Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can Villains determine the entertainment value of a Super Hero Movie? part 3

There is a moment in Iron Man (2008) where the villain of the piece, the Iron Monger aka Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) picks up an SUV to hurl it at the worn down Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Morton Downey Jr.) where I went, "This is a very cool villain." Although the movie was not exceptionally action packed and the fight between Iron Man and the Iron Monger is not particularly long, nevertheless the Iron Monger was a flat out cool villain.

It was his coolness as a villain that turned the movie from another, "Oh, it was nice to see but...I don't know if I would see it again" type fare into, "When that comes out on video, we are buying that one!" because it is one that will stand up to repeated viewings. He is an interesting villain and a capable one. But the reason he is interesting is because they took the time to flesh him out.
On first viewing Obadiah Stane is a believable family friend. There is an obvious familiarity and camaraderie between Stane and Stark that is fun to watch and believable. His motivations make sense...he wants to preserve the business. He wants to maximize his own power and, as it turns out, is willing to harm those who get in his way such as Tony Stark. Their conflict thus flows naturally and is easy to believe.

That is the hallmark of a strong villain. They are not specifically seeking to test their wits against the hero. The conflict that arises between Super Hero and Super Villain arises organically as the respective parties pursue their own goals. A great example of this would be the villains who fought Spiderman.

It started with the first Green Goblin. He was not specifically seeking out Spiderman. He was simply angry at the failure of his schemes and, mentally unhinged, he lashed out. Spiderman sought him out and took the fight to him. This changed a bit when Harry Osborn sought revenge for his fathers' death but by then the paradigm of Spiderman versus the Green Goblin had been established and would itself have been believable motivation. By having the character arcs intersect seemingly by chance rather than just creating a villain who simply wanted to battle a hero we were presented, if not a 3 dimensional then at least a complex 2 dimensional character who seems to act in their own self-interest as opposed to some villains of movies past who seemed to exist solely to provide a foil for the hero and whose motivations were not particularly believable.Dr. Octopus is a further example of this. Far from just some cartoonish villain, when we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) he is in fact a hero of sorts. It is only after his experiment goes awry that we see him become evil. But it is a tempered evil...he does not suddenly become a maniac or psychopath...he simply tries to set things aright and makes poor choices which lead to his turn to the path of crime which then is exacerbated by his interactions with Harry. Their interactions which fit very well with each character's personal motivations.

Thus Doc Ock is not just random villain X with no interests of his own. In truth he is someone we can care about, even if eventually that care is that he be defeated. Of course, in the flick he eventually redeems himself, a fact which for many fans of villains actually condemns him, but that is for another piece. Until then, Doc Ock follows the Spiderman villain pattern,

Contrast that with a villain such as Bullseye (Colin Farrell) from Daredevil (2003). He is a more stereotypical villain.His motivations? Money and hitting everything he shoots at. He has to hit the bulls eye with darts, paper clips, shuriken, and even pencils. On the bright side he is quite entertaining. His method of disposing of the old woman on the plane was quite amusing and his quip about the guard he killed with pencils memorable as well. And there is no denying he has a very cool look. Colin Farrell nailed this role.

On the downside he is pretty much a 1 dimensional character. He serves as nothing but a goon, a hired thug brought in specifically for a job. His one motivation is anger when Daredevil (Ben Affleck) makes him miss. That is a weak motivation indeed.

It is possible that weak villains such as Bullseye and the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) had a lot to do with the weak box office done by Daredevil. Their motivations were irrelevant to the movie and thus it lacked the depth that has set the good Super Hero movies apart. Or perhaps not. After all, a very popular arch-villain in a current movie has far more in common with Bullseye than with the better developed villains of Spiderman and Iron Man.

Is there any question the Joker (Heath Ledger) will go down in the annals of movie history as one of the greatest antagonists of all time? He mesmerized the audience while on the screen and haunted all the events occurring off it. He made The Dark Knight (2008) into must-see entertainment even for non-fans of comic books.In many ways, he was everything a good villain should be. He was dangerous, he was a threat to the existence of the hero, he caused the protagonist existential quandaries as well as physical opposition, and he performed actions that screamed "villain" in ways that are usually reserved for the most depraved individuals.

Yet if we take a step back we quickly realize he was actually a pretty one dimensional, almost cartoonish villain. His role has more in common with Bullseye than it does with even the Green Goblin.

He does not care about money. He does not care about power. He does not even particularly care about his own life. Check out the way he screams, "Hit me! Hit Me! HIT ME!!!!!!" As Batman roars towards him on the Batcycle. Or the way he aims a loaded gun in his mouth and puts it in the hands of Harvey "Two Face" Dent (Aaron Eckhardt). He is willing to die to corrupt people.

That is his entire motivation. To corrupt people. That is about as cartoonish as it gets yet he is still an undeniably entertaining villain, thus demonstrating you don't have to have a rounded villain if the movie is handled correctly.

The Hellboy franchise is one that seems to have gotten that often touchy line correct. Villains range from Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (Ladislav Beren) to Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) to Wink (Brian Steele). At one end you have Wink and Kroenen...
They are stereotypical goons. It is hard to say what their motivations, hopes, dreams or desires are because those are never mentioned. They are just muscle, just obstacles for the hero to overcome. At the other end of the spectrum is Prince Nuada. He is a complex villain. His desires make sense and might even find a few viewers who sympathise with him in the current social paradigms. He knows his choices will be unpopular yet he believes in them so strongly that he ends up killing his Father while professing love for him. He is strong, intelligent, and cares for his followers. His story is really what draws you in while the love story of Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) is almost a sideline. A villain who is over half the story is complex indeed. And that adds a great deal of interest even to movies which are more interested in providing a fun experience for the viewer than a great or deep storyline.

And that brings us to the Abomination (Tim Roth).

Is he a good guy at the beginning of the movie? Or is he just a villain who does not yet realize it? The path he takes from super soldier to what you see pictured here is every bit as important to the story of The Incredible Hulk (2008) as even that of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) himself.

The downward spiral as he tries to amplify his own power to compete with the Hulk seems to be part of what corrupts him. The process as his ego compels him to attempt things beyond his strength makes for an entertaining tale. And at the end his sheer strength leads to one of the most entertaining Super Hero battles to hit the big screen yet.

From Bullseye to Abomination, from the Joker to Wink, villains are a crucial part of the world of the Super Hero. Without a proper villain a Super Hero movie is pretty pointless. It behooves the prudent writer to put some thought into their villains.

Coming up next:assessing the tweeners...are they heroes or villains?

Assessing the Heroes Part 2

The recent spate of Super Hero movies has been very entertaining for me. I am a closet Comic Book lover who prefers a bit of the 40s, 50s and 60s feel when they were more about entertainment and less about angst. About the time every new title that hit the market echoed the angst of the Fantastic Four my interest began to wane. I think the Darkhawk title was a pretty good example. It started out with a sense of fun and adventure...then made a left turn into every issue being so full of angst that it became an exercise in misery.
Of course, the poster child for angst came from Marvel comics with the Fantastic Four. Thus rose the challenge; how can you make a bunch of angst-ridden heroes into an entertaining movie? Well, for the male portion of your population, starting with Jessica Alba as Susan Storm is never a bad idea. There are not a huge number of straight males who don't find her smoking hot. I freely admit to not being one of those few.
At the same time, simply adding her to the line-up does not make a movie entertaining in and of itself. What do Awake (2007), The Eye (2007), The Love Guru (2008), and even Good Luck Chuck (2007) have in common? Jessica Alba was in the movie and it did not draw crowds. It isn't enough to have beautiful people such as Alba and Chris Evans (Johnny Storm) roaming around. The writers still must like us care about the characters they portray.
The difficulty of having his wife reject him and always appearing odd is something that had audiences empathizing with Ben "the Thing" Grimm (Michael Chiklis). The all brain, no comprehension of sexy woman hitting on you syndrome of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) struck a chord with millions of geeks, nerds, and comic book aficionados. And so forth.
Further proof that being sexy does not an entertaining movie make comes in the form of versatile actress Jennifer Garner. In the middle of her run on Alias she made movies as varied as 13 Going on 30 (2004) and Daredevil (2003). How is it the first was considered a success and the second a failure?
Again, it has to do with whether the character was entertaining. Somehow Elektra (Jennifer Garner) came across as not butt-kicking but as a bit needy, whiny and weak. How that is possible when someone looks like she does in the above picture is hard to understand. It also illustrates the fine line between creating a character that works and one that doesn't.
That is the secret to making good lead characters. Give us a character we can like. After well-publicized life problems, why would fans flock to a Robert Downey Jr. movie? To be sure, there is plenty of attractive flesh in Iron Man (2008)...I think this picture gives you a feel for the tone.
But nobody in their right mind is going to shell out $30 bucks (assuming 2 tickets, some popcorn, soda, and maybe a candy of some sort) for a few glimpses of toned legs and skimpy outfits unless the story is entertaining. While very few of us will have a device of questionable scientific legitimacy keeping us alive, many of us might wish we could jet-set around Vegas and California with the beautiful people, drive fast cars, and have a cool, fun, high paying job. Being on the edge of losing that and seeing the need to make a difference as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) did in Iron Man draws people in, entertains them, and sends them home happy. And it never hurts if the good guy looks cool and can blow stuff up using an outfit like this. If you want to purchase one just like it for me for Christmas I will happily forward my particulars to you. And for those who never read the Iron Man titles, here is a minor spoiler for you. When Rhodie (Terrence Howard) scoped out the silver suit in Stark's home and says, "Next time"...he gets to wear a suit like that under the name War Machine. If that character is part of the next Iron Man it will be a major geek-out moment.

Now, you might think from what I said above I think characters should have no angst or something along that line. Far from it. In Batman we have a character who, in the current incarnation, is so angst-ridden that he considers giving up the super hero game in The Dark Knight (2008). Yet the movie is hugely entertaining...including him. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) can do things very few if any of the viewers can. Yet his struggle to deal with tragic losses without becoming hateful and vengeful resonates with many people. His troubles are deep but not presented in a way that overwhelms you with dreariness. Contrast that with, for example, Superman (Brandon Roush) in Superman Returns (2006)In trying to restart the Superman franchise there were a lot of external factors. George Reeves and Christopher Reeves, 2 iconic Supermen both came to unfortunate and tragic ends. Christopher, in particular, was still so associated with the franchise that many questioned if reviving the franchise was even possible. With that in mind, Superman Returns was entirely too dreary. The choice to shoot everything in greyish, muted, dark tones, to score it with moody music and to couch the attempt to rekindle heat between Superman and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in terms of her smoking habit tended to turn the movie too dreary and subsequently fan excitement for a sequel has been, to say the least, rather muted. Nor is Superman the only franchise to suffer this malady.

The Punisher franchise could offer an excellent counterpoint to most of the movies out today. Unlike Batman, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Superman, or even the X-men, the Punisher of the comics not only never had any compunction about killing people, his title was noted for exceedingly high body counts. Yet in the restart after the roundly panned Punisher (1989) in which Dolph Lundgren played a Frank Castle similar to the comic in that he used large numbers of huge weapons, the Punisher (2004) spends so long setting up the background that Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) never gets his guns off, so to speak and the cliactic battle is too little, too late for fans of the comic version and too brutal for those who went into the movie not knowing what to expect. That is part of why Punisher: War Zone (2008?) is having so many problems in production; the studio is rumored to be afraid to make a movie that will appease the hardcore Castle fans but still want to be hardcore.
Fortunately, we have an example of a hero who is willing to kill done right. For sheer fun, very little beats the wise-cracking, butt-kicking demon turned good guy, Hellboy.He has no compunction about killing. In fact, some of his best lines have to do with opponents he believes he has killed who refuse to stay dead. The killing is never matter of fact, random, or brutal. How do you politely is in fact fun? Hellboy (Ron Pearlman) plays it just right to make it entertaining.
So when you look at what forms an entertaining protagonist there are clearly several factors that come in to play. Is the character entertaining? Do they avoid having so many problems that instead of having fun the viewer is dragged down into misery? Are their goals, dreams, and actions something people can relate to in some way, however tenuous that vicarious thread might be?
And to me it mostly comes back to fun.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cinematic Superheroes; Rating the Greats, part 1

The financial success of the Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Hellboy, X-Men and Batman franchises in recent years ensures us that the foreseeable future will be inundated with further entries into the Super Hero genre. Actually, calling it "Super Hero" might not be exactly correct as from time to time we veer more into "Comic Book Hero" realm, a subtle yet sometimes important distinction. The Comic Book hero would include source material such as the oft-maligned and underrated Judge Dredd (1995) and the rumored Jonah Hex movie. If they stay true to the source material I will be there opening day for that one. However...if they go the route the scripts have been rumored to go...not so much. If I wanted to watch X-Files material I would watch the X-Files.

And therein we have one of the issues surrounding Comic Books as source material. The audience becomes a moving target even within the "fanboy"/nerd/geek paradigm. On the one hand, you have people like me...I know the general outline of even 2nd tier Heroes such as Darkhawk, the Green Arrow, Elongated Man, etc. and have a pretty good sense of the Superman pantheon of enemies, for example. Yet I have nowhere near the level of interest of people who, for example, recognized the name on the test tube in The Incredible Hulk (2008) as belonging to the guy who injected the Super Soldier serum into Steve Rogers (Captain America). On the other end of the spectrum are people who needed me to identify Steve Rogers as being the alias for the iconic Super Hero, to whom names like Zsasz or the Mad Hatter are unlikely to bring to mind Batman villains.

That leaves open the question of whether or how much origin story to kick in when starting a new tent pole Hero. In Spiderman (2002) the answer was yes, we will give the relatively long form version. In Daredevil (2003) the combination of too much back story and Ben Affleck unfortunately sunk a potentially very entertaining franchise as fans turned away in droves from a movie that, in retrospect, was actually quite entertaining. In The Incredible Hulk (2008) they dispensed with the back story entirely and assumed the audience would quickly comprehend the potentially complex relationships between the 3 main characters.

There is, like so often in the movies, no "right" or "wrong" answer. The Fantastic Four (2005) was essentially nothing but origin...yet it was entertaining and paved the way for further movies. Iron Man (2008) was also quite heavy on the origin portion yet left fans clamoring for more. Why did these movies succeed while Daredevil, The Hulk, and, arguably, even The Punisher (2004) failed?

Over the next few days I will explore a variety of factors that help explain the success, failure, and entertainment value of various comic book and Super Hero movies. Along the way the factors that make these movies entertaining...or not...for many people who may not have ever encountered the material prior to seeing these movies.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

This review contains one or more images you should not see until you have seen The Dark Knight (2008).

Ever since Batman Begins (2005) there has been anticipation for the sequel. As word of the powerhouse performance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker spread, that anticipation only increased. Now, at last, The Dark Knight (2008) is upon us. As you can see from the opening picture, the visuals are stunning. They are stunning throughout the movie and that is just the beginning.

Taking up shortly after the events of Batman Begins, Dark Knight finds a lot of Batman impersonators on the streets. They are almost as dangerous to themselves as they are to the Batman (Christian Bale) and even cause him some difficulties in the opening sequences as he deals with The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).

As an is kind of sad to see a potentially tough Batman villain such as the Scarecrow turned into a throw-away piece...he is dispatched as easily in this movie as any of the dozens or hundreds of thugs that Batman deals with. In Batman Begins he was, if not on the level of Villain, at least a strong Minion, well above the level of mere henchman or thug. He might even be considered a mere Hooligan in this movie and it will be hard for him to ever serve a role as viable threat to the Batman in the current franchise.

Be that as it may, we are also introduced to a true villain, the ultimate Batman arch-nemesis, the Joker. He is at his dastardly best in this one. His opening gambit to steal huge quantities of cash from the local mobsters includes having his gang members kill each other with him killing the final member. His trademark is inventive killings.

It is established early on that this is not the comedic Joker of the Batman television camp but owes a great deal to the psychopath Joker of Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989). And the Joker will prove to be a worthy opponent. He seems to always be not one but two steps ahead of the police, the mob, and even the Batman. He has a sick, sadistic sense of humor and causes lots of destruction. He dominates not just every scene he is in but also a lot of scenes he is not in.

All of which makes this even more amazing. The Dark Knight has nothing to do with the Joker. In case you missed that, let me repeat it. The Joker is irrelevant to this movie. He is the ultimate McGuffin.

The Dark Knight is about temptation, about endurance. Can the Batman be corrupted? Can Harvey Dent be a White Knight to Batman's Dark Knight and render him unnecessary? Those are the questions that intrigue director Christopher Nolan. Remember how in Batman Begins Batman won't kill Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) or, more tellingly, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson)...but he DOES choose not to save him? In The Dark Knight the question is will he kill the Joker to end the Joker's crime spree? As the Joker explicitly questions him, the Batman's entire story line is summed up in this one line; "And tonight, you are going to break your one rule."

Batman must choose whether to kill or allow killing to continue yet that has always been his one rule. He breaks laws at will. For example, he invades sovereign air space and kidnaps a foreign national in violation of dozens of laws. He beats the Joker to a pulp during an "interrogation". He removes evidence from a crime scene after 2 cops are shot. He drives an unlicensed, definitely not street legal Batmobile (and, later, Batbike)

But it is not just the Batman facing a moral dilemma. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) also faces a crisis. Seemingly incorruptible and fearless, he refuses to acquiesce to the Joker's demands and continues his job as District Attorney of putting mob members behind bars. Yet there are signs that he is perhaps a bit corruptible. He flips a 2-headed coin to determine choices "by chance". This reliance would become his trademark after one of the Joker's diabolical schemes resulted in a major change in Dent's life. In one moment his intended wife Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhal) is killed and he is turned into Two Face.
Two Face, of course, is a major Batman villain. Half good, half evil, he uses a coin to decide...the same 2-headed coin, only now one side is scarred in the same explosion.
So how is it that even though he dominates the screen and creates a major villain that the Joker doesn't matter? Just take a look at that picture. All the money the Joker stole is in that pile. So is all the moneybelonging to the mob. And the money was set on fire by the Joker. Money means nothing to him. Power means nothing to him. He explicitly tells both Dent and the Batman that his entire purpose is anarchy, to test them, to see if he can break them and create anarchy. He has no motivation of his own other than that of the writers and directors: to move the story along. Now, to be fair, he does this admirably. But he is completely a red herring. The movie is not about catching the is about looking at the character of the Batman, Dent, and Dawes and seeing who will stay true to their character.
Fortunately, it is an entertaining journey. Filled with powerhouse performances, high-octane action, and thought provoking story lines for everyone from the major characters down to supporting characters like Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine). If you like Batman as a character, Super Hero movies, action movies, or just plain entertainment, you have to see this flick.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hellboy II

The first Hellboy (2004) was everything a Super Hero movie should was fast-paced, had characters you liked and cared about, had great fight scenes and, above all, was fun. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) is the sequel, highly anticipated by many of us but not on the same level as Iron Man or The Dark Knight. Nevertheless, since Ironman Al was in town we headed out for the flick. On arrival we got a horrifying scare as the line snaked out of the theatre, down the wall, and around the corner. Fortunately, it turned out to be for another movie...oddly, Mama Mia (2008), it must have been a sneak peak.

The Golden Army recreates the opening from the first movie to refresh our memory, then gives us a peak at Hellboy growing up under the tutelage of Professor Broom (John Hurt) as he gets a Christmas story about the Golden Army and how they turned the tide in the Elven/faery world in their war with the humans. Even at 14 years of age he loves guns...going to sleep with a toy pistol after the story. Fast forward a few decades and things are much the same as they were at the end of Hellboy. He is living with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) in pseudo-happiness...they are not completely at peace with one another. Furthermore, he is at odds with section director Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor). To get him "under control" Manning brings in Johann Krauss (Seth McFarlane), pictured above left.
To create conflict we get the evil Elven son Prince Nuada (Luke Goss). Unsatisfied with the truce, he murders his father, tracks down his twin sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) and the pieces of the crown. When Hellboy gets in the way, Nuada threatens him with a tree elemental. To fight it Hellboy breaks out Big Baby, the gun pictured above. Oddly, he is he is hesitant to fire it off. Finally he does, blowing away the elemental but in the meanwhile the sub-theme of the movie is brought ever more clearly to light. Will mankind ever accept Hellboy or will he always be feared, despised and rejected by them?
Princess Nuala is caught up in the same struggle. She also provides Abe Saperstein (Doug Jones) with his first love interest as the 2 share a bond that will move the story along. Ultimately Nuala will have to choose between allowing her brother to gain control over the Golden Army and destroy mankind...or killing herself to stop him. Her relationship with Abe provides more tension over this internal conflict.
Ultimately the final battle takes place as Hellboy and Liz, Abe and Nuala all must come to peace with their decisions and the consequences those decisions will have.

Along the way there is plenty of action including a highly entertaining battle between Hellboy and Wink (Brian Steele). Perhaps the funniest moment in a movie full of 1-liners comes when Hellboy shows the tooth knocked out in their battle to Wink and says, "Happy?" to which Wink extends his extend-a-hand which has been smashed into itself and wordlessly whines back what is clearly interpreted as,"Hey, what about what you did to me?"

This movie has plenty of laughs, characters you care about, plenty of action and a lot of fun. It is not as funny as the first, the action is not quite as is good but somehow, just barely, misses the mark and neither Al nor I could put our finger on why. If you liked the first one you will like this one, if not then save your dough.

There is one additional bit of curiosity here. That has to do with the marketing. It was heavily marketed as being by "the director of Pan's Labyrinth (2006). " Okay, fair enough. Except the audiences for those two movies...well, I would not expect a lot of overlap.

People going to see Pan are more likely to be the art-house crowd, the people who think "independent" and "foreign" are code-words for "great movie" and that "blockbuster" and "making money" and "tentpole picture" are code words for "horrible movie that should never have been made". I am one of the few, the far between, the people who might like both. But as a general rule, fans of Pan are more likely to want a sequel to The Piano (1993) than to see any Super Hero movie, particularly one like Hellboy II.

It would seem more likely he would be touted for Mimic (1993), Hellboy (2004), or even the forthcoming Dr. Strange (2010), Hobbit (2011, 2012) or something along that lines. Yes, Pan was more recent...but the numbers were not staggering and it is hardly a ringing endorsement. If you say it will echo "popular Superhero movies of the last decade" and reference the Spiderman or Batman franchises...that marketing would make sense. But as it was, that struck me every time I heard it as being odd. Just a thought.
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Monday, July 14, 2008


Super Hero movies have become very popular with the wave of comic book adaptations that have made bank in recent years. Even with the occasional stinker thrown in the mix, the genre has shown a strong ability to pull in audiences. With that in mind someone decided to make a Super Hero movie that is not, to the best of my knowledge, an adaptation of a comic book but rather is its own creation. The result was Hancock (2008).

Hancock (Will Smith) is the hard-drinking guy who catches bad guys for no apparent reason. Along the way he goes out of his way to destroy things at every opportunity. He appears to be highly unmotivated yet obviously has a history of helping...or rather destroying in the course of "helping" people with big problems.

His habit of causing mass destruction in the course of his exploits has the public turned against him and full of hatred for him. This will begin to change when he encounters hapless Image Consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). After Hancock saves Ray from a train Ray begins working with him to reform his image, to become someone the masses love instead of hate.

Unfortunately, it turns out Hancock and Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) have a history together which is obvious from the beginning. There is a tension there whether Hancock will break up the marriage of idealistic Ray and his "Angel". Ultimately all is resolved in a happy ending that shows a cleaned up, caring Hancock doing his part not only to save the world but to help Ray make the world a better place.

The movie was pretty surprising. Throughout his career Smith has always had that edge of innocence. From his light-hearted rapper days as the Fresh Prince through his sit-com the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air through his entire movie career he has made relatively family-friendly fare. Even in Enemy of the State (1998) where there was a scene in a lingerie shop it was fairly clean. Not so with Hancock. This is a profanity laced expedition into realms that Smith has seldom if ever explored as part of his public persona. It would be like Miley Cyrus posing half-naked or Miss America showing up more or less in the buff. It is an example of pure perceptions shattered.

With that said, it was a pretty funny movie that should keep you interested beginning to end if you like Super Hero movies and/or Will Smith. There are some solid comedic moments and some more intense scenes as well. Bateman, Theron and Smith work well together and this is worth seeing.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Wall-E (2008) has a lot going for it. The critics love it, it is a Pixar picture...French for prohibitive Oscar favorite which, in animation, I actually occasionally pay attention to...and it follows in a long tradition of enjoyable Pixar movies.

The marketing was a bit do you get people to see a movie about a lone robot picking up garbage? But I heard good things about it from Ironman Al and after some idiot with a long history of criminal convictions robbed a bank, got chased by the police and closed about every freeway...well, a movie sounded pretty good.

It starts out pretty slowly. Wall-E (Ben Burtt) is a robot left behind on earth to clean up massive piles of garbage. His only companion is a in, the only thing to survive the destruction of earth will be a cockroach. This leads to a variety of cockroach survival jokes which are one of the highlights of the movie. The other centerpiece is his love of Hello Dolly (1969) and a dancing set-piece from that movie.

After we are introduced to the character of Wall-E a ship arrives. On the ship are explorer robots, or at least one, Eve (Elissa Knight). Eve will come to be the love of his life. He shows her his work and his collection of bits of American pop culture. In his search to please her he shows her something he discovered the prior day...a living plant. This proves to be what Eve is looking for and she instantly shuts down and sends out signals striving to bring back the mother ship.

Meanwhile, a sad and lonely Wall-E tries again and again to bring her back to life.

While she is immobile he takes her around the planet, protects her from the rain and even decorates her with Christmas lights. At this point it is obvious that, for the kids, the movie is about a love story between sentient robots and indeed their relationship drives the plot from point to point.

I would even argue there are some touching moments. The loneliness experienced in turn by Wall-E, the cockroach, and finally Eve are very well done and might tug at the heart strings a little bit. However, that story line is just a smoke screen for the real point of the movie. That point is at least 2-fold even aside from looks at loneliness and relationships.

Remember, each robot in this movie has a designated function. The names Wall-E and Eve mean Waste Allocation Load Lifter and Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator. That Waste load lifting is not just his name, it is his job and very reason for existing.
That brings us to the point of this movie. It is a rather sharp critique of American culture and resources. As you can see there are immense piles of garbage. Look closely on the right at the pile of garbage. There are thousands, perhaps millions of those piles formed by the Wall-E units that have all broken down except our hero. There is even a ring of garbage several pieces thick surrounding the planet.
Everything is owned by Buy & Large, a conglomerate that apparently made its fortune by up sizing everything...larger drinks, larger fries, larger desserts, and so forth. The larger items make more garbage and make people larger. That leads to the second portion of the social commentary which has to do with human contact but we will come back to that after further looking at the anti-garbage stance.
The movie takes a rather hypocritical stand in asserting the earth is on the verge of extinction due to excessive production of products and garbage. Yet the flick itself has a huge quantity of merchandise. There is an obvious disconnect between the message of the movie and the goals of the people making money off the movie.
Now, doubtless there are some large quantities of garbage and we would do well to reduce those levels. With that said, it has become an issue more intent on making political gains than on a realistic appraisal of the situation. Time and again we see that nature overcomes what people throw at it despite the sky is falling prognostications of the "experts". Yet we are taught that people are evil and irreparably damaging the earth. I call shenanigans.
The second part of the more hidden message has to do with how increasing reliance on electronic aids is creating a disconnect where people more seldom interact with each other and are growing increasingly larger themselves. As if people won't get the joke that everyone is so fat they can't even walk anymore we get a pan showing how captains of the ship went from sleek and fit to the current captain, a guy so fat that getting out of his bed requires robot assistance. In case anyone is looking for clues that the movie means to show that oversize portions and more sedentary time is destructive to society, the ship is named Axiom. Think about that word for 30 seconds and the meaning becomes clear.
The best part of the movie is actually not in is in Presto, the now traditional short in front of the movie in which a hungry rabbit causes a magician great problems which inadvertently turn it into the greatest performance of his life. The audience I was a part of laughed from beginning to end at the short. Overall a very entertaining evening.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Remember C3Po? The annoying, whining, simpering weasel that just made you want to throw something at the screen? You thought that was the most annoying hero character until the arrival of someone even more annoying...

Yeah, you knew who I meant. Jar Jar out-C3PO'd old goldenrod himself. On the bright side, he was not as whiny or simpering as the tin man but he was indeed annoying.

Fortunately for all movie lovers Jar Jar and C3PO essentially ended their run with the probable end of the Star Wars franchise. I mean, sure, The Clone Wars animated feature is slated to come out later this year but since Lucas is not directing it we should be safe from whiny, simpering primary characters. Meanwhile, let's go check out a movie slated to be a gunfire filled festival of fast cars, fast women, and fast shooting, Wanted (2008).

Meet the hero of Wanted (2008). Oh, not the gun wielding, maniacal driving cool headed Fox (Angelina Jolie). No, I am referring to the unbelievably whiny, simpering slug covering his head with his hands standing next to her. Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is the protagonist of the piece.

He is the food tube occupying a cubicle in a job that, in context of this movie, is pretty meaningless. When super assassin Cross (Thomas Kretsschmann) tries to kill Wesley he is protected and rescued by Fox.

Fox then brings him to the Fraternity, an ancient group of assassins who get their commands of whom to kill from binary code in the weaving. No word yet on how, exactly, people interpreted binary code in the middle ages...but then again, worrying about plot holes will destroy this movie. Otherwise, how can you explain people capable of firing through car windows, donut holes, cans of soda, turning 8 or 10 corners and hitting their target 2 miles away inside a building...yet need visibility to shoot at someone 10' away? Just ignore those things and go with the flow. We will all be much happier.

Back to the story; Fox, driving a Viper with her feet while sliding across the hood and shooting at Cross rescues Wesley. She takes him back to meet the Fraternity and begin his induction.

For those who love car chases this one alone is worth the price of admission. Ironman Al, I am looking in your direction. You will love this movie.

There are other car chases and a heavy dose of outstanding cars. It is a beautiful thing and very easy on the eyes.

Wesley proves to be a slow learner but slowly and surely he learns everything a guy needs to know to get ahead; how to take a punch, how to take a knife stabbing or slicing, how to curve a bullet and how to plan a hit.

He wants to hit Cross for killing his father but Sloan (Morgan Freeman) won't let him because he is not ready. So Cross comes looking for him.

Slowly Wesley learns the truth of how the Fraternity works and eventually (5 minutes in this will NOT be a surprise to you so hopefully I am not giving anything away here) he invades their facility in one of the best shootout scenes in recent memory...almost.

The action in the scene is is a well-choreographed set-piece full of blood and thunder with more rounds expended than in any 5 A-Team episodes ever filmed. There is a brilliant sequence of exchanges as he empties gun after gun and instead of reloading simply snaps up one falling from the hand of an enemy. I have but 2 quibbles and both speak to personal taste, not quality of film; 1) I would have loved it even more full speed as I am not a huge fan of slo-motion. 2) I am extremely sick of the jiggly, shaky camerawork. I can do that myself. Give me steady cameras. I want my movie to look slick. I want to know I am watching a slick, big budget Hollywood flick.

Be that as it may it leads to a well done ending where loyalties and mores are tested, the twists are more or less resolved, and the Fraternity is put to the test, as is Wesley.

As to the ending, and after you see the movie this will make a lot more sense, there is a huge difference between the characters played by Jolie and Freeman. It also speaks, in my opinion, to why Freeman is the better actor.

When he is asked to play the villain in a movie...he is a legit villain. There is no easy out such as I would argue Fox takes in this one...there is no question at the end that Fox is a "good guy" and Sloan is a bad guy. Is that simply script? Maybe. But I cannot call to mind a single movie where Jolie does not, at some point, prove to be a hero on some level.

By contrast, Freeman is not afraid to be the villain. In fact, we are almost coming to expect it to the point where we expect that twist. We may not know when it is coming or how but we know it is coming. And his commitment to villainy is enjoyable because he does it so well.

That is not to say he should only take the roles of villains. He is such a talented actor that the more Freeman we see the better off we are. He can play a variety of roles and commands the screen when he is on it.

By limiting herself to only heroic roles Jolie stifles her path. She is still a talented actress and lots of people enjoy, ah, feasting their eyes on her. Myself? I'll take Jessica Alba.