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by Bill Gibron

13 Jul 2008

With another $34 million in its coffers and a growing word of mouth campaign, Will Smith’s latest pseudo sci-fi exercise, Hancock, is shaping up to be one of the summer’s biggest surprises. Not a shock when you consider the star power behind the project, but unusual in that the movie continues to build on its opening despite mostly negative reviews. Now critics never contribute to or cause the commercial fortunes/misfortunes of a release, but many believed Hancock was very minor Smith at best (only a 37% favorable consensus). With $165 million already accounted for, and much more on the horizon, this so-called misfire could end up one of the actor’s strongest outings.

Some have suggested that race has fueled the film’s success, a recent rant by none other than Sean “P Diddy” Combs claiming that African Americans have been desperate for a black superhero to support. Of course, from a superficial standpoint, that concept would seem obvious. Minorities rarely figure into the comic book universe - at least the version Hollywood chooses to support - and the arrival of an original creation, a character build out of certain cultural complements would definitely be unique. But to suggest that John Hancock, a champion rarely spoken of in racial terms (if at all), translates into some kind of Jackie Robinson moment for the genre is just surreal.

Earlier in the year, Iron Man introduced two characters of color into its mix - Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Both have origins in graphic novel mythos (though some see Fury’s transformation as more about casting than consistency), and will play more prominent roles in future installments. While Terrence Howard and Samuel L. Jackson both had minor moments in the first film, one can see their importance once the pre-Avengers narrative continues. And if one was looking to move beyond the Marvel/DC domain, there are examples of earnest, if ineffective, offerings like Meteor Man that function as a better “been there first” foray.

No, it’s the fact that an A-list African American actor is now poised to have his own high profile popcorn franchise that may explain the excitement - and yet again, this is nothing new for Smith. He rode the Men in Black franchise to two successful films, and would probably revisit any number of his previous roles should the script (and the payday) seem right. Hancock, of course, has a far more interesting backstory, something that could easily be explored in variations of the sequel theme. His transformation from drunk and insolent to tender and heartrending marks the calling card of a potentially classic character. And since his reality is rather esoteric and ephemeral, it could definitely generate repeat investigations.

Which leads us to the other element that people are using to support Hancock’s box office take. Outside of the man in the suit situation, the twist is getting a great deal of press. For those unaware of the third act switch-up a SPOILER warning will be issued. It’s impossible to talk about this part of the film without giving it all away, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to remain oblivious to it charms/harms, skip down to the final paragraph. Otherwise, the plot point that transforms the film from a basic action spectacle into something slightly tragic and almost epic is often cited as part of Hancock‘s appeal. Several critics have commented that it more or less makes or breaks the movie.

All throughout the first two acts, Hancock’s interaction with PR man Ray Embrey has been tainted by his wife Mary’s unusually harsh attitude toward the hero. Every time he’s around, she reacts with a combination of anger and revulsion. It turns out that there’s a reason for this - Mary is the same as Hancock, gifted with the same superhuman powers. In a city destroying showdown, she finally reveals her existence. Later, she offers the reasons for her fear. It seems that whomever put these entities on the planet (one of the best explanations is that they are mythic “Gods’ like those of the ancient Greeks), paired them up. Together, they have the potential to sap each others strength. Stay too long together, and they will turn mortal, and be susceptible to injury - or even death. 

Mary has been desperate to stay away from Hancock because, in their long and illustrious past together, their partnership has lead to disaster and pain. She explains several examples of their near misses. By remaining apart, both can lead their lives, be it as house wife or a crime fighter. In the end, after being exposed to her, Hancock is wounded and sent to the hospital. When Mary shows up, she too is shot. It takes a Herculean effort from our injured hero to escape his treatment, head out into the street, and save himself and Mary. The farther he gets from her, the more his (and her) powers return. Eventually, we learn that Hancock has taken up residence in New York City, far away from Mary and her family. Both are happy…and more importantly, fully restored.

It’s possible to argue over the effectiveness of this surprise, to suggest as others have that it turns a satiric romp into something far too serious - or in other opinions, striking and rather substantive. The notion of how Mary’s revelation affects the film can be saved for another day. Indeed, it may be more of a personal preference than anything clearly cinematic. What one can argue over is the claims that this is one of the best twists in the history of the type. Parallels to The Sixth Sense and Fight Club have been frequent, suggesting that audiences are really responding based on this outright denouement. By adding the secret, it gives the movie an added punch that a standard ending probably would lack.

Unfortunately, such comparisons are crazy. The Hancock reveal is more about motive than narrative drive. It does affect the way our hero acts for the last 30 minutes of the movie, but it’s not a Kaiser Sose kind of rewrite. Anyone who knows film will see the situation hinted at the minute Charlize Theron makes an appearance. Her shifty eyes and uncomfortable smiles signal something is amiss with this supposedly typical suburbanite. By the time she turns up kicking Hancock’s butt, there’s little shock. True, where the movie takes the material is rather interesting, especially the notion that emotional sacrifice and a lack of partnership must follow these creatures for all eternity (they appear fated to fall in love with each other). But it’s not a definitive turn.

No, Hancock‘s twist is not on the level of 1968’s Planet of the Apes, the truth behind Soylent Green‘s secret recipe, or ‘man/woman’ charade of The Crying Game. In some ways, it’s on par with the whole ‘deal with the Devil’ finale of Angel Heart. It’s a plot point that propels us sideways instead of backward, that doesn’t get us rethinking what we’ve seen transpire so much as contemplating the meaning of such a fact. Sure, it may change the tone of the film, and provide a more somber sort of conclusion that one expects from a big budget popcorn romp, but Hancock doesn’t live or die by said shift. 

No, what’s clear is that, as he ages, Will Smith is becoming a certifiable screen presence, someone who can put butts in seats based on his name and his name alone. Sure, there is something to be said for both the race and reveal issues, but neither is as important as who is standing in front of the camera. As his career continues, Smith illustrates the concept that hard work and determination - as well as a deft way with choosing projects - can propel even the most unusual talent into the upper echelon’s of the Hollywood elite. The color of his skin or the last act surprise may be part of Hancock‘s appeal, but they’d be nothing without the former Fresh Prince. Nothing. The best thing this movie has to sell is Smith himself.

by PopMatters Staff

13 Jul 2008

Emiliana Torrini
Me and Armani [MP3] (from Me and Armani releasing 9 September)

God-Des & She
Ja Da [MP3]

Sam Champion
Be Mine Everyone [MP3]

Fakts One
OK [MP3]

The Low Lows
Sparrows [MP3]

Parenthetical Girls
A Song for Ellie Greenwich [MP3]

Cibelle feat. Devendra Banhart
London, London [Video]

by Lara Killian

13 Jul 2008

Many of us are excited about Stephenie Meyer’s upcoming Breaking Dawn. Her Twilight series is Harry Potter huge—even if the latest cover of Entertainment magazine was slightly unnerving. Does Robert Pattinson really need to look so pale in order to play Edward Cullen?

This week I’d like to mention another author whose latest work always gets me excited—and which always gets purchased as soon as it’s available: Haruki Murakami, possibly the best known Japanese writer of fiction here in North America.


Recently I finished his 2007 work, After Dark. (PopMatter’s review is here.) It’s more like a novella than a fully fleshed out Murakami novel. I enjoy his magical realism style, and the fact that he always surprises me. I can never tell what is going to happen because much of the action is illogical, or completely bizarre. Elements of the supernatural, and unlikely coincidences of connection are par for the course.

After Dark takes place in the middle of the night in Tokyo, when most people are safely ensconced in their homes, sleeping quietly in preparation for a new day, and unaware of the frequent strangeness of the nighttime hours. The book presents a community of those who are more at ease when day turns into night; their stories are loosely interconnected. Here, Murakami writes as though he perceives the action as a screenplay. The narrative voice is like a camera, moving about the scenes, cutting from location to location, deliberately including some angles and excluding other portions of the set.

An initially unremarkable young woman, Mari, spends her nighttime hours avoiding company and reading in a fast food restaurant, while her sleeping beauty sister, Eri, lies at home in perfect repose—which has lasted for two months. Mari is asked by a complete stranger who has heard she speaks Chinese to come to a love-hotel and translate for a Chinese prostitute who has been attacked by a client who conforms to every stereotype of the typical hardworking Japanese businessman, except for his tendency to savage violence. Meanwhile, in Eri’s room, tidy and austere but for the lovely girl sound asleep in the bed, some sort of electric energy has entered the chamber and the accompanying current threatens to either disturb her unfathomable sleep, or to harm her as she lies innocently at peace.

After Dark, things are not as they seem, and Murakami never offers an explanation for the strangeness of the Tokyo night, as these stories are loosely interwoven.

Kafka on the Shore which was published in translation in 2006, was my first and remains my favorite Murakami novel. Since a friend lent me The Elephant Vanishes, a short story collection from 1994, I have been totally hooked and read just about everything Murakami has written that is available in English.

Who is your favorite foreign-language author?

by Jason Gross

13 Jul 2008

It’s nice to see classical writers support their own in the face of constant downsizing at newspapers across America: the The Music Critics Association of North America did in this posting at Poynter about the desperate situation.  Good for the MCA but why don’t we hear from other writers groups like the Jazz Journalists Association or the… wait a minute, what ARE the other music journalist associations out there…?

by Bill Gibron

13 Jul 2008

In the ‘80s, when the slasher film was all the rage, there was no real need to be different. The set-up and fright formula mandated a kind of carbon copy creativity. Just find yourself a haunted setting, a group of teenage rowdies, some random sex and drug/alcohol abuse, a moralizing murderer, and a last act denouement that provided a basis for the bloodletting, and you had a coattail cash box. Of course, as the genre grew, so did the number of mimics. Before long, the desire to be derivative killed the category. Now, nearly 30 years later, we’re seeing a kind of slice and dice revival. Too bad then that the lessons learned way back when are no longer part of film language rote. Instead, movies like Steel Trap appear destined to repeat this kind of horror movie’s many mistakes. 

It’s New Years Eve, and seven partygoers in an abandoned skyscraper get a call to join another shindig. This one is very exclusive, and promises lots of thrills. So rock star Wade, celebrity chef Kathy, advice columnist Nicole, her entertainment attorney boyfriend Robert, TV exec Pamela, former child star Adam, and his coke whore arm candy Melanie all find themselves involved in a nursery rhyme filled game of life or death. You see, a masked killer is stalking each and every one of them, unflattering nicknames indicating the slayer’s possible motives. One by one, the guests are murdered, the cat and mouse means of destruction providing a high level of anxiety for those still on the “list”. Unless they find out who is behind the crimes, and why they want them dead, they will never escape this Steel Trap.

Steel Trap is the kind of film that substitutes creepy locations for plotting, and the slightest smatterings of gore in place of anything suspenseful or scary. To call it derivative would avoid its obvious attempts at being different, and yet this is nothing more than the standard slice and dice from 20 years ago, dressed up in a decidedly uninteresting set of the emperor’s new clothes. Give the killer a hockey mask instead of a bland black disguise, and lower the average age of the victims by at least one generation, and you’d have something akin to Friday the 13th: Jason Goes High Rise. While the DVD cover art (the film is currently available from Dimension Extreme, the Weinstein Company and Genius Products subdivision) suggest something like Saw or The Cube, there is nothing remotely inventive or puzzle boxy about this title.

First time feature director Luis Cámara, who co-wrote the movie with Gabrielle Galanter, would disagree with such an assessment. As part of the full length audio commentary offered in the digital presentation, he makes it clear that he finds his narrative rather inventive and particularly adept. He’s not foolish enough to believe he’s made some manner of classic, but there are indications that at least he sees beyond the simplistic elements being employed. The Making-of material provides minimal insights, mostly geared toward location issues and production problems. Indeed, it’s hard to hate on a film that tries so hard to be so unique and inventive. But Steel Trap tends to set itself up for such ridicule, even when it’s providing some minor moments of macabre.

Take the character of Nicole, for example. As played by Julia Ballard, this heartless witch is an unbearable presence, almost from the very first moment we meet her. Unfortunately, she grows even more grating as the storyline continues. It doesn’t help that our actress maintains a whiny, self pitying persona throughout. Ballard had never been in a movie before this, and it really shows. In fact, if you look at the female characters and discern who is annoying and who is mildly acceptable, some ‘killer’ clues can be gleaned from the otherwise repugnant red herrings.

Not that the men are any better. Thankfully, machismo man-ass Adam is killed right away. A little of his snow-snorting lothario goes a very long way. Sadly, rock God Wade is a minor deity at best, and Robert only exists to keep us from concentrating on those scream queening babes. Of course, a little well honed gore could cure a lot of what ails Steel Trap. Let the offal flow and we fright fans will forgive a great deal. The small amounts of claret offered, however, do little except aggravate. In fact, when juxtaposed against the cornball dialogue, this could be a bad b-movie from a time before terror grew a brazen backbone. Slack scares like this were a dime a dozen back when passion pits ruled the dread domain.

Cámara has to bear most of the blame. He is constantly using his camera like a scalpel, cutting into scenes with a quack butcher’s abandon instead of actually applying some nominal mise-en-scene. This is especially true of his murder sequences. Characters are caught by our villain and then…they’re forgotten about while we travel over to a couple of minutes of mindless exposition. Another glimpse of an upcoming death, and it’s back to more conversational stalling. We don’t feel any sense of urgency in what the director is trying to deliver. Instead, his plot plods along without a single significant reason to keep us glued to, or even going for, the edge of our seat.

It seems clear that, in an arena where the unoriginal and plagiaristic are typical examples of filmmaking fad gadgetry, Steel Trap is a slight horror effort. It’s professionally helmed and evocatively shot, but looking good is a far cry from actually being good. Instead, Luis Cámara deserves credit for the try, if not the win, and the slasher genre revival seems destined to sputter and die instead of building on some far more provocative European examples (Inside, for one). Macabre seems to be the one cinematic staple that can survive numerous subpar illustrations of its assets and still come out clean. Steel Trap isn’t about to chance that sentiment, but it won’t be bolstering said fear factors any time soon.

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