Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP Peter Falk (1927-2011)

Once again, another great has left us. And frankly, you cannot get much greater than Peter Falk, one of the most wonderful actors to have ever walked the planet. It almost goes without saying that his most famous role was that of Columbo, the iconic television detective who made regular appearances on television for over three decades in a series of TV movies. For that character alone, Falk would be missed, but his work outside of Columbo is no less memorable: The In-Laws, A Woman Under the Influence, The Princess Bride, and, in a personal favourite, Wings of Desire, where Falk plays himself and we discover that he is a former angle on Earth. How many other actors get to claim that?

Falks passed away at the age of 83. May he rest in peace, God be with his family, and his fans remember his work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Green Lantern (Campbell 2011)

The thing about origin stories is that they are only as compelling as their protagonist(s). Take X-Men - First Class (Vaughn 2011) from a few weeks ago: the film is filled with compelling characters, with flaws and passions that drive them in a time of social and political change. It is great stuff, and embraces its comic book mythology without letting it dominate the characters of the story.

Unfortunately for the Green Lantern comics, its protagonist is Hal Jordan, one of the blandest superheroes around. Devoid of depth and personality, Hal Jordan’s story is one of how a cocky hotshot pilot goes from being something of an insecure ass to having absolutely no personality at all. The comics supporting cast includes a love interest whose personality consists of being angry at almost all times, and a friend who was little more than a racisit stereotype in the earliest comics. Hal also happens to belong to a large intergalactic organization that polices the cosmos, filled with interesting characters that can thankfully be read in a title that does not feature Hal Jordon.

Sadly, film audiences are stuck with Jordan and his uninteresting supporting cast for the running length of Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (2011), a film in which the worst elements of the source material get to come out to play, which include, but are not limited to: endless speeches about will power; endless speeches about fear; Hal sitting around feeling sorry for himself; people standing around telling us that Hal can be/is a great Green Lantern; Hal failing to actually do anything to convince us he is all that impressive; interesting characters pushed to the margins so time can be wasted on Hal and his uninteresting love life; characters standing around talking about how great the Green Lantern Corps are; the Green Lantern Corps failing to be impressive; and so on.

Ok, as you have likely guessed, I am not all that taken with either the comic book version of Hal Jordan, nor the film adapted from the comics. While I in no way hate the Green Lantern concept and universe, I have always felt that mythology of the Green Lantern universe was interesting in spite of its lead character. The idea of an intergalactic police force with rings that can create whatever the user wills is a fantastic concept, and when Hal Jordan disappears into the background, as he has in the past, the comics have been all the better for it. However, for some reason that continues to escape me to this day, the hardcore fans of Green Lantern are taken with Jordan, and since 2003 there has been an all out attempt restore Jordan as not only the main protagonist of the title, but also to hard sell readers on how great of a character he is.

The Green Lantern film is, in some ways, the culmination of those efforts. A $200 million plus dollar effort to launch the Green Lantern as a film franchise, and quite possibly launch the whole of the DC universe on film, the film is tasked with both introducing Hal Jordan and introducing the larger mythology of the Green Lantern Corps to a broad audience. In theory, these two tasks should have complimented one another perfectly, with Hal’s journey into becoming a full blown member of Corps providing plenty of opportunity to show off the Corps and explore the larger mythology. For some baffling reason however, the filmmakers behind Green Lantern did not see this as the case, as the Corps and overall mythology is put to the side to allow plenty of time to focus on Hal and his uninteresting adventures on Earth.

The film starts off well enough, as we witness the release of the film's supposed villain, Parallax, a entity that feeds on fear. Parallax quickly attacks and mortally wounds Abin Sur, the Green Lantern whose sector happens to include Earth, the planet he escapes to. Upon crashing to Earth, Sur has his ring seek out a new recruit to replace him, and it selects Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot whose cocky ego has jeopardized the employment of hundreds of employees at Ferris Aircrafts. Handed the ring and the power battery to charge it with, Hal is quickly taken to Oa, home of the Lantern Corps and the Guardians, the ancient race of aliens who created the Corps, in order to receive training in how to operate the ring..

Till this point in the film, almost everything works. The opening scenes are energetic and set a sense of the scale we can assume the rest of the film will involve, and while Jordan as a character is still little more than a cookie cutter hero, Reynolds does manage to bring a bit of charm to the role. However, once on Oa, the film goes south quick: the film barrels through these scenes, as if the filmmakers were not interested in the Corps at all, or embarrassed by them. More likely, the visual effects required to pull of Oa and the other Corps members was far too expensive to include for extended periods of time, even with a $200 million dollar budget. Given how quick these scenes flyby, Hal’s “training” comes across as being little more than an afternoon workshop, one followed by Hal giving up and returning to Earth after a one scene encounter/smack down with Sinestro (Mark Strong). This quick lapse into self defeat on Jordan’s part does nothing to endear him to the audience, and one wishes that when Hal bolts, the rest of the film would be spent following Sinestro actually trying to deal with the crisis at hand. Sadly, this does not happen.

The film pretty much falls apart from this point on, as a pointless secondary plot involving a scientist (Peter Sarsgaard) becoming infected by Parallax is introduced in order that Hal has a traditional Earth based villain to face, and endless time is spent with Hal and his angst about whether to quit the Corps or not. Reynolds tries his best to make these scenes work, but his charm only goes so far in covering up how uninteresting Jordan and his situation is. This problem is only made worse through the inclusion of rather predictable scenes that drag the pace of the down, including the typical “superhero public debut” moment, and a clumsy scene where Hal admits to a personal flaw the audience figured out sixty minutes earlier in the film.

Even though we are stuck with Jordan for the rest of the film, the failure to establish the Corps as a group of impressive heroes earlier in the film has major ramifications in the second and third acts, particularly with regards to Parallax. In every scene with the Corps, all we ever is them doing is standing about listening to Sinestro give speeches, or receiving a beat down from Parallax. Since we never see the Corps as an effective peace keeping force, Parallax easily defeating various Green Lanterns has no impact as far as establishing him as a credible threat. (SPOILER) In turn, Hal’s inevitable defeat of Parallax has no impact because the Corps earlier in the film are built up as straw men to make Hal look good. It all comes across as lazy and false, and does nothing to sell a larger audience on the Corps as being an interesting group of characters worth following. (END SPOILERS).

So far, I have primarily slammed the film in terms of overall narrative, but that is because the failures in these areas make some other aspects of the film harder to evaluate. For example, many critics have slammed Blake Lively’s performance as Carol Ferris, but I am not sure that such criticism is deserved when the actress is given nothing to work with on page. Likewise, the visual effects work is fantastic, but its impact is limited given how hollow the rest of the film is. Campbell's work as director here seems unsure and unfocused; more often than not, he seems to be mimicking prior superhero films rather than bringing his own sense of style to the film.

At the end of the day, Green Lantern is a mediocre film, but one that is faithful to its source material. It simply fails to make the the core mythology of the comics interesting, and has likely killed any possible film franchise for the character. Should a second film ever go into production, hopefully Warner Brothers will learn from their mistakes and perform a soft reboot of the films, with one of the other Green Lanterns at center stage in a tale that ditches the typical tropes of the superhero films.

But I am not holding my breath.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (Berkley, Montgomery, and Oliva 2011)

Here are some potential alternate titles for Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, the latest in the series of DC DTV films:

“Green Lantern: Gee, Ain’t the Corps Great?”
“Green Lantern: Where Token Violence and Cursing Counts as Mature Storytelling”
“Green Lantern: Speeches! Glorious, Glorious Speeches!”

And so on, and so forth.

Yes, I have watched Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, and once again, I find myself playing the bad guy to the DC DTV films, a role I do no cherish, and one that I am frankly getting sick and tired of playing. At this point, I think it is a perquisite that all viewers of these films go in with incredibly low expectations, because that is about the only way to get through the mediocrity that has been primarily produced thus far.

Like the earlier Batman: Gotham Knight, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is an anthology film consisting of five tales, told by Hal Jordan (Nathan Fillion) to new recruit Arisia (Elisabeth Moss) in a wrap around story that involves the Green Lantern Corps facing a catastrophic threat, etc, etc. The stories include the tale of the first ever Green Lantern, one involving drill instructor Kilowog’s (Henry Rollins) own boot camp experience, Laira’s (Kelly Hu) first, and most personal, mission, the classic story of why Mogo does not socialize, and a tale about Hal Jordan’s predecessor, Abin Sur (Arnold Vosloo). Along the way, Arisia learns what it means to be a Green Lantern, hints about how to defeat the “catastrophic” threat to the universe are dropped, and numerous nods to comic lore are are made.

To be honest, this review is coming across as much angrier than the film really deserves, seeing as how it is not a terrible film. Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is a competent piece of filmmaking, well animated, directed, and acted, with a typically bland score that has come to mark these DTV efforts nearly every time out. But being a competent piece of work does not make the film any less mediocre, or make the viewing experience any less dull. At least if the film were terrible, it might have been memorable, which is more than can be said of the end result here.

As you might have guessed from my mock alternate titles, the film suffers from several major problems. First, the film is little more than characters standing around telling tales about how awesome the organization they are part of is, while didactically shoving down the audiences’ collective throat what it "means" to be a Green Lantern. And I do mean shoved, because the filmmakers, worried that you might have missed the moral/point of the story, make sure that somebody at some point gets to make a speech that will make everything all clear. Missed that willpower is the key to being a Green Lantern? Do not worry, Hal’s there to spell it out for you. Confused as to the reason Kilowog and his instructor Deegan are both hard asses? Deegan will make is all crystal clear, using his dying breath, no less. As someone who firmly believes in trusting the audience to piece things together for themselves, this storytelling tactic drives me up the wall, and is rather insulting given how simple these stories are.

In fact, the simplicity of the stories and the writing once again brings into question just who the hell these films are made for. Given the nature of the tales presented, it would appear that Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is aimed at a younger set of viewers, which would be fine. However, as I have noted time and again, the DC DTV films were sold on being aimed at an older fan base, featuring stories that were more mature than what could be done within the restrictions of films ostensibly aimed at a youth audience. Unfortunately, “mature” has proven time and again to be little more than a code word for gratuitous violence and cursing in the films, rather than in reference to mature storytelling, and this problem once again appears in Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, most notably with the inclusion of a rather grisly opening death scene.

While these problems plague the film overall, the two stories that have the most potential to be interesting suffer from additional problems. First, there is the adaptation of the Alan Moore penned story “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” a brilliant tale from the comics that is butchered in the translation to animation, thanks to a few, but key, creative choices. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) The original story is set up like a joke, involving a rather dim alien warrior in search of a fight with the famed Green Lantern Mogo. Landing on an alien world, the warrior spends years searching the seemingly empty world for sign of the Lantern, only to start mapping out the planet in hopes of finding some sort of clue he has missed. Once he completes his maps however, he discovers that the clearings of the planet form the Green Lantern crest, a discovery which makes him realize that Mogo is a living planet, one which he promptly flees.

While the structure of the story remains the same in the film, the filmmakers let the audience in way to early on the joke, spoiling the entire gag. Worse, in an attempt to liven the story up and make it a little more “cinematic” with grandiose explosions and visuals, the filmmakers take away from the story, whose joys were based on its simplicity and willingness to embrace the potential absurdity of just how varied the Corps membership can be. It is as if the filmmakers were afraid that the viewers would turn the film off if one of the stories happened to be a quieter piece of work, and it is a shame, as it ruins the entire mood of the original comic. (END SPOILERS).

On the plus side, at least “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” is an actual story, which is more than can be said for the final segment focusing on Abin Sur, which is little more than a cliché discussion on the topic of prophecy and fate that ultimately goes nowhere and contributes nothing to the final film. The whole piece rests on the viewers knowing just who Abin Sur and Sinestro are, rather than actually establishing what their relationship is, and as such, it holds no dramatic weight at all. This is all the more frustrating as the segment flirts with story ideas featured in another Alan Moore story, “Tygers” a bleak, nihilistic, and full-bodied tale about fear that, had it been adapted, would have made for a segment that actually embraces the supposed “mission statement” of the DC DTV films discussed earlier.

“Tygers,” (along with “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize”) are republished in Green Lantern: In Brightest Day, a trade paperback collecting Green Lantern stories from over four decades, and I highly recommend the book, particularly over a purchase or rental of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. While hardly the worst of the DC DTV films, it is easily the most bland, which in a series of films that also includes Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, is saying something. With any luck, Green Lantern fans will get a much more satisfying film this Friday with the release of Martin Campbell’s live action film. Or maybe that film will be a spectacular failure.

Either way, it is bound to be more interesting than Green Lantern: Emerald Knights.