Sunday, July 13, 2008

SUMMER MOVIE ROUND-UP

I'm not one to normally gush over an animated movie, but WALL*E (****) was a delight from start to finish and easily one of the smartest, most entertaining films of the year. Andrew Stanton's beautifully animated tale about a lonely robot cleaning up trash on earth long after people have vacated it has nods not only to Chaplin but to Spielberg, while also working in the time-tested Disney/Pixar way that has brought smiles to both children and adults for the last 10 years or so. I knew from the trailers that I was going to have a soft-spot in my heart for the little robot but I never knew I was going to absolutely love the adventure he goes on. There is sly, subversive commentary on our culture embedded within the narrative of WALL*E, while also still providing what little tykes like: a cute main character and an exciting plot. Echoing sections of Mike Judge's criminally underseen and underrated futuristic comedy IDIOCRACY, the humans in WALL*E have regressed into fat, uneducated slobs, content to float around on mechanical beds, with fast food at their finger tips, always glued to their phones and televisions. WALL*E is a waste containment robot who is making cubes of trash in his compactor somewhere on earth. One day, another robot shows up, looking for signs of life. This robot, a girl named Eva, has a meet-cute with WALL*E, who is immediately smitten. He hitches a ride into space when Eva's ship shows up to take her back and craziness ensues. I really loved this film. No other animated movie in recent memory has made me laugh like this one. And the opening 25 minutes, which are essentially silent, are some of the best moments of purely visual storytelling that have been put on screen in a long time. WALL*E is bright, funny, sharp, and excessively cute.


Peter Berg's unique and ass-kicking superhero movie HANCOCK (***1/2) is one of the most interesting big-budget summer movies that has ever been released. It's a film that has completely divided critics, but one that audiences seem to be loving (its relatively small 47% decline in its second weekend at the box office suggests not only that audiences are digging it, but that Will Smith is the most bankable movie star on the planet). This is a tough film to discuss without divulging any spoilers, and there is a "twist" that shouldn't be revealed or even hinted at. But what I will say about this scrappy, edgy, and funny take on the superhero movie is that it's exactly the kind of kick in the ass that this genre needed. We've seen SUPERMAN and BATMAN and IRON MAN and THE X-MEN and so on and so forth. But there's never, ever been a superhero like Hancock. Hancock (Smith) is a drunk. Hancock likes the ladies. Hancock likes to curse. Hancock thinks it's funny when he breaks things. He behaves in the way that a superhero would probably behave if there really were such things as superheroes in real life. What Berg and writers Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan have done is set the film in the real world and treat it like a dark comedy. Not so much interested in satisfying the more obvious conventions of the genre (again, at the risk of spoiling anything, I hesitate to reveal too much about the film's plot), the filmmakers are more interested in the character of Hancock, and two people who cross his path: Ray, an idealistic PR executive (played with zeal by scene-stealer Jason Bateman) and his ultra-sexy wife, Mary, played by Charlize Theron. After saving Ray's life, Hancock employs Ray to help him make over his image. The public is sick of Hancock destroying stuff, even though he is a good crime fighter. They're sick of his boozy shenanigans, and Los Angeles, his home city, is sick of paying the clean up bill after he does things like hang a couple of gangsters on the Capitol Records building by the front end of their SUV. Hancock goes to prison in an effort to show people that he knows he's been bad, but once inside, he's compelled to leave when the city needs his help yet again. Now, as I mentioned before, lots of surprises occur in this film, and while there is certainly a big twist that changes the film in a major way, it's what Berg doesn't do with this film that excited more than what he did do with it. I loved the last third of this film, which apparently is the spot where some people have had problems with it. I loved Berg's decision, in conjunction with his writers and top-dog producer Michael Mann, to down-play the typical super-hero/super-villain climactic battle and make the film more about character and emotional decisions than wanton destruction. That's not to say that HANCOCK doesn't deliver in the typical action-movie smash 'em-up fashion that you've come to expect from a Will Smith 4th of July blockbuster; lots of shit gets blown up and thrown around and all of it is done with polish and skill. It's just that there is more going on in HANCOCK on a thematic level than you'd ever expect from a film like this. After last year's hard-hitting action flick THE KINGDOM and his work on both the feature film and television series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, Peter Berg has cemented his reputation as one of the best up and coming filmmakers working within the studio system. With HANCOCK, he's made one of the more subversive and original blockbusters that I've ever seen.

WANTED (***1/2) is glorious trash, a movie that knows it's junk and revels in it. In this hyper-violent, cheerfully vulgar, and totally asinine hodgepodge of THE MATRIX, FIGHT CLUB, and the oeuvres of Michael Bay and John Woo, James MacAvoy stars as Wesley Gibson, a dork working an anonymous accounting job who's girlfriend is sleeping with his best friend, and who endures constant verbal abuse from his overbearing boss. He's a lummox, a sheep, a total wuss. That is until he meets the sleek and sexy Fox (Angelina Jolie, all dark eye make-up and pouting lips), who tells him that he's really the son of the most talented assassin who's ever lived. She's part of a group of assassins called The Fraternity, who were formed over 1,000 years ago by a group of weavers. No, I am not making this shit up. Fox tells Wesley that he needs to come with her to train so that he can avenge his father's death, and finally meet his true calling as a gun-toting killer who can curve bullets around walls and into people's heads from miles away. Morgan Freeman is the head of The Fraternity, selling cliched lines of dialogue and get-the-audience-up-to-speed exposition in that special way that only Morgan Freeman can. The loony plot is simply an excuse for the vigorously visual Russian director Timur Bekmambetov to prove to Hollywood that he can hack it with the big boys. While watching WANTED for even the first 10 minutes or so, it was obvious to me that Bekmambetov was making a kitchen-sink action film, maybe in the fear that he'd never get to make another movie again. Heads explode in super slow motion with the bullets stopping and reversing their direction, rough sex is had on kitchen tables, cars drive at excessive speeds and crash through moving trains, Jolie emerges from a bath tub and exposes her naked ass for the camera, and there's a finale with enough gun play and explosions to make Bay and Woo feel jealous that they weren't invited to the party. The satire is FIGHT CLUB-lite, the writing is occasionally puerile yet often snappy and humorous, and the acting is solid without ever transcending the material. Then why am I giving it ***1/2? Because from a visual stand point, WANTED is one of the most explosively sexy actioners that I have seen since Bay's masterpiece of carnage, BAD BOYS 2. Working with cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen (TRANSFORMERS) would help any director, but it's clear to me that Bekmambetov had a distinct vision, no matter how over the top it was, and he was playing by nobody else's rules but his. This is an unapologetically R-rated film that shoots first and asks questions later. And watching Jolie with two guns while in tight pants is always entertaining in its own right. Like I said at the beginning: WANTED is garbage but great garbage, the kind of garbage you want to take back from the curb to re-examine before you finally get rid of it for good.

Louis Letterrier's THE INCREDIBLE HULK (***) was a solid piece of summer action movie mayhem that destroyed all of the stuff that remained in tact during Ang Lee's more thoughtful take on the material from a few years back. Ed Norton stars as Bruce Banner and the big green guy, with Liv Tyler as Betty, his love interest. Tim Roth is the bad guy, a soldier injected with a super-serum which turns him into a creature similar to the hulk, dubbed The Abomination. With a quick 100 minute run time and a spare (probably too spare) script with minimal time spent on character development or story complexity, THE INCREDIBLE HULK basically boils down to three big action set-pieces, with the second one, staged on a college campus and involving a fiery helicopter crash, being my favorite. Some of the CGI is still too fake looking, and much too much of the final showdown between the Hulk and the Abomination comes off as video game. And honestly, some of the writing was pretty weak. But the actors class the material up, there is an awesome cameo at the end of the film from another Marvel superhero, and Letterrier, who demonstrated solid action chops with lower budgeted fare like UNLEASHED and THE TRANSPORTER 1 & 2, directs with a rough and tumble attitude that fits neatly into what the hulk was always about: smashing shit up.


The less said about GET SMART (*1/2) the better. I love Steve Carell. I really do. He's an absurdly funny guy who tears it up every week on THE OFFICE and who was fucking priceless in THE FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN. However, starring in an action-comedy, while inevitable, was probably not the best move for him. Or maybe it would have been had the film not been directed by ultra-hack Peter Segal (THE LONGEST YARD, ANGER MANAGEMENT, TOMMY BOY) and had it not left him out to dry with some totally unfunny "comedic" material. There's also the fact that the film looked like pure ass-cream. Seriously...the lighting in this film was atrocious, almost every background looked fake, the action sequences had zero pule or intensity, and most offensively, the film was just boring and ugly to look at. All of the co-stars look lost or tired. The Rock is a cool guy but he's starting to feel a little cocky to me. Alan Arkin has like five scenes, and gets one of the film's only hysterical lines of dialogue. Anne Hathaway has a tight body but that's about it. Everything was just ho-hum about this effort, but it's made a ton of money so good for Carell; he'll get more work. Let's just hope that he picks better material and stays away from jokers like Segal.

4 comments:

Wayne said...

WALL*E is such a fantastic film. I can't wait to see it again. I think I'll take a pass on the rest of those though.

Actionman said...

I thought you were excited for Hancock? It's an awesome flick...I highly reccomend you check it out.

Wanted was more fun than I ever thought it would be. Good summer entertainment.

Muttley Herman Joy said...

I like how Angelina stars in such morally devoid crap to pay her baby-hording bills, and then calls herself an ambassador of world peace when off-duty. Thanks for sticking the world with this fame-hungry, Billy-Bob-humping psycho, Jon Voight.

Actionman said...

She's certainly hypocritical. But she's got a hot ass and she looks sexy with two guns.