Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

Apparently, "Green Lantern" is the worst thing in the history of ever if you read the message boards. But it isn't actually. It's another fairly routine comic book movie, with a handful of flaws and missteps, but I still found it decent entertainment. Its big problem is it comes amongst a tsunami of comic movies and offers too much of the "same old thing," which "Thor" and "X-Men: First Class" managed to avoid. At this point, I think we comics geeks kind of expect more.

Green Lantern is a step or two down from the Batman and Superman level for DC Comics, but he's been a pretty successful character for going on 70 years now, through a variety of incarnations. The Green Lantern Corps -- a cosmic police force - has spun off into all kinds of configurations, but the best known Green Lantern is Hal Jordan, former test pilot who becomes Earth's first Lantern Corpsman.

"Green Lantern" the movie introduces Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and his world and goes for a kind of "Star Wars" meets "Iron Man" tone. The faraway world of Oa and the diverse alien corps are wonderfully realized in a million hues of green. Where "Lantern" stumbles is the same place other comic movies like "Iron Man 2" did -- trying to cram in too much. Between the Corps members, Sinestro, villains Parallax and Hector Hammond and Hal Jordan's personal life, there's enough for a couple movies. The film develops a choppy rhythm, rushing to its climax where suddenly novice ring-bearer Jordan becomes an expert warrior.

But still -- I liked Reynolds' breezy, yet insecure Hal Jordan. Jordan is one of those comics characters I've never really warmed to - a generic square-jawed hero who later developed deep problems and even became a mass murderer (as you do). The movie takes the shorthand method of characterizing Jordan (using a heaping helping of traits from another comic Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner). Mark Strong also commands the screen as stern alien leader Sinestro, whose name is a dead giveaway for how the character ends up in the comics. Peter Sarsgaard also makes the most of a rather confusingly written character as the nerdy, betrayed Hector Hammond.

I didn't really think much of co-producer and overrated comics writer Geoff Johns trying to awkwardly cram in many of his own creations like Parallax, a nebulous floating fear demon, or yellow power rings and the like. I'm not a fan of the red, yellow, pink and whatever Lanterns he's created in the comics. The blue Guardians of the Universe are also one of those comic-book concepts that just look a bit goofy on screen.

Unlike "Thor" -- where I thought the balance between the fantastical Asgard and the mundane New Mexico actually worked -- "Green Lantern" comes to life best in the outer space sequences. I wanted more of Oa, more of the eye-catching alien Corps, and less of Hal Jordan mooning about over the bland Blake Lively. There's too much that's familiar in "Green Lantern" -- hero discovers powers, hero tested, hero triumphs. For comic movies to succeed when there's so many of them these days they need to set themselves apart, like "Thor" and its Nordic gods or "The Dark Knight" and its epic morality plays.

But y'know, I took Peter, 7, with me to it which is perhaps the best way to see a movie like this, with a boy whose eyes open wide at every sight we grown-ups would call cliche. I mean, Peter even gets a kick out of the much-maligned "Fantastic Four" movies (which "Green Lantern" still surpassed in my humble eye). I know "Green Lantern" isn't a great movie, but I had a great time watching it with Peter. So in that respect, it works pretty well for some ages.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

100 Years of The Daily Mississippian

An old boss of mine turned 100 years old this past weekend -- The Daily Mississippian, my college newspaper and the first place I earned my journalism "stripes," so to speak. Being on the other side of the world and all I couldn't exactly make the centennial events (but hopefully a drink or two was had on City Grocery's balcony on my behalf). But more than 15 years after I finished college, I've still got many a fond memory of the old DM, my training ground for a career that's been changing and shifting ever since. Since 1911, the DM has been the voice of debate and news at the University of Mississippi.

It's stunning to look back at my DM term - roughly 1992-1995 or so - and see how much has changed. The "Internet" was barely a notion then, the idea of computer layout of our pages was a shocking novelty (just a year or so before I came along, the paper was still using an ancient pre-desktop publishing system of pagination). The job I have today -- production editor for a major metropolitan newspaper website -- simply didn't exist then.

The DM was a terrific place to hang out in college, in the basement of Farley Hall and just across the hall from the hip campus radio station. Putting out a five-day-a-week newspaper felt like being in a club, where a variety of raconteurs, oddballs and iconoclasts were shoved together out of their shared love of the journalism dream. I held a variety of semi-official "titles" there -- opinion page editor, features writer, assistant entertainment editor or something like that, columnist, cartoonist -- and while I didn't live down there 24-7 in the basement like a lot of the staff, I felt the first tinglings of the familiar newsroom buzz that is still an intoxicant to any newshound. We alumni still fondly speak of "The Ice Storm of 1994" which closed down the campus and we scrambled to create an 8-page "EXTRA" edition to cover.

An awful lot of the newspaper's controversy revolved around Ole Miss' evolving place in the post-integration world -- this was a campus which was integrated by the government forcibly in 1962, just 30 years before I arrived, and the wounds were raw -- bullet marks still speckled the administration building columns. When I was there one of the editors was the great Jesse Holland, only the second African-American editor of the paper. I still remember the day some local redneck rang up and got Jesse on the phone and then angrily said, "I wanna speak to the WHITE editor!" Sorry, Mr. Cracker, the times have a-changed and Jesse's since gone on to be the Associated Press's US Supreme Court correspondent. Folks who haven't lived in Mississippi still give it a lot of scorn today, but I tell you, I was there to watch the world ever-so-gradually changing. I'd love to know how that redneck's mind was blown by President Obama.

I learned an awful lot at the DM -- I interviewed California's ex-governor (and once again governor today) Jerry Brown, I met Henry Kissinger, hung out with local writer-made-big John Grisham, and wrote vaguely pretentious newspaper columns about my first loves and the music I was listening to -- the kind of columns every 22-year-old writes and thinks nobody else has ever done.

But the biggest charge I ever got at the DM was doing my very own daily newspaper strip for a year or so -- "Jip," a kind of goofy pastiche of Martin Wagner's "Hepcats" with "Bloom County," "Peanuts" and "Doonesbury" that was like flying by the seat of my pants every day as I sat at the drawing board trying to come up with gags and one-liners and characters that seemed at least slightly real to me. It was a real stretch of the creative muscles and an utter blast to do.

These days I work in a "digitally active newsroom" where I do things like live-blog the Royal Wedding, a sentence which would've been half-incomprehensible in 1994. Unlike many of my old pals from the DM, I'm still hanging on in the journalism industry despite its many seismic changes and cutbacks -- and I'm always grateful to the ol' DM for helping get it all started for me. Happy birthday.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

I still remember how amazing it seemed 11 years ago that they were actually making an "X-Men" movie from one of my favorite childhood comics -- and here we are with the fifth now out, "X-Men: First Class."

I won't call it a "reboot," because man am I sick of that phrase, but as a prequel, "First Class" is genuinely exciting stuff, filling in the gaps in the relationship between Professor X and Magneto and providing the required amount of summer-movie explosions and such. It's easily the best of the "X-Men" movies after "X2," I think, although I don't view "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Wolverine" with quite as much visceral scorn as the rest of the Internet seems to.

The Malcolm X/Martin Luther King kind of dynamic between Xavier and Magneto over mutant rights has been fodder for many of the best "X-Men" stories over the decades, and "First Class" follows the relationship from its start -- including young Magneto's tortured youth in a Nazi concentration camp. There was the solid decision to make this a period piece set in the 1960s, in a world where mutants hold the balance of power in the Cold War and the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis is cleverly folded into the plot.

What I liked:
I have really dug Michael Fassbender in movies like "Inglourious Basterds" and "Centurion," and he owns the screen as a young Magneto. I'd actually say he's better than Sir Ian McKellen was in a lot of ways, tapping into the character's rage and wounded dignity. James McAvoy is less flashy as young Professor X, and plays it a bit goofy with his lounge lizard "groovy" slang sometimes, but ably convinces of Xavier's essential heart and compassion. You believe this man will grow up to be Patrick Stewart.

Jennifer Lawrence brings some needed depth as young Mystique, a shapeshifter trying to fit in. It's a shame her character was nowhere near as well written in the first few "X-Men" movies, and doesn't really mesh well with the more thoughtful woman shown here. The other younger mutants on screen here get less time to develop their characters and some of them are rather weak actors, but Nicholas Hoult as Beast is a stand-out (although I'm afraid I didn't find the CGI/makeup used for his "transformation" later in the film very effective).

The Hellfire Club of the comics, a kind of mutant Masons, were always one of my favorites, and it's good to see them on screen albeit in a somewhat different form. I love Kevin Bacon playing a scenery-chewing Sebastian Shaw. While he isn't exactly the same burly dandy the comics have featured he does a good job of providing sinister menace. January Jones as Emma Frost looks fantastic, but as seen on "Mad Men" the icy Jones seems to have exactly one facial expression about 90% of the time.

What I didn't like:
The movie is fitful in its desire to keep to the 1960s setting. While there's marvelous James Bond/Austin Powers type touches, like Sebastian Shaw's evil submarine and Emma Frost's go-go wardrobes, other times the movie seems to be set in the modern day. Director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") has a lot of style, but it feels like he was holding back a bit (kicky split-screen montage sequences are one of his better gimmicks).

It's a real grab-bag of mutants assembled here for any long-time reader of the "X-Men" comics. You've got Beast and Professor X from the "real" comic book first class, then Havok and Banshee from a slightly later era, and then mutants so darned new in the comics I'd barely heard of them, like Darwin and Azazel. Still, unless you're some kind of rampant continuity nut, the team assembled here works for the story -- and if you're a rabid continuity nut you're going to be really annoyed anyway by how the fate of Charles Xavier in this film doesn't seem to match up at all with appearances he made in "X3" and "Wolverine." So it goes.

After the mixed reception "Wolverine" got I kind of hope "First Class" keeps the X-fires burning. There's a lot of good stories yet to be told, and "First Class" reminds us of the potential the first few "X-Men" movies showed, back when we didn't have 6-7 comic books opening a year.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Peter Sellers Saturdays #5: "The Magic Christian" (1969)

The story: Eccentric gazillionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) has apparently gone off his rocker. He adopts a homeless hippie (Ringo Starr) and embarks on a series of increasingly surreal practical jokes aimed to show the lengths people will go to for money -- humiliating themselves in various ways to get a handful of Guy's vast fortune.

Who's Sellers: Guy Grand. With his floppy hair, tweedy mustache, sad eyes and false good humor, Sellers does what he can with a horribly weak script to give the character life and motivation. I kind of saw Sellers playing him as a man who's done everything, who's been a debauched scoundrel, and who's now just going for sheer crazy kicks. Basically, though, he's a shit-stirrer, doing things like buying a vastly expensive painting to destroy it in front of a snooty art dealer, or filling a vat with urine, feces and money and seeing who'll dive in for the cash.

So how is it: How much more 1969 could this movie be? None more 1969. This is one of those Sellers movies that has a pretty bad reputation on a lot of fronts, but y'know, once I got into its anarchistic spirit, I kinda dug it. There's next to no character development and the plot just kind of lurches from skit to skit -- who is Guy Grand and why has he gone off his rocker? Why does "Junior" just blindly follow along with him? But there's a verve and lunacy to it all that makes it fun to watch, which a lot of other similarly "madcap" '60s flicks never quite managed. Ringo is, well, being Ringo basically, but his deadpan I'll-go-along-with-anything cheer plays well off Sellers. Great soundtrack, too, with Badfinger and Thunderclap Newman galore. It takes a while to really take off, but by the time Christopher Lee pops up on a cruise ship in a Dracula suit, you kind of just go with the flow.

While it's a sloppy, freewheeling and highly blatant piece of hippie kitsch satire, there's a bit of fun if you're in the right mood to be had in watching Sellers & Starr so eagerly puncture the hypocrisies of the uptight squares of 1969 London. With tighter direction and more emphasis on actual characterization it could've been a protest era classic, but as it is it's nowhere near as bad or lazy as some of Sellers' other misfires from this era. The biggest problem is that, like a lot of 1960s idealism, it offers a lot of attacks on a system but little in the way of solutions. Some other reviews point to this film as a forgotten link between the "Goon Show" comedy era of Sellers' early career to the world of Monty Python in the 1970s. (Pythons Graham Chapman and an amusing, already-officious young John Cleese appear in cameos here too to extend the connection. There's a ton of other cameos including Raquel Welch, Roman Polanski and Yul Brynner. Reportedly John Lennon even pops up but I didn't see him.) It's a failure as a "message movie," but "The Magic Christian" is still entertaining.

Grade: B+

Quote: "I just wanted to see if you had your price … most of us do." - Guy Grand