Friday, June 24, 2011

Not Bad Enough: Bad Teacher

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The success of "Bridesmaids"--both in terms of quality, and in the fact that it made a good amount of money--has me hopeful for the future of female-centric comedies that don't fall into the category of "rom-com." Unfortunately, the new comedy "Bad Teacher" has me equally scared for the future.

Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, the titular "Bad Teacher," a hot and shallow gold-digger who gets dumped by her rich fiancee, and must return to the job she had just quit to get married: English teacher at a suburban Chicago middle school.

How she actually got a job as a teacher, being that she doesn't give a shit about learning, or kids, or really, anything but landing a rich husband, is never explained. (Which is fine. I had a hard time figuring out how half the teachers I had growing up landed their gigs too.) Once back at school, she sets her sights on nerdy substitute teacher Scott Delacorte, (Justin Timberlake), because he also happens to be the heir to a fancy watch-making family fortune. Her rival for his affection, and rival overall, is Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), the social studies teacher across the hall. Meanwhile, Russell (Jason Segel), the laid-back and affable gym teacher, does his best to woo Elizabeth, though she would never deign to date someone who teaches, yuck, gym.

Yes, Elizabeth is a bad teacher. She plays movies about teachers to her students, (things like "Stand and Deliver" and "Dangerous Minds"), while she sits at her desk drinking and sleeping. She smokes pot. She spits out the cookies students bring her, and embezzles money from a charity car wash so she can help pay for a new pair of tits. (The better to land that rich husband with.)

So, with the above evidence laid out, it might sound crazy when I say: Elizabeth is both awful, and not awful enough. Her behavior is bad enough to make her unlikeable, but not bad enough to be funny. I kept wanting the movie to really push her antics way past the point of excusability, or even legality, (her interactions with the students are all very chaste), but instead it plays it safe, and we're left with a self-centered character we have no investment in, be it to see her succeed or get her comeuppance.

That said, Diaz is good in the role and isn't afraid to come off ugly, in all senses of the word. Her co-stars are a mixed bag. Judy Punch is perfect as the prissy and suspicious foil, and has a moment of manic face contortions that is the best bit of physical comedy in the movie. Timberlake, on the other hand, is disappointing, especially since he's been a natural comedian on awards shows, and in his frequent "Saturday Night Live" appearances. Turns out the one-note approach to comedy that can work in a five-minute sketch doesn't come off that well in a full-length movie.

Thank goodness for the presence of Jason Segel. His role lies somewhere between supporting, and cameo, but in every scene he's in, he brings a relaxed sense of comedic timing and (possible) improvisation that results in most of the movie's only genuine laughs. If "Bad Teacher" makes enough money to warrant a sequel, I can only hope it results in something focused on him. "Good Gym Teacher" anyone?

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Waste Of Abs: Green Lantern

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'll be upfront: It wasn't until last year that I realized "Green Lantern" and "The Green Hornet" were not the same thing, so it goes without saying that I went into "Green Lantern" not knowing much about it. I knew it involved a powerful ring; I knew it was based on a DC comic book; and I was just glad to know I was going to be watching Ryan Reynolds's six pack and not Seth Rogen's attempt at a pack of any kind. (And, to make matters even more potentially confusing, I was told, before the movie began, that there's also a "Green Arrow" in the DC universe, to which all I can say is seriously??)

I contemplated boning up on "Lantern" lore by delving into Wikipedia before seeing the movie, but then decided against it, thinking perhaps going into it relatively blind, and with no expectations whatsoever, would be a better experience. This was a good choice, if only because the first 15 minutes or so of the movie is nothing but voiceover and exposition about the history of the Green Lantern Corp, and having to experience something so narratively dry more than once would have been even more tedious than sitting through the first part of the movie already is.

Having to go through it again is going to be painful, so I'll make it brief: The universe is mega huge, and full of all kinds of lifeforms. All of these races have a representative Green Lantern, a hero who protects their planets from evil with the help of powerful rings that can manifest anything a Green Lantern can imagine. Parallax, an evil force powered by fear, is making its murderous way across the galaxies, eventually killing one of the most powerful Green Lanterns. A replacement is sought on Earth, and the ring chooses Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky test pilot who appears to fit the requirement of being "fearless."

Instead of doing a somewhat conventional approach to an origin story, with the audience learning about the hero's destiny and the history behind his gift at the same time the hero does, we know everything before Hal Jordan. Choosing to open the movie this way may have made sense in the abstract--it's unconventional!--but it doesn't work in execution. We are told in narration everything that will eventually be told AGAIN to Hal Jordan as he is whisked into space after donning his magical ring. This is just boring and repetitive storytelling.

That said, the only entertaining moments in the movie are when Jordan gets sucked up to the Planet Oa, and interacts with the Green Lantern Corps. His Earth-bound moments are a little less charming, especially since he's kind of a dick. Sure, I guess introducing him as a guy who leaves a one night stand alone in his apartment because he's late for his job as a test pilot is a shorthand way of showing he doesn't fear such things as robbery, or STDs, or timeclocks. But his subsequent performance in a simulated jet dog fight proves he's more cocky asshole than fearless.

Blake Lively plays Carol Ferris, fellow pilot, up-and-coming businesswoman, and former flame, and she's fine. I guess. I mean, she's a stunner, but she's not given much to do here, aside from yelling at Hal Jordan, and being most impressed by how he can make his Green Lantern mask disappear. (She makes him do this more than once, telling him, "That's so cool!", but seems less awed by his foe-fighting feats.)

Ryan Reynolds does the best he can with the material, which is incredibly thin. I've been impressed by his comic ability more than his action hero antics in the past, and unfortunately, there's more flexing than comedy on display here. Speaking of which, why hire a guy with legendary abs if the suit he "wears" is just going to be a CG creation that could give anyone a virtual six pack?

There's an inexplicable number of good actors in this, and for the most part their talents are wasted. Angela Bassett shows up looking smart and tough, but is eventually flushed away like so much rubbish. (Literally.) Tim Robbins has white hair and is supposed to be kind of a bad guy, but his villainy isn't really defined, aside from the obvious issues he has with his son, played by Peter Sarsgaard, a nerdy scientist who is eventually infected with Parallax juice. (Side effects of Parallax Juice include Elephant Man Head; uncontrollable screaming; and sudden-appearance-of-wheelchair.)

Speaking of the Big Bad, well, he isn't particularly interesting to look at. Sometimes he has a face, and can suck the souls out of living things, leaving behind skeletal husks. But most of the time he's just a gigantic tentacled lava of dookie that too often resembles the Sandman villain in "Spiderman 3."

When a movie is this poorly plotted, the best one can hope for are outstanding visuals, and big, jaw-dropping fights and action sequences. It delivers neither, and in 3D! I found myself praying for dumb explosions and battles, but the ultimate showdown with Parallax comes too late, is completely devoid of any suspense or awe, and is utterly predictable. Hal Jordan has the power to manifest anything his mind can conceive of in a fight with the villain, and I can seriously remember only one of his conjured up weapons. (Something that looked like a Wile E. Coyote-created trebuchet.)

This failure of imagination on Hal Jordan's part is, in fact, an apt metaphor for the movie in general: Limitless budget, an established comic book hero, Ryan Reynolds's abs, and this is the best they could come up with?