Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

He had it all.  Biomimicry, a gas gun that made a wierd sound, a big, fast car, called the Black Beauty, an Asian sidekick and The Flight Of The Bumblebee.  I listened to The Hornet on the radio; read the comic books; watched the movie serial on Saturdays.  Van Williams played the Hornet and Bruce Lee played Kato on TV.  There's a great scene of Lee taking a Green Hornet set apart in the Bruce Lee bio-pic: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.  So, I had high expectations for The Green Hornet (2011), the Seth Rogen and Jay Chou movie directed by Michel Gondry that opened this weekend.

But, once you get past the twist that the movie is a comedy based on a premise that would have made a good Saturday Night Live skit, there's not much there, unless you think it's fun to play Name That Team and come up with interesting duos that Rogen and Chou remind you of.  I figure Aykroyd and Belushi or Aykroyd and Murray or Aykroyd and just about anyone. 

Rogen was one of the Hornet's writers, and he's probably a better writer than a comedian.  Some of the gags and one-liners in The Green Hornet are laugh-out-loud funny.  But be sure to see the 3D version.  I imagine the film would be incredibly boring in 2D, mainly because The Green Hornet lacks an interesting villian.  Making a fun, comic rendition of a comic book is at least as good an idea as making an exceptionally dark one, but comedy or no, comic book heroes and comic book movies need interesting villains, and The Green Hornet's Chudnofsky falls flat on his face. 

Cameron Diaz is adequate in the Girl Friday role.  Her face is the only image from The Green Hornet that sticks in my memory.  It's as if she's the first real person I've seen in 3D.  Tom Wilkinson does a brilliant turn as the Hornet's dad.

Hollywood badly needs to come up with a new superhero worthy of sequels and prequels, and some blockbuster films to fill the 3D bubble created by Avatar.  The Green Hornet doesn't seem likely to fill either bill.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jonah Hex (2010)

It's easy to be dismissive of Jonah Hex (2010), Jimmy Hayward's box office flop.



The film grossed a meager 5 million bucks the weekend it opened, far behind Toy Story 3, and was universally panned by reviewers -- and not without good reason.

The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2.  But, watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.

Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovitch seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Humbolt, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.

Megan Fox is billed as a star, but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.

Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out.  Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.



Tallulah Black and El Diablo

Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.

The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex.  And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie.  Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films. 

Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book.  Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 90 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.

But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?

Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film.  If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.



The real Jonah Hex

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was released on DVD this week, and cable television is showing Mr. Fox as video on demand, another format that lets viewers pause the film or re-play scenes.

Wes Anderson has crammed so much visual information into every scene of Fantastic Mr. Fox that it's easy to make the case that the DVD or video on demand experience of Mr. Fox is even better than the experience of watching it on the big screen. Watching Mr. Fox in real time, you get the Richard Scarry feel of it, but until you freeze a frame, it's impossible to see all of the detail that's working to make Mr. Fox easily the most original visual experience among last year's films.

There are cave drawings from Altimira on the walls of the foxes' cave; strange books in Bean's kitchen. The long, traveling shot through Badger's Flint-Mine is too rich to take in all at once. The drawings of tunnels and sewers are like treasure maps, and Mrs. Fox's landscapes are wonderfully complex.

Anderson added characters and scenes to Roald Dahl's book to get the story of Mr. Fox up to feature film length. And that, unfortunately, is where Anderson stumbles. For Anderson's story, when all is said and done, disappoints.

In spite of a too familiar scene in which Mr. Fox protests that he loves his son just the way he is, when the young fox finally succeeds it's on his father's terms, not his own. And the other scene required for a PG audience -- Mr. Fox's realization that he's not the center of the universe -- seems contrived and lacking in irony.

But though he stumbles, Anderson does not fall. He finds redemption in the ending of his film, where up is down, in is out, and the happy ending turns out to be more dismal than it seems.  Dahl's animals only end up stuck underground; Anderson's end up stuck in a supermarket.

Anderson's Mr. Fox thinks he's wild, but, in the most poignant moment of the film, Anderson lets us see how domesticated Mr. Fox really is by showing us powerful images of a wild wolf -- the only truly free animal in the film.