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Green Lantern, Mr. Popper's Penguins 

GREEN LANTERN

**1/2

Considering all the advance negative buzz that had been building with the steadiness and scariness of a Category 5 hurricane, Green Lantern, just one of the approximately 428 superhero flicks that will be released this year alone, isn't the catastrophe that had been all but foretold as far back as the Book of Revelations. To compare this big-budget effort to such truly abysmal efforts as Catwoman and Batman & Robin would merely be an exercise in misguided grandstanding; at the same time, the middling results suggest that, the excellence of X-Men: First Class notwithstanding, Hollywood might consider cooling it on the super-sagas for a while (fat chance) and seek inspiration from other types of comic characters. Little Lulu or Andy Capp, anyone?

Actually, Steven Spielberg does have that Tintin adaptation arriving in time for Christmas, but as long as the outdoor weather calls for cold colas rather than hot cocoa, it's the masked heroes from Marvel and DC who control the multiplexes (up next: Captain America). And when all is said and done, Green Lantern is really no different than the film which kicked off this summer season: As with Thor, this one also features slick special effects, a likable (if vanilla-flavored) leading man and effective use of 3-D, but it likewise gets bogged down in protracted exposition and has trouble sorting out its cluttered screenplay.

Ryan Reynolds, flexing his puppy-dog eyes almost as much as his rock-hard pecs, stars as Hal Jordan, a test pilot who becomes the first human to become a member of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic watchdog group tasked with protecting the universe. The preeminent threat at the moment is a fearsome entity known as Parallax, who preys on fear to absorb the souls of anyone around him. Other scribes have described this creature as "an alien enemy with a skull head and the body of a dryer-lint octopus" and "a composite of fecal matter with a head" while my own fiancee tagged him "the dirty dreadlocks of doom"; at any rate, Parallax is certainly an imposing villain. (Let me put it this way: I wouldn't want to wake up in the morning and see him hovering outside my bedroom window, sucking up neighbors' souls left and right.) His agent of evil on earth is Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nerdy scientist who's infected by Parallax and promptly becomes a telekinetic mutant with a bulbous, oozing head.

Hal's battles with Parallax and Hector are ably handled by director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), and they allow the FX crew to show off their hard work (a few extra million bucks were poured into improving the visual effects after the initial wrap, and it shows). But whenever the movie isn't moving at a fast and furious speed, the banality of the script (credited to four writers) takes center stage. Whether it's Hal's tepid romance with fellow pilot Carol Ferris (Blake not-so-Lively) or the soggy father-son dynamics between Hal and his deceased pop (Jon Tenney in flashbacks) and between Hector and his dad (an oily politician played by Tim Robbins in full shit-eating-grin mode), Green Lantern's luster dims, and we're left with another costume caper that doesn't quite know what to do with itself whenever its characters aren't playing dress-up.

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS

*

Aside from Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) mistakenly believing that "BFF" stands for Big Fat Friend, the only original element to be found anywhere in Mr. Popper's Penguins is the character of Pippi, Popper's personal assistant and a Brit prone to parleying with prose that begins with the letter "p." The London-born actress with the terrific name of Ophelia Lovibond essays this role, and she provides a lift to every scene in which she appears.

Unfortunately, she doesn't appear nearly enough to save this ghastly family film. A bastardization of the award-winning children's book, this finds Carrey cast as a ruthless businessman with daddy issues, spousal issues, and neglected kids issues. Mr. Popper has always placed his job above all else, but that changes after he receives a parting gift from his deceased father: six penguins that take over his apartment and his life. Initially desperate to get rid of these creatures, he soon finds that the birds are useful in bringing him back together with his family. But what's this? A nasty zoologist (Clark Gregg) is harassing Popper and his new friends (given names like Loudy, Bitey and Stinky), insisting that the birds would fare better in a zoo than an apartment.

The penguins seen in the picture are a mix of actual animals and CGI creations, and here's a quick primer for those unable to tell the difference: The ones acting normal are the real birds while the ones pooping in Popper's face or leaning over to break wind are the fake ones. Watching the real penguins, your have to feel sorry for them - in this picture, they get less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Still, they fare better than Carrey, who's only allowed to try something new a couple of times; for the most part, he's simply required to react to the wacky penguin shenanigans.

Small children might get restless during the sequences in which Popper tries to patch up his relationship with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino is wasted as the missus), but they'll otherwise be kept entertained by the animal antics. Adults, on the other hand, might want to stay away -- as Pippi would doubtless note, this movie is putrid, puerile and painful.

THE ART OF GETTING BY

*1/2

There are the lucky ones, those performers who manage to transition smoothly from child actor to adult star without hitting a rough patch during the teen years (e.g. Jodie Foster, Elizabeth Taylor). Then there are those who find their careers derailed for whatever reason - take, for instance, the promising 50s actor Bobby Driscoll (Treasure Island, the voice of Disney's Peter Pan), whose sudden onslaught of severe acne once he hit puberty all but killed his rapid ascension (turning to drugs, he later died a homeless man at the age of 31). Or Macaulay Culkin, whose Home Alone superstardom eventually evaporated thanks to a series of flops as well as the interference of his avaricious prick of a pop.

Presently, it's Freddie Highmore who stands at the crossroads of career considerations. An appealing small fry in such films as Finding Neverland (when he was 12) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (13), Highmore now turns up in his first significant role in years at the age of 19, playing the leading character in The Art of Getting By. To quote Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind, "Hey, wha' happened?"

Of course, it would be cruel and unfair to call for a career moratorium based on one performance, but the thing that surprised me the most about this picture is that Highmore has morphed from a promising child actor into a generic, boring teen. Then again, that might simply be because he's surrounded by a generic, boring movie and has elected to camouflage himself, Rango-like, by blending into his surroundings. The Art of Getting By, written and directed by Gavin Wiesen in his feature-film debut, shares much in common with last year's stillborn It's Kind of a Funny Story, right down to a co-starring role for the singularly untalented Emma Roberts (hard to believe she's Julia's niece) and a plotline that focuses on a self-centered twit whose problems don't amount to a hill of beans in Casablanca, Cleveland, or this film's NYC setting.

Highmore's George Zinavoy refuses to do any homework and frequently skips school, all because he realizes that one day he'll die and why waste time on meaningless activities? (For the record, this general idea was brilliantly presented in just one scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.) Naturally, George's teachers (including a now 30-something Alicia Silverstone) and principal (Blair Underwood) frown on this attitude, but George is committed to remaining aloof and uninterested in everything - at least until he gets to know his classmate Sally (Roberts) and starts to secretly hope that their friendship will turn into something more meaningful.

The domestic sequences involving George's mom (Rita Wilson) and stepdad (Sam Robards) are even more dull than the school-set ones, though it's the many scenes focusing exclusively on the young couple that feel especially trite and shopworn. And with Highmore and Roberts both so colorless in their respective roles, it comes down to a classic case of the bland leading the bland.

 

 

 

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