Monday, June 27, 2011

"Bad Teacher"

Bad Teacher - Directed by Jake Kasdan, written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, starring Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, and Jason Segel - Rated R

Must...fight...urge to make a pun...ugh...Bad Teacher passes! No! Curse my cheesy sense of humor.

Comedies are always subjective and one can’t judge the quality of a film based on their sense of humor. That alone makes Bad Teacher a difficult movie to rate objectively. What makes it doubly difficult is the fact that the film is about a middle school English teacher. That’s not odd in itself but since I am a middle school English teacher first and a movie critic second that puts me in an odd category for this film. I’ll do my best to judge Bad Teacher on its own merits as a comedy but I can’t ignore my own perception of the film through the eyes of a teacher. I usually try to keep myself out of the reviews as much as possible, but I can’t help it on this one.

As written above, Bad Teacher is about a middle school English teacher who is definitely a bad teacher. Cameron Diaz stars as Ms. Halsey, a woman who is skating by in the education world hoping to latch onto a rich man so she can quit her job. That rich man is represented by Justin Timberlake who is subbing at the school simply because he wants to work with kids. Ms. Halsey believes that if she can raise enough money for breast implants then she can catch Timberlake’s eye. Also vying for Timberlake is Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch), a dedicated but annoying co-worker. And Jason Segel is thrown into the mix as a gym teacher who has the hots for Ms. Halsey.

The plot description of Bad Teacher might sound a bit convoluted. That’s because it is. The film isn’t exactly focused and some characters seem to get forgotten every now and then. It’s not a major setback for the film, but a bit of tightening up in the editing room would have benefited the film. It seemed at times that Segel’s character had been added in halfway through filming or something as he’s so sporadically placed in the first half of the film.

It’s unfortunate that Segel isn’t in more scenes because he is the funniest actor in this film. He’s not doing anything new in Bad Teacher but his sarcastic observations provided the most memorable laughs. Timberlake is fine in the film, but his character is more annoying than funny so the film would have been better off focusing more on Segel.

Cameron Diaz does a fine job in the film as well. She gets to play one of the worst teachers in cinematic history and she is quite good at it. The indifference and outright disdain for some of her students is hilarious. Her bad teacher moments live up to the film’s title. She smokes pot on school property, starts the school year off by showing movies that have nothing to do with the curriculum, and even drinks alcohol during class. When you think about the possibility of a teacher actually doing these things it can be kind of horrifying, but if you allow yourself to be taken in by the comedy it is all quite ridiculous and funny.

This is where the personal aspect comes into play. Teaching, like any job, has its good days and its bad days. Any teacher knows the feeling of wanting to phone it in once in a while and most of us manage to fight through those funks and focus on the good days and keep on fighting the good fight. Diaz’s character never even makes an effort and while as a teacher I find her behavior reckless and harmful to the students, it’s also amusing to see someone make an effort to be the worst possible teacher he/she can be. And I can’t deny that watching a teacher say whatever she wants to students with reckless abandon is a bit of wish fulfillment.

Bad Teacher has a few faults that might not be noticeable to non-teachers, though. For instance, Diaz appears to only teach one group of kids, even though she claims she has four periods of classes. And her room is a bit too bare bones even by public education standards. I mean, she doesn’t even have a computer at her desk. Plus, the fact that she shows movies every single day for weeks and faces no repercussions is a bit too ridiculous, especially when some of the films she is showing her seventh graders are R-rated. At some point, at the very least, a parent would have heard about what was going on and complained to the school. But a suspension of disbelief is usually necessary for comedies and this film is no different.

Bad Teacher has its negative qualities but it should prove to be funny enough for most people. A few moments try too hard and feel forced into the movie as fodder for the previews (like the Lebron James/Michael Jordan argument Segel has with a student) but for the most part the film earns its laughs. A teacher might find more to laugh at than others, but there are enough general laughs to make this an acceptable summer comedy.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Justin Timberlake's character was kind of unnecessary in the film. Maybe not completely unnecessary, but he certainly didn't need all that screentime. It seems like the character was inserted into more scenes just because Timberlake was cast.

You have to admire a movie with the audacity to put both the words bad and teacher in the title. That double whammy is opening up the floodgates for pun review titles. Seriously, scan the internet for Bad Teacher reviews and see how many claim that it "gets an F" or barely "passes" or "Bad Teacher is just plain bad." I couldn't fight the urge myself in my rating comment, but at least I did it sarcastically...

It's a bit messed up that the actual good teacher is the villain and we’re supposed to root for an incredibly selfish person who doesn’t really seem to learn much of anything by the end of the movie. In a non-comedy this would be a major setback or it might be bold if it was done on purpose. But I don't think it was intentional in this film. This film makes the statement that no matter how dedicated you are as a teacher, if you are annoying and a bit cheesy, then you are evil and deserve to be bested by the selfish drug-abusing teacher.

I found it pretty funny that Diaz refers to becoming a teacher as "messing up so bad in life." Segel gets a great line when he asks, "So how did you mess up so bad in life that you ended up educating children?"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Green Lantern"

Green Lantern - Directed by Martin Campbell, written by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, and Tim Robbins - Rated PG-13

Goofy, a little weird, and even crappy at times, but still decently entertaining.

The comic book movie train speeds on with by far the strangest comic creation to hit the screen this summer with Green Lantern. Weird isn’t always good, but the odd elements of Green Lantern make the film stand out a bit, even if the film does get too goofy at times because of it. Overall, despite its flaws, Green Lantern still ends up being an entertaining movie.

Green Lantern is about Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a reckless pilot who is chosen by an alien ring to become earth’s protector. Yes, this is a superhero that gets his power from a magical ring from outer space. That isn’t where the weirdness ends. The film takes Hal from earth to the origin of the ring, the planet Oa. At Oa, Hal is the lone human among all of the other protectors, or lanterns. Hal finds out that there is a battle being waged between will and fear and he must conquer his own fears if he is to save the planet.

All of that should sound a bit out there, but it’s supposed to be. Green Lantern is a slightly self-aware movie. The filmmakers knew that to get away with such outlandish settings there must be a bit of humor to the film and that ends up being the saving grace for Green Lantern. Reynolds, primarily a comedic actor, is really a perfect choice for the arrogant but likable Hal Jordan. Plus, he delivers the Green Lantern oath very well.

If Reynolds isn’t enough for you (or if he annoys you, as plenty of people have complained), then the planet of Oa and its inhabitants might make up for it. Oa isn’t as fully realized as it could’ve been and it doesn’t seem like a real planet with a functioning population, but it is still a very interesting place. The best parts of the film take place on Oa and you may find yourself wishing the majority of the film had been set there. Hal gets introduced to what being a lantern is all about on Oa and, as the only human, the odds are against him. His training scenes are short but entertaining and the supporting cast that lives in Oa is pretty great. Mark Strong stands out as the leader of the lanterns though the film would’ve benefited from more scenes with him. Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan put in some amusing voice work as well.

Hal spends the majority of his time on earth and while the film doesn’t look as interesting in this familiar setting, there are some interesting characters there. Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, and Blake Lively populate the rest of the cast ably, but it is Peter Sarsgaard who makes the film fun. It was hard to keep count of how many times Sarsgaard shrieked maniacally throughout the film, but each time it was amusing. He added a strange element to his performance that made him quite the interesting foil to Reynolds.

Green Lantern is a film that gets plenty of things right and manages to breathe a little life into the whole superhero origin story. For one thing, the film is refreshing because the origin of the character consists of a man putting on a ring that instantly makes him the hero. It also helps that the film is willing to play with the goofiness of a superhero’s outfit with a character pointing out that an eye mask doesn’t really disguise a person. This movie is not high art; it’s not even sophisticated by comic book movie standards. But it is a bit of harmless fun.

That said, there are still a few problems with the movie. First off, the simplistic plot elements are childish to say the least. The power of the ring is fueled by will? The opposing evil force of the universe is simply fear? That’s just weak and it leads to silly dialogue about conquering fears that are never clearly defined. It also makes the film sound too much like a Star Wars film with all the “don’t give in to your fear” lines. In fact, it’s all childish enough that it makes this movie more of a film for kids than adults, which is unexpected since comic book movies these days tend to be as gritty and harsh as possible. Perhaps this isn’t even a negative for some viewers, but if you’re expecting something with the tone of The Dark Knight, you won’t find it here.

Secondly, the effects of the film work at times (the CG suit was fine, the 3D was serviceable, and there are some great images) but are absolutely atrocious at others. Seriously, some of the effects looked like they were from a film from the late 90s (most notably in a scene involving a helicopter). The action in general was entertaining but it’s all a bit of a letdown when you consider the fact that the ring can make anything. When imagination is the limit there should be something more interesting than guns being formed by the ring.

Finally, the stakes just weren’t high for this film. There never seemed to be a true sense of danger to the film and some of the major battles were uninspired and just too easy. All of these things might be major problems for some viewers, but if you can just sit back and enjoy a slightly goofy, at times childish film, then you’ll be entertained by Green Lantern.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Super 8"

Super 8 - Written and directed by J. J. Abrams, starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, and Noah Emmerich - Rated PG-13

Nostalgia, explosions, and heart all in a summer movie? Hear, hear!

Do you ever catch an old Spielberg movie on TV like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Jaws and find yourself saying, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore”? Well, Super 8 is proof that they do. The J.J. Abrams-directed, Spielberg-produced sci-fi film is filled with nostalgia, child-like wonder, and…lens flares (more on those later). Super 8 is a throwback not only in the sense that it takes place in the past (1979 to be specific), but also in that it represents a true family film.

A real family film is a rare thing these days. Most parents just settle for whatever animated Pixar film their kids want to see to fill the family film void. To be fair, Pixar has cornered the market on children’s movies that also appeal to adults but they are still first and foremost films meant for children. Super 8 is the film that a parent can take their teen-aged and near teen-aged kids to see. That is the age group that this film caters to because the principal cast is that age. Kids may come out of this one with the same sense of awe that their parents had after seeing E.T. for the first time. Adults will leave with a nice sense of nostalgia for their own childhood.

Nostalgia doesn’t really describe what this film is about, but don’t expect much in the way of synopsis in this review. Super 8 has gained attention for its mysteriousness and I certainly don’t want to spoil any of the mystery. Personally, I didn’t find the plot to be so amazing and out there that it needed to be so protected, but a film is always better if you don’t know everything about it before you go in. The basic plot, from the previews, involves a group of kids who witness a train wreck while filming an amateur movie. The train was carrying some top secret cargo that the military is keen to protect. That’s all you’re getting from this review on the plot. This is a movie, after all, which ended its main preview with the line, “What the hell?”

Now back to that whole childhood nostalgia issue. Since this film takes place in 1979 the kids in this film are very different from today’s generation. No smart phones, iPods, or internet. This is not just a device to add humor to the film, though that is used to good effect at times. (The time period also allows for a fantastic soundtrack, by the way.) This was a time when parents couldn’t keep tabs on their child’s every movement. In fact, things have changed so much that the parents may appear to be extremely negligent in this film because of how little they know about their kids’ whereabouts. That’s an argument for others; the point is that children of yesteryear were able to go off on their own adventures. Super 8 presents a small-town America that just doesn’t exist anymore and that might sadden some, but it will probably just leave the older audience members with a pleasant feeling about how simple life could be years ago.

All feelings about the past aside, Super 8 is also a very entertaining film. This is still a summer movie, after all. There isn’t nonstop action or anything in the film, but when things do happen, they look pretty great. Overall, it’s simply a very interesting film that is filled with humor and heart. Much of that is due to the writing, but the cast is vital. On the younger side, Joel Courtney (Joe), Riley Griffiths (Charles), and Elle Fanning (Alice) stand out and provide the emotional core of the film. They are never annoying and they felt like a natural fit for the film. On the adult side, Kyle Chandler (Jackson) and Ron Eldard (Louis), give strong performances as the troubled fathers of two of the leads.

The father-son/father-daughter relationships in the film are what give Super 8 a resonating effect. By the end of the film, you feel something for these characters and their relationships. The film provides that emotional punch that is so rare in summer movies. We sometimes forget amid all the explosions and superheroes that a summer film can also contain realistic characters that can evoke an emotional response from the viewer.

The emotional response is something that was always found in Spielberg’s early sci-fi films and while Spielberg is all over this film (even down to the Amblin logo at the beginning), this is still Abrams’ film. In a phrase: lens flares. Those who have seen Abrams’ first two films (Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek) know that the director likes to shine light into the camera to the point that it causes a lens flare to appear onscreen. It almost draws attention to itself at times, but the flares give the film a look and colorful lens flares make sense for a sci-fi film.

There are many more things to get into with Super 8 but that would be getting into dorky gushing over the movie. Obviously, this reviewer loved it. This is a movie that is nearly for everyone. When you check it out, and I hope that you do, bring the family because they don’t make ‘em like this very often.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Absolutely loved this movie, obviously, but if there was one problem I had with it it was the fact that the scientist who derails the train actually survives the crash. I understand he had to so he could give the kids a few hints or whatever, but no way someone survives that. Couldn't they have just found the body and the map? Wouldn't that have been enough?

I was definitely catching a Cloverfield vibe from the monster design. Almost like this is a prequel to that film and the alien comes back when it grows up or something.

Not going to list all of the easter eggs I spotted (especially since /Film has already handled it so well), but just know that the attentive viewer/Abrams-obsessive fan will get plenty of little treats.

I loved the amateur zombie movie scenes. As a zombie-movie dork I loved every little moment shown in the film from the make-up to the nail in the back of the head zombie kill to the Romero reference.

1979 was such a great time period for this movie. I loved that the kids had to wait three days to get their film developed and that was considered "rush." And the reference to the first Walkman and the sheriff's fear of kid's running around with headphones stuck in their ears was amusing.

After X-Men: First Class and this film, it is quickly becoming an art of how to most effectively use your one f-bomb in a PG-13 movie.

Monday, June 6, 2011

"X-Men: First Class"

X-Men: First Class - Directed by Matthew Vaughn, written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Vaughn, story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon - Rated PG-13

Cuban Missile Crisis, Nazi hunting, Fassbender as Magneto? Rock on!

The summer of superheroes, sequels, and prequels marches on but this prequel stands out because it works as a standalone film. X-Men: First Class still plays fan service enough to please the devotees but newcomers to the series are likely to enjoy this prequel as well. The film is a mixture of history, humor, and action that stands leaps and bounds above the previous prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

While the last film in the series explained the origin of fan favorite Wolverine, this film leaves that character aside to explain the complicated friendship between Professor X/Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), all set to the background of the Cold War. The Cold War aspect works perfectly as an origin story to the X-Men universe as the original three films are basically about a cold war among mutants that eventually turns into a real war. These comic book characters have always been ripe for comparison to American history, from civil rights to Communist fear-mongering. First Class keeps that tradition alive by actively implanting the mutants in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

The film isn’t just a about history, though. It’s primarily a film about how Magneto and Xavier met, became friends, and eventually ended up on opposite sides of a war. Fassbender and McAvoy are the glue that holds the film together. They work great together and if anything, there are not enough scenes featuring the duo. To be honest, Fassbender stands out a bit more than McAvoy, and his early Nazi-hunting scenes were interesting enough to be a movie on their own.

But First Class also has to give the background on some other characters like Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Emma Frost (January Jones), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and many others. There may be a few too many characters, actually, but it’s not much of a problem for the film. The adversarial role goes to Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, a kind of precursor to Magneto in the later films, helmet and all. Bacon adds a bit of fun to the movie as the evil, Hugh Hefner-esque villain.

The inclusion of so many characters means that there is a lot of ground covered by the film and most of your questions about the original films will most likely be answered, though First Class will likely leave a few attentive viewers scratching their heads because some things mentioned in the previous four films are kind of ignored or flat out contradicted. It’s all pretty harmless stuff in the larger scheme of things but dorkier audience members might cry foul.

All comic book issues aside, First Class is successful in summer blockbuster terms as there are plenty of laughs and the action is compelling and easy to follow. Oh, and it wasn’t in 3D, which is very refreshing for a big summer movie. Some of the effects and costume choices might look a bit goofy to some, but when you factor in the 1960s setting, it all adds up and gives the film a distinctive style that sets it apart from other films in the series (something Wolverine failed to do.) It seems like director Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) was just what the series needed.

First Class isn’t without its faults, however. As stated earlier, the film would have been more interesting had the focus been squarely on Fassbender and McAvoy. For instance, there were some great moments in a training montage in the second half of the film; if there had been two or three more scenes like that that the film would have been improved. To make room, the side story between Beast and Mystique could’ve been excised, since that storyline had already been covered with Rogue and Ice Man in the third film. Also, not all of the acting is top notch, January Jones is once again a weak link (as she was in Unknown), even though her role is to basically just sit around and look pretty. These are petty problems in an otherwise awesome movie, though.

X-Men: First Class should be enjoyable for fans and newbies alike. It does what a prequel should for the fans: it makes re-watching the original film a richer experience. Also, the film features one of the most crowd-pleasing cameos I have ever witnessed and that short scene alone makes it worth watching for any fans of the series. Those not in the know will most likely enjoy this film that has all the action and humor you could ask for in a summer blockbuster, along with a compelling story of friendship and war. Don’t worry that it’s the fifth film in the series or that it’s a prequel; X-Men: First Class is its own film and it’s a pretty good one at that.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Here are some inconsistencies I noticed. Moira’s appearance: she shows up as Olivia Williams in the post-credit scene of X3 as a nurse, so how does it make sense that she's a CIA agent in her twenties in the 1960s?

Xavier seeing the helmet: if you watch the first film again, Xavier seems surprised that Magneto has a helmet that blocks his ability, yet he had to have noticed the helmet at the end of this film.

The ages of Xavier and Magneto: Xavier claims, in the first film, that they first met when X was 17. I know Xavier is a genius and all, but you can't tell me that he is supposed to be 17 in this film.

Emma Frost was in Wolverine and appeared to be younger even though that film takes place after this one.

The Wolverine cameo was definitely one of the highlights of the film and an excellent use of the sole f-bomb in the film, but it does cause problems. Both Magneto and Xavier seem unaware of Wolverine in the first film. I suppose it could be argued away because they were visiting many mutants and never really got a good look at Wolvie, but it seems like they should have a bit of memory about him.

Speaking of Wolverine, remember at the end of Origins, when that weird CG-young Patrick Stewart shows up, bald and standing? Xavier can't walk at the end of the this one and he still has his hair, so that's messed up now.

For the record, I am completely fine with First Class ignoring the timeline of Wolverine. The fact that that film is contradicted so much seems to say that Marvel has kind of discredited it. Not sure if it's even meant to be counted as part of the canon anymore. I'm okay with leaving it out. Especially since that film messed with some characters as well, like Sabretooth, who went from a cool, wise-cracking Liev Schreiber to a mute wrestler/actor Tyler Mane.

I am sure I missed some issues, but the point is this film stands on its own in many ways, including it's place in the canon.

Finally, I am serious. I want to see Michael Fassbender in Erik Lehnsherr: Nazi Hunter.