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Wednesday, Jun 25, 2008

When it was first announced that George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and Stephen Spielberg were contemplating a fourth dip back into the Indiana Jones franchise and the character’s wishing well of good will, there were immediate red flags. The first was perhaps the most disconcerting - Lucas had just successful sunk his formerly viable Star Wars series, and most of the prequel problems came directly from the movie mogul’s hands-on approach to the material (scripting, directing). The acknowledged king of the popcorn blockbuster at least guaranteed someone sane - and skilled - behind the lens, but Lucas was still going to handpick the story to be told…and the individual to write the all important screenplay.


In the past, the scripts for the Indiana Jones films were crafted by some fairly impressive scribes. Raiders of the Lost Ark saw Lucas share story credit with Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff) while Lawrence Kasdan got the nod to polish the plotlines. Temple of Doom had American Graffiti‘s husband and wife team of William Huyck and Gloria Katz behind the typewriter, while the Last Crusade employed Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple) and Jeffrey Boam (The Dead Zone, Innerspace) to bring the trilogy to an end. So of course, the first question many fans had was - who would write installment #4. Oddly enough, the first name tossed around put everyone at ease.


While he is many things, Frank Darabont is definitely a smart, intelligent filmmaker. After spending most of the ‘80s writing genre junk like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and The Fly II, he landed a gig helping bring the exploits of everybody’s favorite archeologist/adventurer to the small screen. From 1992 to 1993, he helped fashion the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles into a cult hit. Of course, 1994 saw him finally break out into the big leagues, his adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption turning into one of the most beloved films of the decade (and in some circles, all time). So he seemed like a natural to retrofit the aging character for a post-millennial mindset.


Of course, with all things Indy, Lucas made sure his imprint was all over the proposed plot. Certain elements had to be part of the updated environment. The Cold War would be substituted for WWII, Soviets would stand in for Nazis, Jones would be reunited with a famous face from the past, and the main narrative element would center around ancient astronauts, aka aliens, and the infamous crystal skulls that supposedly suggest that previous civilizations were inspired by (or perhaps started by) these visitors from another realm. It was a tall order, but if anyone could pull these divergent elements together, it was Darabont.


That was back in 2003! Now, five years later, we have the finished film, a semi-successful jumpstart of the entire Indiana Jones universe, with the possibility of more to follow. Strangely enough, Darabont’s name is nowhere to be found. While Lucas and Speed 2/Rush Hour 2‘s Jeff Nathanson are given story credit, it is David Koepp who earns the coveted WGA nod. Responsible for a myriad of projects both good (War of the Worlds, Spider-Man) and mediocre (Snake Eyes, The Trigger Effect), he now sits on the final screenplay, maestro of the character’s move into a golden sunset retirement.


Those uninspired by the Summer hit openly questioned what happened to Darabont’s draft. After all, this is an Ain’t It Cool News world, a place where films are reviewed and critiques confirmed BEFORE casting is even considered. Recent efforts like Rocky Balboa, Rob Zombie’s reimagined Halloween, and Speed Racer all got a going over before the first frame of celluloid could be shot. So the lack of a legitimate Darabont script seemed suspicious. After all, Lucas loves to keep a lid on his process, the better to keep the potential detractors at bay. And the pre-publicity junket provided the brave game face that marketers need to have their movie make money.


But you just knew that, somewhere along the line, Darabont’s version (entitled Indiana Jones and The City of the Gods) would eventually turn up. And supposedly, it has. About three weeks ago, 11 June, G4TV’s The Feed - along with several other sites - ran reviews of what they called “a bootleg copy” of the script. Available for a short while in a PDF file, those lucky enough to grab a look (before it was summarily removed from the web) learned a shocking fact - many of the elements fans complained about in part four were nowhere to be found in Darabont’s draft. Even more disconcerting, Lucas’ money grubbing mitts seem to have guided the film away from its origins and more toward a crass, commercial feasibility.


Perhaps the biggest difference between what Darabont created and the final product is the lack of a certain character named Mutt. The adolescent rebel without a clear creative cause (except, perhaps, to carry on the Jones’ legacy in another franchise of films) is nowhere to be found in City of the Gods, while he more or less dominates the last two thirds of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Many view this character as a pure Lucas contrivance, an unnecessary link to Indiana Jones’ past that exists only to further the series’ future installment prospects. Making matters worse, new neo-teen it boy Shia LeBeouf got the nod, indicating that in action adventure terms, the flavor of the moment defies artistic advantage.


Mutt’s absence aside, the other major element gone from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is bad gal diva dominatrix Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. In her place - which really is a loss considering that the indomitable Cate Blanchett would be out of the film as well - City of the Gods has a series of unclear culprits, individuals who all want a piece of the glass head action. Even more intriguing, the actual aliens themselves are made into villains by Darabont, evil in their desire to keep the skull’s secrets away from the modern world, if you will. If there is one weakness in this occasionally talky script, it’s the lack of a clear antagonist. Indy always seems to work better when he’s up against a Belloq, an evil cult, or those bedeviling Germans of the Third Reich.


What’s increased in Darabont’s draft is the involvement of Marion Ravenwood. As we learn during Kingdom‘s first act University of Chicago chase, Mutt has a mother named Marion. Much later on, we are reintroduced to the Raiders fave, Karen Allen bringing the same spunk and drive to the part that she did back in 1981. The thing is, as soon as she’s introduced, the new film treats her like luggage, a grinning goon carry-on that simply enjoys basking in her former lover’s presence. Of course, in Koepp’s script, she’s mother material, giving Indy a biological link to the sequel shape of things to come. 


But Darabont actually treats Marion like an important part of the story. She is more sidekick than cast off, back to the original role she played during the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant. She’s determined, not domesticated, a capable partner in this latest hunt. Clearly, Lucas didn’t want nostalgia usurping a potential payoff, so City of the Gods’ take on this material was tossed aside. In its place was a moment of fanboy fodder, followed by little else. Indeed, while reading over Darabont’s script, many of the elements audiences complained about (the A-bomb/frig escape, the giant ants) are present, but handled in a serious, sobering manner (something Spielberg tried to match in his work behind the lens).


The last big difference rests in one of Kingdom‘s weakest subtexted - the notion of Indiana Jones as a potential communist sympathizer. The McCarthy era element within the storyline is quickly shuttled aside for more of Mutt’s Wild One vagueness, and the whole notion that, somehow, during the War, our hero could have turned (especially after helping the Soviets steal the Area 51 secrets) is played as pointless. In Darabont’s script, Indy is actually friends with one Yuri Makovsky from the USSR. It makes the eventual betrayal more plausible, palatable, and the questions of his motives much easier to accept.


Of course, Darabont tosses in the action. There is a wonderful bi-plane scuffle, and a last act denouement which, while not quite the optical spectacle delivered by Spielberg in the actual film’s finale, does provide the requisite send-off. Elsewhere, Indy’s dad makes an appearance, as do other characters missing from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you believe that this really is Darabont’s work (he loved his version so much that when Lucas rejected it, he asked for pal Spielberg to intervene), then what is clear is that, while his boss wanted a way to reinvent the franchise with a new lead (Mutt Jones and the Soda Shop of Death! ) City of the Gods was attempting something far more tenuous - pleasing the fans while finding a way to update the material after 16 years away from the fray.


Many have noted that Lucas, already a pariah among even the most devoted fans of his previous efforts, cleary mandated a certain type of script, one that relied on occasional drops into junk culture juvenilia for the sake of a certain demographic (can you say Jar Jar Binks???).  He never intended the 200X Indiana Jones for adults, believing - rightly or wrongly - that the character remains forever cemented to its Saturday kiddie matinee serial roots. And no one knows if Darabont’s particular vision would stay intact throughout the production process, a system that sees stars, producers, studios, and eventual focus groups adding their trademark two cents.


But one can dream - and in that capacity, Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods by Frank Darabont (or whomever) provides that point of conjecture. It reminds us of how manufactured most movies are, the creative committee stretching far beyond the simple mandates of a wide-eyed aficionado. That anything good comes out of such a struggle seems impossible, and yet the eventual release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hit more marks than it missed. Would Darabont have been equally successful? One never knows. But what’s clear is that, in a battle for the final word, there was Lucas’ way, or the highway. All roads lead to his take on this material, for good and for bad - just like the fans worried about way back when.


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Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008
It's Wednesday, time for more cinematic dung. This time, Al Adamson turns a typical '60s heist flick into a series of hate crimes that could only happen in a pre-PC motion picture landscape.

A gang of goofball mobsters, led by the Van Dyke-sporting Vito, robs a jewelry exchange, but the gems accidentally end up in the back of a contractor’s truck. A simple commute home, and the heist is a complete bust. As the criminals regroup, our blissfully unaware builder, David Clarke, celebrates his child’s birthday by giving her the most politically incorrect toy ever to hit the market (and that includes the anatomically correct “Joey” from All in the Family).


This little symbol of insensitivity, decked out in blackface and singing the kind of racist minstrel music that made Al Jolson such a Roaring Twenties sensation, is loved by the incredibly gap toothed Nancy…so much so that she takes the pilfered baubles she discovered in the back of Daddy’s rig and stuffs them up the doll’s backside.


Since Vito wants the trinkets returned pronto, he puts Joe Cory and his life partner Curtis on the job. Unfortunately, Joe has a jones for homicide, and needs to get in a few pre-diamond-hunt killings before he goes bug butt. After ascertaining that contractor Dave is married to local lounge singer Linda, Joe heads over to the floorshow to do a little mopping up. But Linda has taken Nancy and her Dixie doll on a Greyhound bus tour of northern California.


While Vito and the rest of the motley crew that couldn’t steal straight take David hostage, lovebirds Curtis and Joe make for the Pacific Coast Highway to stop the chanteuse. Long stretches of stagnant, silent pursuit ensue. Everyone ends up on Grizzly Adams’s doorstep, trying to figure out how to get hold of the treasure while avoiding Joe and his tired Psycho a Go-Go shtick.



As it starts, Psycho a Go-Go has a lot of promise. The swinging nightclub setting, with swirling, gyrating dancers in their frilly fringe minis and knee-high boots. The throbbing back beat of a typical ‘60s bit of garage pop. Flashing, psychedelic lights and the air of civil debauchery (exploitation, here we come!). But then Tacey Robbins shows up like a bouffant Winnie-the-Pooh and starts to croon. As the haunting, hateful “My L.A.” drives a stake of shamelessness right into your cranium, the musical barrage just won’t stop. All hopes for something sordid and swinging die down.


The editing picks up and soon everything starts spiraling out of control. Your mind starts to free-associate on such ideas as suicide, self-abuse, and playing in traffic. The anonymous torsos that pass for dancers keep shouting, “We got it!” and images of the plague and pleurisy shuttle across your retinas. And still, Tacey tunes on, hoping to sell us on the notion that she is actually entertaining. But our hopes are already dashed, both the flesh and the spirit are weak, and we end up metaphysically drawn and quartered.


Then the real plot kicks in. Oy! What a narrative it is. Botched robberies, irritated construction workers, little girls with heinous dental issues, and a bald, bulky Jack Nicholson wannabe with his own cap-toothed traumas (Roy Morton, making his Joe Corey a mindless mental case) add up to one shape-shifting cinematic sludge pit. Mixing your motion picture metaphors is never easy for a low-budget film, but this stealing-meets-slasher-by-way-of-Desperate Hours doody is so chaotic the Sex Pistols are wishing it for the UK right now.


Dammit, certain elements here ought to work! They should push the puzzling, pedestrian storyline out of its sheer stupidity and over into surreal estate territory. After all, our child actress has a brown-painted doll called “Christie Minstrel” that constantly breaks into chipmunk-ish versions of such sour Southern sop as “Camptown Races” and “Swannee River”. The crime syndicate employs a hulky, mute handyman named Curtis who lusts after every man he sees like he’s ready for a Fire Island rendezvous. His homosexual love leanings are so obvious and overt that you expect Curtis to start singing Bronski Beat songs.


But no, instead we have the sullen, shrill Tacey Robbins and her ill-conceived musical numbers urping all over our eardrums. Unable to lip-sync convincingly, and with all the stage presence of a jar of spoiled mayonnaise, Robbins and her songs should add up to at least a few minutes of miscreant fun. After all, if Arch Hall Jr. can make atonal talentlessness terrific, why can’t she?


The answer is all Al Adamson. You can tell that he had no idea how to make all these divergent, disconcerting elements labor to his advantage. What could have been riotous and ridiculous is played straight, and as a result, comes across as dense. Adamson’s Psycho a Go-Go is an angry movie, filled with contempt for everything: the characters, the plot convolutions, and the audience. He doesn’t try to entertain you—he more or less brow beats you into cinematic submission, following the illogical premise that if he puts it on the screen, it will somehow magically transform into a movie. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, we get endless shots of Roy Morton / Joe Corey mindlessly groping Ms. Robbins, Curtis mentally undressing the male cast members, and a demonic race-baiting doll. Suddenly, Psycho a Go-Go turns a must-see into a no-no.


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Tuesday, Jun 24, 2008

Allen’s Latest Gets a Preview
Yahoo Movies has landed the exclusive trailer for Woody Allen’s latest, the love triangle themed Vicky Christina Barcelona. Starring Oscar winner Javier Bardem, along with international beauties Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz, the 15 August opening promises lots of sexy subtext. You can find the first look by clicking Yahoo






Mummy 3 Finally Gets Its Trailer
While few are clamoring for this third trek into CGI spectacle, Rob Cohen is really trying to sell his take on the Mummy material. With Jet Li on board, and a distinct Jason and the Argonauts feel to the initial images (gotta love swashbuckling skeletons!) this could be some cornball, b-movie fun. It could also be some overdone summer schlock. The first full length trailer offers a clue. Rob Cohen Blog





Frank Miller Blogs for The Spirit
White hot after the success of Sin City and 300, Frank Miller is bringing his version of the classic comic hero to the big screen. While The Spirit won’t hit theaters until Christmas 2008, the writer/artist turned director is blogging about his experiences during production. Check out his latest entry Frank Miller Blog and look over some of the amazing graphics and teaser posters at the official SITE





Oscar Tries to Clean Up Troubled Categories
In a move many find to be far too long in coming, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is revamping how the Best Foreign Film and Best Original Song Oscars are given out. Controversy has surrounded the categories over the last few years, as numerous eligible tunes were purposefully disqualified, while some films (Dreamgirls, Enchanted) dominated the category with three nods each (oddly enough, both went home empty-handed). Under the new rules, no movie can claim more than two slots comes showtime. Also, in a bid to remove the reputation of failing to nominate the best movies from the international community, a committee of members will select the first six choices each year, with an executive group picking another three to make sure no quality selection (Persepolis, 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days) is left out of contention.




Spike Lee’s Latest Tackles Time Travel
According to Variety, the African American auteur, having just wrapped up his take on the legendary Buffalo Soldiers of World War II (Miracle at St. Anna, September 2008), has just bought the rights to the memoirs by Ronald Mallett. One of the nation’s first African-Americans to earn a PhD in theoretical physics, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality should be his next project. Read more about it here. Variety





JJ Abrams Newest Shrouded in Mystery
Only the mind behind Cloverfield and Lost can think up something like this. After reading an intriguing New York Times article on a weird Manhattan apartment and the eccentric couple who spent several million dollars turning it into a collection of hidden compartments, puzzles, poems, codes and games to amuse their four kids, he immediately bought up the rights with an intention to turn it into a big screen comedy. Read more about it here. Wired





Lucas to Take on Tuskegee Airmen
After completing work on the upcoming CGI Star Wars film (and eventual TV series), George Lucas has gone into preproduction on Red Tails, a historical epic focusing on the efforts of the all black Tuskegee Airmen. Vital to the success of World War II bombing missions, the LA Times has an in-depth story on both Lucas and some of the men behind the accounts. LA Times






Obituaries

Stan Winston


George Carlin

DVD releases of Note for 24 June

Charlie Bartlett
Definitely, Maybe
Demons Among Us (Troma): Read the SE&L Review HERE
The Hammer: Read the SE&L Review HERE
In Bruges
Long Dream: Read the SE&L Review HERE
Offensive Behaviour (Troma): Read the SE&L Review HERE
Persepolis
The Spiderwick Chronicles
10,000 B.C.


Box Office Figures for Weekend of 20 June

#1 - Get Smart: $38.3 million
#2 - The Incredible Hulk: $21.7 million
#3 - Kung Fu Panda: $21.5 million
#4 - The Love Guru: $14.1 million
#5 - The Happening: $10.0 million
#6 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $8.3 million
#7 - You Don’t Mess with the Zohan: $7.0 million
#8 - Sex and the City: $6.4 million
#9 - Iron Man: $4.0 million
#10 - The Strangers: $1.9 million


Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
Wall*E - Pixar’s latest, the story of a lonely robot left behind when Earth becomes inhabitable, promises to be this weekend’s box office monster. Rated PG
Wanted - In this new geek masterpiece, lowly office drone Wesley Gibson discovers his heritage, and lineage, to a secret society of assassins. Rated R
Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl - It’s the Depression, and budding reporter Kit Kittredge helps her family run a boarding house as she investigates claims against the local hobo community. Rated G


Limited
The Legend of God’s Gun - a superb psychedelic spaghetti Western, akin to Alejandro Jodorowsky on even more peyote buttons. Rated R
Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot - this documentary follows a several street basketball players as they pursue their dream of being crowned king of Rucker’s Park in Harlem. Rated PG-13
Finding Amanda - Matthew Broderick and Brittany Snow star in this alleged comedy about a hack TV producer forced to help his niece find escape from her addictions. Rated R


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008

For our generation, George Carlin and his comedy album Class Clown were like God (or maybe Moses) and his Bible (or at the very least, the Ten Commandments). Surrounded by prophets and other daring disciples like Cheech and Chong, the members of Monty Python, Richard Pryor, and other masters of the LP format, his irreverent observational takes on everything from baseball to language defined an entire legion of adolescent humor. He was the drawstring back to the ‘60s, the decade which saw him switch from standard, partnered comedian to the Hippie Dippie Weatherman. Long haired and bearded, he was the counterculture wrapped up in an Establishment acceptable package. It would prove to be the perfect juxtaposition to fuel his five decade long career.


And now he’s gone - dead from a heart attack at age 71. As usual, he was preparing another HBO special, his 15th, and weighing in on the upcoming Presidential election (though he rarely if ever voted). Carlin was as political as he was prosaic, a stern proponent of the First Amendment who saw his classic routine “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” creating a legal stir that found its issues dragged all the way to the US Supreme Court (Carlin won a moral, if not complete, victory). At the peak of his powers, he was likened to Lenny Bruce and his ‘70s co-conspirator Pryor. By the ‘90s, he was viewed as a creaky old school curmudgeon, no longer really relevant in an arena overrun with self-imposed irony, ethnic specific slams, and the last remnants of Steve Martin inspired absurdism.


Yet Carlin stands for much more than just wit and wisdom for the Woodstock crowd. He represented one of the first stand-ups to stay totally in touch with his life and times. As the world went from Eisenhower conservatism to proto-peace and love, he left his friend and performing colleague Jack Burns (himself a future humor Hall of Famer) to pursue his individual muse. Frequent appearances on the nation’s top two variety shows - Ed Sullivan and the Johnny Carson helmed Tonight Show - brought him more and more mainstream success. 1967 saw the release of his first album, Take Offs and Put Downs, and as his act developed and grew, he substituted more acceptable stints at colleges and ‘happenings’ for the radioactive glow of the boob tube.


As his material (and appearance) became more controversial, broadcast television was definitely less of an option. This is where his records came in. Like many comedians in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Carlin defined himself by those 33&1/3 long players. It was the only way that audiences outside the major nightclub circuit could ‘see’ contemporary stand up. Alone or in groups, turntable tracking the various bits and themes, these forefathers of the post-modern funny man turned rec rooms and bed rooms into shadowy, laugh-filled forums. By the time of his peak in 1975, he was the symbol of subversive humor, so much so that the then fledgling Saturday Night Live had Carlin on as its first ever guest host.


And just like that, two of his brethren ended his reign. Richard Pryor made swearing special, weaving the words Carlin had championed into pointed deconstructions of urban and racial blight. As he was mining that material, the aforementioned Wild and Crazy Guy turned stand-up into rock and roll, relying on visual gags and over-intellectualized non-sequitors to redefine the artforms approach. By the end of the Me Decade, Carlin was seen as a hold over, a famous face from a bygone era given time by those entities - cable, concerts - that could still accommodate his firebrand ballsy takes. It didn’t help matter that in 1976 he went into a five year self imposed exile, rarely seen outside the burgeoning vistas of HBO.


Oddly enough, Carlin couldn’t translate what he did best into any other medium aside from albums and TV variety. Film often saw him floundering, minor rolls in Car Wash and Americathon trading more on his grizzled groovy looks than anything remotely resembling character. In the ‘80s, his turn as Rufus, the time traveling guru to Valley dorks Bill and Ted brought the comedian back into the limelight, yet he never could capitalize on the fame those two films offered. Kevin Smith, a longtime fan, found room for him in Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Jersey Girl, but by the new millennium, Carlin had given up on the movies, only managing a few prime cartoon voice-over gigs (Cars, Happily N’Ever After) before turning in his cinematic credentials.


He also couldn’t make a go of tradition television humor. His one and only stab at a sitcom, 1994’s self-named series, lasted 27 episodes. Set in a bar and featuring Carlin as a taxi driver, it tried to incorporate the comic’s wicked observations within a classic storyline setting. It didn’t work. Oddly enough, he did find fortune in children’s domain. From 1991 to 1998, he was the American narrator of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine series from Britain. He parlayed that stint into a similar bit as Mr. Conductor, overseer of the Shining Time Station (he took over for another ‘60s icon, The Beatles’ Ringo Starr). Between regular cable specials and a few literary collections (Carlin published five books of his material overall), he was never completely out of the picture. 


His personal life, however, was a well guarded reality. He married Brenda Hosbrook in 1961, and the couple had a daughter together, Kelly. In 1997, his wife succumbed to cancer. After nearly 36 years of marriage, Carlin was again single. While he loved to maintain a rock and roll persona onstage, few knew that the comedian was secretly battling several addictions. By 2004, he could no longer control his problems, and quietly checked into rehab. Last week, complaining of chest pains, he entered St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. A victim of several previous heart attacks, Carlin died a short time later.


For many of us tuned into his marauding mindset thirty plus years ago, the loss of George Carlin physically means very little. It’s devastating, but when you can recite, verbatim, the entire riff regarding ‘Special Dispensation: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo’ (“Purgatory is for un-baptized babies because…it wasn’t their fault”) or the scientific facts regarding the artificial fart under the arm (otherwise known as the “bilabial fricative”), it’s clear where Carlin’s legacy lies. He questioned religion in ways that few in the era would even approach (it sailed smack dab in the middle of the Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment) and brought profanity to the fore in a mannerism that future stand-ups took for granted.


Now he’s gone, though clearly not forgotten - and there are some fans who followed him all throughout his rollercoaster career. They never gave up on his confrontational cynicism, embraced his attacks on authority, and held onto the belief that, in a world filled with frivolous, superficial humorists, Carlin was smart, articulate, and continually cutting edge. He will be missed, but more importantly, he will be remembered, especially by an age group that discovered the truth about the world (and how it worked) through his caustic, creative views. He was a man obsessed with words, and it will be words that best manage his lasting myth.


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Sunday, Jun 22, 2008

Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible vision.


As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point, a place to explore elements within our society that the comic couldn’t (or wouldn’t) address. In the main character of Wesley Gibson, the film finds a disgruntled everyman, an empty Google search drone who has done literally nothing with his life. As the perfect contemporary protagonist, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it.


Toss in terrific performances by James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, and Thomas Kretschmann, a twisty plot that never gets too tangled in its own contrivances, and more insane, inventive action than a John Woo-ping Yuen fever dream, and you’ve got one of the most amazing movies of the Summer. Even better, it’s poised to dominate the more adult oriented end of the 27 June box office. While the kiddies are clamoring for more of Wall*E‘s robot allegory, teens and those prone to masterful machismo will be lining up to see gunshots curve, wound curing paraffin baths, and a certain actress’s tattooed backside. And if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.


Most of the success for this film rests rightfully on the shoulders of Bekmambetov. Among genre film fans, he’s best known for the vampire deconstruction of Night Watch and Day Watch. Named his country’s best young director in 1997, he clearly shares the sensibility of his Hong Kong based Asian brothers. Wanted is like The Killer with more car stunts, a baffling battle royale between forces that defy physics while simultaneously stoking audience appreciation. Bekmambetov clearly understands character and he takes time throughout the arc to stop and let layers of personality slowly expand and contract. By the end of the narrative, when weapons have replaced wisdom, we develop a real rooting interest in who lives and who dies.


In fact, what makes Wanted better than either Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk is the abject joy that filmmaker Bekmambetov brings to the project. Jon Favreau used a no-nonsense approach to realizing Tony Stark and company, and Louis Leterrier applies a MTV style of calculated quick cuts to infer action and tension. But the fast-slow sensibility of the 47 year old Russian auteur serves his spectacle flawlessly. It’s the most exquisite match between visionary and vision since the Chicago born comic book geeks gave us Neo, Agent Smith, and a war for survival across virtual reality.


What seals the deal, of course, is the Chuck Palahniuk-esque sentiments running through the story. Wesley narrates some of the action, his acid tongue takedowns of those he works for and with enough to recall Edward Norton and his razor sharp social commentary. The main theme of Wanted explores the victor inside the seemingly anemic, the superstar stuck inside the cubicle klatch of a nameless corporate ogre. The notion of a nobody able to wield god-like powers over life and death more or less defines our current cultural climate, a place where the standard rules of success no longer seem to apply. Even better, the film throws such sad sack sentiments back at the viewer, confronting them at every level into answering that most probing of Generation Hexed questions - what have you done with your life.


Such a crowd-pleasing confrontation is destined to get film fetishists and messageboard mavericks in a lush, liquid lather, and of course, they’ll be chiming for more, more, more. Unfortunately, while there’s been talk of a sequel, anyone who has seen the film will argue that a follow-up will be kind of tough. Not impossible, but one guesses somewhat incapable, of filtering the same material into the current cocksure slam dunk - at least from a practical standpoint. And who knows, maybe the audiences won’t turn up. After all, there is blood and guts o’plenty, and the kind of violence glorification that gets nosy mothers and grass roots campaigners up and active. If Grand Theft Auto meets with a mountain of negative press the day of its release, this bullet through the brain bravado is guaranteed to get under someone’s skin.


Yet even if it fails to meet its box office goals (ala Fight Club) and has to find a clear cult fanbase on DVD/Blu-ray (as with The Matrix), Wanted will remain a bright spot in a season soured by limp comedies, clammy kid fare, and a regressive reliance on things that were popular five years ago. Granted, 1999 is a mere decade past, but at least this film mines some of that year’s more meaningful entries. Whenever anyone successfully imitates efforts from the past - John Carpenter channeling Alfred Hitchcock for his brilliant B-movie Halloween, Woody Allen working through the entire Bergman/Fellini oeuvre - the results are telling…and usually terrific. Wanted is poised to be the next big thing, and it has a couple of previous honorees to that crown to thank for it.


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