Monthly Archives: June 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
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+
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
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-
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
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-