>> Hancock (7/10)

HancockNobody likes Hancock.  That’s the conflict at the start of the new superhero film starring Will Smith as a drunken, impatient hobo with the powers of a god.  To offset this conflict, to make sure that the audience secretly does like Hancock, even when characters in the movie do not, the filmmakers cast WIll Smith.  Smart move.  The casting affords Hancock the opportunity to be a jerk on the grandest scale, while still being likeable because, well, he’s the Fresh Prince.

Jason Bateman plays Ray Embrey, a public relations specialist who makes Hancock his pet project after Hancock saves Embrey’s life.  This means jail time for Hancock’s irresponsible property damage.  This means Hancock must learn to be respectful to others.  This means Hancock needs to learn how to be a useful superhero, costume and all.  These lessons are not without a price, particularly to Embrey’s marriage.  His wife, Mary (Charlize Theron) views Hancock as a threat to their family, and for very good reason.  Her hesitancy and suspicions about Hancock’s true nature provide the film with an entirely new conflict, halfway through the story.

There is something episodic about Hancock that gives it a very specific comic book feel.  Hancock, the film, feels like a six-issue  story arc in a Hancock comic book (a book that doesn’t even exist; at least not as of this writing).  There are minor stories within an overall story.  Issue one–Hancock meets Embrey.  Issue two–Hancock goes to prison.  Issue three–Hancock gets a costume and fights bank robbers.  And so on.  I could picture this being adapted almost literally from a comic, and that’s neat, especially in light of there being no such book.

The downside is that there is no Hancock on-going series to flesh out the ideas and mythology of this character, and the film feels overstuffed with ideas as a result.  I absolutely want a Hancock sequel.  I liked the movie, but director Peter Berg’s reach overextends his grasp and as a result the movie crams too much story (and too many varying tones) into too little time.  I want a sequel that will take everything I liked about this movie–the awesomeness of Hancock’s power on display, the playful imagination–and tell one singular, focused story.

Smith is taking some interesting chances with this character.  Hancock doesn’t ever try to be a sweetheart here; he just wants to not be hated.  He’s not a thug with a heart of gold; he’s a tired, lonely immortal looking for a connection in a world that he doesn’t need (despite their need for him).  Smith’s connection with Theron is, in my opinion, the film’s most disappointing casting misstep.  Theron isn’t bad, but I noticed a lack of much needed tension and chemistry between Theron and Smith.  The second half of the film is all their’s, and while it works conceptually, it doesn’t exactly work in execution.  It’s missing an emotional weight that would’ve brought the film up from “pretty cool” into ” pretty special”.

All in all, Hancock holds its own against the comic book movies with an established history, on the strength of its ideas alone.  In the hands of a better director, this probably would’ve been something quite remarkable.  Berg is still too green for a project this imaginative.  Hancock perseveres with big story, big action, and Big Willie Style, making it a slightly unusual bit of large-scale superhero adventure.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

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>> Get Smart (7/10)

Get SmartMovies are products, especially Summer movies.  They’re designed specifically to make money by providing widely appealing entertainment for two hours in an air-conditioned environment.  They are perfectly timed for home video release at the start of the Christmas shopping season, so that these exercises in mass appeal can be given as gifts, and the giver doesn’t have to worry about whether ot not the receiver will like it, because, most everybody will probably like it.

Get Smart is a product movie.  It’s a calculated, manufactured film with a mass appeal cast and a recognizable brand name, virtually guaranteed to gross over $100 million, and then be fortgotten until the sequel comes out.  That’s barely even a criticism; it’s just the way the world works.  I can’t critize the sun rising in the morning any more than I can criticize Get Smart for being a mass appeal Summer product.

Steve Carrell is Maxwell Smart, a detail-oriented, accident prone pencil-pusher promoted to field agent status by the government covert ops group CONTROL (led by Alan Arkin as the Chief, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and David Koechner in supporting roles).  He’s paired with Agent 99 (beautiful Anne Hathaway) to stop the agents of CHAOS (played by Terence Stamp and The Great Khali) from blowing up the president with nuclear weaponry.

I was pleased to see that Smart wasn’t made into an idiot man-child for the movie version.  Carrell evokes the spirit of Don Adams in his performance without doing an impression.  The familiar catchphrases are uttered, we get to see the shoe phone in action, and there’s some good use of the old television Get Smart theme music.  The spirit of the piece feels right.  It’s silly, like the old show, and accessible to anyone that has ever seen a spy movie before.

However, it’s the Summer, so it’s got to be bigger, badder, and better than whatever else is out there, and director Peter Segal does try to pump up the action as much as he can.  It’s too bad so much energy was spent creating giant action scenes, because I can promise you that no one is going to see this and be talking about how cool it was to see Agent 99 go skydiving or the huge end chase between a propeller plane and an SUV.  People are going to talk about the funny parts, and the movie should’ve played to its cast’s strengths instead of trying so hard to be the must-see action-comedy event of the year.

Get Smart is an acceptable way to enjoy an air conditioned environment for two hours.  You will not be upset at all when you recieve this as a gift on DVD this Christmas.  That is not me saying this is a bad film.  This is me saying that this is what it is–an exercise in getting your money, in exchange for entertainment.  Everyone gets paid, everyone goes home happy.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> The Love Guru (6/10)

The Love GuruSo, I saw this year’s most publicly reviled film so far, Mike Myer’s new comedy The Love Guru, and I didn’t hate it.  This is not, as some would have you believe, the end of Mike Myers’ career in comedy.  There will always be a home in comedy for wacky characters and off-color childishness, and as long as that is the case, Myers will continue to make movies of varying quality.  Honestly, this one was more likeable than Austin Powers: Goldmember, which was a massive hit, so I’m not sure what all this fuss is about.

Myers is Guru Pitka, a giggling, simplistic self-help/relationship author obsessed with Deepak Chopra and genital humor.  He’s hired by the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the reliably awful Jessica Alba, to reconcile the relationship of their star player (Romany Malco), after that player’s girlfriend hooks up with opposing goalie Jacque LeCoq Grande (Justin Timberlake in a ridiculous, mugging performance).  There’s a vacuous romantic subplot involving Alba’s character and Pitka, probably one of the worst on-screen romantic pairings I’ve ever seen, in which Pitka struggles to truly love himself so that he can remove the chastity belt placed upon him by his mentor (Ben Kingsley in a ridiculous, mugging performance) and give Alba a good shagging.  Yeah, baby, yeah.

Basically, The Love Guru is to Myers as Little Nicky was to Myer’s SNL chum, Adam Sandler.  It’s an odd, almost unmarketable, premise for a comedy, with a weak joke hit/miss ratio, annoying characters, some product placement, and a terrible romance angle.  It’s a career misstep, not a career killer.  The Love Guru‘s very idea of poking fun at the subculture of motivational gurus and the people who follow them is interesting, just not an idea filled with mass appeal.  While Myers works very hard at making Pitka as likeable and as energetic as possible, the film is inert and lifeless.  The Love Guru lacks style, and, the bad thing is,  it’s noticeable.  No amount of penis jokes make up for the film’s flat directing, full of oddly timed pauses and huge missed opportunities to play with the visual language of Bollywood films.

I hope Myers can walk away from this one unscathed, because I don’t know if it is entirely his fault that the movie isn’t great.  I laughed more than a couple of times, I liked Guru Pitka, and the film’s juvenile humor is just within reach of being an embarrassing guilty pleasure.  It’s a passable “bad” comedy, not something astonishingly unfunny (and there are at least a half-dozen of those kinds of films released yearly), but its quaint, junior high-level sense of humor doesn’t succeed in creating any kind of lasting positive impression.

6 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Wanted (5.5/10)

WantedIt’s math time! Take how clever the movie Wanted thinks that it is, then divide that by half. Subtract characterization. Add stupidity. Take a scene in which two bullets collide with each other in slow-motion and multiply that scene by eight. Subtract all body fat from Angelina Jolie. Divide your audience into two groups–the people that will think this is stylish fun and the people who will think this is silly garbage. Add me to the people who think that it’s silly garbage.

James McAvoy is Wesley Gibson, put-upon office schmoe with no control over his life, who discovers one day that his father was an elite member of a secret group of assassins called The Fraternity. Taken under the wing of Fox (Angeline Jolie, playing the world’s sexiest big-lipped skeleton) and advised by the group’s leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman playing Morgan Freeman), Gibson has every right to want to kiss his old, meaningless life goodbye and become a super-totally-awesome killing machine, especially when he finds out that he has the chance to take down the man who killed the father that Gibson never knew.

By the end of his training, Gibson learns how to do physically impossible, ridiculous things with bullets and automobiles, and the movie takes some surprising twists and turns that, suprisingly, you won’t give two diddley craps about. Cars will flip over multiple cars, land upright, and keep driving, in slow-motion. Bullets will go exactly where the shooter wants them to go, science be damned, in slow-motion. You will look down at your watch, wondering what is playing across the hall, and time itself will be in slow-motion.

There is a thin line between dumb and dumb fun. Director Timur Bekmambetov doesn’t seem to know where that line is. Sometimes he does stumble into dumb fun, almost by accident. It’s sort of like he put so many things that he thought people would think was cool into his film, that a couple of them were bound to stick. Wanted is immature and dopey most of the time, amusing and entertaining a fraction of the time.

Did the actors like making this film? There’s not really any feeling that they did, each one phoning in performances like they hope their native Russian director won’t notice how lousy they’re doing because English isn’t his first language. That may sound harsh, but McAvoy in particular, is borderline awful (except when it comes to the physical stuff), Freeman is sleepwalking, and Jolie…Did Jolie have dialogue or did the camera just cut to her every time they needed to show someone raising their eyebrows? I can’t remember.

Wanted may be some sort of violent, zany wish-fulfillment fantasy entertainment for the lowly and downtrodden, but make no mistakes, this is one stupid movie. I know there are going to be some people out there that recognize Wanted‘s stupidity and enjoy the film regardless. There will be fewer still that think it’s actually really good. To me, it felt like a ten-year old boy’s version of what an R-rated action movie should be, with bullets smashing into each other, plenty of f-words, car chases that someone acted out with their Hot Wheels collection, and a girl’s naked butt. Tee f@#$!n’ hee.

5.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Wall-E (9/10)

WALL-EThanks to Pixar, I have no choice but to go into wild, unrestrained hyperbole regarding their new film, the animated sci-fi adventure love story titled Wall-E. Ready? Here we go. Visionary. Emotional. Fantastic. A Must-See. A Thrill Ride. Romantic. Eye-Popping. Incredible. Instant Classic. The best Pixar film ever made. Let that sink in for a minute.

The best. THE. BEST.

I would go so far as to say that the first half of Wall-E is as good as a movie can get. It transports you wholly to another place and time, and connects you emotionally, almost immediately, to an object–not a person, or a loveable talking animal, but a garbage compacting machine called a Wall-E. What kind of skill does it take as a filmmaker to make me empathize and cheer for a garbage compactor?

This little garbage-stacking robot has his garbage-stacking life interrupted by an egg-shaped space probe called Eve. Eve is sent to a long-forgotten, inhospitable Earth to find some sign of plant life, so that humans, floating lazily in space for over seven hundred years under the care of the faceless mega-corporation BNL, can return to their home planet. Lonely Wall-E is smitten by the sleek, interesting Eve, so much so that even after she has completed her directive, he follows her into the depths of space, and into a big adventure in a society wherein humankind relies almost entirely on robots for anything physical or active.

If the second half of the movie feels more traditional than the first half, it’s only traditional in a very Disney sense. There’s crowd-pleasing humor, some memorable robot characters, and the classic True Love’s Kiss, These never feel like formula in Wall-E because the setting and the situation are handled with such great depth and creativity that it stands toe-to-toe with any science fiction film. This is so fully realized that you know, without a doubt, that you are watching a movie that will be considered a classic for years to come. The amazing thing is that you start to know this literally minutes into the film, as Wall-E scavenges for interesting scraps and obsessively watches Hello, Dolly, before a single line of dialogue is even uttered.

This film is so darned close to perfection that I feel like a bad guy for admitting that I didn’t think the mix of live-action and cg-animated humans in the film was a good idea, or that I wished the ending had a little more punch. Regardless, Pixar and director Andrew Stanton have created a masterpiece–not an animation masterpiece, but a cinematic masterpiece. It’s an audio-video dream-come-true that deserves every bit of the attention that I know it will receive. I loved Wall-E, and I think you will too.

9 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Kung Fu Panda (7/10)

Kung Fu PandaWhere exactly is the line between cliche and homage? That line is easily found in Dreamworks Animation’s new film, Kung Fu Panda, cutting right down the middle, between adoring tribute and tired idea. Of course, children won’t understand either one. They won’t know that stories about an unlikely “chosen one” are a dime a dozen; they don’t know yet that the “believe in yourself and you can do anything” message is the weakly beating heart of literally hundreds of kids’ films.

Jack Black is Po, a panda bear, and noodle shop waiter, that is selected, seemingly by accident, to become the legendary Dragon Warrior. The Dragon Warrior is to be trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) alongside his legendary students, the Furious Five–Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Vipress (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross)–to defend their village against power hungry Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Tai Lung, once denied the title of Dragon Warrior, is determined to learn the secrets within the Warrior’s Dragon Scroll, and Po must rise to the occasion, get in shape, and believe in himself if he wants to protect his village.

Like I need another animated movie telling me that the only thing that a person needs to do to experience their life’s fullest potential is to believe in themselves and follow their dreams. It’s tired. More dangerous still is that we may soon be seeing a brand new generation of adults with a lifetime of unfulfilled hopes, that get to carry the weight of unwarranted blame directly on their own shoulders. Sure, it’s a positive message, but it’s still only a close cousin to a similar, more truthful message–be the best you that you can be, no matter what happens, whether you sell noodles or end up a Dragon Warrior. Kung Fu Panda may bear Eastern influences, but when it comes to philosophy, it’s as flat as a gong.

Now that I’ve probably made the film sound like boring dreck, the truth is this movie is oftentimes exciting and beautiful to look at. There’s a lot of good use of realistic camera effects that I can’t remember seeing in a CG-animated film, like extended use of depth of field, that adds photorealism to the stylized character designs. Lighting and ambient weather also add to the realism; there’s a scene with Shifu in a misty cloud that stands out in my memory as looking pretty dang good. These technical flourishes stand alongside gentle humor and well-choreographed martial arts scenes to make Kung Fu Panda into something slightly more than a mild diversion, but still not quite an animated classic.

Anybody under the age of twelve is not going to recognize that Kung Fu Panda is pretty conventional, and, honestly, the kung fu and the Chinese locale will probably feel exciting and fresh to the kids. To me, Kung Fu Panda is as watchable as anything Dreamworks has done before–competent entertainment, but nothing revelatory. I’m sure they’ll make a half dozen decreasingly entertaining sequels to this, in true Dreamworks fashion, and we’ll all be sorry we ever said we liked it in the first place.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> The Foot Fist Way (7/10)

The Foot Fist WayFred Simmons grew on me.

I didn’t like him at first. I didn’t like his pompous attitude, I didn’t like how talentless he appeared, especially in regards to his ego, and I didn’t like the condescending way he interacted with others. So, when this movie was about ten minutes in, I got a little worried. I knew Danny McBride’s performance as tae kwan do instructor Simmons was the centerpiece of the internet-hyped independent comedy The Foot Fist Way, and if I didn’t like him, didn’t find him funny, how would I be able to enjoy the movie?

Things started to turn a little for me around the introduction of Simmons’ awful wife, Suzie (Mary Jane Bostic). Simmons begins to show a little more depth, some different sides to his seemingly one-note personality. Perhaps more importantly, the movie started getting funny, and the more I got into Simmons, the more I could understand him and even sympathize with him, the funnier it got. This comedy snuck up on me, and by the film’s end, Simmons is almost Rocky-like in his ability to get the audience to literally cheer for him.

There’s a loose plot for this comedic character study that follows Fred Simmons into probably the darkest point in his life, discovering in succession that neither his wife nor his idol, Chuck “The Truck” Wallace (Ben Best) are all that they’re cracked up to be in his own mind. Simmons feels very real, despite his buffoonish behavior, in the same way Ricky Gervais’ David Brent felt real in the UK version of The Office. This sort of character creation by an actor, able to write their own role, as McBride did here, alongside Best and director Jody Hill, is strengthened by adding that real layer of pathos under all the karate pratfalls.

The Foot Fist Way has some of the best profane, misogynistic one-liners since Anchorman (and features the best “tell off” scene in any movie I think I’ve ever seen). There’s some great quotable stuff here, and the independent spirit of the movie reminded me in some ways of Clerks. It’s unpolished in much the same way Clerks was, while being sort of wonderful in its own way. Maybe I wasn’t rolling in the aisles, maybe it wasn’t the comedy gem of a lifetime that the early reviews hyped it up to be, but it grew on me.

Yeah. I think I like Fred Simmons.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale