folks with their cellphones at the top of the Space Needle. This was my first found-footage film and I always assumed the footage in question was found in the same camera. But some imaginary editor obviously went to extraordinary lengths to piece together something fairly shallow.

Yes, Trank and Landis do some smart things with “Chronicle.” The moment when Matt saves Andrew’s father recalls that great scene in the original “Superman: The Movie” (1978) when Superman first saves Lois Lane from the helicopter crash atop the Daily Planet buidling. There, though, the revelation of a superstrong being who can fly was triumphant, and greeted—absurdly, I would argue—with applause from the crowd below (See: No. 2 on this list.) Here it’s kind of creepy. There’s nothing triumphant about it. Everyone’s like ... WTF?!? ... because their world is upended. As it is.

So “Chronicle” has its smart moments. Unfortunately they’re few. Dane DeHaan is a good young actor that has something of a young, sickly Leo DiCaprio about him. Unfortunately he’s playing a shallow character in a lightweight enterprise. One wonders if the movie’s lack of depth is the result of the found-footage formula or the fact that its creators are 26 years old and just aren't that deep.

Posted at 08:59 AM on Feb 15, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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