Thursday, June 16, 2011

EARLY REVIEW: GREEN LANTERN


Here's hoping that Green Lantern does not represent a new direction that Warner Bros. will be taking with its movies based on classic DC Comics characters. It’s not a terrible film. Nor is it a good one. It is completely, thoroughly, utterly mediocre. I can barely summon up the energy to write about it, it made such little impact on me.

Sticking close to the comic-book lore from which it was derived, the film tells the story of how daredevil test pilot Hal Jordan, played here by Ryan Reynolds, comes into possession of an alien power ring that grants its user amazing powers. Soon, Jordan finds himself the newest—and the first human—recruit in an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps, made up of thousands of life-forms large and small, all sworn to uphold peace and justice throughout the universe.

Jordan, a reckless, unreliable, overly confident scoundrel, is chosen for this responsibility thanks to his ability to overcome great fear—which will come in handy when he must face Parallax, an immensely powerful creature that feeds on that particular emotion.

The movie gets some points for not deviating too much from the source material, which, as longtime comic-book readers know, is bursting with imagination, action, drama, and fun. Longtime Green Lantern writer Geoff Johns, who serves as a co-producer on this film and was recently appointed Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, reinvigorated the character several years ago with his Green Lantern: Rebirth limited series and continues to produce compelling GL stories to this day. So it was wise for the filmmakers to bring Johns into the fold and to not muck around too much with the established canon.

But I have to imagine that for people unfamiliar with the mythos, the voiceover narration at the very beginning of the film that explains the overall backstory will just be complicated gobbledygook.

Even worse, there’s nothing really compelling, imaginative, or fun in this movie. There’s no real sense of wonder. For example, when Hal is first transported to the wondrous planet Oa—the main headquarters of the Green Lantern Corps—and surrounded by alien life-forms the likes of which he could never possibly have imagined, he should be totally overwhelmed and in absolute awe. Instead, he reacts as if he simply woke up in a strange girl’s bedroom and is now meeting her somewhat eccentric roommates.

There’s just no spark of life here. No heart. No soul. No wit. There is nothing emotionally engaging. All of the characters are woefully underdeveloped, to the extent where I challenge moviegoers to give the slightest damn about any of them.

The cast is fine—Reynolds was a good choice for Hal. Blake Lively is decent as Hal’s on-again, off-again girlfriend (and boss) Carol Ferris. And the production was lucky to get Peter Sarsgaard, who can play both the most honorable protagonists and the sleaziest villains, for the role of Hector Hammond, a tragic figure who emerges as a major threat. But they’re all let down by a weak, shallow, by-the-numbers script that makes only the most token attempts to infuse the characters with any depth.

And that goes for the members of the Green Lantern Corps too. The fishlike Tomar Re does little more than deliver exposition. He has no personality whatsoever. Kilowog, the GL drill sergeant and one of the most popular characters from the comic books, fares slightly better, but little is done with him, aside from a training sequence that drags on and isn’t nearly as amusing as the filmmakers apparently intended.

Parallax, the main villain, is not much more than special effects, noise, and clich├ęd threats. Even his look is a big ho-hum—the filmmakers would have been much better off using the visual from the comic books.

Of all the characters in the film, the only one who even comes close to being interesting, multi-dimensional, and downright cool is the purple-skinned, pointy eared Sinestro, a senior member of the Green Lantern Corps. Played by Mark Strong, perhaps best known as the main villain in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr., Sinestro is arrogant, stubborn, and noble. When he’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him, and you wish more would be done with him.

The CGI, and there is plenty of it, ranges from somewhat impressive to shockingly unconvincing. As for the 3D—if, after reading this, you still intend to see this movie, at least save yourself a few bucks and see the standard 2D version. Aside from a few green beams of energy that seem to shoot out into the audience at the very beginning, I didn’t notice a whole lot done with the 3D that warrants seeing the film in that format.

Green Lantern could have (and should have) been another Iron Man, with a charming, funny, likable, flawed hero overcoming great challenges—including his own personal shortcomings—and surrounded by appealing supporting characters. I get the sense that director Martin Campbell and his team were aiming for something along those lines, and maybe they thought they had it on paper, but somehow, it just didn’t make it onto the screen.

I can only hope that the makers of next year’s Superman: Man of Steel will look at Green Lantern as an example of what not to do.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW -- X-MEN: FIRST CLASS


I had no interest in X-Men: First Class went it was first announced, nor did I have any intention to ever see it. I thoroughly despised X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006) and was completely underwhelmed by its follow-up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). I figured that after two major misfires in a row (at least as far as I was concerned—I know both films were at least financially successful), I would set this particular movie franchise on “Ignore” and just remember how much I enjoyed the first two installments. But after some coaxing from my father-in-law, who very much wanted to see it, and some positive advance word of mouth, I decided to take the plunge. And I’m glad I did.

X-Men: First Class goes a long way toward restoring the luster to the series that was lost when original director Bryan Singer departed following 2003’s X-Men 2: X-Men United. Singer is back with this film, as a producer (and he also gets a story credit), with the directorial duties being handled by Matthew Vaughn. While movies often hand out credits to people who really have nothing to do with them, it’s reasonable to assume that Singer actually had a hand in making this film, given its quality and how it connects to the first two films.

First Class shows how the young Charles Xavier (played previously by Patrick Stewart, now by James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (formerly Ian McKellen, now Michael Fassbender) met and became friends in 1962, and how, as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that friendship was torn asunder and they became arch enemies: Professor X, founder of the mutant super hero team the X-Men, and Magneto, hardcore mutant rights activist/terrorist leader. But before the dissolution of their alliance, Charles and Erik are united by a common enemy: Sebastian Shaw, the energy-absorbing leader of the Hellfire Club, played by Kevin Bacon, who doesn’t seem to really be stretching any acting muscles here, but nonetheless turns in an effective, fairly enjoyable performance. Shaw intends to take advantage of the rising tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and to set off a nuclear war that will ultimately leave him and mutantkind in charge of the world.

Along the way, there are side stories, as well. The blue-skinned shape-changer Mystique, played in the previous films by Rebecca Romijn and now by Jennifer Lawrence, has some great character stuff going on with the main male characters. Her long, complex past with Xavier is revealed here for the first time, and we see the genesis of her relationship with Magneto. There’s also some very strong character stuff between her and fellow mutant Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), a brilliant young scientist who is working to find a cure for mutants (and who was portrayed in X-Men 3: The Last Stand by none other than Kelsey Grammer).

There are also some wonderful in-jokes and special surprise nods to the previous films that most definitely qualify as spoilers, so I will say no more about them. Plus, it’s nice to see the return of some real substance and character development to the series, after the utter superficiality and brain-numbing video-game-level action and pyrotechnics we were subjected to in X-Men 3.

X-Men: First Class works well as a movie in its own right, and as a precursor to Singer’s X-Men films. But if you’re a comic-book purist, take note: Don’t even try to reconcile its continuity with what’s been established in the comics. This is its own separate entity, and has to be approached as such. Even the original films deviated wildly from the comic-book lore in key areas, and there’s more of that here. A LOT more. If you can accept that, I think you’ll really enjoy yourself.

For the most part, the cast is terrific, and you won’t really find yourself regretting the absence of the original cast. McAvoy is pretty much perfect as young Xavier, touching base with Patrick Stewart’s portrayal but adding his own spin as effectively as Robert DeNiro did when he played young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, or Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.


And as far as I’m concerned, Fassbender OWNS this movie. He is without a doubt the dominant figure and turns in probably the most powerful, touching, and committed performance. I would love to see Fassbender in another film showing Magneto’s early days and the growing antagonism between him and McAvoy’s Xavier—they have great chemistry together.


And I have to mention that Rose Byrne is great as CIA-agent-turned-Xavier-ally Moira MacTaggert.

The only real weak link in the cast is January Jones as Sebastian Shaw’s faithful companion, Emma Frost, a telepath who can turn her skin diamond-hard.


Jones is undeniably gorgeous, and she looks great in Emma’s trademark revealing outfits, but she just walks through the movie, delivering not one iota of an actual performance. If anything, she’s even colder and less emotive here than she is on the TV series Mad Men—and that’s really saying something. (I’m still shuddering from her truly disastrous guest-hosting gig on Saturday Night Live a year or so ago.)

With Bryan Singer back in the fold and helping to show once again how well an X-Men movie can be made, I think it’s time to give some serious thought to doing something unprecedented—reboot not the entire series, but one movie in particular: the aforementioned X-Men 3. Just redo it. Pretend that nothing was made after X-Men 2. Pick up where that one left off. Recast if necessary (and it probably would be), but just pick up from there and move forward. Tell the Phoenix Saga the way it deserves to be told. I know, I know—highly unlikely to happen.

Barring that, I’d be very happy with more from McAvoy and Fassbender.