Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 18, 2011 2:27 pm 
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Overgrown boys in love with their gadgets

Michel Gondry's Green Hornet, a long-delayed project now dominated by Judd Apatow regular Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the script and stars, is an offshoot of an offshoot or an offshoot. The Green Hornet series developed out of Batman and Robin and Superman, with similar basic elements -- a wealthy superhero who battles evil at night and by day is involved with a big newspaper, and who works with a smaller sidekick with special talents. All these began in the heyday of the comics in the Thirties and Forties, but The Green Hornet was originally a radio show and later a film series. The incarnation strongest in living memory is the Sixties TV series created by George W. Trendle and starring Van Williams and a young Bruce Lee.

Gondry's movie takes the bold step of ironically undercutting the seriousness of the TV series with a rich, spoiled Jewish doofus (Rogen) replacing the handsome, dashing Williams as a comical version of Britt Reid, the hero. According to Armond Whilte, the changes serve to "demystify" the "sexual threat" of the TV characters who are "dashing" in their "harlequin maks" and neatly undercut the Sixties Reid, "who embodied the straight-arrow WASP handsomeness Hollywood idealized until the counterculture revolution of the '60s validated ethnic facial irregularities." Unfortuantely, this Green Hornet is not a very coherent or otherwise successful effort. It would have been nice if Gondry had done something like the French director Michel Hazanavicius, whose screen adaptions of the French James Bond knockoffs featuring one Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (better known as OSS 117) are deft, hilarious spoofs of Sixties macho style. Maybe the big problem is that unlike the French films, this one has a huge budget, estimated at between $125 and $150 million. That means a lot of explosions and car crashes and along the way a high body count -- not elements very germane to comedy.

The Green Hornet goofs around with the Sixties TV elements, with the same gadget-loaded car loaded with a flame-thrower and rocket launchers and mounted on a flip-around platform, the same decoy fake gateway, and so on, and a similar Asian sidekick -- this time Taiwan singing star Jay Chou -- but unlike Hazanvincius's films, is neither witty nor consistent. As the arch villain, Chudnofsky, Christoph Waltz, who was one of the jewels in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, is understated when outsize menace was called for. As Kato, Reid's driver, coffee-maker, and "man" (with the homoerotic hints of such a relationship constantly and pointlessly denied), Jay Chou suffers from two shortcomings that do not add up to comedy: he is not an actor and he cannot deliver English dialogue coherently. As the minor romantic interest and girl Friday, Cameron Diaz has the big smile and pluck for what becomes a somewhat slapstick role, but she is both underused and lacking in the glitz of the Sixties series' ladies.

Less of a schlub here, having dropped quite a few pounds, Seth Rogen still plays the amiable Jewish average guy he has always impersonated, but having to carry every scene is far too much for his one-note style, which here is pushed up to an almost hysterical pitch of naive delight in the fun he thinks he's having. These are two overgorwn boys in love with their expensive and lethal gadgets, and the crimie solving of the TV Hornet and Manichean wars of Superman are forgotten. This Britt Reid seems to have drunk a heck of a lot of Kato's espresso. Reid's comic ineptness can't be developed fully because in the Hornet's and Kato's encounters with villains, which the big budget and current tastes make much more violent than in the TV series, Rogen is successfully violent himself. The action sequences are boilerplate, and lack comic flavor. To do the movie credit, it has some memorable physical shticks, such as the long sequence in which Reid and his sidekick, battling Chudnofsky, who's changed his name to Bloodnofsky to have a supervillain brand himself, trash Reid's Daily Sentinel newspaper offices driving their hyped-up car, which is chopped in half but still runs because it's got "front-wheel drive." However Gondry's huge gift for DIY special effects, so richly displayed in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and his other movies, gets plowed over in all the expensive mayhem. The 3D is literally shallow; it is so little used that you can watch a lot of the film without the dimming glasses and experience little distortion. The only interesting use of 3D is a split-screen of the gangsters scouring the city to wipe out men in green, where each panel has a different depth level, a very cool effect.

The sub-teen boy this movie seems ideally designed for will probably not miss witty dialogue, satrical use of the Sixties visual elements, or consistent development of the main character's new doofus status. The movie never makes real use of Reid's spoiled rich boy identity as it goes along: Rogen is a good-guy everyman; that's all he knows how to be. But even if it's excessively caffeinated, his enthusiasm is winning, and the movie's got plenty of good humor and plenty of action. This Kato's dialogue may be hard to follow, but that doesn't entirely matter since he's mainly a physical prop: as Reid/Rogen says, he's "a human Swiss Army knife," constantly producing intriguing new tricks and gadgetry (and a bit of Gondry's genius does come through here). As Andrew O'Hehir of Salon wrote, The Green Hornet is "Entirely watchable and often pretty fun, in a mishmashed, patchy kind of way." It's just not a delight to film snobs like me, and that's why it deserves its release in the January slump/dump US movie release season.

The Green Hornet symbol of the TV series
is prominently displayed at the movie's end.

┬ęChris Knipp 2011

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