Monthly Archives: June 2011

Bad Teacher (2011)

The teaching profession sure is taking its share of beatings lately. After the critical documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, the loss of collective bargaining in several states, and the continual belief that teachers, despite having to take college courses and/or pass content tests routinely for license renewal, know nothing (full disclosure: I work in the teaching field), along comes the crude comedy, Bad Teacher. This is a comedy that wants a passing grade without showing its work.

Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is a figure that lives up to the promise of the film’s title. She drinks, smokes pot, sleeps, and all while in class. She looks down on her peers who actively attempt to be engaging to students, like the high-energy Miss Squirrel (Lucy Punch). The school’s gym teacher (Jason Segel) keeps trying to chip away at Elizabeth’s surly, apathetic demeanor, but she continues to shoot him down. Elizabeth’s attention is focused squarely on the handsome substitute teacher, Mr. Delecorte (Justin Timberlake). Not only is he handsome, he’s from a wealthy family. The only thing standing in her gold digging way is Miss Squirrel, who also has an interest in courting the studly sub.

Let’s analyze the bounds of having an unlikable protagonist. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a generally disreputable lead character. An anti-hero usually has some interior good, or at least a relatable core. An anti-hero generally finds some small measure or redemption or change for the better, even if met through unorthodox means. An anti-hero doesn’t beg to be liked, but the trick is that the audience eventually does like this nontraditional lead. We do not have to agree with the values or behaviors of our lead. You do want to care and desire the character to reach some measure of happiness or whatever their goal is, perhaps an inkling of personal change. Examples include Bad Santa, Goodfellas, Jack Sparrow and Alex DeLarge, nearly every Clint Eastwood character, and take your pick from Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez’s oeuvre. A wholly unlikable protagonist is another concern. If you are so turned off by the protagonist you could not care less what befalls them. Whether they reach their goal, get away with their plot, or even risk life and limb, you do not care.

Bad Teacher suffers from having an unpleasant, obnoxious, selfish, greedy, churlish twit as its lead. Elizabeth is no dashing rogue, no charming cad, no subversive combatant against a corrupt system, nor is she is she a vulnerable individual lashing out to mask her pain or insecurity. All of those qualities would help make for a complicated but ultimately likeable hero or heroine. Instead, what Bad Teacher gives us is a woman that is so thoroughly unpleasant that you tune out early, severing all connection to a comedy. Bad move. Elizabeth’s one goal is to collect enough money through whatever means necessary to afford a boob job. And if she can bring other people down that annoy her, never mind if they are actually good people or teachers, then victory is all the sweeter. Bad Teacher‘s problem is that you don’t want Elizabeth to succeed, you want her to be punished. Elizabeth isn’t likable bad or truly nasty enough to be memorable. She’s the adult version of the popular girl that got away with everything. I never felt an ounce of pity for this person. There is no redemption for this woman, even if she starts treating a small handful of people mildly better. Acting 2% more like a human being does not qualify as progress. How did this woman get into teaching in the first place and for what purpose? There are a lot less strenuous ways to earn a paycheck.

I started feeling for Elizabeth’s rival, Miss Squirrel. Sure, she’s that hyperactive, goody-two-shoes, incredibly cheerful personality that can become grating in large doses, but she’s the only figure in the movie that displays a genuine interest in teaching. Everyone else just seems to be walking around. Elizabeth gets through months of teaching by showing inspirational teacher movies (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds – no School of Rock?) and sleeping off her hangovers at her desk. Miss Squirrel is a bit obsessive about her job but she cares, and in the film’s void of having a likeable center I gravitated to the spastic, alternative foil. I began rooting for Miss Squirrel to root out her rival’s lies, expose her bad/illegal behavior, and earn some vindication. It was she that I latched onto sympathetically. I rooted for the character that was served up for ridicule by the filmmakers. What does that say about the movie? It also helps that Punch (Dinner for Schmucks, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) gives the strongest comedic performance. In the realm of Bad Teacher, the good, competent, idealistic, passionate educators are the ones unjustly punished by film’s end.

Diaz (Knight and Day, The Green Hornet) can do the salty, spunky stuff in her sleep, and often in Bad Teacher she seems to be on autopilot, dispensing with the vulgarity without a true glint of madness or enjoyment. She just seems to be irritated by everyone, including the audience. Timberlake (The Social Network) is playing aloof but could have easily been replaced by any decent-looking comic actor. Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man) gives the film a much-needed jolt when he appears onscreen. Too bad his screen time amounts to about 10 minutes and ends in a rather trite fashion with his gym teacher miraculously taming the shrew. Several other comedic actors are wasted in one-bit parts including John Michael Higgins, Molly Shannon, Phyllis Smith (TV’s The Office), Matt Besser (TV’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade), David “Gruber” Allen (TV’s Freaks and Geeks), and Eric Stonestreet (Emmy-winner for Modern Family).

All of this would be marginally forgivable if the film were just funnier. The jokes are stuck in the same gear, mainly Elizabeth being rude or outrageous. It’s a recipe that gets repeated too often, only altering clarifying details. The school has a car wash and Elizabeth dresses provocatively, scrubbing dirty automobiles with a nubile and sudsy devotion not seen since 1980s heavy metal music videos, the heyday of car washing imagery (there sure were a lot of filthy cars in Reagan’s America). The men are agog. It’s the same joke on repeat. She drinks. She says something inappropriate at school. She gets high. People are agog. Bad Teacher is set up from a comedic front to be 100 minutes of reaction shots. It’s like director Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard) has to rely on a glut of reaction shots to sell the gags. Why are the kids so meaningless in the comedy? Surely you would think the screenwriters would want to have some students as main characters as well, if nothing else than as a gauge for their lead. Elizabeth does give some advice to a lovesick dorky kid, but her advice is more of a tough love. When Elizabeth discovers there’s a bonus for whoever’s class has the highest state testing scores, you’d think this would be a rally the troops moment. She actually starts teaching and utilizing her skills to get her class to learn, albeit for a personal financial incentive. You would assume then that this might be a changing point for the character, where she actually discovers that she may like teaching or that she does in fact have some aptitude for the profession. Nope. She just resorts to cheating and blackmailing the maker of the state test (Thomas Lennon). I would applaud this narrative pivot, avoiding the expected, if it led to a funnier series of jokes.

The teaching profession is ripe for an astute, mordant satire exploding the politics of the position. Bad Teacher is not that movie. It’s not even close to that movie. It is, however, a comedy that is weighed down by an abhorrent lead character. Diaz’s heroine is unlikable to the point that she turns you off from the whole movie. I suppose there’s a certain measure of bravery having a mainstream studio movie with such an unpleasant main character that doesn’t give a damn about redemption. In the end, watching an appalling egotist get theirs in the end can lead to some sliver of satisfaction, but when that same detestable character gets away with their dastardly deeds? You feel robbed. That’s Bad Teacher in a nutshell. It robs you of laughs, money, and time.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Hangover: Part II (2011)

When you’re responsible for the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, a film that grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, then you don’t want to tinker with a winning formula of a surprise hit. Naturally, with that kind of money, a sequel was inevitable. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, Due Date) is back and so is everybody and everything else. You’ll get a strong sense of déjà vu watched The Hangover: Part II. That’s on purpose. This calculated, rather soulless cash-grab sequel wants to recreate the organic experience of the first film. If you played The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II on simultaneous TVs, I would not be surprised if the same plot points happened at the exact same minute-marks. It might even be like a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz experience. I paid twice to see the same movie two years apart.

Stu (Ed Helms) is about to get married in Thailand to Lauren (Jamie Chung). Our favorite wound-up dentist is apprehensive about any sort of bachelor party shenanigans after the events of two years ago in Las Vegas. His pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), and the socially inept Alan (Zack Galifianakis) make the trek to attend the festivities. For Alan, it’s a reunion of the Wolfpack and an excuse finally to venture out of his parent’s home. Stu has some ground to make up with his bride-to-be’s father. Her father seethes about the prospect that his beautiful daughter is going to marry Stu, a man he compares to watered down rice. Lauren’s younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a pre-med student and concert cellist, is left to the Wolfpack’s care the night before the wedding. They’ll just have one drink on the beach. What’s the worst that could happen? Flash to the next morning. The guys awaken in a strange apartment. Teddy is missing and missing a finger as well. Stu, Phil, and Alan must once again retrace their steps and solve the mystery of their hard-partying antics before the wedding ceremony.

The Hangover: Part II is a carbon copy of the original. Because the same joke is just as funny the second time around, right? This empty enterprise gives its audience exactly what they want, which is precisely the same experience they had with the first film. But so much of comedy is predicated on surprise, so how can you recreate the experience of discovery that people so heartily enjoyed with the first film? The Hangover: Part II is like a cheap comedy Mad Libs game: it reuses the same gags and just fills in the blanks. Hey, if Joke A worked before, why couldn’t we just have Joke A in this different location (instead of two guys walking into a bar, they walk into a different bar)? It’s like somebody copied and pasted the screenplay from the original movie, changed the locations and minor details, and cashed a check. Let me get into how stunningly indolent the screenwriting is (small spoilers to follow). Once again a person in their group goes missing before a wedding. Once again Stu has some self-inflicted wound to his face. Once again the guys have stolen someone else’s unorthodox pet. Once again they find themselves with a ward (baby in first film, Mr. Chow in second). Once again Stu has gotten involved with a prostitute. Once again Alan was secretly responsible for their drugging. Once again Justin Bartha gets left out of the escapades. Once again Mr. Chow shows his junk for shock value. Once again Mr. Chow jumps out of a locked container attacking the guys. Once again the guys have to return money to a gangster. Once again Stu plays a song of his own creation bemoaning their situation. Once again they have to race to the wedding minutes away. Once again we have a Mike Tyson cameo. Once again the guys find pictorial evidence of their debauchery and they play over the credits. Even directing touches like a time-lapse high-rise shot passing the time before they wake up is reused.

That’s what kills the movie is the lack of surprise. It throws the guys into a different setting, gets darker and meaner, but it’s rarely funny. I was surprised how many jokes left me in stony silence. Phillips and his screenwriters have gotten into the trouble of having to top themselves, so they rely on the “bigger is better” approach to match the outrageousness of the original. If Las Vegas is Sin City, then what would be even seedier? Bangkok, of course. Where would they go for a third film? What gets seedier than Bangkok (The Hangover 3 to be set in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s office). Yet the film curiously ignores much of what makes Bangkok the world’s preeminent hotspot in the sexual trades. The payoffs are darker and lack the bemusement of the original. Knowing some guy is missing a finger is not as whimsical as somebody missing a tooth. The movie has an unpleasant homophobia to it thanks to male genitalia being used to shock and horrify and humiliate. The horror of being involved with transsexual women made my theater audience groan with extra relish, like the presence of a penis or homosexual content makes everything automatically more disgusting to the common people, as if anything gay is the worst thing that could possible befall a man. Mr. Chang is an odious and fairly unfunny stereotype, and Jeong (Role Models, TV’s Community), so funny in just about every other role he’s ever had, is a braying, high-pitched annoyance. This go-round the jokes feel stale, the characters feel tired, and the payoffs seem too mean-spirited to be satisfying.

When you have a movie where the comedy is situation-based, then those situations better be funny because the characters are only serving as a means to an end. The premise allows the filmmakers to have it both ways. They can fulfill the hedonistic spectacle that will make people blush, and at the same time they can have button-uped, likable, relatively relatable nice characters that an audience will root for. If we watched these characters acting like irredeemable morons, then audience sympathy would wan. But having the guys investigate their previous dirty deeds, and react in horror, does not lessen audience sympathy. I enjoyed how the main trio played off each other in the first Hangover, and the central mystery was a solid glue to hold together a loose collection of mostly worthwhile gags. Just as the first film fell short of its potential, so too does the second movie. A monkey serves little purpose other than to get it to do things that seem outrageous just because it’s a monkey (it smokes, it mimes oral sex – hilarious!). But the second time around, the amusement of seeing Stu fly off the handle, or listen to Alan’s moony non-sequitors, doesn’t have the same draw. Galifianakis (Due Date) made the film watchable for me despite the fact that the screenplay makes his character a petulant and highly irritating character rather than a man-child doofus. And the women are once again relegated to the sidelines when it comes to being in on the comedy.

For The Hangover‘s legions of fans, more of the same will likely be exactly what was desired. But without the cheeky element of surprise, the comedy just seems like it’s hitting pre-ordained stops according to its formulaic cheat sheet. For the original Hangover I wrote: “Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? …But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date?” Well, The Hangover: Part II is the answer. If the first film was a comedy with an expiration date, then The Hangover: Part II is one comedy that’s gone rancid.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 is writer/director J.J. Abrams’ reverent homage to early Spielberg movies. For some, it will be too reverent to the point of being a slobbery love letter.

In 1979, a small Ohio town, 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is reeling from the death of his mother in a factory accident. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a police officer who doesn’t know how to raise his boy. He even tries to convince his son to spend the summer at a baseball camp. “It’ll be good for you to spend some time with kids who don’t run around with cameras and monster makeup,” he says. That kid is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a self-possessed amateur filmmaker. Charles is writing and directing a short Super 8 film and all his friends are helping. Joe’s specialty is makeup, given his attention to delicately painting models. Being the makeup guy comes in handy when the gang invites the local pretty girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), to be in their movie. Joe gets to apply her zombie makeup. One night, the gang sneaks out to a train yard to film a scene in their movie. A U.S. Air Force cargo train is passing by and suddenly derails, in grand apocalyptic fashion. Strange things start happening all over town shortly after the train crash. Car motors and electrical equipment go missing, dogs run away to neighboring communities, and people start to go missing. The Air Force comes into town and takes charge. It seems that train was carrying something and that something has escaped.

What Super 8 does best is replicate a time, place, and mood. The movie is successfully awash in nostalgia, and that childhood nostalgia is the best aspect of an otherwise ordinary film. Abrams has fashioned the greatest film tribute to Spielberg in history. But its limited ambition makes it feel like the greatest cover band of all time. You’ve assembled al your talent and energy into replicating someone else’s original work. Congratulations, Super 8 is a glossy tribute to Spielberg. Now what? Well, the movie works well at finding that unique, infectious spirit of being young and full of ideas. Filmmaking, and movies in general, has a magic to it, the synergistic creativity and the sheer possibilities that can abound. Translating the imagination into a communal artistic experience. I’m sure Abrams was just as excited about the possibilities of a camera in his childhood as Spielberg was. That feeling of discovery, that rambunctious creativity, and the endearing clumsiness of amateur productions, it all rings completely true. I made silly movies with a camera and my friends when I was younger; my group of friends and I became known for our video projects in high school. So I could have readily watched an entire movie about kids and cameras and their artistic aspirations (as long as it was better than Son of Rambo). The highpoint of Super 8 for me was, surprisingly, the children’s short film “The Case” that plays over the closing credits. It’s funny and charming and sweetly affable. Finally seeing Charles’ finished film is the ultimate payoff.

Abrams as a director is quite capable of delivering big summer moments. He’s a genre specialist and a geek’s best friend. I’ve even compared his style to that of a young Spielberg in my review of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. Abrams has a natural feel for putting his camera in the right placement. While Abrams can do exciting action with the best of them, crafting compelling screen compositions to ignite the senses, it’s the smaller touches that connect to his storytelling that impress me most. The very opening shot tells you so much and grabs you. It’s a slow zoom into a factory’s sign proclaiming how many days have gone by without an accident. A man takes down the number plates and the count drops from 750 to 1. There’s a small moment where alice imitates a zombie, cocking her head, lurching, going in to bite Joe. And you see her, in that moment, as Joe does: a lovely young woman who makes your heart melt. With the aid of Michael Giacchino’s very John Williams-esque score, you effectively feel Joe’s burgeoning young love. Then when we pull back there’s a trace of Alice’s red lipstick along Joe’s neck, indicating she made actual contact. It’s a small detail that makes you smile all over. It’s these small details that often play to plot or character that affirm for me that Abrams is a director of fantastic promise, a true Spielberg protégé. Now if Abrams could lay off his excessive use of lens flairs (though it’s not as prevalent as Star Trek; you could make a drinking game into every time there was a lens flair).

The young actors are pretty good despite the somewhat hollow characterization by Abrams. These kids are defined by one-note traits (the kid obsessed with explosives, the wuss, etc.). I was going to be more upset by this until I remembered that movies like The Goonies, deemed a nostalgic classic by my generation, also had flimsy, one-note characterization (the fat kid is fat, the Asian kid has funny gadgets!). The scenes where all the kids are assembled make for some of the best entertainment. The young actors have a great rapport with one another and feel like a true makeshift band of friends. Their camaraderie, uncertainty, and hopes seem entirely genuine. They seem like real kids with real kid problems and worries. Courtney is a strong emotional center for the film. It’s hard to believe this is his first role on the big screen. Fanning (Somewhere, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has been acting ever since she was the two-year-old version of her famous big sister in I Am Sam. I’m on the record as saying that Elle is a superior actress to her sister, and I feel like that claim bears fruit with Super 8. There’s a scene where Fanning’s character is asked to practice some feeble dialogue. Her cohorts think of her as a pretty girl and a source of transportation. But in this one scene, she turns on a dime, bringing out real emotions that leave the boys breathless and the audience too. It’s reminiscent of the audition scene in Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts, at the flip of a switch, transformed into a different person, coursing with vibrant life. Consider it the toned-down kiddie version.

Truthfully, the monster stuff is actually the weakest part of the film. Super 8 works best as an endearing, nostalgic trip about being young. It works best as a coming-of-age tale and a somewhat touching first romance between teenagers. It does not work well as a sci-fi monster movie. You can tell that the monster/alien stuff has been grafted on to a separate storyline; the plots have little to no bearing on one another. If the kids happened to never go to that train stop that one night, their storyline would be almost entirely unaffected. It’s like parallel movies that pass each other occasionally but have little shared resonance. I found the human stuff, about being young and hurt and with your friends, to be affecting and interesting. The big-budget explosions, the monster mystery teased far too long, the subterranean third act that ends in a gob smack of logic issues, the heavy-handed metaphor about “letting go” (after only fours months? I think you’re still allowed to be sad four months after your mom dies) – that stuff plays well in trailers, but it’s far less interesting. The monster/alien conspiracy fails to lead to anything ripe in the narrative; the Air Force antagonists are more furtively empty than menacing. They don’t seem to care so much about a group of kids filming around the crash site. They’re pretty ineffective antagonists. The monster is hidden for so long, the film builds to an expectation level that it could never meet. The creature design of the monster/alien looks exactly like a smaller version of the Cloverfield creature (also produced by Abrams). When Super 8 is a poorly mimicking other B-movies, trying to wring tears by the film’s somewhat forced ending, I kept thinking, “The Iron Giant did this much better.” I guess once again aliens or a supernatural encounter helps people heal their family strife, which is something M. Night Shyamalan has been selling for years. This is one monster movie that would have been infinitely better without its monster.

Super 8 is obviously a personal film for Abrams, harking back to his boyhood days of monster movies, amateur filmmaking, and young love. This nostalgic time warp will likely succeed with many audience members. Nostalgia is a powerful narrative weapon. It taps into our warm memories of old. But nostalgia is easy to pattern. What’s difficult is creating a work of art that people will be nostalgic over a generation hence. Super 8 is not going to be an inspiration to a new generation of budding young filmmakers; it reconfirms the joy of monsters, movies, and creative possibility. But the elements don’t gel. The monster stuff feels tacked on to an affecting coming-of-age tale about a group of kids working together to make a movie. Rarely will the two plots really have much traction with one another. I think Super 8 would have been an even better movie had the “summer movie” elements been stripped. No monster. No sci-fi thrills. No military intervention. No train crash. Just kids, a camera, and the emotions of growing up.

Nate’s Grade: B

happythankyoumoreplease (2011)

Josh Radnor’s (How I Met Your Mother) writing/directing debut reads like a heavy order of sitcom plots rolled into one tight space. There’s enough New York navel-gazing to fill up a spate of twee indie films. There’s Sam (Radnor), a struggling writer prone to relationship problems, having a three-night stand with Mississippi (Kate Mara), a waitress/cabaret singer. There’s Sam’s cousin, Mary (Zoe Kazan), is being pressured to move to L.A. by her boyfriend (Pablo Schrieber). Sam’s best friend Annie (Malin Akerman) suffers from dating the wrong kind of guys. She also suffers from alopecia, which makes her hairless (doesn’t sound like a deal-breaker to me). She’s being pursued by a suitor, Sam #2 (Tony Hale), a good man who acknowledges he’s not exactly a lady’s first image when it comes to Mr. Right. If this wasn’t enough plot to fight over for 100 minutes, Sam becomes an unlikely caretaker to a young child, Rasheen (Michael Algeri), left behind on a subway. The kid refuses to go back to foster care so he just sort of becomes Sam’s pet. Actually, the child is a plot device to facilitate Sam’s maturity and personal growth, which is why he all but disappears in the film’s second half dominated by romantic drama. Radnor is a relaxed presence onscreen. As a director, he knows a thing or two about pleasing shot compositions. As a writer, he has a good feel for droll observation (“Don’t make me run, kid, I’m almost thirty,” had me ruefully chuckling). As with most ensemble movies, some storylines are stronger than others; the Annie/Sam #2 stuff could have been its own movie. Both actors, Hale especially, are winning. Mara is sexy and a star in the making. The Mary stuff would have been better left alone. Kazan’s performance is somewhat irritating, and my interest sunk every time her face came onscreen. And yet, the film is carried by a sweetness that doesn’t tilt into saccharine. Given some of the sitcom-level setups, this could have spilled into eye-rolling cuteness (a girl named after the poorest state in the nation!). It’s romantic in a somewhat cheesy way but that’s part of its charm. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but happythankyoumoreplease rolls agreeably along thanks to being earnest, but not too earnest, and witty without being overly whimsical.

Nate’s Grade: B-

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Marvel’s X-Men franchise had some serious damage it needed to undo. The once mighty superhero series had been harmed by that age-old foe – bad sequels. The collective stink from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and the 2009 Wolverine debacle, the franchise had lost some serious luster. While the recovery was not nearly as deep and cataclysmic as what the Batman franchise had to deal with in the wake of 1997’s Batman and Robin, a film that flirted with salting the earth, the X-Men needed some kind of facelift. Enter director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), the man who was going to save the series back in 2006 when original director Bryan Singer flew away to direct a different man in tights. Vaughn was originally tapped to direct Last Stand but he dropped out and was replaced by the hack Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). Thus began the slide toward mediocrity. Now Vaughn is back to tidy up unfinished business, taking the series back to its historical roots in the 1960s. It seems that a trip back in time was just what was needed to make the X-Men fresh.

Back in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr is a prisoner in a Polish concentration camp when Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) discovers the young boy’s great potential. When enraged, Erik can control anything metallic. In upstate New York at the same time, young Charles Xavier discovers a young shape shifter named Raven. She’s blue from head to toe and afraid. They’re delighted to find one another, fearing they were the only ones “different” in the world, children of the “atomic age.” All three of these people are headed for a collision course. In 1963, Charles (James McAvoy) has become an Oxford professor, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has followed him to England, and Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been systematically hunting down the Nazis responsible for his pain and suffering. Dr. Schmidt has now become Sebastian Shaw, a younger-looking playboy with the intent to push the Soviets and Americans to nuclear war. Shaw has his own team of mutant henchmen, including telepath Emma Frost (January Jones, proving once again that she can really only ever be good as Betty Drapier) who walks around in white lingerie the whole movie. Together with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Charles and Erik assemble their own team of young mutants to thwart Shaw.

Similar to 2009’s Star Trek, this film provides the opportunity to reboot a franchise by going back in time. It transports the series back to the beginning of the friendship between Charles and Erik, and spends the next 130 minutes filling in the rationale for the “why” of their varying personal philosophies. By dialing back, we’re able to play around with 40 years of back-story and histories. While we know the end results, that these two giants will become enemies, that Charles will lose the ability to walk, and that Raven/Mystique will eventually side with Erik, that doesn’t mean there isn’t pleasure to be had in watching the journey. There are all sorts of self-aware in-jokes for fans and a few nifty cameos that left me howling with glee. The script, credited to Vaughn, his writing partner Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), and four others, smartly moves the film forward; no scene seems at a waste. Even better, the film strikes a tone that manages to take its real-world implications seriously (nuclear brinksmanship, Holocaust, and fighting for equality and acceptance) without diminishing its popcorn thrills.

As a summer movie, X-Men: First Class has enough razzle-dazzle to compliment its intelligent social pontification. Vaughn and his screenwriters have composed action sequences that neatly incorporate the mutant abilities of its subjects while building the tension and smartly utilizing the contours of geography. I hate action sequences that don’t play to the potential of location and subject. An evil teleporter (Jason Flemyng) finds a fiendishly clever way to dispatch 20 CIA agents. Magneto efficiently takes out former Nazis residing in Argentina in one chilling sequence (“I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he tells one man). Shaw makes for an actual formidable opponent for our fledgling heroes. The personal connection he has with Erik, on top of Bacon’s devilish glimmer of villainy, makes Shaw a strong antagonist that the audience can rally against. Vaughn has a splendid reveal with Shaw. Back when he was a Nazi doctor, he asks young Erik to move a coin with his abilities. The shots consist entirely from one side of his office, showcasing it to be a bookish study. Then when Shaw calls the Nazi guards to bring in Erik’s mother for a little more direct incentive, the camera flips position. We see the opposite side of the room, a medical station on the other side of large glass panels. Inside is a torturous display of medical cutlery. It’s a fantastic reveal that kicks up the tension while adding to the terrifying character of Shaw. The action highpoint, a mutant vs. mutant battle amidst the Soviet and American naval fleets, provides plenty of parallel action to follow that keeps the movie alive and kicking.

The film mixes a frothy, James Bond-esque spy thriller feel in production design and whatever-goes plot savvy, but then recomposes real life events as mutant enhanced. Alert the history textbooks, because the Nazi scientists experimented on mutant children and that mutants averted World War III. Some will chafe at the alternative history approach, but I find it to be more interesting, suspenseful, and a natural fit with the overall Cold War paranoia feel of the setting. Melding the X-Men into history makes for a more intellectually stimulating adventure, tipping its hat at various historical revisions that payoff as small rewards for a well-informed audience. I’m not saying that the movie is like Noam Chomsky’s take on X-Men by any means, but it’s certainly the most heady film in the series since the departure of Bryan Singer (he serves as producer on this flick). Indeed, this is a rather talky X-Men adventure with plenty of philosophical debates and speeches. But then it’s got naked women in blue too. But you see, it’s not just naked women in blue, it’s that a naked woman in blue can become a political statement – man!

And it’s on that note I’d like to say a few words. Mutants have always been a central metaphor for the oppressed, be they Jews, African-Americans, homosexuals, whatever minority group you’d like to slot in. That’s been one of the secrets to the continued success of Marvel’s flagship series – anybody can identify with the fear of being judged, feared, and despised because of who you are. That’s why the character of Raven/Mystique, short of Magneto, is the most fascinating character in the movie. Her true form, scaly and blue, is what keeps her feeling like an outcast. She doesn’t have an invisible power like her surrogate big brother, Charles. She constantly disguises herself in order to fit in, albeit her disguise is the alluring natural figure of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone). “Mutant and proud,” she says in disdain when she stares at her bluish reflection in the mirror. It is through Erik hat she begins to believe in this mantra, gaining pride that “blue is beautiful” and she need not even wear clothes to cover who she is up (millions of teen boys celebrate this decision and wish it had become more widespread in application). Raven/Mystique is the figure torn between the two philosophies argued by Charles and Erik. She is the central figure that has to struggle with reality vs. idealism. It’s also a little funny that a movie piggybacking the civil rights movement of the 60s (mutant rights!) also trades in the casual misogyny of the 1960s (women in lingerie as outfits, regularly practiced sexism). I suppose some of this is intentional. I guess the women’s movement will be saved for a sequel.

While the retro setting ties in nicely with the series’ core metaphor about being different/disenfranchised, the dichotomy of ideas presented by Charles and Erik are not given equal measure. That’s because, quite frankly, Erik is a much more powerfully interesting character and more sympathetic than a rich kid who can read people’s minds. Charles Xavier and Magneto have always represented a comic book version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when it came to the ideas of integration, equality, and representation. Charles believes that mutants should assimilate and that humanity will accept in time; peaceful and hidden. Magneto, on the other hand, takes a more militant stance and feels that mutants need not hide who they are out of fear or shame, that they are the dominant species and should not be threatened by the weaker Homo sapiens. But where X-Men: First Class runs into some trouble is that the ideological deck is completely stacked in Magneto’s favor. He’s the one who suffered through concentration camps, Nazi experimentation; he’s seen the worst of what mankind of capable of. He’s a tormented man seeking vengeance, which is character motivation that is easy for an audience to fall behind. Then, even after the mutants save mankind’s bacon during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the first person who tells me this is a spoiler gets a history book thrown at them), they still get treated as the enemy. Almost everything that plays out onscreen aligns with Magneto’s ideology, which makes it hard not to be on Team Magneto as the movie draws to a close. I suppose the film utilizes our knowledge of future events to counterbalance Magneto’s pessimistic world philosophy.

The other issue that lends more credibility to Magneto than perhaps the filmmakers were hoping for is the fact that he’s the most interesting character in the movie, easily. The X-kids are a pretty bland bunch of boys and gals. This is the first class the filmmakers chose? Did they have recruiting violations at the school? Havok (Lucas Till), a goy who can shoot energy beams, Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a guy who can scream loudly and fly, somehow, Angel (Zoe Kravitz), a gal with fairy wings and an acid tongue, and then Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a guy who… adapts? Darwin’s power is so obtuse to explain, it’s no wonder he doesn’t last long in service to his country (it’s a bit tacky that when one character says “slavery” the edits have to cut back to the one black mutant for a reaction shot). Each one of these teenagers has a different reaction to their powers. Some are ashamed, some are afraid, others proud or apathetic. But they are all singularly uninteresting. Once they establish their power, they become less a character and just another piece on a game board to be positioned. And Lenny Kravitz’s kid in fairy wings? Plus she spits little fireballs? I’m sorry but that should have been the first thing removed from rewrites. This crew makes it sure that we empathize even more with Magneto as he refines his powers to reach his personal vengeance, which is the film’s pre-designed payoff. We’re not really looking for the team to band together, which they inevitably do, but we’re awaiting that splash of vengeance. And when it does come, it’s satisfying, stylish, and dramatically fitting (“At the count of three, I’m going to move the coin.”). The fact that the movie still has like 15 minutes of material afterward is almost inconsequential.

Vaughn certainly delivers the spectacle, it’s the actors that produce the real fireworks. This is a vehicle for McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Fassbender (Ingloruious Basterds, Jane Eyre), and both men provide admirable gravitas. McAvoy’s role offers a more jocular performance, showing Charles to be a bit of a lady’s man in his younger years, harnessing his telepathic powers to bed him some beauties. Then again, as I’ve been told from my female friends, looking like McAvoy will certainly also help matters. But this is Fassbender’s show. He has a chilly intensity to him, rather than just being cold and indifferent like January Jones (she is really poor, I’m sorry). His performance captivates you from the start, and his slow-burning hatred consumes the man. It’s a dramatically rich performance given the material. After being discriminated against for being a Jew, than a mutant, he has to sell that his character, haunted and rage-filled, would ironically follow the same social Darwinism that his Nazi tormentors evoked. And Fassbender sells every bit of an iconic Marvel villain coming into his destiny. However, his Irish accent slips out in the film’s final reel, and I’m really curious why the studio couldn’t have shelled a few bucks to fix that with ADR. Rushed for time, or revealing that Magneto has unheard of Irish lineage?

Going back in time manages to open up all sorts of possibilities for the X-Men franchise. There could be a whole slew of sequels that play around with the rich, complex back stories of the X-Men without having to serve the aging stars of the original trilogy. Vaughn keeps the proceedings amazingly fluid, stylish without being overtaken by visual artifice, and the swinging 60s provides a groovy backdrop. The action delivers when needed, the smart script doesn’t downplay the clash of ideas to go along with the clash of fists, and the special effects are relatively up to snuff as summer escapism goes. The movie is not without its misses, including a cadre of lackluster junior mutants. But Vaughn has re-energized a flagging franchise and given hope for a future (past?). In the pantheon of X movies, I’d place X-Men: First Class as an equal to X2, the best in the series. It may not be at the head of the class, but this superhero flick earns is stripes with a solid effort and strong potential. Just get rid of January Jones when it comes time for the age of feminism.

Nate’s Grade: A

Drive Angry (2011)

Without a hint of self-awareness, and not nearly enough tawdry camp, this exploitation throwback manages to be completely serious with a ridiculous plot and a celebration of muscle cars, gory violence, and women in hot pants. And yet for a film about Nicolas Cage literally escaping from Hell to save his baby granddaughter at the hands of a Satanic cult leader (Billy Burke), it’s awfully complicated. The plot is hard to nail down, rarely does it spell things out, which means the audience is left trying to piece together the scraps of logic in between fetishizing cars and violence. Amber Heard (The Informers) and her cut-off high-waisted jeans becomes Cage’s sidekick and she gets to hold her own. The 3-D elements are mostly distractions flying at the screen, the violence is extreme but with a distasteful nihilistic edge, and the tone lacks any traces of irony or appreciation of genre. There’s more potential here that never feels tapped, like Cage’s special “God-killer” gun that spooks even the Grim Reaper/Angel of Death (William Fichtner, having a blast). At one point, Cage is locked in coitus with an overly animated waitress, and he kills an onslaught of goons while still engaging in sex. While Shoot ’em Up did it too, it’s a sequence that hints at what the film could have been had it given in to more tawdry impulses. Instead, Drive Angry isn’t nearly passionate enough to register as anything but a mundane retro, country fried rehash of 1970s action movies.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Tourist (2010)

It seems to have all the right elements aligned: two mega-watt stars, a gorgeous location, and an Oscar-winning director whose last film, 2006’s The Lives of Others, was a tense, meaty, humane drama. Add a mistaken identity plot and The Tourist should feel like a light-hearted romp. The truth is that the final product is resoundingly dim and dull is deeply disappointing. All that Hollywood glamour and this is the best they could come up with? The movie is too mechanical, joyless, without much in the way of pacing or a pulse, and the direction feels like a languid tourist trip itself, placidly soaking up the scenery and waiting for a plot to shamble into frame. The action sequences are bereft of tension. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have too few scenes together, too mild a sexual tension, and sleepwalk through their performances. Depp could easily have been replaced by any actor. You’ll see the twists telegraphed a mile away, but by that time your eyes will have already glazed over thanks to the dead weight of a script credited to THREE Oscar-winning screenwriters. With this much talent behind and in front of the camera, I expected a lot more than a sluggish, bland, hermetic thriller that would more like to get lost in scenery than quicken a pulse. The Tourist feels like it needs a map just to know what it’s doing, and the finished product deserves a one-way ticket to the bargain bin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The public reaction to the two previous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, were decidedly mixed, though that didn’t stop them each from earning a bazillion dollars. Fans didn’t care for the darker tone, the confusing interlocking of the story, and especially the bloated running times. It feels like Disney’s uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer must have taken notes from the sequel backlash and they amounted to: “Less of everything.” Welcome to less plot, less character, less involvement, and far less entertainment. Welcome to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

It’s been a few years since the non-world-ending events of At World’s End, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been in London putting a new crew together. Except, it’s a Sparrow imposter. Turns out it’s Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former lover of Jack’s who woud still like to settle some scores. She and her father, the feared pirate captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), force Sparrow to lead them to the Fountain of Youth. Apparently, Jack at one point had the map. King George II (a delightfully hammy Richard Griffiths in one of the film’s best scenes) is in a race against the Spanish crown. The English monarch hires Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s occasional enemy and ally, to find the fountain as well. It’s a race to see who can benefit from eternal youth first because, apparently, no one can share a source of water. Second grade teachers nationwide are very disappointed, Disney.

The entire enterprise just lies there on the screen, devoid of all energy or danger. The entire picture is just so shockingly inert, lazy, phoned in from every angle, missing any resonance of magic. Rob Marshall was the wrong man to be tapped as the new director of this series. Marshall has a fine eye for visuals, but the man couldn’t stage an action sequence to save his life. The Oscar-nominated director of musicals like Chicago and Nine stages his action sequences like dance sequences, which on paper don’t sound too far off. That’s until you realize action needs to incorporate story, location, build in tension, create organic obstacles, and be easy to follow. The action sequences in On Stranger Tides aren’t outlandish enough. It’s all so dull, a sword fight here a sword fight there. Short of a mermaid attack sequence, there’s no excitement to be found onscreen. That is disastrous for a franchise that has built a reputation for its anarchic, wild action and storylines. Marshall’s action angles and editing don’t communicate urgency. There’s no mood to these set pieces. The editing feels like it’s always catching up, always too late, needing a myriad of trims. Action cinema has been lambasted when it’s hyper edited and the audience cannot see what is happening; On Stranger Tides is not edited enough. One of the reasons these half-baked action sequences can never get going is because they always seem to be starting and stopping with the lackadaisical editing, always a step behind. The shots linger when they shouldn’t. The ingredients are there for a tasty meal but the chef (Marshall, screenwriters) doesn’t know what to do. The musical score by Hans Zimmer tries very hard to compensate and rattle the audience, compelling them to think what is transpiring on screen is exhilarating. It is not, and the music is just loud and annoying.

One of the chief criticisms of the two Pirates sequels were that they were overstuffed with storylines, characters, setups, and were just far too convoluted and confusing for their own good. So with On Stranger Tides we get a simplified, pared down one-off movie. Much of the film is just characters walking in circles and, likewise, talking in circles. Motivations are flimsy. The dialogue is stilted; Sparrow’s malapropisms and one-liners feeling sloppy (“I agree with the missionary’s position,” he quips. Groan). The entire premise is to get to the Fountain of Youth, and then they get there and, well, very little happens. The characters will talk about little, walk a few feet, talk about little more, and this process repeats. Barbossa should be an interesting foil, going from fop to pirate by film’s end, and yet his every appearance in the movie feels like when the next-door neighbor appears on a TV sitcom. It’s an intrusion meant to remind you that you, the audience, like this character, even if they don’t serve any point in the story. The plot lacks any twists and turns, ultimately having every competing force converge on the Fountain of Youth at exactly the same time for a slapdash climax that involves more lackluster sword fighting, just like all the other sequences. On Stranger Tides is a full half-hour shorter than the third movie, and yet it still feels like an eternity at two hours and seventeen minutes because it spends so much time doing so little.

At least the other three Pirates movies found clever ways to mingle their sci-fi mythology into an old-fashioned Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. With On Stranger Tides, the sci-fi fantasy elements are just as underdeveloped as the characters. The Fountain of Youth is another of those magic do-hickeys that involve gathering magic tokens and blah blah blah, mermaid tears, silver chalices. Hey, if you wanted to drink up some mermaid tears, have them watch 2009’s Oscar-winning best documentary, The Cove. That ought to do it (a scene driving the mermaids into nets oddly reminded me of The Cove). Blackbeard and Angelica have a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll, which is highly effective, and yet this plot device is nearly forgotten for the entire film. There is no clever application of this unique device. Blackbeard has a magic sword that makes ships come alive. Why? How? It’s just another magical Macguffin, like Jack’s compass. Man-eating mermaid temptresses is an interesting idea, and a great way to squeeze in a lot of obfuscated nudity in a Disney film for teen boys who have not discovered the Internet. Too bad the mermaids are confined to one scene, albeit the highpoint of an otherwise bad film. Their feeding frenzy is the only moment in the film that channels that high-flying sense of verve that made the original so memorable. Don’t even get me started on the fishy romance presented between the captive mermaid (played with all the acting capability of a French perfume model) and a missionary (Sam Claflin). The whole experience feels like a shambled, draggy, inarticulate rip-off of Last Crusade, complete with a climactic drink from a magic chalice. I appreciate Marshall’s emphasis on practical special effects but if these are the results then bring back the previous sequels’ CGI vomitorium. This franchise feels like every ounce of energy and danger has been squeezed out of it.

So does that means that this Pirates venture is more character-based now that it has jettisoned side characters and complex plots? Fat chance. The problem is that Jack Sparrow is not a good lead protagonist. He’s not meant to be a classic good guy. He’s a libertine, somebody who makes selfish choices but will revert to do something proper when his conscience nags him enough. Sparrow is more of the dashing rogue at best. Does anyone remember how he was going to trick doomed men into signing their souls to Davy Jones? He also needs a foil, a striaghtman to bounce off of. I almost miss the wooden performance of Orlando Bloom. Without a do-gooding striaghtman, Jack Sparrow plays like a man adrift, searching for his groove. Unfortunately, Sparrow never finds it in this vehicle, which just asks him to go through motions and mannerisms. Blackbeard makes for one very bland villain. McShane (TV’s Deadwood) can glower and chew scenery with the best of them, but his baddie never seems too menacing. He burns one guy alive and threatens to kill his own daughter in order to keep Jack in line. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t even compare after the previous films included a monstrous ship captain who would readily slice prisoners’ throats and a British bureaucrat who hanged an eight-year-old before the freaking opening credits. Blackbeard, in contrast, just comes off like a crusty old man in need of a shave.

The film’s biggest addition was bringing in Jack’s former flame Angelica, a woman he robbed of her virtue and personally betrayed. But is there any tension? No, because Jack and Angelica don’t have any old feelings for one another they rehash (oh how I was even pleading for a trope like that), and the characters don’t really feel any antagonism either. Sure they will parry and threaten one another, but it’s so devoid of danger or tension or interest. This is no screwball romance. They feel like a couple that can’t be bothered working up any notable feelings toward one another. Therefore, all their shared scenes, and there are many, sink the film’s flow. Their bickering should bring some sparks. She should be exciting; she’s the daughter of a notorious pirate, she was going to be a nun until Jack Sparrow came sailing into her life. She should be sore. She should be angry. She should be a lot of things that ultimately the character is not. Cruz (Nine, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) doesn’t come across as an equal or love interest, she just feels like an annoying sidekick, harping on “Yack.” At one point, Jack tells her, “If you had a sister and a dog, I would take the dog.” When she’s got a personality like this, I’d agree.

Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) is obviously a comic gift and his Sparrow character will go down in the ages as one of the most universally beloved figures in cinema history. Everyone adores this character, a loveable scoundrel. But that doesn’t mean the screenwriters can just strand him in a crummy story with nothing to do. Depp will always be enjoyable when he puts on his Captain Jack eye liner and does that funky, swishy walk of his, but even he feels like he’s phoning this one in. He realizes that his character is trapped in a sodden adventure that offers little to do as a character and an actor.

I never thought I would say this, but On Stranger Tides makes me positively reevaluate the other Pirates sequels (I admit to being one of the few critics who liked Dead Man’s Chest a good deal). If this is what a simplified Pirates of the Caribbean film gets you, bring me back the messy, maddening plots of the previous films. Bring me back the scope, the danger, the clever mingling of genre elements, the adventure, the sizzle, the anarchy, and bring me back director Gore Verbinsky. Marshall has no feel for this material or how best to serve story. I never expected a movie with this kind of budget to be so lifeless. It all just sits there on screen, expecting the pieces to come together through ardent wishful thinking. On Stranger Tides suffers not because it strips away some of the excess and convolution that plagued the other films, it suffers because it gives no reason for its existence. It does not enrich the characters, the Pirates universe, or provide a rip-roaring story. Obviously, the film exists to line the coffers of Disney. It may earn plenty of booty this summer, but this is no way to rejuvenate a sinking franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C

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