Movie Review: Green Lantern – You Won’t Care That A Glowing Green Man Can Fly

I saw two movies this weekend. One was a smart, funny, science fiction story with likeable characters, believable (though incredible) situations, and entertaining drama. The other one was Green Lantern.

For those of you who don’t know the story of Green Lantern, here it is: An ancient race once gathered together to…blah blah blah…skip ahead a few thousand years, and now Ryan Reynolds has a green ring that allows him to create roller coasters out of thin air.

Let me clarify that last part: An actor with charisma and charm of Ryan Reynolds is put in the situation of being responsible for the most powerful weapon in the galaxy. Sounds like a great movie, right? He could spend most of the movie learning how to control this incredibly powerful device. He’d make some mistakes at the beginning, we’d see a lot of reaction shots from people being freaked out by the fact that there’s a GREEN MAN WHO CAN FLY AND SHOOT FIRE FROM HIS FINGER, he could learn some valuable yet subtle lessons about heroism, and then he beats the bad guy, who could turn out to be an ALIEN! WOW! In the last scene, we could see that not only do we have this great and AWESOME new hero that we love, but there’s a big reveal that there’s actually 2300 more of him and THEY LIVE IN OUTER SPACE! Holy Crap! I can’t wait for the sequel!!!

Sounds like a great premise right?

It is. It’s so good, they made a comic out of it. It’s called Green Lantern. Unfortunately, that’s not the story that Warner and director Martin Campbell chose to make here. The story they chose to make involves a smarmy spoiled dick doing his very best to not be surprised by any of the incredible things he’s seen, which include a cheesy alien planet that made Thor’s Asgard look like Brooklyn, and a hideous alien fear monster that can grunt semi-intelligent English. No, not Blake Lively.

There is so much wrong with this movie that I’m not really sure where to begin. Actually, I do.

The Script

I’m not saying it’s easy to write superhero movies. It’s not. But there is almost nothing in this script that is redeemable, from either a plot, or a dialogue sense, and I really don’t know how this movie got made.  The first mistake that the movie makes, and then repeats throughout, is that it forgets one of the cardinal rules of storytelling in a visual medium: You can show a character doing something, or feeling something. Or you can have the character tell us about what he’s doing or how he’s feeling. But when you have him do both at the same time it’s redundant. And insulting to your audience. Green Lantern is guilty of this on numerous occasions, and so we have Hal tell us he’s feeling bad about his father, and then we see images of his father. And then we have Blake Lively tell us that she’s sad, and then we see big crocodile tears of poison dripping down her cheeks. This movie is many things, but subtle ain’t one of them.

Another thing missing from the script is any real sense of wonder from its characters at the crazy stuff that’s going on. None of our characters seem especially surprised that these aliens are have expressed interest in them, and treat them with about the same level of interest as you would a moldy fridge. Remembering to write characters as being constantly amazed at cosmic events is something that’s easy to forget to write about in superhero comic books, as those kinds of things happen in comics all the time. But in superhero movies, especially in origin movies, keeping that sense of wonder is key to convincing the audience that they are seeing something amazing. Marvel’s recent Thor is a perfect example. There isn’t a second in that film where Natalie Portman’s character stops being absolutely flummoxed at the crazy stuff that’s happening around her. As the “everyman” , She’s our portal into the movie, and we share her surprise at every step. In GL, Ryan Reynolds is our “everyman”, but he travels to other planets, shoots laser beams from his hands, and encounters mutant telekinetics with about the same level of interest as you show when you go into a Wal-Mart you’ve never been in before.

The other problem is that by the time we see Reynolds in space, we’ve already beaten him there. Far too much of the exposition of the film takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film, before our hero even shows up. And so we learn everything about the movie way before our hero does, including what his ring is, where it comes from, and  who the villain of the story is. We should have learned the secrets of the film at the same time our hero did. If the real story here is that a human discovers a truly powerful space weapon, we shouldn’t  see the space weapon be used numerous times before he even stumbles across it.

The biggest issue I have with the script however, is its scope. I like ambition in filmmaking, but DC and Warner seemed to be SO convinced that they had money on their hands with Green Lantern that they seemed bound and determined to cram the plot and exposition of three movies, into one movie. Imagine if George Lucas had told us that Darth Vader was Luke’s father the first time Luke and Han stole aboard the Death Star. Or if Frodo and Gollum had battled for control of the One Ring in Mordor immediately after the Hobbits left the Shire? In storytelling, the journey is just as important (if not more so) as the destination. But GL is so crammed with “This is how we got here and this is where we’re going” that’s neither necessary or engaging, that we lose interest almost immediately.

The Acting

I’m not going to spend much time on this, as these poor saps didn’t have much to work with. Reynolds was passable as the hero. But while he’s a fine actor, he wasn’t nearly good enough to break free from the clunky script. I suppose that a stronger lead could have done something with this, but I doubt it. Peter Saarsgard’s Hector Hammond and Mark Strong’s Sinestro threaten to steal the show with some pretty decent performances, but again, the source material lets them down. But it’s not until we see Blake Lively hit the screen that we know what true pain is. While the other members of the cast struggle to break free from the lacklustre script, Lively seems to embrace it, and recites each clumsy line in a stilted…..emotionless….. monotone…..voice, that makes one wonder if she knew she was in a movie at all, or if she thought that she was reading off letters from a chart in an eye exam. Note to Warners: When casting your next major motion picture, maybe try auditioning real actors.

Bad movies get made all the time, so this shouldn’t be that big a deal. But it is, in that DC and Warner had a lot riding on this film. In fact, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the future of DC as a successful, independent IP unit in the Warner family depended on the success or failure of Green Lantern. This was DC’s first movie where all of their ducks (marketing, comic book tie ins, toys, scripts, etc) were firmly influenced by the DC office, and this was their first opportunity to show that they could make stars out of lesser-known characters, the way that Marvel Studios has done with Iron Man or Thor. But instead they proved what we already knew; that they are incapable of making entertaining non-Nolan superhero movies. Which means your chances of seeing a Justice League or Flash movie, just got a lot smaller.

Rating: D-

Movie Review: Super 8

So that was nice.

When this year started, Super 8 was the upcoming movie I was most excited about. J.J. Abrams + Steven Spielberg = monsters? Sign me up. And while it may not have been the landmark film experience I was hoping for, it was still probably the most entertaining adventure movie I’ve seen this year, and a much-needed throwback to the films of my youth.

Super 8 is the story of a group of children gamely trying to make a zombie movie in Ohio, circa 1979. Roll credits, we’re done. But in case you need a little more action in your action movies, there’s plenty of other stuff too, with evil governments, mysterious monsters (which in the interest of not spoiling anything for anyone, I’ll just refer to from now on as The Palin), and plenty of daddy issues all making strong cameos in the film. But at its heart Super 8 is about a group of young friends. I realize that sounds about as boring as listening to the sun shine, but that’s what it’s about. As are the movies it’s trying to emulate. You see, Super 8 isn’t a movie, as much as it is a movie that’s in love with other movies; namely Goonies, Stand By Me, Gremlins, Close Encounters, and E.T. In fact, it loves E.T. so much it wants to have its baby.

The one thing that four of those movies have in common, is a focus on how strong the relationships of youth are. The guy you play hockey with after school? He’s not your friend, he’s your BEST friend. The girl you have a crush on at school? You don’t just like her, she makes your heart literally hurt every time you see her. Youth is not for the emotionally timid, and those films knew it. And Super 8 knows it too.

Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning

First of all, let’s discuss the cast. Cast is usually the last thing I talk about; not that I feel that cast isn’t important, but I do feel that it’s given far too much importance these days. But in Super 8 our group of young heroes aren’t just important, they’re the whole damn movie. Joel Courtney deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Elliot. Well, he actually plays Joe Lamb, but his physical similarities to Henry Thomas are only the first of the many nods to E.T. that can be found here. Courtney isn’t just playing the lead here, he’s playing the hero. A quiet, introverted  hero who can barely talk to girls maybe, but a true movie hero nonetheless. And not only does Courtney lead his cast, but he’s also leading us. It’s not Elle Fanning’s charms we’re convinced by, it’s Courtney’s bashful smile every time she enters a room. It’s not the monster that scares us, it’s Courtney’s utter terror at the possibility that his friends may be hurt.

Not to say that Fanning isn’t phenomenal. She is. But her role is slightly easier than Courtney’s in this film. She plays THE GIRL. You know who I’m talking about. She’s the one that is ALWAYS in movies like this, in that she’s not who the movie is about, but acts as the love interest for the hero, and therefore seems to be in every scene. There’s a bit of a spin here, in that it’s not just THE GIRL, but that it’s THE FIRST GIRL. The one that you fell in love whole heartedly in junior high school but now look at pictures at and wonder, “umm…her?”  Now, Fanning plays THE GIRL with much more breadth than the role usually  calls for, and I think that J.J. Abrams deserves a lot of credit  for writing THE GIRL with quite a bit more depth than the character usually gets in these types of movies.

Let’s talk about the script, since its the real star of the film. But like much of Abrams work, so much is riding on it that when it does come up short, there isn’t much else in the film that can maintain it’s momentum. Abrams has taken the barbs thrown at Lost and Cloverfield to heart, and made sure that we (eventually) are given as much information about The Palin that we can handle. In fact, we learn so much about The Palin that I was half expecting it to recite its name and serial number. And so we get to one of the few real criticisms I have about the film, though it’s one that very few people would agree with me about. For me, the second that this movie stopped being GREAT, and got busted down to just VERY GOOD was the exact second that we started to see The Palin in detail. The minute The Palin stopped being a mysterious, unknown threat, and started becoming a tangible, physical beast, was the minute that some of the wonder of the film was lost. Don’t get me wrong; The Palin is a great monster. It has many legs, a horrifying face, and strongly believes that allowing gay people  to get married will destroy America in much the same way that it’s completely annihilated South Africa, Sweden, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Norway, Argentina, Iceland, and especially Canada. Poor Canada.

But a big part of the adventure of the film is the mystery of what is happening to this small town, and once that mystery is lost, so too, is some of the fun. But it’s not a decision I can critique too harshly. Abrams has come under fire as of late for the lack of exposition in some of his projects, and so I see why he would feel as if he needed to over share here. Again, my lack of interest in finding out too much about The Palin is a personal gripe, and not one that most people would share. My real problem (though it’s very minor), is that along with knowledge, comes formula. The minute that we find out exactly what The Palin is, is when this movie stops being a raw coming of age story, and transforms into a run-of-the-mill action movie that we’ve seen a hundred times. An extremely well-made run-of-the-mill action movie, but a run-of-the-mill action movie nonetheless.

All in all, there isn’t much to really complain about. While some might Super 8s overt homage to adventure films of the 1980s to be overly cloying, I found  it to be charming. It’s an exciting film, and on that’s full of drama, powerful though simplistic emotions, and great adventure. It’s also easily the best film of the summer thus far.

Rating: A

P.S. I get bonus points for the being the ONLY review of this movie that didn’t use the term “Spielbergian”.

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 53: Marvel Comics – Sentinel, Sentry, and Shanna The She-Devil

Sentinel – Salvage

Sentinel was a short-lived series that Marvel put on the market about 8 years ago as part of one of their many failed attempts to capture the “youth” market, that doesn’t really exist anymore in modern comics. While I’m a fan of writer Sean McKeever, and generally like his work, there isn’t much to recommend here. It’s a cute enough story, but if you really want  a great story about a loner kid and his giant robot, watch The Iron Giant.

CULL

The Sentry – The Sentry

This is one of Marvel’s weirder experiments, and one that eventually succeeded, though perhaps not in the way Marvel intended. The Sentry was one of the greatest marketing ploys in the history of comics, but also a great example of organic, fan-based storytelling. Here’s how it played out: In 1998, Marvel “leaked” to Wizard Magazine, that they had “discovered” a lost silver age character that had been created by Stan Lee, and by a fictional creator named Arnie Rosen. This got some attention, until Marvel finally fessed up and acknowledged that it was a hoax. They continued the premise of this being a “lost” hero in the pages of the first Sentry comic, and Paul Jenkins fabricated a complicated story about someone who was actually the greatest hero of his generation, but no one (including Marvel’s other heroes) could remember him.

As a marketing ploy, this was brilliant. But as a character, the Sentry never clicked with audiences. The original series itself wasn’t that good, and was less of a cohesive story than it was a series of vignettes told by various characters in the Marvel universe. It suited Jenkins writing style, and there are few nice character moments, but it just didn’t work as a story.  After the mixed reaction to the original series, Marvel put the character on the bench for a few years until he was finally brought into Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers. Bendis’ shrewdly recognized that the character wasn’t really that likable, and used some of the mental instability that Jenkins had written into the character earlier as a major plot point. So now you have the most powerful being on earth, slowly going nuts. And it worked. It created a lot of tension, and the Sentry served as an effective deus ex machina in Marvel’s books for the next several years. As plot point in a team book, The Sentry worked exceptionally well. But as the lead character in his own heroic comic book? Not so much.

Cull

Shanna The She-Devil – Shanna The She-Devil

I don’t think that the female breast has ever had a more passionate champion than Frank Cho. He’s such a big fan, that if they didn’t exist already, I think he would have had to create them. And so we have Shanna The She-Devil, which isn’t really a story about Shanna so much as it a story about how Marvel is smart enough to let the preeminent penciler of curvy women, do a comic about curvy women. And as a generic jungle adventure Shanna The She-Devil works. Barely. But there really isn’t anything to this story other than: Pretty Girl In Bikini, which is fine if you’re reading a book of pin-ups, but not fine if you want a cohesive serial adventure. This was a cull for me, but it’s a fine example of why Cho is one of the finest pencillers in the game today.

CULL

Next up: She-Hulk! She’s like the Hulk, but with breasts!

 

Movie Review: X-Men – First Class

There’s been quite a bit of consternation about this movie from the geek community over the last year, despite it being directed by current director du jour of comic book films, Matthew Vaughn. “It’s being rushed!” you say. “It won’t fit into continuity” you say. “I won’t watch an X-Men movie without Hugh Jackman naked”, you say.

I’m pleased to tell you that your fears have been alleviated. X-Men First Class is a worthy successor to the X-Men film franchise as done by 20th Century Fox, in that it’s an overly simplistic, mindlessly silly piece of mediocre entertainment.  And not in a good way.

This is getting some rave reviews, and I’ve spent much of the weekend trying to figure out why. Is it the “blink and you’ll miss it” breakneck pace of the script, that adds more exposition than the book of Exodus yet doesn’t give us a chance to actually learn anything about any of the characters except for their name and power? And in a few cases not even that much? Or is it the mediocre script that hides its failings by tying the whole mess to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or is it the overly clever way it clumsily foreshadows events we’ve seen in previous X-men films? Or maybe it’s just the soulless, dead eyes of January Jones? Probably a combo of them all.

What I didn’t like: 

The script –  There seems to be some debate as to who actually wrote this script, but I’m not sure why, as I’m not sure why anybody would actually want to take credit for it. There are some good things about this script from a technical standpoint. It accomplishes pretty much everything it sets out to in regards to plot points: A group of superhumans brought together by a brilliant mutant named Charles Xavier, attempt to stop a rogue mutant named Sebastien Shaw in his attempt to bring about nuclear holocaust. Ok. Mission accomplished. The script gets the job done, in that it lays out the plot relatively well, and also introduces the characters in an effective, though quick and clumsy manner. What it doesn’t do is to give us any reason to care about ANY of these characters except for two: Mystique, and Magneto.

Kevin Bacon, wondering exactly how his once stellar career went so wrong.

They are the only 2 characters that have any depth at all, but even they have their limitations. Magneto’s is that while are given more than ample reason why he would want to kill the main villain of the piece himself, we are NOT given anything more than that, and the final choices he makes seem to come out of almost nowhere. Mystique is probably the most fully realized character in the piece, but she is held back by the Portman-As-Padme-esque vacant stare of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence seems determined to prove that her fantastic performance in last year’s phenomenal Winter’s Bone was nothing more than a fluke, though to be fair she doesn’t have much to work with in the way of dialogue.

The rest of the characters are given such short shift, that their very inclusion is little more than a distraction. Although much time is given to fully explain each of our new mutant’s powers, none is given to actually giving any of these people a reason for being there in the first place. For example: Would a black taxi-driver in 1961 really decide that it would be a great idea to voluntarily move to a secret US government facility without anyone knowing about it? And why would a stripper decide to betray the only people who actually accept her for who she is after a 3 sentence pitch from a complete stranger? X-Men First Class is hoping that you’re too excited about getting to see another X-Men movie to want to know the answers to these, and numerous other questions that the movie provokes (Why exactly is Sebastien Shaw trying to cause a nuclear holocaust when he has absolutely no proof that that would create more mutants? Would Charles Xavier’s parents really be ok with him adopting a naked 12-year-old blue girl? And who the frak thought that the makeup job on Hank McCoy was a good idea?)

The biggest problem here is that the film attempts to cram 2 or 3 movies into one. There isn’t much wrong here that another hour or two of proper set up and character building couldn’t have fixed. The one positive comment about the script that I will make is that the many changes it makes in X-Men continuity are good ones that serve the film well, and tie into the existing franchise far better than I would have thought possible. Some fans might be up in arms over the minor cosmetic changes that Vaughn and company made to the history of the X-Men, but not me.

 The acting – Much attention is being given to the performances of Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Xavier, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastien Shaw. And they do a serviceable job with the poor material that they’re given. But any success they have on the screen is completely negated by the film-destroying anti-charisma of January Jones. Like a beautiful black hole, she threatens to suck any and or all joy out of every scene she’s in. To be fair, she plays the role of Emma Frost exactly like she plays the role of Betty Draper, but without the benefit of a good supporting cast or great script. Sadly, the clumsiness of the script pretty much prohibits any real acting talent from breaking through here.

I know, I’m being harsh. This isn’t Phantom Menace bad, or Transformers 2 bad. In fact, it’s not even close. Probably the biggest disappointment here isn’t that it’s a bad movie, but that it really wouldn’t have been very much effort at all to transform this into a good movie. But then again, this was produced by Fox, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Though this was a mis-step for Matthew Vaughn, it was a relatively small one, and I’m confident that once he sinks his teeth into something with far less studio intervention, and a little more meat, he’ll be fine. I wish I could say the same for the X-Men franchise.

Rating: C-

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 52: Marvel Comics – Runaways!

Runaways – Pride & Joy, Teenage Wasteland, The Good Die Young, True Believers, Escape To New York, Parental Guidance, Live Fast, Dead End Kids

The Runaways is probably the best original concept Marvel has produced in the past 20 years. So why haven’t you heard of them?

Keep in mind I said concept, and not characters. As characters, the team is charismatic, but they’re hardly unique in that. There are lots of comic books full of precocious, annoying teenagers with superpowers. And most of them are terrible (I’m looking at you Teen Titans. And New Mutants. And Avengers Academy!) But as a concept, this series is gold: Once a year, a group of kids are forced to spend an evening together while their parents ostensibly get together to manage the various charities they run. One year, the kids get bored, and whilst spying on their parents, discover them ritually killing a young prostitute. Yep, it’s the old “Our parents actually sacrifice hookers to Satan” standby.

So now the kids know this terrible secret. And they run. And because it’s a Marvel comic, they happen to gain superpowers and magical weapons along the way to help them survive. Parents Bad is a well-worn cliché in young-adult fiction, but for a good reason. And writer Brian Vaughan knows it, and crafts a well-told story that takes advantage of the concept effectively. The first 18 issues are a how-to in how to write a great, kids-focused adventure comic. It’s got everything you could possibly want in a teen angst book: Drama, Romance, and Telepathic Dinosaurs. It’s got action, but not too much. It’s got superhero stuff, but not too much. And of course it’s got teen whineyness. But not too much.

And then the story ends. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything when I tell you that the kids get away, and eventually vanquish their hated ‘rents. But by now the book is a minor critical hit, and Marvel knows that there’s still money in the concept. And so although series creator Vaughan has left the book, they bring in Joss Whedon to try to continue the magic. He fails. And then they bring in Terry Moore. And he fails. And so on.

The reason why Runaways hasn’t worked past its original mandate is because the magic here isn’t the actual characters, it’s the story the characters are in: It’s the story of kids running away from super villain parents. Once they get away, the story is done. And then you’re just left with another average teen hero book. Which is what Runaways eventually became. But until then, there is real magic to be found here.

There’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to see the first several arcs of Runaways in movie theatres within the next few years. Out of all of the concepts that Marvel is batting around the whole movie theatre wishing box these days, this is the one that has the most potential to go after a mainstream, non-comic book reading audience. Just don’t expect me to go to the sequel.

Pride & Joy, Teenage Wasteland, The Good Die Young, True Believers, Escape To New York, Parental Guidance, Live Fast: Keep;  Dead End Kids: Cull.