When Michel Gondry was hired to helm Columbia Pictures’ The Green Hornet I became immediately more enthusiastic about the project than I was before. Even after all the publicized production woes I was sure that his avant-garde aesthetic and bittersweet style of storytelling would put a fresh spin on the standard superhero flick. However sandwiched between the frat-house comedic sensibilities of Seth Rogen and the energetic guidance of explosion-savvy producer Neal Moritz there just wasn’t enough room for the artist to conjure his movie magic.
That’s why the film though not frustratingly formulaic feels incredibly manufactured: more a product of convenience for its stars and studio than a standalone piece of entertainment. Perhaps it’s just because superhero cinema is so commonplace today I’m beginning to feel jaded about movies like this but while watching the film I wondered whether or not Rogen and Co. consciously adhered to the tried-and-true checklist of the genre’s conventions. Tragic motives for fighting crime? Check. Maniacal villain? Check. Flipping SUV’s? Check? Predictable plot? Unfortunately check. Every element of the movie from jokes to pacing is easy to foresee but that doesn’t mean it’s not somewhat entertaining.
Rogen who co-wrote the picture with his longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg will continue to amuse audiences with his every-man persona even when miscast as a billionaire playboy turned masked vigilante. The Green Hornet doesn’t sound like anything he has written before; the limitations of language in a broad blockbuster result in less laughs than the raunchy R-rated comedies he’s best known for but the delivery of the dialogue is his best weapon against tonal conformity. Still post-modern humor is abundant throughout the film with plenty of pop-culture references that are good for a grin or two.
The biggest surprise came in the form of Jay Chou. A hugely successful pop singer in his native Taiwan (as well as other Chinese-speaking regions of the world) his charisma transcends language barriers in the iconic role of Kato created by the legendary Bruce Lee. Though technically the sidekick Chou displays more depth than Rogen ever has and outshines his co-star in nearly every creative department. Christoph Waltz as the violent villain Chudnofsky doesn’t generate the electricity he did in his career-defining role in Inglourious Basterds but had significantly lower-brow material to work with. He goes through the motions with a smile on his face that suggests he’s not quite sure how (or why) he got into this picture in the first place. On the other hand I’m sure that Cameron Diaz knew exactly why she was hired to portray Britt Reid’s sexy secretary Lenore Case. Between her performances in 2010’s Knight and Day and this Ms. Diaz has hit a new career low. The only difference is that her character was central to the story in the Tom Cruise summer vehicle; here she’s nothing more than eye-candy.
As stated before if I’ve got one regret above all regarding The Green Hornet it’s that director Gondry wasn’t allowed to make the movie his own. His stamp is present in only a handful of sequences where visually inventive special effects serve the story and in many cases enhance it. He makes the most of the adequate 3D conversion in these select scenes (including a revelatory summation of the events that lead to the films climax and the closing credits both which are very cool) whereas in the rest of the picture it’s just unnecessary. I had hoped his involvement meant that the narrative was going down an unconventional path but in the end his contributions to the film amount to little more than rainbow sprinkles atop a very vanilla piece of cinema.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
As a legendary Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) was all heart and no regret. But it all comes undone in the span of one night when he goes out to the menacing seas with his crew to make a rescue and he is the sole survivor. Following that fateful night he’s ordered to teach at “A” School--a demotion for a man of his stature and seniority--an elite training program that helps turn the best recruits into the best Rescue Swimmers. Randall teaches the cocky students the only way he knows how and his tough tough love is initially met with skepticism by his fellow trainers who think of him as a has-been. But one student in particular Jake Fischer (Ashton Kutcher) catches his eye and draws his ire. Fischer is cocky hotheaded and highly skilled--just the right pedigree to make a great Rescue Swimmer and a lot like Randall was at his age. Randall rides him extra-hard while Fischer only hopes to one day be in the same boat as his mentor. Be careful what you wish for Jake! Costner's always been an acquired taste--sometimes a downright noxious one on first bite--but there's no denying he slides right in here. Roles that feature him as the aging provider of wisdom are now his true calling and the sooner he accepts it the better. And even still Costner gets to flex his action muscle a bit. As for Kutcher the only thing he shares in common with Costner is the last two letters of his last name--as actors these guys are each other’s antitheses! And in a weird way they strike a nice chemistry because of it one that is borderline exciting to watch. As a standalone actor in The Guardian Kutcher is a bit misplaced and seems to know it. He nails the physicality of the role but while the character's attitude and brashness befit Kutcher the peak dramatic scenes with Costner leave something to be desired. A pleasantly surprising turn from relative unknown Melissa Sagemiller (The Clearing) as Kutcher's girl toy and reliable supporting performances from Sela Ward and Neal McDonough round out the cast. Director Andrew Davis' proximity to his career peak The Fugitive cannot be measured in time: He's a lot further away from the mega-hit than a mere 13 years. But in Hollywood if you have a Fugitive under your belt you'll never run out of chances to replicate it. That's the current juncture for Davis--one last shot at Fugitive glory...till his next last shot. It's hard to say what The Guardian will do at the box office but Davis' stodgy direction doesn't necessarily help its chances. The movie can be boiled down to awful pacing: the first and last 15 minutes are high-octane action and everything in between is low-octane Top Gun (the non-action scenes!). That blame belongs to Davis and writer Ron L. Brinkerhoff. But only Davis can shoulder the other flaws such as a single scene of dubious camerawork--filmed to look like handheld-montage style completely deviating from the movie's context--and the special effects during the somewhat cheesy action sequences which may remind you of a theme-park tour during which you learn how they filmed a boat scene...in the '80s!
Painfully estranged from his daughter old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) hasn't let anyone get too close to him in a very long time. Even his best friend and former trainee Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who manages Frankie's rundown boxing gym has a tough time getting through. Everything changes however when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A spitfire looking for someone to believe in her Maggie also has a painful past. But with unshakable willpower along with some tremendous raw talent Maggie has found that her love for boxing could be her ticket to a happy life--and she wants Frankie to turn her into a champion. Naturally he doesn't want to have anything to do with her and doesn't want to take that risk especially with a girl.Yet Frankie is soon won over by the young boxer's dogged resolve to be the best. The road to glory isn't easily paved for these two stubborn mules but Maggie and Frankie rediscover a sense of family they both thought they'd lost long ago. Theirs is a bond that will carry them through one of the hardest journeys either one of them will ever take. Oh yeah you're going to need a wad of tissues for this one.
Swank once again sheds her girlishness to tackle the roughhouse world of female boxing and she delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as Maggie. Not only does the actress embody the physicality of such a role--achieved after months of hard training--she also captures the spirit of a woman who defies the odds by breaking away from her dirt-poor trailer-trash upbringing to become a champion. Some may liken the plain no-nonsense Maggie to Swank's Oscar-winning role as the girl-turned-boy Brandon in Boys Don't Cry but Swank has matured in her acting abilities giving Maggie a very definite feminine edge. Still Swank might consider a nice romantic comedy for her next project. As for the men of Baby Eastwood and Freeman have never been more on top of their game. Frankie is tailored-made for Eastwood who plays a man tortured by his past and reluctant to let anyone in. It's a persona he has adopted many times but as the boxing trainer the craggy face gravel-voiced actor-director truly gives one of the better performances of his career. The same goes for Freeman as the soft-spoken but oh-so-wise Scrap. And watching the two Unforgiven veterans bicker and banter in Baby is like watching an old married couple.
Like a fine wine Clint Eastwood's movies just keep getting better and better the older the director gets. Following last year's intense Mystic River which some saw as a bit heavy handed Eastwood seems to have gone back to a quieter simpler more personal tone with Million Dollar Baby. The film starts out along the lines of such great boxing films as Raging Bull and the recent Girlfight as it highlights the competitive world of female boxing. It's in your face and gritty showing the punches the blood and the pain in glorious Technicolor. But just as it starts to turn into Rocky-style sap when Maggie rises to the top against all the odds the film subtly shifts into a love story about two people hurt by their pasts only to find each other and decide to hold on in a deeply familial way. Then just when you think how sweet that all is Baby throws you for an even bigger albeit darker loop. Eastwood expertly and gently guides you through the film's wondrous maze of revelations. Baby could very well creep in as a surprise Oscar contender.
February 21, 2003 11:09am EST
In March 1991 TV stations repeatedly broadcast an amateur videotape of LAPD officers kicking and clubbing Rodney King an unarmed black man. A year later an all-white jury acquitted three officers involved in the beating inciting a riot that killed 54 people and destroyed much of South Central Los Angeles. Dark Blue is a gritty police drama that unfolds in the four days leading up to the verdict. The story revolves around veteran cop Eldon Perry Jr. (Kurt Russell) who does what he needs to do to bring someone to justice even if it means planting a gun--or drugs--on a suspect. But police intimidation and corruption doesn't sit right with his rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). Their ideologies clash when the two are assigned to a high-profile quadruple homicide and receive orders from a high-ranking member of the LAPD to pin the crime on innocent suspects in order to appease the public. Keough contemplates going to Deputy Chief Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) the only black man in the department about unfair police practices but is worried about going up against such a tight brotherhood. This cop flick is disturbingly realistic--which unfortunately is also its weakness. It tells us what we already know: that the history of the LAPD is meshed tightly with racism and corruption.
Dark Blue's Perry is a vulgar hard-drinking and unscrupulous cop--and Russell (3 000 Miles to Graceland) does a great job embodying the character. He swears knocks back drinks and smokes cigarettes like he's been doing this since birth. In fact Russell creates such a despicable character that I hoped he would get his ass kicked by rioters. As his naïve partner Keough Speedman (Duets) is a little bland. Keough redeems himself by rising above the police department's practices but Speedman's character is almost too nice and fresh-faced to be a cop in a city like L.A. As Deputy Chief Holland Rhames (Undisputed) is well cast but unfortunately the character is so one-dimensional that he doesn't make for a very passionate hero. The problem here is not the acting but the film's characters which are too simply drawn. Keough for example is not only unprejudiced he's politically correct--he has a black girlfriend and gets offended when his big bad partner uses the "n" word. And Holland is not only honorable he's a churchgoing community leader. It's not that these characteristics are bad but they are certainly tautological and stereotypical by movie standards.
If this movie sounds a lot like Training Day it's because scribe David Ayer wrote both of them. Unfortunately Dark Blue's characters are drawn with such a heavy hand they reek of clichés and are a far cry from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke's complicated and well-developed characters in Training Day. Director Ron Shelton found success with the 1988 hit Bull Durham and--with the 1994 sports drama Cobb--proved that he could deliver character-driven movies that were well worth watching. Despite the rigid characters he manages to deliver a straight-up dirty-cop movie that effectively mirrors the LAPD. (Is Holland for example the film's take on former LAPD Chief of Police Bernard Parks?) Shelton achieves the film's true-to-life feel by leaving out slick car chases explosions and shootouts and paying closer attention to sets such as Perry's unadorned house and the clunker he drives. There are some great scenes towards the end of the film when Perry is driving through South Central as the riots--which caused an estimated $900 million in damages--break out. What's even more chilling however is the lack of LAPD presence at the riot epicenter.