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Column Fri Jun 17 2011

Green Lantern, Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Trip, Just Like Us & Le Quattro Volte

Green Lantern

If there was even an outside chance of you caring about this movie based on your already established love of the comic book source material or even just the progressively more interesting trailers that have been released over the last few months, then you've already likely read a half-dozen or more reviews of this film that have warned you to stay far, far away from Green Lantern. And I'm afraid my review isn't going to stray far from that line of thinking either, so I'm going to keep this short and sweet.

But here's the thing: I was the perfect audience to see Green Lantern. I know next to nothing about the character and his universe. I've always believed with any superhero movie that if you can attract audiences beyond the hardcore geek fanbase, then you've probably got yourself a solid movie. So I was primed and ready for my crash course in test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), the Green Lantern Corps, yellow energy, blah blah blah. Instead what I got was a skimming of the surface, paint-by-number superhero movie I've seen in ages. It falls victim to all of the problems origin-story movies tend to have, relating to too much introduction and not enough compelling plot.

And the real crime is that the elements for something so much better are all there. My favorite scenes in the film involve the Corps storyline, which involves the galactic police force bracing itself for an attack by an age-old enemy known as Parallax, a planet-swallowing force that feeds on fear (voiced by Clancy Brown, not that you can tell). When the Corps member known as Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), who originally imprisoned Parallax, is mortally wounded, his Green Lantern ring takes him to earth where the ring is passed on to the maverick pilot Jordan, the first earthling to ever be in the Corps., led by Sinestro (Mark Strong). Side note: I'm sorry, but the dude's name is Sinestro. Are we supposed to be shocked when he becomes a turncoat in a sequence tucked away in the credits?

I was genuinely impressed with the landscape of the Corps world Oa, and the sheer number of alien creatures created for these sequences (I believe 3,600 was the number of Green Lantern Corps members). I also dug the scenes involving the Guardians, big-headed dudes who advise the Lanterns in times of trouble. But the filmmakers, led by director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), seem to want to force us to focus on Hal Jordan on Earth, dazzling humans with his groovy powers and wooing his old girlfriend, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively).

The film also wastes our time with cartoonish performances by the likes of Peter Sarsgaard as scientist Hector Hammond, who is infected by this yellow energy that gives him telepathic powers; Tim Robbins as his disappointed senator father, who also happens to be tied in with military projects carried out by Carol's industrialist father (Jay O. Sanders); and Angela Bassett as DC Comics ever-present Dr. Amanda Waller (in a perfect DC movie world, I believe Waller would be the closest thing to the binding force Nick Fury is in the Marvelverse). But so much of what these characters bring to the table feels like distraction. I'm sorry, but when you know a massive force is about to eat Earth, the rumblings of a few semi-powerful humans pales in comparison.

And because everyone insists on spending so much time on boring old Earth, the most interesting other-worldly elements fly by so quickly, it's as if they never happened. They certain don't stay on Oa long enough for any of the great computer-design work to really register. But what's far more troubling is Reynolds' performance. I've always dug Reynolds' charm as an actor. He's a funny, smarmy performer, and while I've enjoyed watching him do work that steps outside this comfort zone, that's what he does better than most. As cocky as Hal Jordan is, he's not Reynolds' level of cocky; he never fully commits to being full-on wiseass. I'm not even saying he should be; I'm just saying, there are elements of wiseass in the performance, and they don't rise to the level Reynolds is capable of. That being said, when he is fighting with his fellow Corps members against Parallax, he takes his performance in the opposite direction, almost too seriously — laughably so. As a result, the film has troubling settling on a tone, which normally isn't an issue for me, but Green Lantern needs a fixed tone.

One more thing. Having seen how the filmmakers handle the organic nature of the Green Lantern suit — how it appears and disappears from Jordan's body in the blink of an eye, how it pulsates with green energy — I get why Reynolds didn't actually wear the suit or mask while shooting. But here's the thing, I have to imagine as an actor, wearing the suit makes a difference. I've heard every actor to play Superman say as much. You put on the suit and you become the character. There is some spark missing form Reynolds' performance that I firmly believe comes from not seeing himself in the mirror, in the suit. And by the way, the mask always looks fake.

As some of my peers have indicated, Green Lantern does make a valiant attempt to rally in the final act to justify a sequel. I don't think this film makes a case for another chapter, especially in all likelihood the makers would be tempted to pile even more characters onto whatever plot they came up with. And odds are, now that they have disposed of the character introductions, the sequel would be the better movie, but that prospect doesn't make me any more interested in seeing it. Even a well-intentioned disappointment is still disappointing, maybe more so.

Mr. Popper's Penguins

Let me pose a question in your direction. If you hate every single character in a film clearly designed for family consumption, how successful do you think said film will be? Granted, I don't usually bother myself with box office tracking or reporting; I don't think that's the job of a film critic. But I couldn't help but wonder as I endured Mr. Popper's Penguins, "Who is going to enjoy this?" And for those of you who guessed that there might be a penguin poop joke or two in this movie, you win a prize.

Back to crowd-pleasing mode after his triumphant return to for in I Love You Phillip Morris, Jim Carrey plays Mr. Popper, a real estate wizard looking to become partner in his firm (run by Philip Baker Hall). As part of his rise to the power, Popper has lost his wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) and fickle, annoying kids. He sees them on occasion, but Popper seems OK not seeing them. Popper grew up admiring his absentee father, who spent months at a time traveling to exotic locations, keeping in touch with his son via ham radio.

When said father dies, he leaves Popper a small army of penguins to care for, as fathers tend to do. As much as he'd love to unload the penguins in the care of marine foul expert Nat Jones (Iron Man and Thor's Clark Gregg), Popper's kids take to the penguins, and soon Popper's luxury apartment is turned into a winter playground in which both kids and penguins can frolic. But when his attempts to purchase the Tavern on the Green property from its owner (Angela Lansbury) falls short, Popper has doubts that his good-dad routine is good for him. I'm exhausted just thinking about how unnecessarily complicated this film is. There are more "villains" in this movie than are necessary, and all of them pale in comparison to how bratty Popper's kids are or how much of a Class A douche he is.

I did have some fun watching the hopelessly cute Ophelia Lovibond (best name ever, from Nowhere Boy and No Strings Attached) as Popper's assistant Pippi, and Gugino is as charming as she always is, but beyond that, even cute penguins only carried this mess (based on the popular novel by Richard and Florence Atwater) so far. There isn't much to say beyond how much this one missed the mark. Set in a New York that only exists in family-friendly movies, Mr. Popper's Penguins is certainly trying to wow us with its grandeur, while saddling us with a story that seems overblown, too cutesy, and staggeringly dull with saccharine. I expect a tiny bit more from director Mark Waters, who was somehow able to add some knowing edge to films like Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

And then there's poor Jim Carrey at the center, working his ass off trying to entertain in this hopelessly PG environment. There's one moment at the end of the film where he busts into a court in slow motion that is genuinely funny. Other than that, you'd be lucky to go five minutes straight with a smirk on your face. I saved most of my bile for the penguins themselves, who don't actually do anything in the course of the film to make us love, or even like, them. I don't have anything against penguins, but this lot didn't inspire me to want to care about them in the slightest. I get frustrated with films where adults act like idiots, children act like adults (apparently all kids do is storm out of one room and into another), and animals act like animals, and Mr. Popper's Penguins has all three. This movie blows ice chunks.

The Trip

I originally saw director Michael Winterbottom's marvelous The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center's great European Union Film Festival back in March. The film actually began life as a six-part, three-hour British television miniseries (cut down to 107 minutes for the film), with the leads playing versions of themselves, picking up the banter-heavy roles they played in Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy several years back.

In The Trip, Coogan is hired by a newspaper to tour the Lake District and review local restaurants. When his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) backs out at the last minute, Coogan invites his old friend Brydon to accompany him, and the movie is essentially a series of extended conversations during which the pair of brilliant comic actors engage in dueling impersonations and one-upping each other's reviews and popularity. Coogan takes on the persona of the more famous but most insecure, while Brydon has an easy-going nature with a laser-sharp way of stinging Coogan's weaknesses. It never gets old.

The aspect of the film that most have (rightfully) focused on are the impersonations, in particular the dueling Michael Caines that pop up throughout the film. But there are other voices that Brydon, especially, absolutely nails, with Coogan not far behind. But the pair also talk about all manner of pointless topics, all of which they make interesting and engrossing. I loved that Coogan is deeply concerned that his girlfriend is cheating on him during a trip to America, but he never misses an opportunity to bed local beauties at each quaint hotel at which they stop on their journey. Meanwhile Brydon is ever-faithful to his wife (Claire Keelan) at home, the willing victim of his harmlessly perverted calls at night.

The Trip is a hilarious celebration of the dying art of conversation. Winterbottom never ceases to surprise and impress me, to go from last year's disturbing The Killer Inside Me to this film in one year would make most directors' heads snap, but Winterbottom does this all the time in a never-ending mission to not repeat himself. Coogan and Brydon are almost too good in their performances, to the point where I firmly believe that they communicate like this all the time, and the only difference here is that someone filmed them. Sometimes wicked and cruel, but also funny and entertaining, The Trip is a fantastic comedy of manners, with two of Britain's finest voices at the center. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Just Like Us

My first exposure to the comedy of Egyptian-American Ahmed Ahmed was as part of Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show, in which he was one of four very funny comics that took part in a whirlwind tour of the States. Taking a page from that format, Ahmed films his travels through the Middle East with a handful of other comics (both North American and Arab born) doing their routines in English to audiences in Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to crowds ranging in size from a few hundred to several thousand.

Credited also as director, Ahmed's mission seems to be to show the universality of experiences and how many topics in comedy translate easily across cultures. Some of the more fascinating material in Just Like Us has to do with the restrictions or lack of restrictions (depending on the country) the comics had to work under, and how often they broke the rules. One of the more fascinating aspects of the movie is the presence of Whitney Cummings, whose participation in this tour made her the first American woman to ever perform live in Dubai. Ahmed wisely spends more time following the comics' adventures off stage as they make their way through the various regions getting to know the people. One of the best and most heartfelt moments involves the director visiting his adoring family in Egypt, a reunion that clearly doesn't happen often enough.

Just Like Us opens with on-the-street interviews with random Americans being asked if they know the difference between Arabs and Muslims, with the responses being exactly what you'd think they'd be. In the end, I think the film would like those who see it to at least be able to answer that question. Once we get past that point, the conversation should get a whole lot more interesting, and Just Like Us is a great first step and tearing down a few boundaries and prejudices. It never forgets to be funny, but it also never loses sight of its message. Hey, just because public entertainment of any kind is forbidden in some of these countries doesn't mean they don't know how to laugh. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

As a special treat, filmmaker/comedian Ahmed Ahmed will appear in person at the Landmark on Friday, June 17 after the 7pm showing for an audience Q&A that I'll be moderating. Hope to see you there.

Le Quattro Volte

I think I can say with almost no hesitation that you have never seen a documentary like Le Quattro Volte, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Acclaimed at every festival it has played (Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, etc.), this film set in the Italian region of Calabria follows the lives of the people and animals (no joke). In this contemplative marvel, we meet an elderly shepherd (Giuseppe Fuda) tending to his goats. The old man has a persistent cough and a dog, both of which provide some of the only sound we have in this movie. Unveiling itself with no dialogue or narrative structure, the movie is more of a series of scenes that, when seen one after the other, give us a comprehensive experience of being a part of this isolated mountain area.

The press notes for Le Quattro Volte call it a docu-essay, and I guess that works if you need to call it something. But that doesn't really give you a sense of how involved you get in the smallest dramas. For example, a baby goat strays from the flock because that's what baby goats do. It gets lost and calls out desperately for its mother as the day turns to night. It's agonizing to watch whether or not he'll find the flock again. Director Michelangelo Frammartino structures his work in such a way that we find value and meaning and levels of fascination in the smallest things. The life of a single fir tree, cut down for a festival in the village, is one of the more remarkable journeys I've ever seen.

I will absolutely warn you that those of you addicted to more typical summer offerings may be bored out of your skull with this movie. But for those of you who like a little peace and quiet between your explosion-filled sequels, you may find Le Quattro Volte something astonishing. The images are stunning, the faces unforgettable, and the journey is the stuff of life. I got just as much fulfillment out of this film concerning the cyclical path that life has always taken us on as I did watching The Tree of Life, only this film doesn't have dinosaurs, I'm sorry to say. The events depicted in this movie are a microcosm of the rest of the world, and I was endlessly transfixed by them. Not for everyone, but if you're in need of a little soul enrichment, this is the movie for you.

 

eee / June 17, 2011 10:11 AM

I'd just like to state for the record that this version of Mr. Popper's Penguins looks NOTHING like the book I read and loved as a child. Don't judge a book by its movie.

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Sat Aug 23 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, If I Stay, When the Game Stands Tall, The Trip to Italy, The One I Love, Land Ho! & The Possession of Michael King

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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