Reel Opinions

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Given what a big part the original universe of the Transformers played in my childhood (the toys, the cartoon, and especially the original 1986 animated movie), it should be an understatement how big of a disappointment 2007's Transformers and especially 2009's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen were to me personally. Now series director Michael Bay concludes his personal live action trilogy with Dark of the Moon, and I find it to be an oddity as a film. While it still suffers from many of the same problems as the past two, it also shows marked improvement in a lot of ways. While I cannot in any faith recommend it, I still have to admit it's probably the best installment of the live action relaunch of the franchise.

picIt would seem that Bay and returning screenwriter Ehren Kruger have listened to a lot of the complaints audiences had, especially with the last film. The heavy reliance on odious comic relief has been lessened, or removed completely. And I really don't think anyone in the audience is going to be mourning the loss of the obnoxious, borderline racially offensive, Autobot duo, Skids and Mudflap. The action sequences also seem to be shot a little tighter this time around, so it's easier to tell what's going on. The movie even contains a few scenes that hint at some dramatic intensity, a nice change of pace from the past two films, where I never once found myself caring who was up on the screen, or even what was going on. Oh, and I'm sure as everyone knows by now, Megan Fox has been ejected from the female lead role, after she made some unsavory comments about the director in an interview, and has been replaced by a new girlfriend character played by British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Those who actually are upset over Fox's removal can rest easy. Ms. Huntington-Whiteley more than fills the need for female eye candy, with an equally wooden and mostly unconvincing performance to match.

picSo, we have much less unfunny comic relief (though it still rears its ugly head here), and a slightly tighter plot that actually comes close to getting us involved. Where does Dark of the Moon go wrong? Well, with a running time of just over two and a half hours, the film is still much longer than it needs to be. It's kind of oddly paced, too. The first half of the film is silly yet intriguing, as we see a historical recreation (used with a combination of news archival footage, and special effects) of how President Kennedy's Space Race program was actually the result of an Autobot ship crash landing on the moon. This immediately got me thinking - Earlier this month, we had X-Men: First Class, that told us that superhero Mutants were responsible for saving us all during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now we have this movie, telling us that we went to the moon, because a ship carrying a giant transforming robot named Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) crashed there. I can't wait to see how Hollywood distorts Kennedy's legacy with toys and comic book characters next! (I have a mental image of Skeletor standing on a grassy knoll...)

picThis "historical alteration" turns out to be the first in a very long series of exposition scenes, as we rejoin series hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), and his attempts to lead a normal life, despite the fact he lives with a British super model (well, okay, she doesn't actually play a model in the film, but the way Bay often shoots her, she might as well be) and a pair of comic relief CG robots named Wheelie (voice by Tom Kenny) and Brains (voice by Reno Wilson). Much of these early sequences, which include Sam hunting for a job and being jealous of his girlfriend's handsome boss who seems to be interested in her (Patrick Dempsey) feel like they are unnecessarily padding the running time, which it is. Of much greater importance to the plot, the heroic Autobots have discovered the location of the crashed ship on the moon, and wish to revive Sentinel Prime, their fallen leader, who was on board the ship. They bring the robot back to Earth, and through a series of plot developments too numerous to recap, find themselves at the mercy of an invasion campaign by their arch enemies, the evil Decepticons.

picThe connection between the discovery on the moon, and the latest scheme of Decepticon leader, Megatron (voice by Hugo Weaving), I will leave to you to discover. I will say that by the point the plan is unveiled and the true action started, I found myself at least interested in what the movie was leading up to - A massive world-wide robot invasion of Earth. Too bad the movie turns out to be mostly a tease, as we see so little of the actual invasion itself. What we get to see is the aftermath, and boy, do we get to see it. Set solely in Chicago (where the streets are turned into a giant battlefield), the entire last hour and a half or so of the movie is really just one long extended action sequence of CG robots, explosions, people screaming, and buildings toppling. All of the action is stored in the last half, while all the exposition is placed upfront, creating a widely uneven and sometimes overwhelming experience. While the movie has a better grasp of plot than the earlier films, I still found my interest fading in and out during the exposition. And when the action finally kicked up, and just kept on going for seemingly well over for an hour and a half without any pause, I found myself exhausted, and not in a good way.

picTransformers: Dark of the Moon is a feast or famine movie, as I often felt like I was getting too little or too much. We see so little of the robots during the first half, they almost seem to be making a cameo in their own movie. When they take over in the last half, I started to actually get tired of them. That's just the kind of movie it is, though - A frustrating experience that never quite hits the right note. There is some fun here, such as returning cast member John Turturro getting some laughs without embarrassing himself this time around (no shots of him wearing a thong this time around), and newcomers John Malkovich (as Sam's new boss) and Frances McDormand (as a government official working as the a head of the military operation teaming up with the Autobots) manage to almost rise above their thinly written roles, and would probably be great, if the movie put them to better use. Many of the human actors are played by faceless extras, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be hard pressed to remember them, or their names. We come to see the Transformers themselves, who are designed well, but just don't look all that interesting, and usually come across as walking and fighting piles of junk.

picFor all of its limited improvements, the film still suffers from a total lack of wit, opting instead for the most obvious or broad gags imaginable. Most movies would consider the film's hero being manipulated by an evil robot (disguised as his wristwatch) as something terrible. This movie treats it as an extended series of slapstick gags, where Sam suddenly has no control over his arm. After three movies, I realize that this franchise is not really made for fans of the old cartoon like me. Sure, it's always great to hear Peter Cullen providing the booming and unnecessarily dramatic voice of Optimus Prime, and having it sound just like I remember it. But the movies seem more tailor made for younger kids and teens who want a lot of fast cars, a hot woman or two to arouse them and not do much else, and a whole lot of special effects and explosions that never quite amount to much of anything.
Dark of the Moon is a lot of sound and fury that manages to throw us a scrap of plot or maybe an interesting idea once in a while. It's also largely being shown in 3D which, while not completely worthless, does not add a lot to most of the movie. The whole thing's really kind of pointless, but then again, so is this review. You know if you're going to see it or not, and what I say will not change your mind. If the first two worked for you, so will this one. If they didn't, there's better stuff out there.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Midnight in Paris

"Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past"

The above line was spoken early on in Woody Allen's 1987 film, Radio Days, but it could just as naturally fit his latest film, Midnight in Paris. One of his best films in years, it is a literate and funny, yet quite often frothy and light meditation on nostalgia itself, and the need for people to romanticize certain periods in time, either from their own past, or a point in the world's history that is looked back on with fondness. The argument that Allen seems to be making here is that although living in the past may cost us our present or even our future, it can also be useful in artistic creation, as long as we do not forget the here and now.

picAs is usually always the case in Allen's films, the lead character represents his voice, and in this case, that voice is provided by Gil Pender (Owen Wilson, quite charming here). Gil has had much success working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but he has grown bored with writing blockbusters, and wants to write a deeply personal novel that he feels he will be truly remembered for. Gil's favorite time in history is Paris in the 1920s, when great American writers thrived and found creative inspiration in the city. This love for the past has completely washed over Gil as he vacations in Paris with his materialistic fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her wealthy and conservative-minded mother (Mimi Kennedy) and father (Kurt Fuller). Gil just wants to get lost in the city and let inspiration fuel him, while Inez and her parents would rather shop, and listen to the pretentious ramblings of a pseudo intellectual friend (Michael Sheen). One night, Gil manages to separate himself from the group, and while he wanders the streets of Paris alone, something happens to him when the clock strikes midnight.

picFor reasons the movie wisely does not even try to explain, whenever Gil is standing in a certain part of the city at the stroke of midnight, an old car picks him up and magically whisks him away back in time to meet his literary and artistic heroes, including Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), T.S. Eliot (David Lowe), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and many others. The movie is right to take a whimsical and playful tone to the events that unfold, as any attempt to rationalize this material would cause it to fall flat. In this romanticized vision of 1920s Paris that Gil visits every night, he gets to share his thoughts on writing with some of his favorite minds, as well as get their thoughts on his own work. He spends his nights wrapped in his own personal fantasy, and his days working on his novel, and doing his best to avoid Inez and her family. The more time he spends in the past, he finds himself drawn to a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). When he meets her, she is involved with Pablo Picasso, but they are soon brought together by common bonds, including a love of the past, as Adriana herself dreams wistfully of a time before she was born as well.

picIt's not hard to figure out the message that Allen is bringing forth in Midnight in Paris, but he does it with such wit and intelligence, the obviousness of the piece does not really matter. The whimsical tone sets us in the proper mood, and realize that what we are watching is essentially a fairy tale. The movie is also smart with its playful sense of humor, from Gil's observations on the people he is meeting, to how these famous writers and artists respond to some of his more modern ideas. Allen has often shown a gift for combining the intelligent with the fantastic and whimsical, and it's no more apparent here. This is also probably his most beautifully shot film, thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shoots Paris in such a magical light, that it's easy to believe that a man could be transported back in time on a simple street corner.

picThe biggest surprise here, I think, is Owen Wilson, who does not initially seem like the ideal choice to represent Allen. However, Wilson does manage to get some of Allen's classic mannerisms down, without making it seem like he's doing an impression. This is a nuanced and thoughtful comic performance, and is some of the best work he's done in a while. There are plenty of stand outs in the cast of people he meets in his journey to the past, including a very warm Marion Cotillard in the lead female role, Kathy Bates giving a very wise and funny performance as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll as an appropriately stoic Hemingway. If some of the historical figures come across as caricatures, perhaps that is the intention, given the romanticized nature of the story itself.
Though simple in concept and message, Midnight in Paris manages to resonate, thanks to Allen's thoughtful screenplay. This is a frequently hilarious and often quite enchanting film, and while some may view its simple nature as a downfall, I see it as part of what makes the film work as a fairy tale for the literary set. This is a wonderful movie, and the first film to earn the honor of being one of the great movies of the year.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bad Teacher

Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher is an amusing movie that constantly seems on the verge of a home run, but it never quite pushes itself hard enough to get there. I'm recommending it with reservations. Yes, I laughed, but I still had this nagging thought in the back of my mind that I should have been laughing even more. Was it studio pressure? Was the movie hastily edited down? (The film's brief running time of just under 90 minutes seems to point to this.) Whatever the case, this could have been a great comedy, but will have to settle for being passable, with a couple of big laughs scattered throughout.

picCameron Diaz (giving one of her better performances since 2005's In Her Shoes) stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a woman who has halfheartedly taught a seventh grade English course for the past year, and now is looking forward to leaving it all behind and becoming a trophy wife to her wealthy fiance, as the film opens. When her fiance unexpectedly breaks off the engagement and kicks her out of his home, she's forced to move into a small apartment with a guy who is so dim, we are surprised he even knows how to dress himself properly in the morning. Elizabeth is now faced with another year of teaching, though why the school would hire her back (or even hire her in the first place) is a mystery the screenplay doesn't bother to answer. Elizabeth shows up to class most days hung over from the night before, so she's constantly dragging out the TV, and popping in a movie about school for her class to watch instead, like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, or Dangerous Minds. Once again, no one on the staff seems to notice this, except for Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the most popular and driven teacher in the school, which automatically makes her Elizabeth's rival.

picA new member to the faculty staff attracts Elizabeth's attention, the handsome young Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who is not only a teacher, but also the heir to a great fortune. Now that Elizabeth has a new wealthy target in her sights, she has to go about reeling him in, which in her mind means getting a breast implant job. With her current funds to pay for the operation coming up short, Elizabeth decides to participate in school charity functions for the first time in her life (which she naturally embezzles most of the profits made), and starts taking her class seriously for the first time when she finds out that the class that scores the highest on a state quiz gets a cash reward. Diaz is in fine form here as a comical bad girl who is selfish, more than a little stupid, greedy, and doesn't go through a single change during the course of the film. Timberlake is also funny as a meek nerd teacher with some rather strange sexual habits. (It's a pity the movie doesn't give him that much of a send off near the end.) Also deserving of note are Jason Segel as a gym teacher who keeps on hitting on Elizabeth, and Phyllis Smith as the closest thing Elizabeth has to a friend at the school.

picBad Teacher works for the most part because of its cast. They're obviously giving it their all, but you sometimes feel that the screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (Year One) isn't keeping up. There are moments of inspired laughs, but there are just as many moments where I found myself either smiling politely, or thinking what was up on the screen should be funnier than it's coming across. This is a movie that should be sharp and edgy, and while it as its moments, it all too often feels sanded over and smooth. I'm still recommending the movie, however, because what does work works very well. There's an offbeat sense to the characters that I liked, such as the school's principal who has an unhealthy obsession with dolphins. Plus, it's kind of nice to see a comedy that features a truly contemptible lead character who doesn't learn any life lessons by the end. She's gotten through life so far by being the way she is, and if the way this film ends is any indication, she sees no reason to change.

picA lot of this success goes to Diaz, who brings a certain giddiness to her character's nastiness. She's an actress who I can either admire greatly, or find her superficial and cloying, depending on the role she's playing. Here, she finds the perfect tone. She's manipulative, and has the right "why should I care" attitude for the character. The entire ensemble (which also includes comics like Thomas Lennon and Molly Shannon) seem to be having a lot of fun here. Most of all, the movie is crude, while at the same time managing to not be entirely hung up on it. It's not an endurance test movie, rather it's a movie about some very cruel and often funny people. If they were smart too, this would be an even better movie, but I'll settle for funny.
Look, I know this is not a great movie, or probably even a good one. But, I laughed, the cast works hard, and I had fun while I was watching it. I wish I could have liked it even more, but Bad Teacher at least carries on the tradition this summer set by Bridesmaids that yes, women are capable of being just as down and dirty as the guys when it comes to comedy. About time, I say. Now the studios just have to trust them to truly go all the way. Then we'll have a movie to remember.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2

I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by the direction Cars 2 takes compared to the original film, and not in a good way. The movie takes the quiet and laid back car-folks of Radiator Springs, and plops them into the middle of a generic globe-trotting James Blond plot. Even as someone who was not exactly an admirer of Cars, I at least could say that movie had its heart in the right place. This sequel is as cold and as soulless as they come, existing only because the first movie was a merchandising juggernaut for Disney, and the studio wanted some new characters to market.

picFirst off, I'm not against the idea of Cars 2 being an action film. Heck, Pixar's previous attempt at an action comedy (2004's The Incredibles) still stands as one of my favorite films to come out of the studio. And I admire that directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis tried to take the characters in a different direction, which is usually more fun than just rehashing what worked with audiences last time. That's not the case here, though. I don't think the characters belong in this kind of movie. The idea of Mater, the slow-witted rusted tow truck from the first movie (voiced by comedian Larry the Cable Guy), being mistaken for an international spy probably sounded better on paper than it works in the film itself. He's a hapless hero with a low brow Southern drawl, but that's not enough. The movie doesn't have enough fun with the idea of Mater being forced into a situation where he finds himself in over his head. The set up there, but if the character of Mater is going to carry an entire movie, we have to be able to identify with him in some way, and I never did. He's a buffoon, and not an interesting one.

picAnd yes, Mater is the star of this sequel. The star of the previous movie, hot rod Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), has been pushed aside in a supporting role, but at least he gets to kick off the plot. McQueen is invited to compete in an international race that covers different cities around the world including Tokyo, the fictional city of Porto Corsa in Italy, and London. The race itself is the brainchild of Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), who has developed a new source of clean alternative fuel, and is having all the cars participating in the race use his fuel in an effort to show its effectiveness. McQueen accepts the invitation, mainly so he can show up a rival who is also competing in the race, the egotistical Italian race car, Francesco Bernoulli (a spirited John Turturro). He brings Mater along on the globe-trotting adventure to work in his pit crew during the race, and through a series of plot developments too complex to summarize, Mater ends up being separated from his friend, and going on an adventure of his own, where he's mistaken for a top secret government agent by a pair of British spy cars.

picThe cars in question are the suave and well-named Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), and the equally well-named Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). They're tracking down some villains who work for a mysterious big oil manufacturer, and are attempting to sabotage the race in an effort to "prove" that the alternative fuel is not a suitable replacement for gasoline. Mater becomes involved when a severely wounded American agent is transporting a vital piece of information to the British spy cars, and secretly hands it over to the unknowing tow truck. Now that he has the information, the spies think that Mater is the informant they were supposed to meet, and that he's merely posing as a dim-witted truck as a cover. The idea of a simple character being mistaken for a hero is a well-worn comedy idea, and was used much better in an animated film earlier this year called Rango. This is a movie that's content to repeat the same idea over and over. (Mater is a simpleton who keeps on having good luck, and everyone around him thinks he's pretending to be a simpleton.)

picAs Cars 2 went on, I became restless with how it kept on wasting its own opportunities. Take the lead spy car, Finn McMissile. The fact that he's voiced by Michael Caine is a great piece of casting. But then what? The movie never goes to Step 2, by making Finn an interesting character, or even someone we can care about. He gets a great introduction scene, showing off his various built in spy gadgets, but he spends a majority of the rest of the film in the background. A good movie would have given him more to do within the film itself. A great movie would have done this, as well as give him a personality we could get behind. Instead of making these new characters memorable, they insert them into endless action scenes that are certainly drawn and animated extremely well (as if one would expect anything less from Pixar), but become tiresome quickly when they essentially boil down to sound and fury.

picAnother missed opportunity is the film's theme of seeing the world. I was interested to see the world outside of Radiator Springs from the first movie, but most of the film's exotic locations merely exist as backdrops for action sequences. The scenes early on set in Tokyo get things off to a good start, as there are some gentle jabs at Japanese pop culture. But the movie drops this angle early on, and becomes dragged down in its own spy plot, having the characters racing about the world without really developing any interesting ideas these far off places could inspire. Rather, you get the sense that you're watching an extended marketing blitz, with all these new characters (who are certain to make great toys) running about the screen. Maybe that's why Cars 2 feels so hollow at its center - It's really just a marketing blitz, and not a very well-hidden one at that. I'm certain this movie will make some big bucks in toy stores all summer and beyond, but I also know that Pixar is better than this, and will be much better in the near future.
Would I call the movie a total failure? Not really. Some scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and the animation and art is always impressive. But, a lot of people expect more from Pixar. Even if they were just trying to make a mindless summer action blockbuster (which I'm guessing was the reasoning here), they come up short, as the action isn't strong enough for us to forget there's not a lot going on emotionally. Cars 2 certainly ranks as one of the studio's weakest efforts, but when your main goal is to sell merchandise, can that really be a surprise?

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mr. Popper's Penguins

It does not take long for Mr. Popper's Penguins to show us on what level it's working on, as less than a minute after we get our first glimpse of the first penguin, we get our first penguin poop joke. At the very least, as far as mild summer entertainment for kids goes, this is much better than last weekend's obnoxious Judy Moody. Kids are sure to be delighted by the antics of the penguins, and adults will find it watchable and pleasant, but not the slightest bit engaging.

picThe film is loosely based on the classic children's novel by Richard and Florence Atwater, and by "loosely based", I mean the filmmakers should have shown a sliver of originality and come up with their own title, as the source material and the film have so little in common. Jim Carrey is Tom Popper, a sleek and smooth talking New York businessman, whose job is to buy old landmark buildings, then arrange for their demolition, so his bosses can build new ones in their place. He lives alone in a penthouse, but is on pretty good terms with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and their two kids (Maxwell Perry Cotton and Madeline Carroll). He's even trying his best to make up with his wife and get his family back together, although he still has a problem concentrating too much on his job, and not enough on his kids, which seems to be the unwritten rule that every lead parent figure in a kid's comedy must overcome. Tom's father (who recently passed away) was never there much for him either growing up, as his dad was an explorer, and always going to far-off places. Shortly after word reaches that Tom's father has passed, a wooden crate arrives on Tom's doorstep from the arctic - the last place his dad was before he died.

picThe crate turns out to hold a live penguin, which immediately makes itself at home in Tom's place. Why the father sent his son a penguin is never quite explained. There's a note with the bird, but it doesn't explain that much. A couple days later, a second crate arrives with even more penguins. It's a credit to director Mark Waters (Ghost of Girlfriends Past) that he doesn't try to humanize the animals, although they do exhibit simple enough behavior that can work as visual gags (one poops, one's clumsy, one screams all the time, etc.). Tom initially wants nothing to do with the birds, but when his kids and ex-wife fall in love with them, he slowly starts to grow attached to them as well, and finds ways to keep them comfortable in his apartment, such as leaving his windows and doors open at all times in the dead of winter, so that snow is covering every inch of his apartment, or playing Charlie Chaplin movies 24 hours a day on the TV, which the penguins seem to be drawn to.

picThat's pretty much all there is to Mr. Popper's Penguins, unfortunately. Jim Carrey is quite likable, and unlike some other comic stars in family films (like Eddie Murphy), he doesn't seem to be simply cashing a paycheck, and even gets a couple good lines in. But, the fact remains, there's just not a whole lot to the movie. There's a subplot about Tom trying to convince an independent-minded old woman (Angela Lansbury) into selling the Tavern on the Green, so his bosses can build a new restaurant in its place. The penguins become so comfortable in Popper's apartment, they start mating (off camera, of course) and laying eggs. And there's also an evil animal control officer who wants to send the penguins to a zoo and separate them. Will he succeed? I'd tell you, but I hate reviews that give away the ending. The real suspense lies in whether or not the Popper family will become whole again. And since Tom and his ex-wife, Amanda, seem quite close to each other even early on, we're not exactly waiting on pins and needles for the answer.
On the plus side, the penguins are kind of cute, and it can sometimes be hard to tell when they're using live penguins, and when they're using CG. (Except for an elaborate scene at the Guggenheim Museum, and a sequence where one of the penguins learns how to fly with the aid of a hang glider.) The movie never offends, and the cast does have its bright spots. I guess this will be enough for the kids. Sometimes, though, I just want a little more from my movies.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Lantern

Here are a few things we learn during while watching Green Lantern...

picOn a distant planet, there exists the Green Lantern Corps - A kind of intergalactic police force comprised of aliens from different worlds who keep peace in the galaxy. Some of the head members of the Corps that we meet include Sinestro (Mark Strong), who has a large purple head, and a paper thin mustache, Tomar-Re, a CG alien with the head of a fish, and the voice of Geoffrey Rush, and Kilowog, who's a big hulking alien beast, so he's naturally voiced by Hollywood's favorite big hulking actor, Michael Clarke Duncan. The Green Lantern Corps seems to be comprised entirely of CG creatures that resemble the kind of monsters that used to grace the covers of 1950s sci-fi comics and magazines. They never look real enough, though. A lot of them look like high end monsters you'd blast away in a video game, and none of them hold any real character traits. Oh, and despite them all hailing from different worlds, they all speak English, and even have our accents and dialects.

picWe move on to the main threat to the heroic aliens, which is an evil entity known as Parallax (voice by Clancy Brown). It sort of looks like a cloud of black mass crossed with an octopus, and has a human-like face in its center which it uses to feed upon the fear of its enemies. The Green Lantern Corps use the power of will to create any weapon or object they need out of energy matter, and try to use their will power to fight against Parallax's fear power. If this sounds overly simplified to you, even for a movie based on a comic book, you're not alone. Parallax has been in captivity for thousands of years, but is accidentally freed in the first minute or so, and begins going around destroying planets, mainly off camera. That's right, we don't even get to see most of the villain's reign of terror. I guess the filmmakers blew their budget on the disappointing effects that make up the planet the Green Lanterns call home.

picNext, we meet our hero, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds). Hal is a cocky, sarcastic, daredevil fighter pilot, and during his introduction scene, where he's helping to test out the ability of some souped up computer fighter pilots, it takes a superhuman effort not to think of Top Gun. The only thing missing from the fighter pilot scene is Kenny Loggins on the soundtrack. He may be a reckless rebel in the air, but he's got a good heart. He has a family that includes a brother and a young nephew that he seems to care about, only to have them disappear completely for the rest of the film, never to be seen or mentioned ever again. More important to the plot is a fellow pilot that he has deep feelings for named Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). She's known Hal most of her life, and they obviously have a bond, but the movie never really goes into any detail as to what exactly that bond is. It's a frustrating trait that will be carried throughout the movie, as we meet more people who obviously play an important role in Hal's life, but we never quite sense the connection, or learn exactly how they fit into his personal life or past.

picMeanwhile, one of the aliens who makes up the Green Lantern Corps has crash landed on Earth after a battle with the evil Parallax. He knows he is dying, so he uses his magical ring (which gives him most of his powers) to seek out someone who can carry on his fight. The power of the ring chooses Hal, which suddenly envelops him in a sphere of green light while he's walking down the street, and whisks him away to where the dying alien is. Is Hal shocked by this sudden occurrence? Nope, he treats it with quite casual aplomb. The alien tells Hal that the power of the Green Lantern ring has chosen him to hold its great power, and that it's a mystic honor, but I envisioned in my head a much better scene, where the little orb of light that went out searching for a successor headed for the nearest phone book, chose a random name out of it, and picked him up.

picSo, now Hal has been entrusted with incredible alien powers, and finds himself whisked away to the distant alien world of the Green Lantern Corps for his training. Now the wonder and excitement starts, you say. Nope, sorry. The effect of Hal arriving on the world looks like Ryan Reynolds has been plopped into a CG animated film. Equally disappointing is the training he receives, as we never really see him struggle to use his newfound powers. Within seconds, he's summoning swords and massive machine guns to defend himself. Sure, there's doubt in his mind about whether or not he can pull off being a Green Lantern, but it doesn't really manage to build any suspense when the guy can hold his own in a matter of seconds. I think back to the scenes in Spider-Man or Iron Man, when we got to see Peter Parker and Tony Stark experimenting with their new abilities and powers, and the wonder and humor those films were able to create from them. Here, Hal takes a hold of his powers so quickly, it's the equivalent of a Rocky movie, where Balboa knocks out his opponent with a single punch.

picAnd yet, we're still not done. I haven't told you about the film's second villain, Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nerdy scientist who is employed by the government to perform an autopsy on the dead alien who gave Hal the power ring earlier. A little bit of Parallax's evil energy was inside the body of the alien, and promptly infects Hector, giving him the ability to read minds and telepathic powers. It's not as interesting as it sounds. In fact, the only thing interesting about Hector is his receding hairline. As far as villains go, he's a bore. He's angry with his powerful Senator father (Tim Robbins) for not loving him. So, because of this, he decides to take his anger out on everyone around him. He's boring, in desperate need of a comb over, and never really comes across as a serious threat to a hero who can summon any weapon known to man at will.

picLet me ask you a question now - Is the format of this review bothering you? Does it sound like I'm just leaping around, recapping the plot, and introducing the characters? Well, the truth is, the above experience is about the same as watching the movie. It jumps around, giving us the bare essentials we need to know, before it moves on. We don't care about anyone within Green Lantern, because the script (credited to four different writers) is too busy giving us a highly condensed version of the origin story. It never slows down long enough for the characters to be intriguing, funny, or personable. It's just a big, bloated, over-produced dullard of a film. Maybe this could be forgiven if there was a "wow" factor to the effects, but none of the sequences impress, and there is a certain flat, generic feeling the permeates from the very beginning.

picDespite running for nearly two hours, it also feels like a lot has been edited out of the film, as things frequently happen with no reason or explanation. I often found myself asking how certain characters managed to be at the right place at the right time, as there's really no way they could have known that a major event was happening somewhere else, only to just show up. And remember earlier how I was complaining that we never get a sense of Hal Jordan learning to use his new powers? Well, the movie also skips over another important detail of the superhero movie , which is the wonder that others feel when they first experience the hero, or see him in action for the first time. The way everyone acts, they've been having their lives saved by flying men in green glowing tights and a Lone Ranger mask as far back as they can remember. Nobody seems impressed by the Green Lantern, and certainly not Hal himself. If no one in the movie is impressed, why should we be?
To be blunt, Green Lantern is an overly generic and unnecessary movie that will still make a mint at the box office, because it's being shoved down the public's throat as *the* movie to see this weekend. With the excellent X-Men: First Class still playing in theaters, the movie becomes even more pointless. The movie bombards our senses for nearly two hours, and leaves us feeling hollow, empty, and maybe a little angry when it's over. Nobody needs that ruining their summer viewing, and nobody needs this movie.

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer

Last summer, we had Ramona and Beezus, a kids movie targeting young girls based on the series of books by Beverly Cleary. It was kind of sweet and charming. In my review of the film, I used words like "smart", "funny", and "imaginative" to describe it. These words will not be seen or necessary in my review of Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, a kids movie targeting young girls based on the series of books by Megan McDonald. Maybe very little girls in the single digit age group will find something to like here. Anyone hovering around the double digits will find young Judy Moody and her friends repellant.

picOur title heroine is an insufferable and obnoxious third grader played by Jordana Beatty. She has wild red hair, screams I'd say 75% of her dialogue, runs and bounces around like Pee Wee Herman on a sugar rush, and describes things as "thrilladelic" and "holy macaroni". Director John Schultz (Aliens in the Attic) has ordered all of his child and adult stars to act as outrageous as possible, but frequently mistakes "outrageous" for "obnoxious" to the point that we just want to scrape these characters right off the screen. Judy is preparing to have the best summer vacation ever, and has even drawn up a complex chart of dares that her friends and her can perform over the summer. Each time they pull off one of those dares (which include stuff like riding a roller coaster or walking a tightrope), they get "thrill points". Those who have the most points at the end of the summer wins. What Judy did not count on is that two of her best friends are leaving for the summer - One's off for circus camp, the other to Indonesia with her mom.

picAlone and mostly friendless for the summer, Judy is about to face the reality that her younger brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller), is going to have a better summer than she is. Stink's apparently going to spend his summer with his friends searching for Bigfoot, who's been sighted around the neighborhood. To her rescue comes Judy's eccentric and reckless driving Aunt Opal (Heather Graham), who's come to look after Judy and Stink when their parents are suddenly called off to California to look after the grandparents. Opal's the free spirited sort who likes to make hats out of garbage can lids and abstract art. Watching Graham as Aunt Opal, I found myself remembering that 14 years ago, she was playing Rollergirl in Boogie Nights. Now she's stuck in movies like this. She should have quit while she was ahead.

picThe movie itself never really amounts to much, other than a series of random gross out gags. Judy starts a secret club where the initiation involves having a toad urinate on your hand. (Don't ask.) She rides a roller coaster, and gets vomited on by her friend. (Please, don't ask.) She goes on a picnic with Aunt Opal and little Stink to an abandoned amusement park, and winds up eating "poop sandwiches". (Seriously, don't ask.) While all this is going on, Judy receives postcards and e-mails from her friends, and how they're swimming with sharks, and learning how to saw people in half. We, on the other hand, get to see Judy glue her hand to a table. Note to screenwriters: Don't make it sound like your off camera characters are having more fun than the main character you're forcing us to watch.

picJudy Moody is frantic, colorful, and mostly harmless, but boy, is it ever irritating. The movie tries every trick in the book to grab our attention - CG cartoons, words and captions appearing next to the characters, they even throw in Jaleel White (best known as the guy who used to be Steve Urkel on Family Matters) as Judy's favorite teacher, Mr. Todd. But the whole thing ends up being dull and aimless. I didn't like Judy, I didn't like her friends, and I didn't like the world she inhabits. This is the kind of film that thinks as long as it throws enough screaming kids, fake vomit, and poop up on the screen, it will eventually amount to something. Maybe it will be enough for some kids (very, very little kids, I hope), but I'm thinking they'll be able to see through this for the cynical junk it really is.
The movie doesn't even end on an interesting note. For a movie that managed to gather up Rollergirl, Bigfoot, and Steve Urkel in the same story, I was at least expecting a big finish. As Judy Moody herself might say, "Holy macaroni, is this a bad movie".

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