The Green Hornet (Two Stars)
U. S.: Michel Gondry, 2011
The Green Hornet is a comedy-action extravaganza done in a deliberate pop art/ironic style by director Michel Gondry — a pseudo-Marvel super-movie about a super-hero who’s also a rich little schmuck. It’s also about the schmuck’s super-talented Asian sidekick, their sexy Girl Friday, who has issues with them both — and a maniacal and over-sensitive villain who runs the drug kingdom in a huge city, and kills people or unleashes a crime wave, whenever he feels insulted (which is often).
Based on the hit Depression radio show about the Green Hornet and his faithful Asian sidekick Kato (a show which later became a TV series with Bruce Lee as Kato), it’s a real mess: a movie that would like to be Iron Man, but lacks the wit, the action, the look, the story, the sense of character, the high spirits, almost everything.
Green Hornet has its moments, but you’d expect many, many more from a cast and filmmakers like this: director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with a nifty ensemble including Seth Rogen as the rich schmuck/superhero Britt Reid/Green Hornet, Jay Chou as sidekick Kato, Cameron Diaz as gal-pal Lenore Case, and (the one performance that almost works) Christoph Waltz as sadistic crime czar Benjamin Chudnofsky. (Chudnofsky, to make himself as media-friendly and colorful as his Green Hornet nemesis — wants to call himself “Bloodnofsky.”) The script is by Rogen, and his Superbad writing partner Evan Goldberg, along with Fran Striker and George W. Trendle. I don’t know all of them, but sounds good to me.
Instead, Gondry and company pull us into a frenzied pseudo-comic chaos that has all the clunky, campy excess of the ’60s “Batman” TV series (“Holy Hornet!”) , and little of its loopy charm — into a movie that, as you watch it, seems as anachronistic as the so-called newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, that Britt inherited from his media giant dad James (Tom Wilkinson), and is supposed to be running, in his off-SuperHero time.
Believe me, I’m on the side of any movie, however goofy, that wants to revive the fantasy-image and movie-iconish presence of newspapers, and use them as a backdrop for anything, including a new Pauly Shore comedy or a remake of Can‘t Stop the Music. (No, that’s going too far.) After 24 years with the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, I miss newsrooms more than I can say. (I even miss some of the pseudo-Chudnofskys you‘d occasionally run into there.) But there’s nothing about The Daily Sentinel that’s witty or exciting either, not even when they drag in all the villains, heroes, cars, hardware and automatic rifles, and stage the final rip-roaring action basheroo right in the Sentinel offices.
Rogen and Goldberg and company write Britt as a spoiled-rotten rich kid and high-timer who suddenly wants to be a super-hero, after he becomes a journalism nabob and bonds with his dad’s ex-car mechanic, chauffeur and coffee-maker supreme Kato. There’s nothing that explains why Britt gets such a mad notion, or why he figures he can pull it off after years of lazy-rich-kiddery — except maybe that he sees all of Kato’s martial arts and mechanical skills, and figures that his driver will be doing all the work anyway.
So the Legend begins, wackily, and the Green Hornet (Britt, demonstrating his lack of touch, first wants to call himself The Green Bee), is launched on his crime-fighting career — made more complicated because Britt decides to pose as a super-criminal as well as hero. But Britt hires a super-secretary-turned-business whiz (Diaz as Lenore) to help run his paper while he’s not around. And carves aside enough time to become a local media sensation and lock horns with the murderous Chudnofsky a.k.a. Bloodnofsky.
Waltz makes a good, nasty, crazy heavy out of Bloodnofsky. But Rogen’s comic forte is usually playing nice, shaggy guys who tell the truth, not rich would-be playboys who lie their heads off and throw their weight around. He always looks here like he’s putting us on, putting himself on, and it doesn’t help the comedy.
Scene after scene in The Green Hornet is wasted on Britt acting unconvincingly schmucky and on an idiotic rivalry and silly bash fests between Greenie and Kato, who descend into a love/hate relationship that’s neither resonant or amusing — though homo-erotic undertones keep erupting, especially since the one-time stud Britt seems to forsake women, except for a few weak passes at Lenore, after he and Kato set up Superhero shop together. At one point, he falls into a coma for eleven days or so, which was probably a good strategy.
The fights are forgettable. The chases are so-so. The romance is comatose. The comedy is rib-nudging or hysterical.
Michel Gondry can be a jazzily innovative director (Eternal Sunshine), but he can also take us into fantasy dopey-land (Human Nature) — and most of “The Green Hornet” doesn’t even look good, or snazzy or exciting. That includes Greenie and Kato in their superhero garb, which consists of suits, fedoras and toy-store-looking masks that make them look a bit like The Blues Brothers on their way to a masquerade ball.
Maybe they should have been wearing 3D glasses instead — which at least would have underlined the fact that the movie was shot in that process, something I barely noticed. The Green Hornet is only recommended to kids who really would like to put on masks and fedoras and go out and bash Chudnofskys. Or maybe inherit a newspaper.
The Dilemma Three Stars
U.S.: Ron Howard, 2011
Vince Vaughn and Kevin James make a nice couple in The Dilemma, a buddy-comedy-drama (or maybe a drama-buddy-comedy) in which they play a couple of Chicago pals-since-college and business partners. Vaughn is fast-talking huckster Ronny Valentine and James is slower-talking design genius Nick Brennan. Chums to the end, Ronny and Nick work together, play together, pal around as a foursome with their significant others. They‘re Chicago to the core, and they talk Bulls and go to Black Hawks games and have deep-dish Chicago fun — even though now they’re jammed in a time crunch, trying to finish a car-engine project for Dodge on a diminishing deadline.
You think that’s a problem? They’ve got another one, a worse one, or at least Ronny has: Scouting out the proper botanical setting to properly propose to his nonpareil girl friend Beth (Jennifer Connelly), Ronny overhears and sees Nick’s wife, and Beth’s pal, Geneva (Wynona Ryder), in a hot-and-heavy clinch among the big leaves with an unknown (to Ronny) but very enthusiastic tattooed stud (Channing Tatum).
So. Should Ronny tell Nick, and maybe make Nick crack up and foul up the project, plus complicate Nick’s marriage? Should he get more proof? Should he confront Geneva? Should he clam up? Or should he let it hang out, and let chips, or whatever, fall where they may? That’s The Dilemma.
Ron Howard directed the movie, Allan Loeb (Wall Street Money Never Sleeps) wrote it, and it’s pretty damned good. I enjoyed it, and I think it’s a movie that shows off well some of the top-chop, money skills of its cast and of its filmmakers.
Not everybody feels that way. In fact, a lot apparently don’t. Howard, Loeb and the cast have been accused of reckless machismo, of shifting modes too much, of moving back and forth too abruptly between comedy and drama, of creating tonal confusion. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Why is it? What is it?
Tonal confusion? Tonal Schmonal. Life is sometimes a comedy, sometimes a drama, and even if The Dilemma doesn’t always work right (and it doesn’t) there’s nothing wrong with mixing the two up like this, or trying to.
Howard and Loeb and their actors do at least one thing very well here, one thing I haven’t seen recently in many buddy comedies, or buddy dramas (or even buddy musicals).This movie is loaded with good, smart, crackling dialogue, both comic and dramatic, well-crafted by Loeb, and delivered with maximum panache and lots of energy and style by all four of the lead actors and by some of the supporting ones as well — like Tatum as Zip, the tattooed stud and Queen Latifah as Susan Warner, a scrumptious overseer on the engine project. (Nick is trying to make an electric motor roar under the ‘60s power hood like a ‘60s power engine — so that, as Ronny says tellingly, the car won’t look gay.)
Most movies, most dramas — and sadly enough, most comedies — don’t have good dialogue, or dialogue that snaps, pops and races along like this, in the tradition of the Ben Hechts and the Preston Sturgeses and Billy Wilders. Mind you, I‘m not saying Loeb is as good as that trio of dialogue giants — he’s not — but simply that he’s trying to play that game when most others don‘t, and that, not too infrequently, he’s scoring.
When the laughs (temporarily) stop in The Dilemma, it’s because they’re supposed to stop, because Howard and Loeb are deliberately shifting tones and emotions (as most of the best directors can and do), and because the moviemakers want us to see Ronny’s genuine anguish about his dilemma, just as much as the absurdity of him spying on Geneva and Zip and tumbling off a building.
The dramatic heart of the picture is the lie Geneva tells, and that Ronny gets caught up in, partly because he has a secret or two himself. Ronny and Nick are a typical pair of college pals, like Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel in “Carnal Knowledge.” Ronny is the glib, macho, streetwise lady-killer; Nick is the shier guy, the brain who idolizes him. (How much he likes Ronny, Nick later, embarrassingly reveals.)
But, as in most such odd couples, there’s a side of Ronny that’s good-hearted and sensitive like Nick, and a side of Nick that’s brash and take-charge like Ronny. They’re buddies, in a way, because they can complement each other and shave the bad stuff from each other’s psyche. (Vaughn’s best scene though, and one of the best in the movie, is without Nick. It’s his yowling, slamming, half-crazy street-fight with Tatum’s Zip — a scene that’s only hurt by what seems a puzzling lack of response from the neighborhood as these two guys massacre each other.)
Jennifer Connelly, who got an Oscar under Howard’s direction in A Beautiful Mind, doesn’t have much to do here but be supportive and understanding and a little mystified, especially when Ronny turns her parent‘s anniversary into a nightmare. But she does it well. It’s Ryder who has the plum female role, and it’s another witchy part like she played in Black Swan: cheating Geneva, who knows how to lie and cover her tracks and becomes a formidable foe to Ronny.
A word about Ron Howard. He should do more comedies. (Sorry, that’s five words.) If there’s one thing Ronny Howard should definitely understand, it’s how to get laugh lines. He was certainly around enough of them on the Andy Griffith Show, and, to a lesser extent, on Happy Days. From Howard’s Opie’s priceless interplay with Andy and Barney on the “Griffith Show,” to his straight man act with the Fonz, he’s shown himself as one of the most alert and generous of actors — and he‘s an alert and generous director too.
But I wouldn’t keep demanding that he get tonal control of himself and, dammit, push for those laughs. I doubt he wants to make that kind of comedy anyway, since, starting with “Andy Griffith,” he‘s spent his life in shows that mixed moods, and did it expertly.
By the way, there are some things I didn’t like about The Dilemma, and one was the ending, at the second Black Hawks game. Too much comedy. Not enough drama. But “Go Hawks,” anyway.
Another Year (Four Stars)
U.K.: Mike Leigh (2010)
Another Year was one of my favorite 2010 movies, a film I really loved — and I’m surprised that Leigh’s picture hasn’t won that much attention in the critics votes. It’s a rich humane movie, one that catches you up, transfixes and moves you, that gives you real-looking, real-acting people in a memorable set of mid-life crises, in a classic-to-be.
Of course it is. Mike Leigh Naked, Secrets and Lies) directed it. And wrote it (with his cast in rehearsal). Leigh, the master of the seemingly improvised movie, of the Brit-Chekhovian ensemble, and of the prime realistic contemporary British social drama, once again crafts us a sometimes funny, often sad drama of sympathetic observation and tough but compassionate truth — full of sensitivity and humanity, a film both comic-sad like Life is Sweet, and sad-sad like Vera Drake.
Leigh and his marvelous actors create a little world of working class-born people sliding from middle toward old age — some of them happily, some miserably — but all of them chained in a way by the eternal British class system, ruled sometimes by money, social class or educational opportunity: all those systems that relentlessly and unfairly divide people into haves and have-nots — even if they all seem, for the moment, comfortably fixed.
Leigh takes us from Spring to Winter, in four increasingly bleak acts, and with another top-notch acting ensemble piece. The unimprovable cast revolves around Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as the blissfully content, supremely well-ordered suburban couple geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, two happy people with an upwardly mobile son (Oliver Maltman).
The couple, center of their little universe, remain loyal (if sometimes condescending) to two old friends now fallen on booze and hard emotional times, who keep popping in: chubby and romantically luckless bachelor Ken (Peter Wight), and fading single one-time sweetheart party gal Mary (Lesley Manville). Also around: David Bradley as Tom’s quiet and melancholy old brother Ronnie, bereaved and still trapped in the class Tom left behind.
They’re all excellent, but Manville is extraordinary. The last shot of her in this movie is absolutely withering. Equally devastating is the movie’s first scene, which undermines the seeming later contentment of Tom and Gerri, by starting us off with one of Gerri‘s clients: the great Imelda Staunton (Leigh’s Vera Drake) as an unsmiling, bottomlessly sad woman trapped in such a merciless vise of circumstance, that she cannot imagine any improvement on her life — except a different life.
What Manville creates for Another Year is a woman who’s a victim of ageism, of alcohol, and also of her own continuing unrealistic expectations. Maybe once a local bombshell of sorts, certainly someone who had her suitors for a while, Mary still seems to believe she is, or can be saved by her looks, and that sexual attraction and flirtiness can be the hot-wire that moves her out of her life doldrums. (She’s cold though with the equally lonely Ken.)
Tom and Gerri, whom she pesters and leans on, and who treat her with kindness but also with condescension, probably represent an ideal for her, a second family. If chubby Tom and slightly bovine-looking Gerri can be so happy, why can‘t she?
That’s a major question in Leigh’s films: Why can’t these people be happy? Why can’t we? The answer isn’t always social or political, though Leigh is a classic British progressive/leftist. And it doesn’t come from fixed, immutable human nature. Leigh, a great admirer of the Japanese family-drama master Yasujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”), simply points his camera (Dick Pope’s camera) at these people — at these wonderful actors who have delved so deeply into the outlines he’s made for them and, with him, created something of such solid truth, such burning compassion.
He looks at them and makes us commiserate and wonder. Why can’t we be happy?
The Illusionist (Four Stars)
France: Sylvain Chomet (Sony Classics)
In this wonderful feature cartoon, masterful old-style French animator Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) takes an unproduced Jacques Tati script about an aging magician (who looks and dresses just like Tati, with trench coat and pipe), and the young woman who follows and loves him, and makes Chaplinesque, Tatiesque magic.
The movie is set in, of all places, rural Scotland and Edinburgh, and the way Chomet captures that land and that city, in lines and pastels, is wondrous to behold. They’re among the most beautiful drawings I’ve ever seen in a movie cartoon. There’s also a snip of the real Tati, on screen, in a movie house. (Jean-Claude Donda does the voices for both the Illusionist and the movie house manager.)
And there’s a really great bunny — white, of course, since he comes out of the hat. Now, how many cartoons have a really great bunny? About as many as have a really great illusionist. This one has both — as well as the antic, wistful spirit of the great Jacques Tati, a magnificent talent who could pull lots of stuff from his hat, and who vanished far too soon.
Mon Oncle (Four Stars)
France: Jacques Tati, 1958
Jacques Tati’s first great clash with the modern world and its sometimes haywire technology was 1958‘s Mon Oncle. His second was 1968‘s Playtime, which defeated him, not artistically but financially.
Mon Oncle is still a gem, a masterpiece. (So is Playtime, but it doesn’t have as much Hulot.) This movie has those wonderful dogs and those little delinquent Parisian kids, roaming and terrorizing the neighborhood, and it has that fantastically ridiculous fish fountain at the Arpels. And it has Tati’s M. Hulot at his most diffident and beguiling, trying to be a good brother to his proudly bourgeois sister. Mme. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) and to her over-fussy factory owner hubby, Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), trying to be a good man, a good worker, and most of all trying to be a good uncle to his scampish little nephew — but only causing comic chaos.
It’s enough for us, of course, but not the world, this world. (By the way, did Bob Dylan see this movie before writing “If Dogs Run Free?”) (In French, with English subtitles.) (At the Music Box, Chicago.)