Wednesday, December 21, 2011

kinda sorta film reviews for tweens and teens (i.e., movies I watched this year and wrote about for school)

Green Lantern (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011). Directed by Martin Campbell; screenplay by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg; 114 minutes; sci-fi/action-adventure; MPAA rating: PG-13 ("for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action," but appropriate for ages 8 and up, if you ask me).

The longtime DC Comics superhero makes his big-screen debut in this special-effects extravaganza. Test pilot Hal Jordan knows how to fly a fighter jet better than almost anyone, but he's reckless and cocky, and can't shake the memory of watching his father die in a plane crash when Hal was just a boy. Millions of light years away, Abin Sur, a member of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps (think of them as the space police), is mortally wounded fighting Parallax, a yellow mass of energy that turns out to be the physical embodiment of fear itself. Abin Sur crash-lands on Earth and gives his green power ring to Jordan, who is then indoctrinated into the Green Lantern Corps on their home planet of Oa and learns how to use his ring to create anything he can see in his mind, including giant machine guns and catapults. Jordan will have to overcome all his fear if he's to prevent Parallax from destroying humankind.

Green Lantern was considered a box-office disappointment soon after it opened last June, and the critics weren't too kind, but I thought it was more entertaining than Thor, which debuted a month earlier to more enthusiastic audiences. All the money that went into the special-effects budget appears to be on the screen, especially in the scenes set in outer space, and Parallax is a vaguely defined but impressive-looking villain. But after Robert Downey Jr.'s snarky portrayal of Tony Stark in the two Iron Man movies, Ryan Reynolds's similar approach demonstrates the law of diminishing returns. (Peter Sarsgaard, as pseudovillain Hector Hammond, seems to be having the most fun out of all the actors.)

For further viewing, check out Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), two films that demonstrate just how good superhero movies can be.

Super 8 (Paramount Pictures, 2011). Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; 112 minutes; science fiction; MPAA rating: PG-13 ("for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use," but appropriate for ages 10 and up, if you ask me).

Fourteen-year-old Joe Lamb's mother has died in a factory accident, and four months later he and his father, a local sheriff's deputy, are still grieving in their own separate ways while drifting further apart from each other. Joe's friend Charles is making a zombie movie on his Super-8 camera—the film is set in the summer of 1979—and asks Joe to apply makeup to the actors. Joe is happy to oblige since this means he'll get to talk to—and lightly touch the face of—Alice, a classmate who's agreed to play the hero's wife in Charles's movie. But when Charles and his middle-school crew go to a long-abandoned train depot to film a scene late one night, they witness a train derailment that unleashes an alien creature.

Super 8 was conceived by writer-director J.J. Abrams as a nostalgic tribute to Steven Spielberg films of the late '70s and early '80s like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., although the alien in Super 8 is a whole lot meaner than any of the ones in those films. The first half of the film, like E.T., has charm to burn—it's fun to watch Charles and Joe work on their zombie movie, and touching how Joe and Alice bond while Charles realizes Alice is interested in his friend, not him—but the second half is more about action and chase scenes than anything else, recalling 1985's The Goonies, which Spielberg produced but didn't direct (I didn't see it until I was 28, so the whole movie just felt like one long sequence of kids screaming). I was ultimately disappointed in Super 8—and since Abrams was a teenager himself in 1979, how come he uses insults and expressions like "douche" and "awesome," which weren't around back then, into his script?—but I think tweens will enjoy the thrill ride as much as the tender moments, if not more so.

For further viewing, check out Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

Fred: The Movie (Nickelodeon, 2010). Directed by Clay Weiner; teleplay by David A. Goodman; 80 minutes; comedy; ages 6-12.

Fred Figglehorn is an awkward—I repeat, awkward—teenager who's obsessed with Judy, his beautiful, blonde, and inexplicably British next-door neighbor. Despite the fact that she lives one house down, Fred can't work up the courage to knock on her door, partly because he's afraid of getting beat up by Kevin, the bully across the street who also has a crush on Judy. Finally, Fred uses a disguise to get past Kevin and up to Judy's door, only to discover that her family has moved. But where? At the insistence of his imaginary dad, played by WWE wrestler John Cena, Fred goes on a quest to find his "girlfriend."

Although Fred is technically a teenager, he's played by Lucas Cruikshank (who originally created the character for a series of YouTube videos) as if he's a hyperactive six-year-old, which is probably the average age of Fred's most ardent admirers. They're the ones who are most likely to appreciate his near-constant screaming and childish tantrums in this made-for-TV movie, though Cruikshank provides genuine laughs in a dual role as Derf, a stoic, monotone teen Fred meets on the bus; in other words, he's Fred's exact opposite. Saturday Night Live veteran Siobhan Fallon is also good as Fred's exhausted mom, and Jake Weary has impressive comic timing as Kevin, so the movie's not a complete wash for adults, but if you have kids who want to run Fred: The Movie on a constant loop, it's going to wear out its welcome sooner rather than later.

For further viewing, check out Tim Burton's directorial debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), whose title character's extreme man-child personality may not appeal to everyone, but at least he's surrounded by lots of great jokes and sight gags.

The Master of Disguise (Columbia Pictures, 2002). Directed by Perry Andelin Blake; screenplay by Dana Carvey and Harris Goldberg; 80 minutes; comedy; MPAA rating: PG ("for mild language and some crude humor," but appropriate for ages 7-12, if you ask me).

Pistachio Disguisey is a put-upon waiter in his family's Italian restaurant, unaware that his father and grandfather and so on are retired Masters of Disguise. When his father, Fabbrizio, is kidnapped by an evil rich dude who forces Fabbrizio to steal priceless artifacts like the U.S. Constitution so Bowman can later sell them to the highest bidder, Pistachio is called into action by his grandfather, who teaches him the ancient family art of disguise. He'll need an assistant if he's going to locate his father, though, so Pistachio hires Jennifer, a single mom whose grade-school son has taken a shine to Pistachio.

The Master of Disguise is rated PG, but it contains a few smutty sex jokes that are out of place among the constant barrage of silly voices and costumes deployed by star Dana Carvey, who reportedly came up with the idea for the film because he wanted to make a movie his kids could watch. Sadly, The Master of Disguise fails to entertain on almost every level, with Carvey, who was so good at playing all kinds of characters and doing various impressions on Saturday Night Live from 1986 to '93, a pale imitation of his former self. (Fred: The Movie is a masterpiece compared to this turkey.)

It's possible younger kids will eat up the wall-to-wall silliness, and they'll recognize Maria Canals-Barrera, the mom from Wizards of Waverly Place, before they recognize Carvey from anything, but they still might wonder why the end credits last an astonishing ten minutes and are filled with outtakes from scenes that don't otherwise appear in the movie, which only lasts a scant 70 minutes before the credits kick in. Can you say "a huge mess," kids?

For further viewing, check out Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (2009).

Titan A.E. (Twentieth Century Fox, 2000). Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman; screenplay by Ben Edlund, John August, and Joss Whedon; 94 minutes; science fiction; MPAA rating: PG ("for action violence, mild sensuality and brief language," but appropriate for ages 7 and up, if you ask me).

In 3028 A.D., Earth is blown to bits by an intergalactic race called the Drej (the "A.E." in the film's title stands for "After Earth"), but not before Professor Sam Tucker launches the Titan, a mobile lab that has the components needed to create a new planet—if it can be found in deep space before all that's left of humanity is wiped out. Mankind is now a minority species in the universe, subsisting in assorted drifter colonies. Tucker's son, Cale, was a boy when Earth was destroyed; Captain Korso, who claims to have known the professor, finds Cale and shows him that the ring his father gave him right before he launched the Titan and disappeared forever contains secret directions that can help them locate the lab. The Drej hope to locate it too—and destroy it, sealing mankind's fate.

Over the years I'd heard good things about Titan A.E., which disappeared quickly from theaters in the summer of 2000. I'm sure tweens will find it at least somewhat entertaining, but I thought its mix of old-school hand-drawn animation and new-school computer animation was jarring, as if directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman or the studio couldn't make up their minds on which way to go. A chase sequence set among asteroid-sized reflective icicles is beautifully rendered, but in most other instances it looks like the animators overdid the hand-drawn material—characters' faces are constantly in motion, as if they're all on Ritalin—while underbudgeting the necessary computer effects. Worse, the story line is highly derivative of Star Wars at times (not to mention Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and even Waterworld), with Cale and Korso performing a mediocre Luke-and-Han tribute act.

For further, better animated viewing, check out Pixar's WALL-E (2008).

Crooklyn (Universal Pictures, 1994). Directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Cinqué Lee, Joie Susannah Lee, and Spike Lee; 115 minutes; comedy/drama; MPAA rating: PG-13 ("for drug content," which means two characters who sniff glue, but appropriate for ages 10 and up, if you ask me).

Troy Carmichael lives in Brooklyn with her four brothers, her schoolteacher mom, and her jazz-musician dad, who's been having trouble finding work lately. This causes tension at home, but most of it is kept out of sight of the kids, who spend their summer playing outdoors till the sun goes down, watching The Partridge Family when they're not supposed to have the TV on, and getting into mischief that occasionally involves their odd neighbor "Tony Eyes," a nearsighted man with oversized eyeglasses who owns several small dogs that are constantly barking. Troy reluctantly takes a trip down south to stay with her aunt Song and uncle Clem for a week, but she ends up having more fun than she expected with her cousin Viola. When she returns home, however, she finds that everything is suddenly about to change for good in the Carmichael household.

Set in the early 1970s, Crooklyn is episodic in nature and therefore won't appeal to everyone, but because it's semi-autobiographical—oldest brother Clinton appears to be based on cowriter-director Spike Lee, and Troy seems to represent cowriter Joie Susannah Lee (both have cameos in the film)—the Carmichael house feels like it's actually been lived in, not constructed for use in a movie. The Carmichael kids are almost always yelling and fighting with each other about something, but unlike the kids on Hannah Montana, for instance, their fights aren't constructed around well-rehearsed one-liners. And when the Carmichaels talk back to their mom, they suffer the consequences right away.

The last 20 minutes of Crooklyn may be too intense for younger viewers in the same way that Doris Buchanan Smith's book A Taste of Blackberries was too intense for me when I was eight years old. But it's a hell of an ending, one that makes me cry every time I watch the film. (Another selling point is Crooklyn's wall-to-wall soundtrack of early-'70s R&B hits, including the Spinners' "Mighty Love," Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," and Stevie Wonder's "Signed Sealed Delivered I'm Yours.")

For further viewing, check out Akeelah and the Bee (2006). And to see a trailer for Crooklyn, click here.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Paramount Pictures, 1986). Written and directed by John Hughes; 103 minutes; comedy; MPAA rating: PG-13 ("for sexual references and language," but appropriate for ages 11 and up, if you ask me).

High school senior Ferris Bueller, a kid who gets away with everything, wants to skip school, and he wants his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, and his uptight best friend, Cameron Frye, to join him in spending the entire day in downtown Chicago. The principal at their school, Ed Rooney, wants nothing more than to catch Ferris in the act, and the same goes for Ferris's sister, Jeanie, who really really really hates that he gets away with everything. Will he make it home in time for dinner without his parents discovering that he lied about being sick? Will Cameron ever loosen up? And will Jeanie resume her brief police-station romance with Charlie Sheen after the movie has ended? (Don't do it, girl. He's trouble.)

I saw Ferris Bueller's Day Off on video when I was 11, the year after it came out, and since I was already a big fan of the TV show Moonlighting, I was pleased as punch to see Ferris "breaking the fourth wall" just like Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis did. Now that I'm older, part of me wants to see Ferris taken down a peg, so I sympathize with Jeanie more than I used to, even if she is pretty much a brat. Tweens, on the other hand, will probably still thrill to Ferris's every anti-authoritarian move. On a side note, I always thought it was odd that Ferris Bueller's Day Off didn't have an accompanying soundtrack album—there are so many good songs featured in the film, including the Dream Academy's instrumental cover of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want"—but according to an article I once read, writer-director John Hughes didn't think the songs would flow well together as a set. If only iPods had been around in 1986 ...

For further viewing, check out the defunct Nickelodeon series Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide (2004-2007) on DVD.

The Red Balloon (Films Montsouris, 1956). Written and directed by Albert Lamorisse; 34 minutes; fantasy; unrated; all ages.

The Red Balloon, also known as Le Ballon Rouge, centers on a Parisian boy, played by writer-director Albert Lamorisse's son, who discovers the title character tied to a lamppost one morning. He takes it wherever he goes, and soon the balloon is showing signs of life: when the boy's mother tosses the balloon out the window at first glance, it hovers outside instead of floating away until the boy can pull it back in. It also evades the capture of the boy's classmates and schoolteachers, though its fate is never certain. Lamorisse gives his film an uplifting ending in more ways than one, and it's complemented by Maurice Leroux's musical score, which is as wide-eyed as The Red Balloon's protagonist.

There are a few subtitles since the dialogue is in French, but for the most part The Red Balloon is a silent film that relies on visual storytelling above all else, with the balloon turning out to be one of the most memorable characters I've ever seen in a movie. (I'm curious to know how many had to be used in the course of filming.) Lamorisse never panders to his audience, and despite the film's age and subtitles, I think The Red Balloon can be enjoyed by English-speaking tweens of all ages just as long as they show some patience in the early stretches—attention deficit disorder hadn't yet been invented in 1956.

For further viewing, check out another Lamorisse short film with a young male protagonist, White Mane (1953), which is available on a double-feature DVD with The Red Balloon.

And for the grand finale, a kinda sorta musical!

Never Let You Go by Justin Bieber (Teen Island Records, 2010). Directed by Colin Tilley; 4 minutes; pop/R&B; all ages.

In the music video for "Never Let You Go," a track from his 2010 album My World 2.0 (his original world needed a software update, apparently), teen-pop sensation Justin Bieber promises a girl that he will do exactly as the song's title says. But wait! Something's rotten in the state of Denmark! (Or the state of California, anyway, since that's probably where the video was shot.) The girl in question is clearly shown wearing two wristwatches on her left arm, a subtle visual indication that she will eventually two-time our postpubescent-but-still-looks-prepubescent-but-I-guess-that's-why-he's-so-nonthreatening-and-therefore-acceptable-to-moms-everywhere hero.

Say it ain't so! The Beeb keeps reassuring this vixen that he'll never let her go when he's the one who's going to be let go. How tragic. But if he ever needs a shoulder to cry on, I'm sure his doppelganger, actress Leslie Bibb, wouldn't mind lending one. (Bieber ... Bibb ... Bibber? She was born in '73, he was born in '94. The mom math isn't impossible, that's all I'm saying.) But you know what else is tragic? Bieber's song has the same title as New Kids on the Block's final single from 1994, the year he was born and they broke up because their popularity had fallen off the side of a cliff. The fickleness of teen-pop fans can be so cruel.

For further viewing, check out the aforementioned New Kids on the Block music video of the same name, in which tenor Jordan Knight makes it clear that he's no longer nonthreatening.

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