Bad Teacher wasn’t so bad

Bad Teacher was exactly what I thought it would be. Filthy and funny and not too good. My review got cut weirdly, so here’s the uncut version. (The LGBT Weekly version is here.)

Bad Teacher
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Justin Timberlake, and Jason Segal
Very Rated R
At your local multiplex

I had one wildly incompetent social studies teacher, a woman who didn’t feel the need to put any effort into her work beyond what was necessary not to get fired. I had a math teacher who got high at lunch every day and then sprayed her room with strawberry air freshener to mask the smell. And I had a professor whose excuses for not returning papers became more preposterous as the papers got later and later. But Elizabeth Halsey, who Cameron Diaz plays in Bad Teacher, is not just lazy, dishonest, and prone to being inebriated at work. She’s also a thief, a tease, and a bully, and she has the mouth of a particularly dirty sailor. She’s also stop-dead-in-your-tracks-to-look hot.

Diaz is stunning, as beautiful and sexy as she is aware of how to use her looks. One of the reasons that is Diaz is inarguably one of the great comedic actresses of her generation is that she uses her beauty, and her body, as either a distraction, a prop, or a foil. When Elizabeth walks down the hallway of John Adams Middle School in heels and a mini skirt, she’s tartly elegant, just exaggerated and inappropriate to get a few giggles. But when she puts on a movie for her students, and then wraps herself in her coat and curls into an awkward, misshapen ball on her chair, her willingness to look ridiculous, even ugly, pulls out the audience’s laughter.

Unfortunately, Diaz’s almost effortless comic skill is not matched by the film surrounding it. Elizabeth is only teaching, or “teaching,” as way to pay the bills while she tries to score a rich husband. She thinks that she needs a breast enlargement to do this, and to raise the $10,000 she needs, she does increasingly bad things. One potential husband is a new substitute, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who is also pursued by Elizabeth’s absurdly perky nemesis Amy Squirrel (the hilarious, slightly insane Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, the gym teacher Russell Gattis (Jason Segal), is pursuing Elizabeth, who responds to his invitation to a date with, “Are you still a gym teacher? Then no.”

While the screenplay, by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, crackles with pointed, often filthy one-liners and tart, loony exchanges (particularly between Lucy and Elizabeth), director Jake Kasdan doesn’t seem to have much control of the actors’ timing. So, too often the scenes fall flat, especially when the actors aren’t as experienced or instinctual as Diaz or Segal. As adorable as Justin Timberlake is, and as lucky as he was to have been in last year’s best film, The Social Network, he’s not much of an actor, and in his scenes with his ex Cameron Diaz, he was out-classed and out-acted. A few times, he was used as a sight-gag; when he dances badly and sings badly, the audience’s laughs are based on its previous knowledge of his better work, not about the character he’s supposed to be playing.

That said, I laughed out loud several times while watching Bad Teacher, even during some of Timberlake’s scenes. The younger men in the audience when I saw the movie were particularly enamored with the movie, especially when the issue of breasts was first and foremost. While Bad Teacher is a female-driven comedy, unlike Bridesmaids, it is not a depiction of a remotely realistic female; Elizabeth is a male fantasy, a hot and dirty, bawdy and easy cartoon. She’s a like a Will Farrell character in the body of Victoria’s Secret model. Which is a pretty funny thing.

It’s not easy being green

[youtube:]As you can tell by this gratuitous shirtless-and-wet scene from Amityville Horror, Ryan Reynolds sure has a cray cray good body. Sadly, his Green Lantern wasn’t cray cray good. Here’s the LGBT Weekly link.

Green Lantern
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively and Peter Sarsgaard
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

Last week, NPR posted on their Web site a superhero movie bingo card. To play, you place your chip over squares for such things as “Training montage,” “Christ allegory,” “Acclaimed British actor looking mortified,” “Homoeroticism,” “Daddy issues,” and “Secret identity … revealed!” Get five in a row, and you win. (I don’t suggest yelling “Bingo!” in the theater.) While watching Green Lantern, the latest in the string of summer superhero movies, I could have won three times.

While it’s an enjoyable escape, DC Comics’ only film this summer – as all of the other movies are based on Marvel characters – is somewhat underwhelming and as clichéd as this review’s headline.

Green Lantern is one of the key characters in the DC universe also populated by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. (Spider-Man, The X-Men and Iron Man exist in the Marvel universe.) One of 3,600 super space cops in the Green Lantern Corps, he wears a ring that gives him the nearly unlimited power of green energy, harnessed from the most potent force in the universe: will. The ring allows its wearer to construct anything his or her mind wants, things like green swords, green helicopters or giant green fists.

The Green Lantern Corps has protected the universe from evil for millennia, and this summer’s movie is about the first human to be deemed worthy of the ring and its accompanying skintight green suit. Hal Jordan is chosen by the ring, since will is apparently sentient, after Earth’s sector’s protector, Abin Sur, is killed by the worst threat to the universe ever, Parallax, who is powered and corrupted by the only force that can rival will: fear. Keeping things clear, will is green and fear is yellow.

I never thought of Hal Jordan as a particularly comedic superhero, but by casting Ryan Reynolds in the role and writing to his strengths, the army of credited screenwriters – four, count ’em! – have turned Green Lantern into a wise-cracking frat boy who can fly and conjure up green Gatling guns. Reynolds, who has a baby face and the body of an Olympic athlete, is best known for his romantic comedies, which he excels at, and he’s convincing as a doubt-wracked lothario suddenly given cosmic responsibility. But his acting is not as subtle, deep or explosive as either Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man) or Toby Maguire (Spider-Man), so Reynolds’ superhero is, well, a bit cartoonish, if fun to look at.

Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a scientist infected by Parallax, is covered with hideous prosthetics for most of the film, but his quips and whines are more resonant than the close-ups of Reynolds’ face as he attempts to look pained when he thinks about his dead father.

Meanwhile, Blake Lively, who proved her mettle in last year’s The Town, doesn’t have enough to do; she’s as pretty and tough as action film love interests are supposed to be, but her Carol Ferris is no Lois Lane.

I saw Green Lantern in 3-D, and it was one of the better uses of the technology of the last several years. Still, the colors were muddied, and the visual trickery seemed superfluous. Director Martin Campbell, who so smartly rebooted James Bond with the almost all-analog Casino Royale, was not suited for the almost entirely CGI-ed action sequences. They lacked danger, intensity or art, all of which would have made the film clichés less glaring.

Super 8, uncut

I know that editors are necessary, and there are space limitations in print publications, but when I lose a paragraph, it fees as if I losing… well, a meal or a good party. Not a finger. I mean, it’s just a paragraph. Anyway, my review of Super 8 is up at LGBT Weekly. The uncut version is below.

Spielberg is superior, but Abrams’ Super 8 is great fun

Super 8
Written and Directed by J. J. Abrams
Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, and Kyle Chandler
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

About half way through J. J. Abrams’ enormously enjoyable Super 8, I watched 15-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) riding his bike through a small town in Ohio at twilight in the summer of 1979, and suddenly I felt as if it was 30 years ago, and I was in a movie theater in Cincinnati seeing ET for the first time. Abrams is clearly quoting the iconic bicycle riding scenes from the great Spielberg film, just as he is also paying homage in Super 8 to Spielberg’s previous two films from the late 70s, the classics Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. (There’s a dash of both Goonies and Jurassic Park, too.) While Abrams is not by any means Spielberg’s equal, the younger director, who rebooted Star Trek in 2009 and produced the TV series Lost, Fringe, and Alias, is just as much a populist crowd-pleaser. By repurposing some of Spielberg’s greatest ideas and images and having Spielberg himself approve and produce the film, Abrams has given us the first great popcorn flick of the summer.

The title of Super 8 refers to the film that was used in pre-video amateur movie cameras, which is what Joe’s friends are using to make a zombie movie. During the filming of a romantic scene at a train station, they witness a spectacular derailment. They all barely, and miraculously, survive and discover that the derailment was caused by their crotchety biology teacher. He tells them that if they don’t run and keep what they’ve seen to themselves, “they” will kill them all.

“They,” it turns out, is the US Air Force, which shows up to clean up the wreckage. As dogs, people, and machinery start disappearing all over town – all taken by a large, unseen, and very violent monster – Joe’s father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), tries to get to the bottom of the Air Force’s involvement with the train wreck and strange goings on. Meanwhile, Joe and his friends continue to make their movie, using the Air Force’s invasion of the small town as a backdrop. And Joe falls for Alice (Elle Fanning), who stars in the movie and whose father has something to do with the death of Joe’s mom.

Many of Abrams’ themes in Super 8 mirror late 70s, early 80s Spielberg: the powerful and pure wonder of children, the justified fear of a corrupt military, the painful loss of a parent, the redemption that comes only from empathy and kindness. And Abrams’ casting choices are not dissimilar from Spielberg’s. Joel Courtney, who plays the sensitive, smart, mop-headed Joe, was unknown before being cast in Super 8, just as Henry Thomas was when he was cast as Eliot in ET. And as the key blonde, Abrams cast Elle Fanning, an almost disturbingly brilliant child actress, just as Drew Barrymore was back in the early 80s. The relationship between Fanning’s Alice and Joe grounds the film in an innocent love that propels the story more than the Jaws-like monster attacks.

At its best, Super 8’s homage to Spielberg provides the humor, amazement, and excitement of the films that made sci-fi blockbusters an annual summer treat three decades ago. At its worst, when it was clear that Abrams is relying too much on his idol’s past work, the film reminded me that Spielberg’s genius needs to be revisited. AI, his misunderstood masterpiece about artifice and childhood, is now in my Netflix queue.

Begin the Beguine

Beginners is my favorite movie of the year so far. Here’s the link to my review, or you can read it all here:

Written and directed by Mike Mills
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent
Inexplicably rated R
Opens June 17

The relationship between a gay son and his straight father is about as fraught and awkward as any, and this is reflected in the history of queer cinema, which has mined this conflict like it was a ten-mile-deep cache of diamonds: The Sum of Us, La Mission, Beautiful Thing, etc.

For obvious reasons, the opposite story – a gay father and his straight son – hasn’t found its way into too many movies. This is only one of the things that makes Beginners, Mike Mills’ exquisite new film starring Ewan McGregor as the straight son and Christopher Plummer as his newly out father, different.

The other things – a non-linear story structure and a smart, funny and moving voice-over – are seamlessly combined with the kind of acting you expect from late-fall movies released as Oscar bait. I assume Beginners will be re-released at the end of the year just for that purpose, if for anything Plummer’s performance, arguably the best of his extremely long career.

McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old art director, whose father Hal (Plummer) has recently died, four years after coming out following the death of his wife. The film follows Oliver’s grieving and burgeoning relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), a French actress, while flashing back to Hal’s coming out, his relationship with an awkward and much younger man (ER’s Goran Visnjic) and his fight with cancer.

Both Oliver and Hal are dealing with beginnings and endings; thus the rather on-point title of the film. For the back story on why these starts and finishes are so hard and so meaningful, Mills includes flashbacks of conversations between a very young Oliver (Keegan Boos) and his funny and frustrated mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), as well as carefully curated historical images of the world Hal and Georgia experienced as children and young adults.

Added to the mix are Oliver’s artful and hilarious drawings of “the history of sadness” and Hal’s, then Oliver’s, Jack Russell terrier Arthur, whose subtitled lines are extraordinarily wise.

Yes, there’s a lot going on in Beginners. But Mills and his editor Olivier Bugge Coutté splice the present day of the film with flashbacks, voice-overs and archival imagery with such careful skill that the complex, emotional through-line is totally clear.

Mills, who wrote the film from his own experience with his father, is examining the quest for love and the power of fear and sadness to get in the way. The pastiche-like style of the film and its witty, sly humor – particularly in the form of Arthur – prevent it all from getting too heavy.

But the trio of McGregor, Plummer and Laurent provide such authentic emotion to the film, I found it impossible not to cry. Laurent communicates as much with her mischievous, haunting eyes as she does with her lines (which may be because she’s somewhat underwritten).

McGregor, as always, is the perfect straight man (as it were), providing a non-showy but deeply empathic performance that rarely is rewarded in the way that Plummer’s will be. The star of The Sound of Music, among others, is charmingly giddy as a man who waited his whole life to be who he felt inside and his quiet raging against the dying of the light provides some of the best sick-bed scenes since Terms of Endearment.

While another gay movie that both begins and ends with the death of the gay character is perhaps more than one too many, Beginners celebrates both him and his gayness while also celebrating the universal struggle to love and be loved.

Note: There’s no really good reason for why I titled my review in LGBT Weekly “Begin the Begin” other than the word “Begin.” Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” makes more sense. And REM’s awesome song of the similar name has just about nothing in common with the movie. Or it does. Who can tell? The lyrics are pretty opaque.

[30 Day Song Challenge] Day 30: My Favorite Song At This Time Last Year

Wow. I blogged every day for 30 days. I don’t think I’ve done that since 2004, if I’ve ever done it. I need another challenge to keep this up. And maybe something that will excite my non pop music obsessed readers, like my mom. The 30 Photo Challenge is a possibility…

Anyway, around this time last year I was listening to Lightspeed Champion’s Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You, which my brother and sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. If I remember correctly, I was listening to it over and over by this point. It’s so. Fucking. Good. “Marlene” is one of the best tracks, which is saying something, since they’re all pretty great. It’s epic, it’s catchy, it’s edgy, it’s awesome.