The Green Hornet


The Green Hornet

Britt Reid and Kato are a bit early for Mardi Gras.

(2011) Pulp Hero Adventure Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Tom Wilkinson, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Jamie Harris, Chad Coleman, Edward Furlong, Analeigh Tipton, James Franco. Directed by Michel Gondry

The Green Hornet emerged from the radio serial and the pulp fiction heroes that introduced us to masked characters such as The Shadow. It was a different era, to be sure, with a Japanese (and then, beginning with World War II, Korean) manservant and a millionaire playboy, scion of a newspaper publishing empire. These days, that seems like something of an anachronism.

It translated well to a 26-episode run in the late 60s on television, with Van Williams in the title role and the legendary Bruce Lee as Kato. While the show didn’t last long, it remained in the public consciousness due to the involvement of Lee. Dying too young will do that to your legacy.

How will such characters translate to the 21st century however? Britt Reid (Rogen) is the party-hearty son of James Reid (Wilkinson), the crusading publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a newspaper that was one of the last family-owned holdouts in an era of corporate news and the growing incursion of the Internet on the traditional profession of newsgathering. 

When the father turns up dead, it is left to the son to pick up the pieces. He becomes the de facto publisher of the Sentinel, despite having absolutely no knowledge of the newspaper business nor any desire to learn. He relies on his dad’s right hand man Mike Axford (Olmos) for the day-to-day operation of the business.

When a cup of coffee isn’t to his liking, he discovers that the great coffee that he had enjoyed every morning had come from his father’s car mechanic, Kato (Chou) whom he had fired in a drunken rage (along with all of his father’s other personal employees). You see, Britt’s relationship with his dad was dicey, as his father was constantly belittling him with aphorisms like “Trying doesn’t matter if you always fail” with the understanding that Britt always failed. At least he could probably afford the battery of therapists he would probably need after emotional abuse like that from his dad. 

He rehires Kato and discovers something of a kindred spirit. Kato has an affinity for gadgets and a brilliant engineering mind (he’s also a bit of a perv with drawings of women amongst his engineering diagrams). As dear old dad had grown more paranoid that he might be the target of violence, he’d had Kato outfit a 1966 Chrysler Crown Imperial with bulletproof glass and a few weapons of mass distraction. 

Britt and Kato get drunk as men often do when they’re bonding and go out to deface a statue of Britt’s dad that stands guardian over his gravesite, which men often do when they’re bonding. After detaching the statue’s head, they come across a mugging in process. Britt drunkenly tries to prevent a rape from occurring but bungles it, only to be saved by Kato who is also a talented martial artist. 

The experience turns out to be an epiphany for Britt. It was such a blast helping others; why not do it as masked heroes? And in order to throw a twist into things, why not masquerade as villains so that they can topple them more easily from the inside?

Britt uses his newspaper to publicize the new villain who is dubbed the Green Hornet. This doesn’t please Chudnovsky (Waltz), the kingpin of all L.A. gangs. He’s the sort who walks into a nightclub, only to be insulted by the owner (Franco) for not being hip enough, not being frightening enough and for dressing poorly. Chudnovsky responds by blowing up the nightclub and everyone in it. He is worried that people will not perceive him as frightening. If a ganglord doesn’t have his rep, what does he have?

Britt’s increasing incursions into Chudnovsky’s business earn Britt and Kato the attention of the crime boss. Even though the Hornet and Kato are being helped by Britt’s executive secretary (and budding criminologist) Lenore Case (Diaz) and Kato’s not inconsiderable arsenal of gas guns and door-mounted machine guns, Britt not only has Chudnovsky’s army of goons chasing him but also the police and district attorney Scanlon (Harbour) on his back as well. Will the Green Hornet succumb to insecticide before he’s had a chance to sting anybody?

I am torn on this one. Director Gondry is an incredible visionary with such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (awesome) and The Science of Sleep (not so much) in his filmography, but this is his first really straightforward mainstream film. He adds some of his unique visual flair, like showing how Kato’s mind slows down when in a stressful situation. The pacing is nice and the action sequences are competently done. For someone who has mostly worked on smaller budget films, Gondry does a terrific job here.

So does Chou as Kato. Chou is a pop star in Asia although not so well known here. His English is problematic, but he has the martial arts chops and the likable charisma needed to entice American audiences. He no doubt will be a star here if he chooses to be – and he can lose the accent a little.

Rogen can be a terrific comic actor but this won’t be a role that I’ll rank among his best. His Britt Reid is obnoxious, arrogant and a bit of a screw-up. He’s not terribly likable and we wind up rooting for Kato more than we do for Reid, who is in dire need of an ass-kicking. It’s hard to root for Britt when he treats everyone around him like crap and comes off as an ignorant, spoiled brat who didn’t get spanked enough as a child. That Britt is so badly developed is certainly the fault of the writers – wait, Rogen co-wrote the script. Tsk tsk.  

Diaz is a beautiful woman who can be a pretty good comic actress when she’s given the right role, but she really isn’t given any role here. She’s eye candy, sure but she isn’t onscreen enough to really make any sort of impression. For my money, I would have liked to see more of her and less of Rogen.

The gadgets here are worthy of the Q Division, particularly the Black Beauty (the tricked-out Chrysler) which takes a licking and keeps on ticking. We didn’t need Britt to give us a “whoooa!” whenever a new gadget was introduced, but still, that’s part of the fun.

And it’s fun that’s the operative word here. This is a highly flawed action adventure comic book kind of movie – but it’s entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. Don’t expect much, just sit back in your stadium seat, munch on your popcorn and let the movie wash over you with its car chases, explosions, gas guns and quips. It’s a wild ride and that’s not a bad summary for any movie.

REASONS TO GO: Chou is a great deal of fun and Waltz has great fun as yet another cartoon villain. Gondry really plays up the cartoonish aspect of the genre. The Black Beauty is mofo cool!

REASONS TO STAY: Brett Reid is such a clueless douchebag that there are times you just want Kato to kick his ass. A few of the gags stretch credulity a bit too thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and there are an awful lot of heavy things dropped on the skulls of an awful lot of people. There’s some foul language as well.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Seth Rogen’s first live-action movie that wasn’t rated “R.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Fun movies like this one should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Crazies

Advertisement

City of God (Cidade de Deus)


City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

State of Play


State of Play

Russell Crowe sheepishly discovers that this isn't casual Friday, as Helen Mirren scolds him.

(Universal) Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

One of the casualties of the Information Age is the newspaper. Once the prime source of information for nearly everybody, it was done in first by the television newscast and finally, by the Internet which could deliver news instantaneously, rather than by the next morning. Oh, the daily newspapers are still around, but their circulation is dwindling, ad revenue shrinking and their role changing from government watchdogs to gossip-mongering rags that are rapidly losing their relevance.

Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is a bit of a dinosaur in that regard. A reporter for the Washington Globe, he is familiar with the intricacies of the federal government and has sources in nearly every office building from the Capital to the D.C. police department. Scruffy and disheveled, he is a man who cares more about the truth than is perhaps fashionable.

He is called to the scenes of what appear to be disparate deaths – a young African American career criminal shot to death in an alleyway (with an unfortunate bicyclist also gunned down for being in the wrong place at the worst time) and a young Congressional assistant who threw herself under a Metro subway train.

The nagging question was whether she fell or was she pushed. Further complicating things is that she worked for Representative Steven Collins (Affleck), McAffrey’s old college roommate who is married to McAffrey’s college lover, Anne (Penn). Collins is a bright light in his party, a possible presidential candidate in the making. He is heading a Congressional investigation into a company called PointCorp, whose service is similar to what Blackwater provides in real life. His assistant was spearheading the research into PointCorp which makes the timing of her demise even more suspicious, but this is overlooked when it is revealed – by the tearful Collins himself – that the congressman was having an affair with his assistant.

This is the kind of juicy scandal that the news media lives for these days and the Globe’s matriarchal editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Mirren) wants to leap onto the more salacious aspects of the story. McAffrey, however, sees something more sinister at work and starts to dig deeper and quickly discovers a link between the alleyway murder and the death of the assistant – the victim was carrying a PointCorp briefcase at the time of his murder.

With McAffrey’s objectivity in question, Lynne assigns political blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to the story. McAffrey regards her in probably the same way the Neanderthal regarded Homo sapiens. Still, the further the two of them dig, the bigger the body count becomes. Now, not only are they racing against the clock to get the story, they must find a way to stay alive before it’s published.

Director Kevin Macdonald is developing quite the resume with The Last King of Scotland, Kindertransport and One Day in September to his credit. Here he is given a script that reduces a six hour BBC miniseries on which this movie is based into 127 minutes. That’s a lot of condensing, but it works out very nicely. Macdonald keeps the strings taut and the tension high throughout the movie, interspacing it with shocking acts of violence (the opening sequence depicting the alleyway murders and the subway murder are masterfully done).

Russell Crowe, when given the right material, is ridiculously good, and this is his best role in years. He plays McAffrey with a combination of bulldog determination, a somewhat naïve regard for the truth and a weary cynicism that makes him realistic to most of the print journalists I’ve ever met. His byplay with Mirren are among the movies highlights.

Affleck, once a promising leading man in Hollywood before poor script choices derailed his career, has settled in nicely as a terrific support actor. Here he plays the crusading politician with the right amount of grit tempered with vulnerability. He never overshadows Crowe, but compliments him instead, and makes you wish you could have voted for his character.

The big problem with this movie is its ending. Quite frankly, up until the last 20 minutes of the movie, this is a superb film; then, the wheels come off. The ending is frankly unbelievable and makes you tear your hair out and shout at the screen “Oh come on, do you think we’re STUPID?!” I was quite flabbergasted because everything about this movie was well thought out, brilliantly conceived and superbly planned up until then. It’s the kind of thing that breaks a movie lover’s heart.

The movie does strike an elegiac chord for the daily newspaper; throughout the movie, Mirren’s character laments that nobody reads them anymore and complains about how the new corporate publishers are pushing for lighter, fluffier fare and a colorful, dumbed-down graphics-heavy look of the kind more and more newspapers are adopting in an effort to stave off the desertion of their subscribers. I don’t know how long daily newspapers can last in the current environment; they will probably always exist in an online format, but some of the great newspapers of this land are barely hanging on and whether or not they can survive in the coming years is very much in doubt.

Still, the newspaper-set movie is an exciting one; it yields up images of truth seeking journalists like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men or the snappy repartee of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. Perhaps those sorts of movies (and others like Absence of Malice and The Paper) are also destined to become archaic relics of a bygone era; all I know is that a movie set at a newspaper is bound to be more dynamic and exciting than one set at an online blog.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Crowe’s best performances in years. This is a very smart thriller with some wonderfully shot sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is just plain godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some bad language, some sexuality and some drug references. That’s a lot of “somes” but no “lotses,” so you should feel okay letting most teens see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McAffrey’s cubicle contains a partially-hidden picture of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporters from the Washington Post. Woodward later makes a cameo appearance at Anne Collins’ press conference.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray edition, the U-Control feature’s “Washington DC Locations” feature allows you to see on-screen text and Google Earth graphics to show the government buildings and street locations where the scenes take place (and were frequently shot).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: A Good Year