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by Bill Gibron

17 Jul 2008


Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. From Memento‘s Leonard to The Prestige‘s dueling magicians, the split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.

Gotham, still under the crush of rampant corruption and uncontrollable crime, maintains Batman as their shimmering ray of hope. But now the Caped Crusader has a powerful ally in elected office. Harvey Dent, the new DA (and romantic paramour of Bruce Wayne ex Rachel Dawes) may not appreciate the superhero’s tactics, but like Inspector Gordon, he will tolerate the effect the symbol has on the lawless. After a daring bank robbery in which a large sum of laundered money goes missing, Gotham’s avengers believe they can put the mob away for good. Desperate to keep this from happening, the mafia turns to two individuals to protect their interests. One is a Hong Kong businessman who is convinced he can retrieve and hide the cash. And the second is someone called The Joker, a facially scarred madman who has an easy solution to the problem. Kill the Batman.

Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.

While Heath Ledger will get all the print space (and rightfully so - more on this in a moment), it needs to be said that the biggest character arc belongs to Aaron Eckhart as future Two-Face Harvey Dent. When we are first introduced to the maverick DA, we wonder if the pretty boy blond with the pearly white wholesomeness can find the depth to delve into what makes this public official potentially lethal. When the change-over occurs, we are given plenty of time to recognize how desperate he will become. Aside from the outstanding make-up job which renders Dent a zombified version of his former self, Eckhart turns his rage into a pinpoint laser, focusing it on the one person he blames for turning him into a freak.

And speaking of villainous oddities, Ledger is indeed majestic as Gotham’s new threat. Gritty and grotesque, his face caked with rancid clown make-up, this is a Joker as spoiled fruit, a disseminator of destruction using his unusual looks to cover-up a serial killer’s aura. There is a careful cadence in the way Ledger speaks, an inferred thoughtfulness that contradicts his lax murdering ruthlessness. It’s easy to see why critics are calling for some manner of Oscar recognition. In a realm where evil is typically expressed via glorified grandstanding, this villain merely gloats as he gets down to business. When bounced off Eckhart and Christian Bale, Ledger creates a beautiful ménage a menace.

As usual, our hero brings his A-game, a complicated confusion that really humanizes the Batman. If he’s done nothing else, Nolan has expertly explained why one man with the world’s wealth at his fingertips would turn to a life of vigilante justice - and why he would continue on once he fulfilled his payback purpose. The motivation in The Dark Knight is even more multifaceted, involving a series of obligations, duties, threats, promises, protections, and consequences. Nolan never gives the character a break, and Bale brings the proper perspective to all aspects of the role. There is never a false note in any of the movie’s many twists and turns, and its all thanks to a capable cast (Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox included), as well as the man behind the lens.

It doesn’t take much to commend Christopher Nolan for what he accomplishes here. Not just for taking a pen and ink world and realizing it within the crime and punishment confines of our own. Not just for having the vision (and commercial clout) to deliver a 150 minute dissertation on the true nature of law and order, but also for taking the bigger risks within the material. This is not the Joker’s origin story. There are no vats of chemicals or mob boss vendettas to work out. This is not a gadget heavy stream of criminality with gags whizzing by as frequently as bullets. Instead, Nolan is out to make a kind of neo-noir, albeit one that avoids the shady ladies and half-drawn blinds that usually exemplify the genre.

As with any outsized vision, Nolan threatens to let everything spiral out of control. Yet just when we think his approach can’t get any broader, he brings things in close, awarding Bale and Ledger one-on-one’s that provide the heady buzz of a finely aged bottle of whisky. Like the great filmmakers he matches against, Nolan knows that there’s as much power in the little moments as the large. The Dark Knight has many of these narrative kiss-offs, sequences where characters can practically taste the bitterness on each other’s breath. It’s these incredible juxtapositions - the skyscrapers of Gotham stand-in Chicago vs. the claustrophobia of Wayne’s junkyard lair, the optimism of Dent’s initial drive vs. the dread in his need for revenge - that engages and overwhelms us. It’s what allows this film to transcend the summer season to become a stand alone classic.

Indeed, The Dark Knight is one of those experiences that, decades from now, will be viewed with the kind of crazed critical and cult revelry that meets such operatic opuses as Scarface or Goodfellas. It bests the previous incarnation of the Batman character because it never takes the substance as slapstick or cartoon. It guarantees that, whatever Christopher Nolan wants to do next, he will have the opportunity (and budget) to do so. And it will stand as one of the finest examples of human quid pro quo ever put on film. Everyone has two sides to their personality - the one they show to the world and the one they slyly keep to themselves. In the case of this amazing movie, there is only discernible façade…and it’s one of greatness.

by Bill Gibron

16 Jul 2008


When it arrives in theaters tomorrow (18 July), Mamma Mia! will probably go down as one of the biggest hits of Summer 2008. It has all the elements that make for a bold box office champion - previous recognition factor, a soundtrack to die for, and a cast that crosses over many demographical lines. Still, if the movie only manages to make a small impression, or fails to fully realize its clear commercial aims, there will be one reason and one reason only for its collapse - and her name is Phyllida Lloyd. A noted UK director, specializing in theater, this is her first major motion picture, and it shows. Though she was responsible for the staging of Mamma Mia! when it played London’s West End, whatever skill she had along the boards really didn’t translate here. This is perhaps the worst directing job ever for an otherwise fun major motion picture (albeit one not helmed by someone named Boll or Ratner). In four basic film categories, Ms. Lloyd underperforms miserably. She turns a potential classic into a merely viable entertainment. Let’s being with:

Setting, Location, and Atmosphere
The movie, as in the stage musical, is set on an enchanted Greek island that is supposed to possess a kind of magical whimsy that draws lovers to their soul mates. It’s also the proposed home of the legendary Fountain of Aphrodite, a source of everlasting potable passion. Lloyd begins our invitation to the locale with a lovely shot - our lead Amanda Seyfried, singing “I Have a Dream” as a topaz blue sunset engulfs the atoll. We are then introduced to a random selection of shots that fail miserably to establish the rest of the surroundings. It’s all part of a plan that this director has for avoiding anything remotely establishing and certain. When we are introduced to Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, and Pierce Brosnan, (Seyfried’s three “fathers”) they too live in poorly defined areas and circumstances which require a kind of cinematic judicial notice to comprehend. Perhaps it’s all knowledge we don’t need, but when you’re about to have characters randomly burst into song, anything that can ground us definitely helps.

From this point on, Lloyd really destroys the ambience. While she has an entire Mediterranean backdrop to work with, she insists upon using fake sets, greenscreen vistas, and some incredibly awkward staging to realize her aims. “Mamma Mia” takes place on an old goat hut rooftop, while “Dancing Queen” moves from soundstage to seaside in a series of severe jump cuts. An ocean romp between Seyfried and her Brit boy toy Dominic Cooper is interrupted by a group of hunky scuba divers who proceed to dance like stand-ins from Spamalot. Lloyd may argue that it’s all part of a way of creating movie magic and emotion, but we’re so desperate to connect with this material that her hamfisted hackwork makes us angry. We want a vision of something otherworldly and ethereal, a fuzzy bubble blissfulness where love is illustrated as a particular moment and place. Instead, we’re so busy getting our bearings that we never fully understand where we are, and why it casts such a schizophrenic pall over everything.

Character Interaction and Clarification
Unless you walk in with a working knowledge of the stage musical, there is very little personal perspective offered by this director. She believes in the shorthand version of characterization, giving us meaningless shot snippets (Firth as stuffed shirt, Skarsgård as beery bohemian, Streep as long suffering hippie chick) where a line of dialogue or single scene conversation would have sufficed. This is particularly important when the third act ‘twists’ start happening. Firth finds out that he’s gay, Seyfried discovers that maybe she is racing to the altar to avoid her mother’s disapproval, and Streep shifts from independent icon ex-rocker to desperate and dateless. When she sings “The Winner Takes It All”, it stands as a moment of personal reflection and self-sacrificing triumph. To suddenly go domestic seems surreal. But that’s because Lloyd has failed to set us up for such a reveal. It’s the same with Firth. He has a very weird conversation with Skarsgård that’s supposed to be one of those clueless male mix-ups where neither gent fully comprehends what the other is saying. Instead, it feels like an incomplete experiment from a screenwriter’s work in progress.

Part of the reason musicals work is through our ability to identify with the characters. Seyfried’s desire to know her onscreen dad instantly draws us in. It’s a wonderfully universal conceit. But along the way, Lloyd and Mamma Mia! turn the need very inward. Toward the end, it’s so frustratingly insular that we’re no longer sure if the man’s identity really matters (the narrative feels the same way). It’s even worse from Streep’s point of view. While it is never clearly explained, her past with these men seems to throw her for an unspecified loop. Not only is their presence perplexing, but when we learn that she had romantic liaisons with all of them (Brosnan’s being the most intense), her behavior goes from quirky to concerning. What exactly is her problem, and why is this supposedly empathetic Earth mother unable to speak frankly with her own child? Of course, this is a musical, some will say, we don’t need such in-depth dissections. But much of the missing pieces here are Lloyd’s fault, the direct result of filmmaking choices that never once draw us into these people’s world.

Narrative Drive
Granted, this is a clothesline plotline, a connect-the-dots conceit in which certain songs must stand for certain story points. Catherine Johnson deserves a lot of credit for finding a way - awkward or not - of combining all these tracks. Sure, there are clunky transitions, and sometimes one wonders if ABBA likes the implication of what the music is illustrating (as in Christine Baranski’s cougar-come on as part of “Does Your Mother Know?”). But as long as we can follow the various narrative strands, we should easily be able to decipher what’s going on. Sadly, Lloyd’s limits behind the lens once again come to the fore as she struggles to make sense of this often jarring jumble. Nothing is set up contextually - Streep’s financial woes, Cooper’s actual career path, what any of the potential Dad’s really do for a living, the ex-rock star situation, the back-up singers’ circumstance, the reason for all the disgruntled Greeks. Instead, Lloyd just lays it out there, thinking we’re clever enough (or perhaps, adequately doped up on Swedish pop perfection) to care. It shows the inherent laziness - and lack of previous big screen skill - this director applies.

Even worse, the movie sacrifices the men for more girl-oriented goading. Fans of the original show will clearly miss “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (a planned highlight for Brosnan’s character) and an interchange between Seyfried and Skarsgård to “The Name of the Game”. While it may have been a matter of running time, or perhaps inappropriate casting (why bring on big names if they can’t carry even the smallest amount of a tune?), it shows that Lloyd is not willing to take a risk. She’s so unsure of how to deal with the obvious material that something a little more complicated simply gets extricated. The ending is even changed, moving “Take a Chance on Me” from a pre-wedding placement to a last act celebration of middle aged matron desperation. Thanks to this cobbled together approach, equally marred by a visual acumen that can best be described as slipshod, Mamma Mia! must get by on ABBA and actors only. Sometimes it succeeds. At other instances, Lloyd also lets them down. 

Production Numbers and Musical Interludes
This is perhaps the biggest problem with Mamma Mia! in general, something that most big screen musicals - jukebox based or original - strive to overcome. ABBA wrote some undeniable gems, ear worms that won’t leave your brain even after decades of the most dedicated efforts to purposefully purge same. They are so bright and bubbly, so pert and effervescent that they could almost carry the film by themselves. Sadly, they almost have to. Lloyd fails to fully understand how to bring song and dance to film, instead relying almost exclusively on a mob mentality to illustrate her tunes. Take the party number “Voulez-Vous”. The direction is mind-numbingly awful, the camera swirling around and cross cutting in such a randomized fashion that, what should feel exciting becomes chaotic and disjointed. It’s something that happens with other group entries like “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Money, Money, Money”. There is such confusion to what Lloyd puts before audiences that any enjoyment they get must be inferred from the sonic situations in play.

The one-on-one moments are a tad better. “Slipping Through My Fingers” has a nice mother/daughter vibe, though the lack of actual singing by Streep and Seyfried seems an odd choice for a musical. After all, vocalizing (even in post-production lip sync) is part of the purpose here. Going montage makes no sense. Similarly, there are other instances when the actors stop moving their mouths, even as their rendition of the lyrics come pouring out of the speakers. Perhaps the biggest offense occurs at the film’s climax, when Streep gives Brosnan a last chance brush off with “The Winner Takes It All”. This is her big ballad moment, a culmination of everything the character has committed to and stands for. And with an actress as capable as Streep at the helm, it should floor us. Lloyd, instead, turns this into a cockeyed carousel of mixed emotions, her whirling dervish lens never settling on the action long enough to let us in on the song’s significance. It just keeps dipping and diving around the actors, removing any chance that we might witness something akin to an actual performance. Luckily, Streep’s gestures save it in the end, ensuring that this will be one director who does not ruin her work through inexperience and incompetence.

It’s nothing personal on Ms. Lloyd. There is no denying her work in theater, but her limited TV time clearly did not prepare her for the challenge of making this movie. For those still convinced that she was the proper choice for this project, just take this impromptu survey - who would have done a better job here, Phyllida Lloyd, or Adam Shankman (the man behind last year’s equally buoyant Hairspray)? Or imagine if Rob Marshall (Chicago, the upcoming Nine) had been put in charge. Wouldn’t this film have functioned a whole lot better had someone like Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors), Baz Lurhmann (Moulin Rouge!), or even Julie Taymor (whose Across the Universe tried the same thing with The Beatles). In a medium that relies on the convergence of many competing creative elements, Mamma Mia! could have been a nuclear powered pixie stick, so satisfyingly sweet that we become instantly addicted to its comfort food qualities. Instead, it’s a half-success, stunted by someone who should have never been given a seat behind the camera in the first place.

 

by Bill Gibron

15 Jul 2008


With only a half dozen films in his little over a decade old canon, Christopher Nolan stands at the crossroads of artform greatness. Not just being the best of his kind, but as an auteur worthy of names like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Lumet. He’s no “next Spielberg” Shyamalan or foot draggingly difficult David O. Russell. Instead, he’s the bellwether for a new kind of filmmaker, one that successfully merges Hollywood classicism with the best of the post-modern revision. Looking at the six films he’s made since emerging in 1996, one can witness the development and growth of an innovative icon, someone schooled in the old ways of working while finding novel means of making his far reaching, philosophical points. With The Dark Knight about to signal his ascension into undeniable importance, let’s look back over his oeuvre to see just where it all started - and how he earned his new illustrious rank.

Following (1996)
Offering an initial glimpse into what would soon be a full blown motion picture aesthetic, Nolan’s no-budget debut is a celebratory shape of good things to come. Few have seen this minor monochrome masterwork, a combination of the best that noir and the post-modern approach to film has to offer. Intercutting between a writer’s unusual obsession (he follows people inconspicuously as they go about their daily life) and a pseudo crime caper involving a burglar and a babe, Nolan acknowledges his limits while simultaneously using every deception he knows in the language of film. Filming with amateurs over a year of weekends, the resulting 69 minutes stand as a blueprint for what would soon be a career to be reckoned with.

Memento (2000)
With its eccentric cast - Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Guy Pearce - and equally unusual premise and presentation, Christopher Nolan declared his artistic worth with this wildly successful indie effort. Built out of his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, and applying a backwards story structure that bested Pulp Fiction for narrative ingenuity, the filmmaking novice vaulted past many other outside amateurs to step front and center into the critical limelight. While some argued that the movie was more gimmick than engaging, others find the mystery in reverse tactic more satisfying than the standard whodunit. Even today, eight years later, many marvel at its unique structure and cinematic daring.

Even more telling, Memento suggests the specific elements that would come to make Nolan a true directorial talent. The painstaking attention to details, the unbridled character depth, the desire that everything onscreen, from the smallest moment to the biggest big picture pronouncements, make sense are literally encased in his creation. Many miss the fact that Nolan is a brilliant writer as well. He has had a hand in every screenplay he’s ever filmed, and you can see the connection and consistency up onscreen. A movie like Memento could easily go perplexing and pear-shaped, especially in the hands of one of Hollywood’s journeymen. This is one time where high concept met even larger ability - and the result was magical. 

Insomnia (2002)
It’s never easy adapting a popular foreign film for Western tastes, especially when said movie is this laconic, spellbinding thriller from Sweden. The original starred
Stellan Skarsgård as a sleep-deprived detective on the case of a murdered girl. It exposed director Erik Skjoldbjærg to audiences worldwide, and was so well considered that the Criterion Collection gave the film one of its well-deserved Special Edition DVD treatments. So Nolan definitely had an uphill battle, especially with this being his first studio feature. Saddled with a cast that included a peak Al Pacino, a rising Hilary Swank, and a misplaced Robin Williams, the filmmaker fashioned a kind of sunlit noir, a world where the darkest elements exist within the never-ending Alaskan days. 

It’s not just that the former stand-up turned middling actor is horribly wrong for the role of a sleazoid killer. Nor is it the oddball juxtaposition of European angst coming out of the mouth of high profile Hollywood faces. No, the true issue with Insomnia is one of “why bother”. Sure, Nolan seamlessly weaves the worlds of memory and immediacy, effortlessly swinging between flashback and fact, and he makes the most of his frozen tundra location. But Skjoldbjærg’s version was just as good, and Skarsgård gave a heartbreaking performance. So a remake was merely a matter of foreign film snobbery. No matter the genius of the man behind the lens, this version of Insomnia still seems unnecessary.

Batman Begins (2005)
It was a monumental task that any director would find daunting. Warner Brothers, desperate to revamp the Caped Crusader after Joel Schumacher and his day-glo frightmares more or less killed him off, was looking for some fresh new talent to take over the franchise. While names like Tarantino and Aronofsky were tossed about, Nolan got the nod. From the very beginning, he put his stamp on the project. He hired Christian Bale to play a decidedly tormented Bruce Wayne. He focused on less famous villains like Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. He wiped away the cartoon sheen suggested by the material and set all the action within a dire, depressively realistic Gotham City. This new approach clicked. Audiences adored Nolan’s aggressive update, and critics applauded his originality and artistry.

This is definitely not Tim Burton’s Batman. Gone are the Goth tinged tricks and A-list anarchy. In their place are real performances from actors doing everything to make this material feel fully realized and totally authentic. Bale is especially good, though his breathy ‘Bat whisper’ gets the occasional fanboy in a lather. Yet Nolan wisely surrounded him with a supporting cast including old world wonders like Michael Caine (great as Alfred), new school sages like Liam Neeson, and up and comers like Cillian Murphy (hauntingly creepy as Scarecrow/ Dr. Crane). With a clockwork narrative allowing all plot points to neatly fall into place, Batman Begins represented a new era for the comic book movie - one that Nolan would again redefine five years later.

The Prestige (2006)
In the year that passed after Begins broke through both critically and commercially, everyone wondered what Nolan would do next. While many wanted to see another installment of Gotham in chaos, they would have to wait for a future opening day. Instead, the director and his gifted screenwriter brother created a remarkable adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel. Oddly enough, of the two films centering on old world magicians to arrive that year (along with The Illusionist), Nolan’s was the lesser mainstream hit. But what it lacked in financial windfalls it made up for in motion picture artistry. In a year that celebrated Martin Scorsese’s Departed with an Oscar, and saw stellar work arrive from Darren Aronofsky in the form of The Fountain, The Prestige was the year’s best film. 

At its core, The Prestige plays with notions of fascination, dedication and deception. It starts out as a professional battle of wills between two talented men, and ends up a sad comment on how low mere men will go to best each other. Bale is back, becoming a seasoned member of the Nolan creative company with his turn here, and Hugh Jackman delivers yet another insanely good performance as the showman who’s more flash than onstage substance. While both parts offer their fair share of nuance, the Aussie bests his British rival, reveling in a snarky kind of smarm that makes your skin crawl as your heart breaks. A few years from now, when Nolan has settled into his multiple award winning career, The Prestige will be seen as his strong creative breakthrough. It stands as one of cinema’s strongest statements.

The Dark Knight (2008)
With his last film underperforming and the studio anxious for more Batmania, Nolan began the process of revisiting Gotham by looking for his next supervillian. At the end of Begins, Gary Oldman’s Sgt. Gordon (soon to be Commissioner) shows the Caped Crusader a piece of evidence - a playing/calling card for someone known as the Joker. With this dynamic already set up, the director started casting. Several people suggested Michael Keaton as the character, a nice bit of symmetry to the previous run of films. Others suggested Crispin Glover, Mark Hammill (who voiced the character in the cartoon update), and even an aging Jack Nicholson. Nolan went with Heath Ledger, the Australian actor best known for his work in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There. It turned out to be an inspired choice…and a tragic one. After filming was completed, Ledger would die of an accidental drug overdose.

A combination of menace and melancholy looms over The Dark Knight, painting its masterful crime epic sweep in uncomfortable shades of interpersonal doom. Nolan’s latest is indeed a masterpiece, albeit one that avoids all the pitfalls that come with being yet another Summer box office draw. Blockbusters don’t get much darker and demanding than this, a 150 minute descent into the fractured psyche of four unflappable men. Along with Bale and Ledger, Oldman returns for more Gordon drama, and just when you thought we’d found a hero to save Gotham, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent goes from conqueror to conquered in a literal blaze of g(l)ory. His Two-Face is just one of many amazing features in this Oscar worthy effort, a true indication that Christopher Nolan is the best director working in films today.

by Bill Gibron

14 Jul 2008


Coming Soon.Net Reports from the Set of Watchmen
As the summer roll out continues, tent pole after tent pole testing the mainstream audiences appetite for spectacle, one of the movies that hopes to tantalize audience cinematic taste buds in 2009 soldiers on. For those looking for some insights into the production design and the unique universe of the film, look no further that this onset visit. (Coming Soon.net)



Where is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are
It was supposed to be the family film follow-up for the man responsible for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Now, it’s apparently lost in reshoot limbo. For those wondering the status of the maverick director’s take on the Maurice Sendak classic can read more about its here. (LA Times)



Kate Hudson Lands Key Role in Big Screen Nine
While casting changes on the upcoming Rob Marshall musical adaptation are nothing new (Javier Bardem dropped out, only to be replaced by this year’s Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis), the addition of the Almost Famous actress is interesting. She joins a star studded cast including Dame Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, and Penelope Cruz. E Online has more on the production. (E Online)



Cast of W Caught In Bar-Room Brawl
It’s a given that, when dealing with an Oliver Stone film, controversy is bound to be a byproduct. But who knew his take on the life of current President George W. Bush would be so contentious off-screen. Apparently, a few in the cast and crew - including lead Josh Brolin and co-star Jeffrey Wright - got pinched for public intoxication and resisting arrest. Given the Commander in Chief’s party-fueled past, this recent dust up seems almost appropriate. Read more here. (Shreveport Times)



Trailer for Ricky Gervais’ Ghost Town Is Up
It’s angry loner vs. genial spooks in this unusual comedy from Spider-man scribe David Koepp. Featuring the Office UK sensation as a disgruntled dentist able to see the dead, this sounds an awful lot like the 1993 Ron Underwood film Heart and Souls. Who knows - maybe Gervais can bring something different to the failing fantasy comedy genre. (Official Site)



First Full Spirit Trailer Leaked Online
Ever since the success of Sin City and 300 Frank Miller has been looking for a suitable project to propel his own career as a solo filmmaker. He may have found it in this stylized take on the famous Will Eisner comic. While fanboys have been flummoxed by the director’s desire to closely mimic the look of a pen and ink panel, this preview appears intriguing enough. (Film School Rejects)



Jack Black Back for More Rock
Flush with the success of Kung Fu Panda - and the upcoming buzz over August’s Tropic Thunder - Jack Black is planning to revisit his 2003 success. Helmed by Richard Linklater (who directed the first film) and with a script again delivered by Mike White, School of Rock 2: America Rocks. Paramount has yet to state a planned release date. (Variety)



DVD releases of Note for 15 July

The Bank Job
Meet Bill
Never Forever
Penelope
Poison Sweethearts
Shutter
Steel Trap: Read the SE&L Review HERE
Trafic: The Criterion Collection


 
Box Office Figures for Weekend of 11 July

#1 - Hellboy 2: The Golden Army: $35.7.6 million
#2 - Hancock: $33.8 million
#3 - Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D: $20.5 million
#4 - WALL*E: $18.6 million
#5 - Wanted: $11.7 million
#6 - Get Smart: $7.0 million
#7 - Meet Dave: $5.2 million
#8 - Kung Fu Panda: $4.3 million
#9 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $2.3 million
#10 - Kit Kittredge: An American Girl: $2.2 million



Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan returns with another installment of his Batman reboot. This time around, the late Heath Ledger is the Joker, challenging the Caped Crusader to reveal his true nature to the citizens of Gotham. It’s everything you’ve heard it is.
Rated PG-13

Mamma Mia! - Meryl Streep stars in the big screen translation of the wildly successful ABBA jukebox musical. It’s a light and breezy entertainment bogged down by some of the worse directing choices since a certain German doc turned hack filmmaker.
Rated PG-13

Space Chimps - After a stellar set of CGI cartoons this summer, it’s back to business as usual with this tired take on the genre. Some apes find themselves thrown to the alien wolves, used by NASA to explore an uncharted planet with typical juvenile-styled hijinx. Rated PG

Limited:
Transsiberian - Brad Anderson, the director of the provocative The Machinist (which starred an emaciated Christian Bale) returns with a thriller based on a pair of Americans traveling abroad. It promises to be quite intriguing, despite what the trailer may tell you. Rated R

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.

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