Monthly Archives: July 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman series was a critical and commercial success. Gone were the campy and opulent sequences of old and the nipples on the Batsuit felt simply like a bad dream. Nolan served as director and screenwriter and brought serious psychological depth to his story and characters. As a life-long Batman fan, I loved it and wanted a sequel immediately with the exact same people responsible. The Dark Knight has been overshadowed by the passing of actor Heath Ledger, a gifted young actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. He’s gone from gay cowboy to the criminally insane, and it’s all anyone can talk about. The buzz on Ledger and The Dark Knight is deafening and I am about to join that joyous chorus. This is a movie for grown-ups and makes lesser super hero adventures look downright stupid.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is dealing with the repercussions of his choice to assume the masked identity of Batman. He’s cracked down on Gotham City’s mobsters, and in their desperation they have turned to a crazed anarchist that likes to wear strange makeup. The Joker (Ledger) promises to return Gotham back to its old ways but even he knows this isn’t possible. “You’ve changed things,” he tells Batman. “There’s no going back.” The Joker wants to break the will of Batman and Gotham City and sets up elaborate and disturbing moral dilemmas that push many to the edge. His purpose is chaos, which isn’t exactly what the Mob had in mind when they subcontracted his services. Bruce must rely on his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and company tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to help him combat a man that “just wants to watch the world burn.” Gotham also has a new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is willing to put his name on the line to clean up the city. He’s butting heads with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) because of Gordon’s secrecy and his reliance on Batman to do the things the law won’t allow. Dent wants to prosecute mobsters and is willing to put himself in jeopardy. He believes Batman is waiting for men like him to take the baton. Bruce’s old squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes — upgrade) has fallen for Dent. He’s an emotionally available man who wants to do good. Naturally, Dent and Rachel will becomes targets of the Joker.

First off, believe the hype because everything you’ve read and heard about Ledger’s performance is the gospel truth. The actor vanishes completely underneath the gnarly latex scars, stringy hair, and smeared makeup. He transforms into this menacing figure and he makes Jack Nicholson look like a circus clown in comparison. He’s creepy and funny in a totally demented and spooky way, but he almost comes across like a feral creature that enjoys toying with his prey. Ledger fully inhabits his character and brings a snarling ferocity to the role. The Joker is given no back-story and he takes a macabre delight in crafting differing versions of his sordid past depending upon the audience. Ledger’s Joker is like a mixture of sadist and intellectual, of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lector; he finds a way to get inside your mind and unleashes torment. There’s a great scene where he’s left alone in a holding cell with a police officer. The Joker taunts the man, getting little reaction from the trained lawman, but then he hits a nerve. The Joker asks how many of his friends, his fellow officers has he murdered. He then rhapsodizes the finer points of using knives instead of guns because guns are too quick. With knives he can see who people truly are in the final moments of existence. “So in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did,” he tells the officer. “Would you like to know which of them are cowards?” This triggers the officer to break his protocol and play into the Joker’s scheme. I’m not ready to say Ledger’s performance overtakes Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) as the most menacing villain of late, but Ledger certainly will make your skin do more than crawl.

Ledger gives a performance worthy of posthumous Oscar consideration. Toward the end of the film I found myself lingering on sadness that, well, this was it. This is all we are ever going to get of the Joker, such a fabulous character, but even more, this was the last full performance we are ever going to get from Ledger. His unnerving performance will stand the test of time when it comes to haunting screen villains, and I’m sure the actor had many more incredibly performances left in him before he passed away.

The Dark Knight has less in common with other superhero series and should be considered a modern crime drama. It has more in common with Heat than with Spider-Man. Even compared to Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins, this is the first Batman film that feels like it occurs in a real city in our own reality. In Batman Begins, we had the CGI ghetto that happened to be conveniently where all the city’s scum lived, an ancient league of ninjas that wanted to wipe an entire modern city off the map, and then a super microwave that zapped water molecules in the air. Even though it was the most realistic Batman yet, it still had some fantastic elements that kept it from feeling fully believable. This newest Batman adventure feels more like a real city and a city that is being torn apart. You get to see a lot of Gotham City’s moving parts and different social circles and then see the Joker tear them apart. The knotty screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon is dense and packed with subtext and ambiguity not seen in the likes of other spandex-clad super hero movies. This isn’t a super hero movie so much as an enthralling crime thriller with better gadgets.

Whereas Batman Begins focused on the psychology of a man that dresses up in a costume and fights crime, now the attention turns into examining the impact of Batman. There has been escalation, just as Gordon hinted at the close of the last film. Batman has stepped up law enforcement and now Gotham’s criminal element has placed their trust in a psychopath that promises results. This is a movie about symbols and ideals and about the tenets of civilization. The movie presents an arsenal of mature questions and rarely gives absolute answers. Batman I supposed to be a hero but does he play by the law? Can he make decisions that no one else can? Batman believes in the goodness of others and serves as a symbol for the city to stand up against corruption, but can Batman be corruptible? Does he have a breaking point? Is implanting hidden surveillance and spying on 30 million people in the name of security overstepping? Is it acceptable to cross a line if your enemy crossed it first? The Joker lives at the other ideological end and believes that human beings are selfish and will eat each other when the chips are down. He devises disturbing social experiments that test the limits of ordinary citizens and how far they are willing to go out of self-interest. The Joker is an anarchic force that seeks to tear down civilization itself, and that is a far more interesting and devastating plot than vaporizing water molecules with ninjas. When the movie covers the tired “we’re one in the same” territory that most super hero flicks hit (the Joker responds to Batman with, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? You complete me.”), it even makes sense given the psychological and philosophical complexity at root.

And oh boy, is The Dark Knight dark. This flick racks up a body count that could compete with movies usually involving some cataclysmic act of nature. The Joker’s unpredictable nature, and the dark twists the film plumbs, creates an atmosphere where you dread anything happening at any time, and mostly bad things happen. Batman must come face to face with his limitations and the realization that his actions, no matter how altruistic, will have negative consequences. This is not a movie for young children. If any parent buys their child a Joker doll and takes them to see this movie then expect years of therapy bills down the line. Much of the violence is implied but the overall effect is still chilling. It’s difficult to call The Dark Knight a “fun” movie. Batman Begins was fun as we followed Bruce Wayne tinker and become his crime-fighting avenger. This movie watches much of what he built get taken away. The movie makes gutsy decisions and for a super hero movie, let alone a summer blockbuster, and this is one decidedly dour flick where no character ends in a particularly pleasant place, especially poor Harvey Dent.

Speaking of Mr. Dent, while Ledger is deservedly getting all the buzz and plaudits, Eckhart’s excellent performance is going unnoticed. Dent gets just as much screen time as Batman and is the white knight of Gotham, the man unwilling to break the boundaries of the law to merit out justice. Like Batman, he serves as a symbol for Gotham City and its resurrection from the stranglehold of crime. Batman fights in the shadows and serves as an anonymous vigilante but Dent is the face that can inspire the city. That’s what makes his transformation into Two-Face all the more tragic. You really do care about the characters in this movie, so when Dent turns on his principles and seeks out vengeance you feel a weighted sense of sorrow for the demise of a truly decent man. Eckhart and his lantern jaw easily sell Dent’s idealism and courage. After his horrific transformation, Eckhart burrows deep enough to show the intense hatred and mistrust he has even in fate. He gives a terrific performance that plays a variety of emotions and does justice to them all.

The rest of the cast, just to be mentioned, is excellent yet again.

Nolan has also stepped up his directing skills and delivered some high-intensity action. His first foray with Batman had some dicey action sequences that suffered from choppy editing, but he pulls back his camera lens and lets the audience see the action in The Dark Knight. The explosive high point is a long car chase where the Joker tries to attack an armored police car via an 18-wheeler truck. The police look for safe detours to escape the Joker’s line of fire, and when Batman surfaces with the sleek Batpod motorcycle thing get even cooler. What makes the sequence even better is that all of the peripheral characters behave in semi-logical ways, meaning that your secondary cop characters are respectable decision makers. Nolan also shot several sections of the film in IMAX, which boasts the highest resolution possible for film stock. The panoramic views of Batman atop buildings are breathtaking and may strike vertigo in some moviegoers. The movie looks great and it delivers the action goods but it’s really more of a tense thriller with more tiny moments of unease than an out-and-out action flick with gargantuan explosions and blanket gunfire.

Despite the undeniable brilliance of The Dark Knight, the movie is rather exhausting. After a decent 45 minutes of establishing the characters and setting up the stakes, the movie is essentially two hours of climax after climax, and you will be perched on the edge of your seat and tense until the end credits crash onto the screen. It’s exciting and overwhelming but you will feel wiped out by the end of the movie. There are a lot of characters and a lot of subplots and while I’m thrilled the movie has so much intricacy it also makes it hard for the film to come to a stop. The climax with Two-Face and Gordon’s family also feels misplaced. At a tremendous 2 hours and 30 minute running time, The Dark Knight will test your endurance skills in the best way.

I honestly have no idea where Nolan and crew can take the story now. The Dark Knight seems unlikely to be topped. This is an intense, epic crime thriller with a labyrinthine plot that is packed with emotion, subtext, philosophy, penetrating open-ended questions, and genuine nerve-racking tension. It’s hard for me even to think of this movie as a super hero flick despite that fact that it’s about a billionaire in a rubber suit. This is an engrossing modern crime drama that just so happens to have people in weird costumes. Nolan and his brother have crafted a stirring addition to, not just the Batman canon, but to cinema as a whole. Ledger’s character is the driving force behind the film, the man that makes everyone else react, and his incredibly daring and haunting performance will stand as a last reminder of what talent was lost to the world when he passed away. I for one will be amongst the throng crying out for Oscar recognition but not just for Ledger, for The Dark Knight in general. And I may not be alone. The Dark Knight is currently breaking every box-office record imaginable and seems destined to finish as the number two highest grossing movie of all time, steadily behind James Cameron’s Titanic. If the Academy is looking for a way to shore in better ratings for the Oscars, it might seriously consider nominating The Dark Knight in some key races. It certainly deserves recognition.

Nate’s Grade: A

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma mia here we go again. This movie is going to be a middle-aged woman’s dream come true. It boasts a cast whose median age is in the mid 50s, one former yet still dashing James Bond, lots of good vibration getaway vibes, songs by a pop group whose heyday was over 30 years ago, and a heaping helping of girl power. In short, Mamma Mia will entertain the same mixture that made Sex and the City a monster hit, notably middle-aged women, teen girls, and gay males. I’ve seen the stage show and enjoyed it, as have millions of others around the world, but the movie fails to capitalize on reaching a broader audience. Mamma Mia is content to serve the faithful and delivers a less than satisfactory product. The world of cinema is not the best place for this material.

Raised all her life on a Greek island in a Mediterranean paradise, Sophie (Big Love‘s Amanda Seyfried) is getting married. Her disapproving mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), runs a hotel and has raised her daughter by herself. Then one day Sophie goes through her mother’s diary and discovers she has three possible fathers, Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd), or Sam (Pierce Brosnan). She invites all three to the island to vet her real father. In agitated response, Sophie invites her old gal pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) to help her during this paternity crisis. Over time old loves will be rekindled, new love will bloom, and there will be a lot of singing.

Let Mamma Mia stand as a future testament as to why you do not generally let someone helm a film when they have no film experience whatsoever. The creative talent behind the hit Broadway musical refused to grant anyone in Hollywood the rights to their worldwide sensation. So the stage director, Phyllinda Lloyd, is now also the film’s director, and oh my goodness was not the right choice. Her film inexperience shows with every second. The movie just doesn’t look right from beginning to end. There’s a noticeable “off” sensation due to Lloyd poorly shooting her scenes, editing her scenes, and directing her actors. I kept wanting, through sheer force of will, to nudge the camera angles, to change the composition a tad to make them more visually appealing, because Lloyd shoots the movie in bland static angles with minimal coverage. Mamma Mia looks so amateurish and fussily so, like Lloyd is purposefully thumbing her nose at the art of cinema. Lloyd also doesn’t bother to place any choreography in her scenes, and her actors just sort of spin and sway to the music like they were dancing in front of a bedroom mirror. It’s remarkable that a movie with so much riding on it looks so shoddy.

Presented in the reality of a stage, Mamma Mia is a shallow but fairly fun time. The movie version transports the musical into an actual Greek locale, which, to knock Lloyd yet again, she makes no real use out of (she mostly shoots her actors against rock faces and under harsh, glaring sunlight). What works on stage, when presented under the pretenses of the real world, comes across as incredibly cheesy and goofy beyond all relief (get a load of the high-stepping snorkerlers). The song and dance numbers, the character interactions, the sitcom generic plot (ripped off from 1968’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell), they all start to transform into camp and beg for mockery. All of a sudden the entire island turns into a Greek chorus and provides backup during the impromptu singing. It’s strange and comes so late that it never feels properly established. The characterization is pretty slim, and once the movie establishes its characters it pushes the petal to the floor. The plot whizzes by in a whirlwind of one Abba song after another, with minimal breaks in between just to change setting and barely elbow the characters forward. I don’t think the actors had any chance to breathe in between the song numbers because I know I could barely exhale before another song assaulted my senses with forced giddiness.

But here’s the odd thing. The film is so silly and played to constant high-energy capacity that after a while Mamma Mia begins to wear you down. You may begin to smile, you may begin to clap, but you’ll be guaranteed to start humming the incredibly infectious tunes. Mamma Mia is essentially an Abba jukebox with a third-rate story strung along for the ride. As a story, it leaves much to be desired, but as a musical experience it makes you realize how glorious those Abba songs are. They’re like perfect pop bundles that somehow make you feel better even if the lyrics are more bittersweet than you realize at the time. The 18 Abba songs showcased, along with a few others during a weird curtain call sing-a-long, will certainly lift your spirits just as long as you concentrate more on the music than on the often-forced context.

The actors are better than the material, clearly. Streep is her generation’s finest actress but she tries too hard to convince you of the great girl-power fun she’s having. The singing, on the other hand, is all over the map. Streep and Seyfried have the strongest voices of the bunch, which is good considering they also have the most musical numbers to sing and twirl to. Neither has a particularly sensational voice but then again they certainly distance themselves from their pitiful peers. Most of the other actors just have droning vocals but Brosnan, oh boy, I have to congratulate the man for having the courage he does. You feel embarrassed for the guy; I mean this is James Bond here. I found myself turning away whenever he opened his mouth, not wanting to look the man in the eye. Every time he started singing my theater crowd of Mamma Mia faithful began snickering and giggling. I almost feel so bad that I should send the guy a card saying, “Sorry about the singing, but hey, you’ll always have the paycheck.”

The real audience for a Mamma Mia movie is the fans of the Mamma Mia theatrical show, and the movie is tailored to their interests. The big screen version isn’t interested in converting new fans, hence the amateurish direction and disregard for reaching out for broader appeal. Mamma Mia the movie is pretty much a less zippy and ten times goofier version of the stage show except with bad singing. If that sounds like a fun evening out, then by all means enjoy. This is a mess of a movie and not a terribly good movie at that, and yet the power of those Abba songs will inject enough goodwill that you will forgive some of the movie’s transgressions. Some. Pierce Brosnan’s singing is something that cannot be forgiven nor forgotten.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Wackness (2008)

Every Sundance Film Festival seems to coronate new talent and new films that never seem to materialize once they step outside of the happy bubble of festival life. It happened with Happy, Texas, with Tadpole, with Hav Plenty, with Primer and numerous others that never managed to get started with the public. At the 2008 Sundance film festival, the biggest buzz followed the documentary American Teen and The Wackness. Writer/director Jonathan Levine’s coming-of-age tale won the Audience Award for Drama and boasts shimmering visuals, formidable actors, and a hip soundtrack. Too bad the drama gets the least attention in that package. I suspect The Wackness will be yet another Sundance buzz flick that, while well made, fails to leave a mark on mainstream crowds (here’s hoping more for American Teen).

Luke (Josh Peck) has just graduated from a New York City high school and is winding down the summer before he moves on to college. He has a unique summer job: Luke sells marijuana out of an ice cream vendor’s box. One of his clients, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), is a therapist. He trades therapy time to Luke for pot. The two of them form an unanticipated bond and Dr. Squires makes it a point to see that Luke is making the most of his youth. Luke is smitten with the doc’s stepdaughter, Steph (Juno‘s Olivia Thirby, gratifyingly authentic), and determined to lose his virginity and find love before the summer fades away.

The strength of The Wackness is in the unexpected father/son relationship that forms between Luke and Dr. Squires. Kingsley is sensational in his role and provides all the pathos and unexpected discoveries that the coming-of-age genre is associated with. I think that’s what’s most interesting about Levine’s film, is that Kingsley is going through all the coming-of-age moments reserved for teenage protagonists. Dr. Squires and Luke form a surprising and deep relationship where they learn from each other. Luke learns to talk about his life’s sadness and make it a part of his life, instead of sweeping it under a proverbial rug. Dr. Squires learns to re-embrace life and to kick his heavy supply of pharmaceutical prescriptions. He is coming of age at middle age. He even gets to second base with an Olsen twin (Mary-Kate is only in the film for two scenes and an estimated five minutes). Most of all, Dr. Squires needs a friend and Luke fulfills this desperate void. Kingsley is funny, pathetic, and the real star of The Wackness.

My main problem with The Wackness is how familiar it all comes across. It follows the coming-of-age model down to the end, so a savvy audience is going to realize that Luke will fall in love, get his heart broken, stand up for himself, and gather a bit more wisdom by the time the end credits roll. You’ve seen this movie played in a thousand different ways before, and now The Wackness makes it 1001; you will essentially know every beat of this story before it happens. The film doesn’t break any new ground and doesn’t manage to provide much commentary or lasting insight while it comes of age. The screenwriting fails to hide what disinterests Levine. So we get quick glimpses of Luke’s home life and I swear in every one of them his parents are just yelling. That’s all Levine is interested in, setting up one ten second shot of Luke overhearing his parents shouting again and again. Dr. Squires’ wife (Famke Jannsen) gets the same kind of treatment. She gets a cursory amount of screen time to glower and that’s about it. I can tell Levine is only interested in his three main characters (Luke, Dr. Squires, Steph) but then why does he not concentrate on them further and scuttle what he feels is wasted time?

The Wackness is awash in pointless nostalgia. The movie is set during the summer of 1994 for no real reason. The time setting doesn’t impact the film in any manner except for some digs at Mayor Giuliani’s policies (he was only in office for sixth months or so when the film opens). Levine dishes out pop-culture references like the 8-bit Nintendo game system, old chunky GameBoys, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, mix tapes, and lots of rap music. The Wackness is an ode to mid 90s rap music and Luke is a lover of acts like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and some up-and-coming guy named The Notorious B.I.G. The soundtrack is also meant to convey good nostalgic vibes of a simpler time only — 14 years ago. Setting the film in 1994 is a lazy attempt to cover the lapses in screenwriting with cozy audience nostalgia. And is there anything really culturally transcendent about the summer of 1994?

Peck may have lost like 100 pounds since he was fat comic relief on a Nickelodeon kids show, and he’s marginally handsome, but this kid needs some more practice before he’s a dramatic actor. I understand that his character gets stoned often and, as a typical teenager, is trying to pull off a too-cool-for-the-world-“whatever” attitude, but he seems freaking catatonic. He’s too aloof for his own good. His acting is dry and monotone and he feels like he’s constantly zoning out. Again, I understand that this works with his stoned persona but Peck is hardly ever convincing in the part and his acting shortcomings rob the role of a greater level of sympathy. A great actor can make you like a character that eats babies and kicks puppies, or the other way around, but Peck is not that actor. I believe that part of The Wackness‘ failure to connect and elevate beyond its genre trappings is due to Peck’s poor performance. He’s just kind of boring character and, to borrow a term from our pals on the other side of the pond, a bit of a wanker.

As a director, Levine has a playful and visually appealing look for the film, bathing it in arid tones to echo the hot summer days. The cinematography is a character all its own, giving the film a colorful and lively flair that makes every scene worth watching even if the script fails to do likewise. Levine has a handful of clever visual tricks up his sleeve, like a middle finger that moves through a crowd of New Yorkers at rapid speed before finding and dialing a pay phone. Levine has definite talent as a director and it shouldn’t be long before Hollywood comes knocking and plucks him away to make The Fast and the Furious 8: The Search for Curly’s Gold.

The Wackness feels like a coming-of-age film that goes through the motions. The main character is stoned to the point of comatose and he’s a rather boring protagonist, made even duller by Peck’s lackluster acting ability. Writer/director Levine flexes enough visual artistry to make him a talent to watch, however, his screenplay is too familiar with little personality or flavor to stand out against the pack. The movie looks good, it sounds good, and Kingsley is certainly good, it’s just a shame that it isn’t his movie. Steph tells the mopey Luke that all she sees is the goodness life has to offer and all he sees is “the wackness” (you can go home happy to understand the title). I guess I similarly be accused of focusing on the “wackness” of The Wackness because it’s certainly not a bad movie. It just happens to be ordinary. Though it does have some torrid Kingsley-on-Olsen Twin action. I suppose that isn’t too wack.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Hancock (2008)

Hancock is perhaps the first movie that looks at the consequences of being a super-powered do-gooder. I’m not talking the self-doubt or placing your loved ones in danger. I’m talking about money. A super hero can rack up super amounts of damage to a city, and the titular character often causes millions of dollars in destruction as he sloppily combats crime. In some ways, the super hero is more costly than the criminals. As you can imagine, the public at large isn’t too taken with Hancock (the film misses the opportunity to have neighbors worry their property values will plummet if Hancock moves into town). It’s too bad that Hancock, the film, doesn’t stay as original.

John Hancock (Will Smith) is a disgruntled man. He likes to drink, sleep, and keep to himself. Unfortunately, people keep bugging him for help. This may have something to do with the fact that Hancock is a man with the abilities of a super hero. He can fly, has incredible strength, and appears to be physically impervious, but that doesn’t stop criminals from emptying their guns at him. One gang learns firsthand the anger of Hancock when they destroy his whisky bottle. The city doesn’t know what to do with the world’s lone super being because he causes so much destruction. Ray (Jason Bateman) is a PR man fighting a losing battle to convince major corporations to donate supplies to needy countries for free. Hancock saves his life one afternoon and Ray decides to use his skills to give the irritable super hero an image makeover. He’s going to use Hancock to help change the world for the better. The plan to reform Hancock involves sending him to prison and waiting until the city begs for his assistance with rising crime. Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), is wary of her husband’s super hero project. She just wants to live a quiet life with regular meatball madness dinners with her family.

I think I’m already starting to get sick of super heroes and there’s still more to come this summer. There are several good ideas rolling around inside Hancock, but at a scant 92 minutes there’s little time to develop them. The movie takes off in a mildly satisfying manner but then botches the landing.

Smith’s considerable charms at put at odds with a character that resembles an ornery bastard. It’s a bit of a wink to the audience because no Hollywood studio would let the most popular international movie star release a super expensive summer movie where he begins and ends as a total jackass. The film seems to be tailor-made to Smith’s strengths, which still include his ability to naturally command attention and likeability. The idea of a lone super hero who drinks heavily, destroys personal property, and whom the public vocally dislikes is a sound idea and allows Smith and the filmmakers to explore certain realities not seen in other super hero flicks. The public griping over the methods Hancock chooses to save the day seems rather believable, especially when those methods usually involve heavy-duty collateral damage consequences. I like the idea that every time Hancock lands from flying he takes chunks of concrete or tar with him. There are several interesting ideas that come from the conflict between society and a super hero who would rather sleep off a hangover. I think the idea of paring a disgruntled super hero with an idealistic PR man is a great concept, benefited by Bateman’s sterling comic abilities fine-tuned from Arrested Development (where he also romanced Theron). I really enjoyed the interaction between Hancock and Ray. For a decent 60 minutes, Hancock is a passable super hero excursion lifted by Smith and Bateman’s chemistry.

Hancock starts with some promise but then goes in a completely different direction for its third act (let me just say this: there’s a reason they’ve been hiding Theron from any advertisement). The film also overplays its hand early. When Hancock and Mary first meet they hang on to each other, then she looks at him suspiciously and continues to, then she says some very leading dialogue that is a bit on-the-nose. All an audience needs is one award, penetrating look to understand that something is up. Hancock ends up feeling pulled in too many directions. It begins as a sly satire on super heroes and is mostly confined to jaunty comedy, but then the movie gets dramatic and grim and a bit hard to follow. The film begins as a jokey riff and then gets gritty, finding room to fit in mythology, religious questions, age-old racism about interracial dating, and a terribly clunky villain (Eddie Marsan) who breaks out of jail so that he can seek improbable vengeance against an immortal. Hancock’s origin is muddled and as preposterous as most other super heroes. The third act shift seems to drain all the fun out of the movie and it gets too serious, too confusing, and too convoluted (what’s the distance rule here between super people?). Hancock ultimately has too many chefs in the kitchen and becomes a mess.

I’m sad to say but director Peter Berg really whiffs with this movie. His visual style is a hindrance to the film. I recently re-watched his first action film, 2003’s The Rundown, and Berg was able to craft stylish, highly playful action sequences without shaking the camera all over the place. A tripod served the film’s best interest and Berg tailored his visual style to the material. I expressed worry with his previous film, 2007’s The Kingdom, that Berg has become locked in to his handheld docu-drama style that bobs and weaves around his actors and employs numerous quick cuts and odd angles. His erratic style can improve and assist narratives but it can also hamper the storytelling. Nothing is really gained by Berg filming his tender moments at obtuse angles, extreme asymmetrical close-ups, and a hovering camera. It feels like a style completely unsuited for the material. I would have liked to fully watch the action sequences and enjoy the clever tweaks on the genre. Berg is an imaginative and underrated director, but his jittery docu-drama style he has embraced can also make his films seem cobbled together and overly rushed and, potentially, half-assed.

Hancock is much like the title character. It means well and wants to help but an audience can’t help but grumble about its methods. The concept of a super hero that is rejected by the people he saves is a subject ripe with subtext that could explore meaningful and insightful glimpses about guilt, the weight of expectation, the desire for human affection and acceptance, the frustration to be understood, the questions of personal responsibility and loyalty, and rejecting or heeding the call to do better. Hancock does not delve into any of these potent psychological areas. That’s fine, as long as the film delivers top-notch popcorn thrills and makes me forget about its wasted potential. Sadly, Hancock fails to deliver. The special effects are generally sub-par, the story misfires, and the whole film begins with promise but ends up turning into a mundane mess. Berg’s aesthetic doesn’t square with the material. Smith is still as charming as ever and will always be a genial presence onscreen, but Hancock turns into a movie that feels like a super hero hangover itself.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Wanted (2008)

Wanted isn’t so much a movie as a fetish vehicle for teen males, with sexy cars, sexy guns, and sexy tatted-up Angelina Jolie, daring the predominantly male audience to decide which is sexiest (I am not a car aficionado nor a gun person, so I’ll say that Jolie easily outpaced her competition).

Wesley (James McAvoy) is a pathetic office drone that sweats out his days never raising his voice. His best friend is constantly screwing Wesley’s bitchy girlfriend, his boss constantly harangues him into panic attacks, and, saddest of all, a Google search results in nothing for Wesley Gibson’s name. He tells us he has done nothing with his life. This all changes when a mysterious woman named Fox (Jolie) tells Wesley that the father he never knew has just died. Not only that, Wesley’s father was one of the world’s greatest assassins and he might just be a chip off the old block. Wesley is recruited into The Fraternity, a thousand year-old organization whose membership includes the best-trained killers. Sloan (Morgan Freeman) is the leader who assigns the targets. He gets his orders, literally, from the Loom of Fate, a weaving loom that writes binary letters via stitches. The Loom of Fate decides whom the planet would be better off without. Fox and her cohorts train Wesley to accept his destiny and avenge his father’s murder.

The movie fails to establish any form of internal logic or continuity, so anything preposterous suddenly becomes accessible. That means people can jump from one skyscraper to another, you can outrun a moving train, cars will do the damndest things, and that you can curve a bullet simply by rotating your hand and shutting off that little part of your brain that says, “This is defying all laws of physics.” For some reason, people are able to shoot bullets down in mid-air as a defensive maneuver but they rarely take aim at the person, surely a bigger and slower target. It’s like The Matrix outside of the Matrix with no reason for being Matrix-y. The idea is that these super assassins have super hearts that beat like 400 times faster, which pumps more blood and allows their senses to heighten. This somehow allows them to slow down time, zoom in on subjects, and react extra fast. It doesn’t make any sense but then again this is a movie where the killers are taking orders from the Loom of Fate. While I’m on the topic, really, a loom that stitches targets in binary code? Isn’t there an easier way for fate to decree who should be bumped off than someone scrutinizing the stitch work of a rug? What happens when it lists a name with more than one owner? How many “John Smiths” must be killed to secure that the correct Mr. Smith has been erased? My father thought the Loom of Fate was the most bizarre and interesting aspect of the movie.

Despite the freewheeling action, there is something decidedly depraved about fully embracing Wanted. The premise of awesome killers demands awesome carnage, and Wanted dishes out violence as an act to be savored and glorified. Wesley’s self-actualization is linked with getting better at making others suffer, and in the end the film advances a questionable message to follow suit. The movie exists in a hyper-realistic video game universe devoid of consequences. I can see future news reports of idiot teenagers playing their own deadly game of curving bullets (they may have to establish a Wanted category for the Darwin Awards). But yet the most disconcerting feature of Wanted is its dismissive nature toward human life. I’m not even talking about the assassin premise, though trained killer flicks usually work better when the pros have some sort of personal code. Wanted is a fetishistic worship of human bodies being taken apart in loving, gory detail under the auspices of being “cool.” Innocent life barely merits a half-hearted shrug. When Wesley and Fox bring their fight on board a train the eventually force the vehicle off a cliff, and the movie makes no mention of all those innocent people plummeting to their doom. That would get in the way of the film being “cool.”

With all that said, Wanted can feel like a high-octane rush to the senses. This film is soaked in adrenaline. The stunt work is astounding and the action is ramped-up to ridiculous levels. I say ridiculous because the film never establishes any form of internal logic or continuity, but I also say ridiculous because the action can be tremendously exciting and embellished with stylistic flourishes. Wanted is a slick and imaginative action movie, and the fact that it often dances with satisfaction makes me sick for enjoying it so. Summer is the perfect opportunity for empty calorie movies with style to spare, and Wanted is a five-course meal of glossy, disposable artifice. Director Timur Bekmambetov previously directed the Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, but Wanted is a giant leap forward in budget and sheer scope. Life inside this man’s head must be crazy. He takes the outlandish and makes it seem common.

The story is rather derivative and smashes the plots of Fight Club and The Matrix together, proving that not only were screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas alive in 1999 but they were also furiously taking notes. The whole notion has been done to death, a loser who secretly harbors superior talent and ability waiting to be realized. It still proves to be a popular and mostly pleasing storyline because it taps into a universal desire to be special. Brandt and Haas aren’t so much constructing a story as they are constructing a series of eye-popping moments. There is very little substance beneath all the fireworks (stand up for yourself and slay your antagonists?). Normally I’d take issue with a film’s trashy vapidity; however, when that film happens to be so good at being so good looking.

McAvoy is rather believable when he plays the dweeb eking out a miserable existence. He knows how to play meek and anxiety-riddled while maintaining a vulnerability that stops his character from coming across as a figure of annoying inaction. He sure gets beaten up a lot and I’m not quite sure why this is supposed to make him more inclined to join The Fraternity, but then again it hasn’t stopped thousands of college males from wanting to join their own fraternities. McAvoy is less believable when he suddenly transforms into a super soldier, like a pint-sized Rambo. Jolie relies on her exceptional sex appeal in lieu of acting, which is fine with me. It’s good to see her in a role where she can fully make use of her physical talents. Freeman is essentially in the Samuel L. Jackson role and even gets a chance to drop an MF-bomb.

Wanted is a crazy cool and mostly crazy action thriller that is more than a little sick in the head. Its video game universe covets beautiful bloodshed and exquisite carnage. It’s rather depraved and morally questionable not in approach but in execution (no pun intended, well maybe). Wanted is a gory, profane, darkly humorous action movie that secretes adrenaline with every frame. The imagination on display is impressive but you may wish that it had been used for better purposes.

Nate’s Grade: B

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