REVIEW: Green Lantern

20 06 2011

The old adage traditionally goes “money can’t buy you happiness,” but in respect to the latest Hollywood comic book adaptation, “Green Lantern,” money can’t buy you quality. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall, and with a $200 million price tag, this movie lands a hard face plant.  Even with Ryan Reynolds turning in one of the better superhero performances in recent memory, the movie’s unimaginative script and laughable special effects render it one step short of unbearable.

The first movie in any hopeful series has to do a lot of introductions, and the hero has to earn his stripes.  But here, the exposition just made me want to howl with laughter because of its corniness, and they even brought in Geoffrey Rush to do some of the narration to make it sound serious!  The whole universe they set up feels like some rejected, half-baked idea for a Disney Channel series with its Sectors of the universe, the wise sages known as Guardians, and the intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps.

Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is the lucky human who gets to join their ranks thanks to being “chosen” by the green light after another Green Lantern crash-lands on Earth.  Cocky, rule-breaking, and daredevil Jordan has his work cut out for him as the Green Lanterns draw their power from the green light of will, while the menacing Parallax (and his new convert Hector Hammond, Peter Sarsgaard’s mad scientist with a nasty receding hairline) draws his power from the yellow light of fear.  He must learn to use willpower to overcome fear by using the power of imagination – which makes it all the more ironic that the movie’s big theme copies that of the poorly received “Spider-Man 3.”  Clearly it’s not Jordan who needs the green light; it’s the people who wrote the script.

The whole mess, which goes on for nearly two hours, is full of plot holes and ridiculous implausibilities (flying next to the sun?) that make it even more laughable.  But the icing on the cake is the movie’s visual effects, which are honestly the WORST that I’ve seen in a blockbuster made this millenium.  When Jordan harnesses the green energy and transforms, he looks so fake that it’s hard to take him seriously.  It’s made worse by the fact that his eyes are sloppily changed blue, making him look borderline possessed (not to mention that it does jack squat to protect his identity).  And don’t even get me started on those Guardians; they look like the offspring of trolls bred with Smurfs.

Truly, Reynolds deserves better than this.  He may be the “Sexiest Man Alive,” but he’s also out to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face.  He puts a lot of soul into this character, giving Jordan some depth and emotion, yet he’s stifled by a terrible movie that is unintentionally more like “Bridesmaids” than “Thor.”  Reynolds is a star here, but he can’t shine bright enough to overpower the ugly light that is “Green Lantern.”  From a critical perspective, it’s a big, fat red light for this movie.  C- / 





REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

24 05 2011

Perhaps a more accurate surname for the latest installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” would have been In Familiar Waters.  Despite numerous changes to signal a distinctly different volume in the saga than the original trilogy, “On Stranger Tides” feels just like more of what we’ve seen the series do – and then overdo.  In fact, I found myself wondering if I’ve seen the movie before, and deja vu in a movie theater is never good.

Suggested by the novel “On Stranger Tides” (a phrase taken straight from the credits, which is something I’ve never seen before), the plot unfolds just as the previous three did.  A mystical and mythical booty awaits, this time the Fountain of Youth, coveted by the British, the Spanish, and – you guessed it – Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp reprising his iconic role).  Their journeys are fraught with just enough peril and tumult to endure two and a half hours on the screen.

Most of the movie just feels like a $250 million (yes, that was the actual pricetag) straight-to-DVD sequel for the series that managed to net its big star for a hefty paycheck.  Slight scene changes give the movie a new look but not a new feel.  Director Rob Marshall, who directed the film adaptation of “Chicago” with an almost prophetic foresight, settles for his best imitation of Gore Verbinski and doesn’t put his own mark on the movie.

No Keira Knightley?  No problem, just replace the British beauty with the sassy Spanish starlet Penelope Cruz and get essentially the same romantic foil for Captain Jack.  No Orlando Bloom?  Just add in Sam Claffin, a British missionary that will make girls swoon – oh, and don’t forget that gratuitous shirtless scene!  Geoffrey Rush’s storyline has gotten kind of boring?  Refashion him as a sell-out to the crown and give him a peg leg!

Thankfully, the saving grace of the movie is Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, the reason that the series became such a hit in the first place.  The movie gives him a lot more humor to chew on, and Depp definitely seems a lot more into his character this go-round.  He doesn’t recede into a bad imitation of himself but rather animates Jack with spunk and teeth.  However, as much fun as he is to watch, neither Depp nor the movie earn their bloated running time, which makes 150 minutes often seem interminable.

So by all means, if you like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series enough to watch Disney churn out a third sequel purely for commerce, then this will be fun summer entertainment.  But if you crave something unique, or dare I say, original to justify expending your time and paying for ridiculously puffed-up ticket prices, perhaps you should stay at home and wait until some critic calls a movie “as original as Inception.”  C+ / 





Know Your Nominees: “The King’s Speech”

10 02 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, our next stop on the tour is “The King’s Speech.”

“The King’s Speech” should feel like a very personal movie for a number of reasons, but probably chief among them is screenwriter David Seidler.  As a boy growing up in England in the 1930s and ’40s, Seidler was a stammerer and idolized King George VI for his ability to overcome his problem.  He had to wait many years to secure the rights to write a movie about his hero, mainly due to being asked personally by the Queen Mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the film) to pass away.  Seidler then wrote it as a play, which director Tom Hooper saw and decided to make into a movie.

The director then added his own personal touch to the movie as well.  Hooper stated in an interview that “The King’s Speech” is really a movie about his family.  For example, the opening scene of the movie showing the preparations for the radio broadcast is an homage to his sister, a presenter for Radio 4.  But mainly the connection comes from the relationship between the British Bertie and Australian Logue as Hooper has an Australian mother and an English father. He talked greatly in interviews about the interesting relationship between the two countries and how he conveyed it in the movie.

Lionel Logue, King George’s speech therapist played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush, kept a detailed set of diaries chronicling his work (although they don’t start until the coronation of the king).  However, the diaries were not made available to the filmmakers until nine weeks before the shoot.  Hooper has said that the only changes they made were for the sake of accuracy, and nothing was drastically altered.  He also stated in an interview that some of the best lines in the movie were taken directly from the diary.  For example, after the climactic speech, Logue jokingly says, “You still stammered on the w,” to which King George replies, “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew that it was me.”

Colin Firth looks like a sure-fire winner for Best Actor, but this easily could have been someone else.  Firth was actually the third choice to play King George VI and only received the role after first Paul Bettany and then Hugh Grant passed.  Neither have Oscars at home on their mantle, so I’m pretty sure that both are regretting this decision.

So how did Firth nail down that stammer, which he executes so immaculately in “The King’s Speech?”  What might be surprising is that Firth did not work with a speech therapist.  He did, however, use a dialogue coach who helped him make the stammer come from a very personal place while also not affecting the pacing of the movie (imagine how dreadful the movie would be if it took him 20 minutes to utter each word).  A speech therapist did come to some of the rehearsals for the movie, and Firth’s sister is also a vocal therapist, which he claims was very helpful for consulting purposes.  He also talked a lot with screenwriter David Seidler, who compared stuttering to being “underwater.”

Does stammering come with side effects?  For Colin Firth, it did.  During the shoot, he claims to have suffered from some headaches and neck tension.  But the more debilitating toll was on his arm, which became numb, went to sleep and thus hard to use.  He went to the set doctor who had little to offer due to the lack of precedent.

Helena Bonham Carter received her second Academy Award nomination for her work in “The King’s Speech,” but just as the case was with many of this year’s nominees, she almost missed the chance.  Due to her commitment on the “Harry Potter” movies, Carter turned down the role numerous times despite director Tom Hooper’s insistence.  Yet she did star in “The King’s Speech” by making what she calls an “illegal” maneuver – shooting BOTH at the same time.  Carter would go off on the weekends and shoot her scenes for Tom Hooper while never being truly “released” from the “Harry Potter” sets.

How do you get a good actor – an Academy Award winning actor, for that matter – to play a convincing mediocre actor?  Tom Hooper got Geoffrey Rush to do some unconvincing Shakespeare by shooting the scene on the first day with English actors in the room who knew that Rush had some experience with Shakespeare. To quote Rush, “I was nervous and I was bad, and he just shot it.”

What of the royal reaction to the film? Queen Elizabeth II, George’s daughter portrayed in the movie as a young girl, gave “The King’s Speech” her seal of approval.  Cynics might ask how much Harvey Weinstein paid for it; others are probably just thrilled to see the royal family showing interest in popular culture.

Cynics might also say that “The King’s Speech” is a stuffy British royal family costume drama that’s totally designed to win over the Academy.  The last part seems to be somewhat true, but it’s hardly stuffy like most other movies about royal life.  Director Tom Hooper is largely responsible for that.  He stated in an interview that he purposefully set up the opening and closing shots of Bertie/George VI so that the movie would stand apart from others in the genre.  We first meet Bertie in normal clothes, not looking all snazzy in his royal get-up.  The movie closes reaffirming King George and Lionel Logue’s friendship, not with him cured of his stammer as if by magic or medicine.

Check back on February 13 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “127 Hours.”





REVIEW: The King’s Speech

28 12 2010

There’s a cynical term for movies like “The King’s Speech” that has become so overused that we forget how derogatory it can actually be: “Oscar Bait.”  People assume that when you throw together Academy-friendly stars in a movie set at least a few decades ago with some pretty costumes and fancy sets, the movie is made just to win a few Oscars at the end of the year.  In essence, we are completely disregarding the art and looking only at the competitive aspect, which is only an auxiliary component of the filmmaking process.

But Tom Hooper’s movie reminds us why this so-called “bait” often works: his story of King George VI’s incredible triumph over his speech impediment with the help of a gifted Australian therapist is a rousing chronicle of a peculiar kind of history.  It doesn’t feel like a page of a textbook but rather a fresh look at a historical figure.  While it’s not revolutionary or incredibly remarkable, “The King’s Speech” makes for an inspiring and very entertaining trip to the movies.

Whether due to his tumultuous childhood or just a lack of confidence, Albert (Colin Firth) cannot speak without a stammer and can hardly speak at all in public.  To remedy this as the radio forces the royal family of England to be a vocal as well as visual presence, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an obscure Australian speech therapist in London with rather unorthodox methods.  At first, Lionel seems like a crackpot to Albert, who is used to working with specialists who are more like witch-doctors practicing ancient voodoo rituals.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 24, 2010)

24 12 2010

With “True Grit” hitting theaters this week, I thought it would be as good a time as ever to visit a very different side of the Coen Brothers with the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” – their romantic comedy side.  Yes, believe it or not, the two quirky violent directors made one, although “Intolerable Cruelty” isn’t much like the normal ones that Hollywood churns out.  It’s a fascinating examination of our divorce and marry-for-money culture that’s a true winner.

In Los Angeles, Miles Massey (George Clooney) is a wildly successful divorce attorney.  He’s well-known by all in the field for his “Massey Prenup,” an agreement which has proven to be impenetrable.  He’s vicious in the courtroom and can figure out a way to get their clients exactly what they want in the divorce settlement, even if that means leaving their ex penniless.

But he soon meets his foil in Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a quintessential gold digger, using marriage only to gain wealth and financial freedom from a quick divorce.  In order to ensure a more favorable settlement from her husband Rex, she hires Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), a private investigator, to “nail his ass.”  But even with their documented evidence, she’s no match for Miles in the courtroom who leaves her with nothing.  Bitter, she concocts a plan to enact revenge on Miles that hits him where it hearts the most: in the heart.

It’s easy to call “Intolerable Cruelty” the least “Coen Brothers”-y movie that the brothers have directed since it’s their only movie to date not based on an idea by them.  But everything you love, minus the gruesome violence, is on display here with a bit of a lighter touch thanks to actors like Clooney and Zeta-Jones.  It’s well-written with many fascinating plot twists and witty one-liners.  While there’s still some mainstream humor on display, there’s definitely some of that trademark dark and quirky Coen Brothers humor.  So if you’re looking to enjoy one of their movies and can’t quite stomach “No Country for Old Men,” plop yourself down for “Intolerable Cruelty” for all the fun of the Coen Brothers without all the darkness.





Oscar Moment: “The King’s Speech”

22 09 2010

Have we found a Best Picture winner with Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech?”

According to pundits, we have a certain nominee here.  It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, which coupled with the movie’s resounding critical reception could make it quite a force for Hollywood’s top prize.  If it can enter mainstream consciousness, then it’s going to be pretty hard to beat.

I talked about how “Never Let Me Go” had the perfect Oscar formula three weeks ago, but things have changed now and this has the new best road to success.  The Academy has largely begun to ally itself with British tastes, and all signs point to this being the choice movie from our English allies.

“The King’s Speech” follows King George VI (Colin Firth) as he leads his country into World War II.  The royal family is always popular with voters; the past 15 years have seen Best Picture nominees “The Queen” and “Elizabeth,” and winner “Shakespeare in Love” with a cameo by Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I.

But there’s more to the movie than just the royal blood line.  There’s also an underdog story as George has no confidence in his ability to lead, mainly because of his stuttering and stammering.  The “speech” in the title does not refer to a long oration but rather George’s inability to be eloquent.  He hires an Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to help him with his issue, which becomes more and more pressing as Hitler becomes a bigger threat to the country by the minute.  According to a blurb from Cinematical, the movie is “not too heavy, it’s got its funny/kooky moments, and it ends on an inspirational note.”

After the win at Toronto, it’s riding a sort of front-runner status (although “The Social Network” managed to steal some thunder after many rave reviews popped up).  The People’s Choice Award certainly correlates more to the Oscars than the Venetian Golden Lion.  They have picked three Best Picture winners – “Slumdog Millionaire,” “American Beauty,” and “Chariots of Fire” – and plenty more nominees including “Precious,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “Shine.”  The award hasn’t been entirely effective in predicting Academy tastes, but it’s been very close in recent years.  “The King’s Speech” has to be considered a big contender, though, by virtue of winning.

On a different note, Kris Tapley of In Contention offered some wise words as to why being the movie on top at the moment may not be so good:

After coming out strong with the of-the-moment ‘Up in the Air’ last season, taking the same Telluride-Toronto crowd-pleasing path, their film slowly boiled down to an also ran and even came up short in the one category it seemed assured going into the Academy Awards … It’s easy to peak early in an Oscar season.  It takes tactical endurance to really come out on the other side with something to show for yourself and ‘The King’s Speech’ is burning fuel fast and early.

So there’s a chance that “The King’s Speech” has had its moment in the sun.  But there’s certainly nothing wrong with being at the top of the list for the moment, and many have speculated that Best Picture may come down to “old school Academy play versus a Gen-Y instant classic.”  I’d say given the fact that it’s a light drama with an acceptable amount of bait, it’s a pretty good bet for Best Picture and thus Best Director.

(No matter what happens, it’s a British period piece, and that guarantees at least Best Costume Design and Best Production Design at the very least.)

The actors are also going to be a big selling point for the movie.  Firth is coming straight off his first Oscar nomination last year for “A Single Man,” and people are beginning to take him very seriously as an actor.  As I said last year, “he is a likable actor, never demanding much attention, and making missteps in only the quietest of fashions.  Firth is the kind of actor the Academy would want to give the golden statue to, and he’s at a prime point in his career to get it.

Geoffrey Rush could easily find himself in the Best Supporting Actor race.  With no clear front-runner, he could easily charge to the front despite having won before back in 1996.  The fact that he’s already been awarded an Oscar should only be a factor when choosing the winner; the effect should be minimal on his nomination.  And Helena Bonham Carter, as George’s wife, should be able to squeeze out a nomination as well.  While she’s taken on some kooky roles since her last nomination in 1997 for “The Wings of the Dove,” a return to Academy fare could find her back in their favor once more.

It’s easy to call “The King’s Speech” a leader now as it rides high on the buzz of film festival success.  But let’s not forget that it has to ride out a full-scale release and the precursor season before it can climb the stage at the Kodak Theater in February.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing