Archive for June 2011

Bad Teacher

June 26, 2011

The scariest movie news I’ve heard in recent years is that Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky were said to be writing the script for Ghostbusters 3. These gentlemen have written fifteen episodes of The Office, and some of the better ones, too; but they have also written two of the most aridly, arrogantly unfunny “comedies” ever to see the light of a projector — 2009’s ghastly Year One, and now Bad Teacher. I fear for Ghostbusters 3 (granted, a terrible idea to begin with). The men who wrote the instant-classic Office episode “Scott’s Tots,” perhaps the most exquisitely uncomfortable comedy segment in television history, are obviously not bums. But something seems to happen to their brains when they write a movie.

The one joke here is that Cameron Diaz, as the eponymous bad teacher, is foul-mouthed and shallow and couldn’t care less about building young minds. In a way, it’s a relief that the script doesn’t go the usual route of Diaz having a change of heart and becoming a good teacher. But the movie offers nothing to replace the clichés. Diaz’ character, who’s in it only to get enough money for breast implants, spends half the movie trying to seduce substitute teacher Justin Timberlake, who she assumes has family money, and trying to ruin perky teacher Lucy Punch, whose crime appears to be competence in her job and the insight to know that Diaz is breaking moral, ethical and legal rules right and left.

For this, Punch’s character is punished from beginning to end, first by being named Amy Squirrel, then by being cheated on, rubbing a poison-ivy-coated apple over her face, being arrested for possessing drugs that are actually Diaz’, and finally getting transferred to another school district to teach at an urban rathole named after Malcolm X. That last bit is supposed to be funny, I guess: the perky little white teacher is being banished to what we presume is a predominantly black school, where terrible things are sure to happen to her. Because, you know, the kids are black. Does anyone involved with this movie even know any black people? If so, were said people shown the script, and if so, did that joke fly at all?

Sure, Diaz’ character doesn’t undergo some clichéd redemption, but she doesn’t evolve in any other way, either. She pretty much stays shallow. Which would be fine if it were funny. As it is, the closest she has to an awakening is when gym teacher Jason Segal, who has his eye on her, points out that Timberlake is an airhead who will say anything he thinks his conversation partner will agree with. It’s a weird time for the movie to come out in favor of intellectual integrity. As for Segal, his scenes with Diaz feel as though they were tacked on in reshoots. He doesn’t really interact with anyone else (the “That’s all the argument I need, Sean!” bit you’ve seen endlessly in the commercials could be lifted whole out of the film with no harm done, and all his other scenes with it), and he exists only to give Diaz a kinda-sorta happy ending.

Which she doesn’t deserve. She deserves, as Punch’s character rightly says, jail time. She has helped her class cheat on an important test (by stealing the answers) so she can get a $5,000 check to put towards her implants. She drinks and gets high on school property. Again, this could all work if it were funny. Diaz, who slouches sullenly through the movie as if fulfilling a contractual obligation (or saving up for implants), is pitted against Lucy Punch, an unfair contest: Despite working with the same dreary script, Punch puts her whole physicality into the performance and ends up being infinitely more likable by comedic default. She’ll be in better movies, I hope. As for Diaz, she should take a long hard look at Bridesmaids — or even her own The Sweetest Thing, from nine years ago — and see how a female-centered comedy is supposed to work. Being funny, for starters.

Green Lantern

June 19, 2011

The Book of Revelations was made for movies like Green Lantern, specifically this passage: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” That pretty much sums up Green Lantern, and in general the works of its director Martin Campbell, which are neither cold nor hot. I would they wert — uh, were. Here’s a movie about a superhero who can use a special ring to turn energy into matter, in any shape he wants, and the script never rides on the potential absurdity of that.

The Green Lantern of the comics used to make big green boxing gloves and whatnot come out of his ring. In the one really fun sequence here, he envelops a falling helicopter inside a big green race car, then sends it tootling around a big green racetrack. Otherwise, kind of boring stuff. You’d think a Green Lantern played by snark expert Ryan Reynolds would enjoy defeating his foes with, say, a big green duck, if for no better reason than that you’d have to go through life knowing you’d gotten your ass handed to you by a big green duck. Reynolds brings a certain Gen-Y panache, though he probably needed more moments where his Hal Jordan just leans back and realizes how weird his life is now. After all, he’s mentored by various other Green Lanterns of varying colors and sizes, who in turn take their orders from blue-skinned bosses who look to have gotten the short end of the CGI-budget stick.

Superhero movies have become CGI demo reels, and we go for long stretches wherein nothing organic is on the screen at all, except for the occasional green-screened actor (though, in the case of bland love interest Blake Lively, “organic” is debatable). So we watch as things that don’t exist bash into other things that don’t exist. You really need filmmakers who can have fun with this, acknowledging the unreality of the sequences and dialing it up to 11, and if any movie were fertile soil for that sort of phantasmagoria, the tale of a man who can make anything with his ring would be it. I mean, one doesn’t look to a film called Green Lantern for seriousness, though the script blunders in that direction with its theme that will power must trump fear. Yes, it must, except in the stockholder rooms of a studio that has invested north of $200 million.

Green Lantern is Peter Sarsgaard’s movie, if it’s anybody’s. He plays Dr. Hector Hammond, a dweeby scientist whose exposure to alien DNA turns him into a creature resembling Lester Bangs on an epic bender. Sarsgaard has an amusing habit of standing with his head bowed even before the mutation that enlarges his brain, as though his skull were weighed down with knowledge and resentment (his senator dad, smarmily played by Tim Robbins, prefers the jockish pilot Hal Jordan over him). Sadly, though, Hammond isn’t quite allowed to be the scenery-gnashing villain of the piece; the Green Lantern Corps have bigger fish to fry, in the form of a vicious alien made entirely of fear. This is not the entity FDR warned us against; it appears to be, in the words of several esteemed critics, a massive and malevolent fart.

Visually, the movie may well be colorful and gorgeous. I wouldn’t know, since I saw it in 3D, which — in my theater, anyway — threw a dim blanket over everything. (This hasn’t been nearly as much of an issue with other 3D flicks I’ve caught recently, like Thor.) There’s a scene with Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively conversing at dusk that might as well be a radio play. The action scenes likewise suffer, as do the obviously expensive off-world sequences on Oa, the planet where the Green Lanterns hang out. Your 2D mileage may vary, but under such conditions this was the ugliest movie I’ve paid to see in some time. I know this can’t be the fault of the gifted cinematographer Dion Beebe, so I choose to blame it on the glasses. I can’t blame the script on them, though — the least expensive part of the movie, emerging from four credited writers who, in disregard of the comic-book lore, didn’t even have the wit to show Hal Jordan’s ring failing to work against something colored yellow. Otherwise we’d have to ask why the alien yellow fear fart thing isn’t invulnerable to Hal’s powers, and there goes the movie.

Super 8

June 11, 2011

Super 8 left me feeling vaguely depressed, because its very existence seems to prove you can’t go home again, and maybe its subtext says the same thing. Set in 1979, the movie follows a group of barely teenage boys, and one teenage girl, as they make their own zombie flick and end up catching footage of a train derailment. Something is inside the train, and the kids’ Super 8 camera catches that, too. Much has been made of the observation that the writer-director, J.J. Abrams, has photographed, edited, and scored Super 8 to look, feel, and sound very much like an early-’80s Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg himself is one of the producers, so one assumes he approves; besides, this particular style — the dolly moves, the shots of people staring skyward in awe — belongs to a filmmaker Spielberg himself hasn’t been in nearly two decades. Spielberg isn’t making ‘em like this anymore, so someone else might as well, right?

Spielberg’s near-patented sense-of-wonder film language, though, was always organic to the stories he was telling; he never struck me as a show-off but as someone who thought visually. Abrams’ attempt to ape Spielberg here does two useful things. First, it proves that it isn’t that easy to do; you need Spielberg’s conviction to seal the deal. Second, it points up that classical film storytelling may be a lost art in mainstream summer entertainment; Abrams tries hard, but he keeps panning and tilting in shots that in no way call for embellishment. Spielberg, in his prime, was no more afraid of boring you than is a kid re-enacting a story with his action figures. He was having fun, and he figured you would, too. (And for the most part, we did.) Abrams is of the new breed, terrified of losing us. In Jaws, Spielberg filmed the famous Indianapolis monologue in simple one-shot and two-shot. He trusted the story to rivet us. Abrams would probably have the camera chase itself in a 360 around the table as Robert Shaw spoke to the other men.

The kiddie-filmmaker stuff in Super 8 feels like the stuff Abrams was most interested in — the kids, particularly the flick’s director (Riley Griffiths), are passionate about what they’re doing, and it reminded me of the real-life teens who spent most of the ’80s making a shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anyone who’s seen the results of that seven-year experiment has found it completely charming. But the filmmaking passion we see in the kids here doesn’t translate to the actual zombie flick when we finally see it during the end credits. It is, like Super 8 itself, a simulacrum more dependent on fond nostalgia than on sincere engagement with the story.

Elle Fanning, as the girl who lends some grace to the zombie flick, does likewise with Super 8, doing a lot with the little that is written for her. The rest of the cast are moved around like underemoting chesspieces, responding helplessly to the chaos that ensues when an alien is loose in town. The alien stuff here just feels so skimpy and half-hearted, an afterthought. This is not the kind of script that would’ve passed muster with the ’80s Spielberg, which raises the question of why it got a thumbs-up from him as a producer. (Maybe in his youth he was a soft-hearted director — Spielberg became synonymous with “happy ending” for a while — but also a tough-minded producer, and now it’s the reverse.) When the film gives itself over, in the last act, to the alien material nobody cares about, it dies rapidly.

But you can’t go home again. The young hero (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother, and nothing will bring her back or make things the same; his father (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, seems as grief-dazed as his son is. The glory days are gone; mothers die randomly and Spielberg is no longer in his prime. For about twelve seconds I entertained the notion that the alien running amok, terrorizing the suburbs, was a metaphor for the disaster at Three Mile Island, which we see referenced on a TV at one point. That was the end of a small kind of American innocence, one that trusted in nuclear power as a workable alternative to oil, which, what with Khomeini all over the news that year, was looking less and less attractive. Super 8 looks back fondly on a year that was pretty chaotic to live through, but doesn’t have much to say about that, as it turns out. Nor is the alien an effective metaphor for the overpowering feelings that attend both grief and coming of age. It’s all very passive: the characters don’t want anything except to make their little movie and, later, to stay alive. And in a movie released in 2011, the girl must be rescued and the first black character we see is also the first to die. Now that feels like 1979. Or 1939.

The Ward

June 7, 2011

Hoo, boy. The Ward, John Carpenter’s first feature film in ten years, isn’t completely awful; it is, at most, better than Ghosts of Mars. But if you’re a longtime Carpenter fan counting the minutes until you get to see it on VOD/in theaters/on Blu-ray/whatever, scale those expectations down. A whole lot.

Believe me, I don’t want to be saying this. The man has given us — especially during the years he was really on fire, 1976 to, let’s say, 1988 — one classic after another, and not just in the horror genre. Once upon a time, John Carpenter made the coolest movies around. That director, I fear, is long gone. He’s made no secret of the fact that after Ghosts of Mars, and probably during its difficult production, he lost it — his passion for the work, his reason for doing it, everything. He gained some of it back, he felt, with his two Masters of Horror episodes. But The Ward feels like the work of a man who’d just as soon be kicking back watching basketball. Or a man with bills to pay. It’s certainly not the work of an old master in it to prove something to the torture-porn youngsters, and it’s absolutely not the work of the youngster who made Halloween. Either way, there’s no passion here, no hunger. John Carpenter made this film because the script came his way and he was kinda sorta in the mood to say “Action” again — that’s pretty much what it feels like.

A good part of the blame for The Ward rests on the shoulders of the writers, Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who have cobbled up a cliché-ridden thriller set in an all-female psychiatric ward in 1966 (why 1966?). Kristen (Amber Heard) burns down a farmhouse at the beginning, then is whisked off to the ward, where strange things start happening. There’s a spectral presence in the ward, a very corporeal ghost from the looks of it — it can appear and disappear at will, and it can touch you and kill you. Kristen’s wardmates, like the quirkily crazy Emily (Mamie Gummer) and the infantile Zoey (Laura-Leigh), won’t talk about this presence, who we gather is named Alice and is out for revenge.

And guess what, none of this fucking matters because it all builds up to another goddamn twist ending that invalidates everything we’ve tried hard to invest ourselves in despite the script’s incompetence. While we wait, The Ward gives us, completely without irony, stereotypes older than dust. The Stern, Forbidding Nurse. The Skeevy Orderly. The Shrink Who May or May Not Be a Creep (Jared Harris). And about midway through there’s a scene where all the girls dance to some dorky ’60s song and it’s unquestionably the lamest thing I’ve ever seen in a John Carpenter film. I think if you watched The Fog and then watched this, you’d want to punch yourself in the face a few times. Ah, Debra Hill, you are sorely missed.

Amber Heard is okay here, as she’s been okay elsewhere; she goes through the mechanics of whatever emotions she’s playing, sometimes skillfully, but she’s not really feelin’ it and neither am I. She does spend the last act of the movie with a hairdo that explicitly calls out Kim Novak in Vertigo, which is nice, I guess, though some critics will make more of that than is there. As for Carpenter, he stoops to “gotcha” moments that even his inferiors have given up on, and technically The Ward feels as though it could’ve been made by anyone. The poor guy seems all alone out there — his peak cinematographer Dean Cundey is long gone, and he doesn’t even have Gary Kibbe any more; he has no musical fingerprints on this thing either. It’s as if he went with whatever cinematographer and composer weren’t doing anything else at the time (Yaron Orbach? Mark Kilian?). And there’s nobody remotely bad-ass here — no Charles Cyphers, no Tom Atkins, no Adrienne Barbeau as the nurse, nobody. For fuck’s sake, Starman was more hardcore than this film.

Goddamn it, I do not want to be saying any of this. John Carpenter is 63, though he looks a hell of a lot older, and God only knows whether he’ll bestir himself to direct another movie any time soon. The thought of this styleless weak tea possibly being his swan song makes me crazy. Whatever else happens, Carpenter is not “back.” This is not his “comeback.” This is not recognizably a Carpenter film, except for the (undistinguished) wide compositions, which aren’t even Panavision. Even Ghosts of Mars had some whiff of the former Carpenter — the bad-ass anti-heroes, the overbearing metal score — and those who actually found something to enjoy in that film might look at The Ward and shake their heads sadly.

I dunno, man; right now I don’t want any more films with John Carpenter’s name on them, if it means that he isn’t spiritually and creatively in the goddamn room. If he really just wants to sit around and watch basketball and pocket the checks from pointless remakes of the remainder of his catalog, maybe he should just do that and stop making it harder for us fans to remember why we ever got excited by his name on a movie.

X-Men: First Class

June 4, 2011

There are two major conflicts running through X-Men: First Class. One is interesting, though we’ve seen it before, and one is near-fatal to the film. The first conflict is the ideological loggerheads between two powerful mutants — Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a telepath, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who can manipulate metal with his mind. Charles is aware that normal humans hate and fear mutants, but wants to help humans anyway. Erik is likewise aware, but gradually decides that he would rather not. The second conflict is one of tone. X-Men: First Class, set during the early ’60s leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, breathes heavily about matters of major historical import — Erik as a boy survived Auschwitz — but also wants to be a poppy summer-fun blast in which mutants sprout wings or blue fur and flit around the sky like fireflies at dusk.

The result is a weird and unstable experience, and I wish I could say I gave in to the lightweight escapism. But when you present me with the Final Solution and the spectre of nuclear annihilation — which actually almost happened, with or without mutants — I have a hard time switching gears for the goofball scenes of young mutants in training, roughhousing with their budding powers. I don’t mean to be a killjoy; I just mean to say that historical high seriousness and retro pulp don’t blend well — you can see the seams. The first two X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer, took themselves seriously — gloomily so, at times — but at least felt consistent. The stakes were high, and Singer, an openly gay director, plumbed the metaphor of mutants as persecuted homosexuals, but when the action beats came they felt rooted in something personal. Here, the historical import seems like a tacky backdrop for tackier action.

Charles and Erik (who will later triumphantly assume the dorky name “Magneto,” snarkily given to him by Jennifer Lawrence’s shape-shifting Mystique) enter into an increasingly uneasy alliance when Erik’s old foe from the Auschwitz days, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), plans to use his own mutant powers and mutant minions to provoke nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. The resulting radiation will kill off all the humans and empower the mutants. So Charles and Erik build their own team, made up mostly of disaffected youngsters with strange powers; perhaps significantly, perhaps not, of the two mutants of color, one dies early on and one turns to evil.

Michael Fassbender emerges as a cool, 007-like presence, the only real adult in the movie; James McAvoy seems to keep himself amused. For the most part, though, the large cast gets lost in the bombast, and January Jones as Shaw’s telepathic right-hand woman Emma Frost gives yet another dead-eyed performance in which she seems to be reading her lines phonetically. The director (and one of four named writers) of X-Men: First Class is credited as Matthew Vaughn, which I find hard to believe. Can this be the same man who gave us last year’s sarcastic, taboo-breaking superhero satire Kick-Ass (not to mention the enchanting comedy Stardust)? This film is a complete regression for Vaughn, who seemed to be forging a career as one of the few iconoclasts working in big Hollywood movies. There’s more outlaw excitement in any of Hit Girl’s scenes from Kick-Ass than in all of X-Men: First Class.

Save for a few hairdos and JFK on the tube, the ’60s milieu isn’t very convincing; the movie itself, meanwhile, feels as though it were made in 1996 or even 1986. A lot of that is due to Henry Jackman’s painfully cheesy score, but part of it is down to Matthew Vaughn’s passionless, visionless direction. Vaughn was supposed to direct 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand but dropped out two weeks before filming started; did he take this movie on to prove he could’ve done better with the earlier film, or did he forget in the intervening five years why he’d wanted to make an X-Men film in the first place? X-Men: First Class has been getting something of a free ride from the fanboy press, who respect Vaughn for his past films and are grateful that someone tried to make a better movie than The Last Stand and the oafish Wolverine. But loyalty to a director and relief that a film doesn’t stink on ice aren’t enough reason to excuse mediocrity.