7/8/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Big Screen Edition
A few cinematic thoughts as we head into the hottest weeks of Summer ‘08...

HANCOCK (** of four): Will Smith and sci-fi are usually a potent combination at the box-office; from the huge grosses of the “Men in Black” movies to the sturdy (if unremarkable) “I, Robot” and last Christmas’ smash hit “I Am Legend,” the mix of star and genre has resulted in many a commercial success over the years.

With “Hancock,” Smith attempts to put his own spin on the super-hero genre, but the movie, sadly, is close to a total misfire, feeling like the work of too many cooks in the kitchen.

As a drunken super-hero with no knowledge of his past, Smith is as amiable as always (and engagingly stays in-character, without too many winking sarcastic barbs), but the movie is a mess: after opening with a quite funny succession of sequences showing us Hancock’s bad-boy antics, the Vince Gilligan-Vicent Ngo script focuses on a downtrodden PR consultant (Jason Bateman), who attempts to help Hancock improve his image. After spending time in jail to compensate for the expense of his behavior, Hancock is let out by the LAPD so he can take down some cardboard villains, and soon finds out that Bateman’s gorgeous wife (Charlize Theron) harbors a few secrets of her own.

At 90 minutes and change, “Hancock” is a lean, good-looking piece of commercial filmmaking, but as a narrative the movie is all over the map: a raucous comedy for about 40 minutes, then a serious super-hero tale/domestic drama for its second half. As such, the movie almost feels like an origin movie and its sequel rolled into one failed experiment, with wild tonal shifts and a thoroughly unsatisfying climax involving bad guys who are given about two minutes of screen time. The nature of Theron’s character is tipped off early and doesn’t work at all -- once she takes center stage you could almost feel the air being let out of the theater, since the film’s first half-hour played well in front of the audience I saw the picture with.

Unlike some bad movies, “Hancock” is at least mildly entertaining for its duration and is complimented by a spirited John Powell score, and its central concept certainly could’ve made for a fresh twist on the well-worn comic book genre. Alas, the finished product feels like one idea from one writer or producer piled on top of another, culminating in an uneven brew that director Peter Berg is never able to get under control. (92 mins., PG-13).

WANTED (**): More comic-book shenanigans, this time from Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, that’s basically undone by heavy-handed characterizations and a grating lead performance from British star James McAvoy.

As a tired office worker bored by his daily existence, McAvoy is quickly thrust into a secret world of assassins, lead by a heavily-tattooed Angelina Jolie and mastermind Morgan Freeman. The duo inform McAvoy that he’s the son of a slain former assassin with the potential to alter the direction of bullets with his mind and soon send him to slaughter the killer responsible for his father’s death...but first, McAvoy has to undergo a series of brutal beatings and rituals that almost make “Fight Club” seem like child’s play by comparison.

Best known for his silly vampire sagas “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” Bekmambetov makes his mark on the American studio system with “Wanted,” which if nothing else is a slick-looking piece with a couple of dynamic action scenes. Late in the game McAvoy corners his prey on a train running through the mountains of Italy, in a sequence that’s splendidly edited and choreographed. The Michael Brandt-Derek Haas script is a mixed bag but offers a few twists up its sleeve that might take some viewers by surprise as well.

Where “Wanted” goes wrong is in its brainless, one-note characters, from the office drones McAvoy works with to its central performance altogether. McAvoy seems totally ill-at-ease here, failing to portray a nebbish who’s supposed to be at least somewhat likeable and identifiable. A young Matthew Broderick could’ve made the part work, but McAvoy -- from a forced American accent to his heavy-handed delivery -- is all wrong, and since the film basically rests on his shoulders alone (Jolie’s secondary part turns to be basically thankless), “Wanted” has no dramatic center, existing solely as a brainless shoot ‘em up that seems aimed at 13-year-olds, in spite of its hard “R” rating, non-stop gore and profanity-ridden screenplay.

The film’s ultimate message, even for a soulless summer blockbuster, is also downright disturbing -- being a murderer is “cooler” than working in an office? No wonder why “entertainment” these days seems to be going right down the tubes. (110 mins., R).    

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (***): Interesting “re-boot” of the Marvel Comics character comes across as a sequel to an origin movie that was never made!

Pretending that Ang Lee’s interesting but bonkers “Hulk” movie never happened, director Louis Leterrier’s colorful comic-book saga brings us a kinder, more identifiable Bruce Banner in the form of Edward Norton. Intentionally channeling the Bill Bixby series more than its predecessor, this “Hulk” finds Banner on the run in South America, still trying to find a cure for his transformations into the Big Green One. Circumstances, of course, get in the way, with the military -- including General Ross (William Hurt) -- in hot pursuit of Banner, going so far as to send a newly Gamma-infused soldier (Tim Roth) into the fray in order to stop the Hulk from causing further damage. Banner, meanwhile, seeks help from old love Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who hasn’t spoken to her military dad since Banner’s accident, as well as a scientist (Tim Blake Nelson) who hopes to provide a serum to help our hero at least control his transformations.

Loaded with effects and chase sequences, this “Incredible Hulk” is a lot more faithful in spirit and execution to the Marvel Comics -- as well as the old CBS series -- than its predecessor, no question. In-jokes and references for fans abound, from a quote of Joe Harnell’s series theme to Lou Ferringo’s cameo and vocal performances of the Hulk’s dialogue as well (there’s no mistaking Big Lou’s “Hulk SMASH!” line). The Zak Penn script (which Norton rewrote, though without final credit) doesn’t aim to be anything other than a basic, straight-ahead action movie, but the set-pieces are well-executed and the final brawl between the Hulk and the Abomination -- with splendid Rhythm & Hues effects -- is something that kids and comic book fans ought to find perfectly satisfying.

The performances are all fine, and although one wishes there was more of a human element to this “Hulk” (something that Norton lamented was lost in Marvel’s final cut, and could possibly be rectified by an extended DVD this fall), it’s still an entertaining summer fantasy that finally does the Incredible one justice on the big screen. (PG-13, 114 mins.)

IRON MAN (***½): The teaming of star Robert Downey, Jr. with director Jon Favreau in an adaptation of what’s essentially a secondary Marvel Comics character wasn’t likely to become one of the highest-grossing super-hero films of all-time, but kudos go out to all for a high-flying “Iron Man” that’s the best film of the summer so far.

With a confident, funny, thoroughly appealing performance, Downey gives one of the genre’s finest turns as Tony Stark in a perfectly-pitched super-hero movie. Eschewing the dark, brooding approach too many other genre offerings have employed of late, Favreau instead has made one of the most “realistic” super-hero movies, with Downey’s drunken-billionaire playboy reforming himself as an iron-clad hero after nearly dying in the Afghan desert. Supporting performances are likewise superb, from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots to Jeff Bridges’ nefarious Obadiah Stane, while effects, humor, a dash of romance and some exciting action all mesh to form a perfectly cohesive whole.

Even if the Mark Fergus-Hawk Ostby-Art Marcum-Matt Holloway script mostly adheres to a tried-and-true comic-book “origin movie” formula -- and the bland score by Ramin Djawadi adds little to the drama -- “Iron Man” is big fun, and worth seeing for Downey’s winning performance alone. (PG-13, 126 mins.)

Mail Bag: People Who Like INDIANA JONES!

From John Clymer:

As one of the few critics who doesn't have his head up his butt (translation: we agree 90% of the time) I really enjoy your column. However, I must disagree with your review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I found it one of the few "entertainments" that wasn't aimed specifically at the under 21 crowd, or more specifically an "entertainment" that an old fart might enjoy--reasonably traditional cutting, a real movie-star turn by Harrison Ford and a refreshing non-cynical tone. It was also surprising to see soviet-area Russians as the bad guys. Sure David Koepp's script was not up to the Lawrence Kasdan original, but it was not as bad as the Katz/Huyck sequel. Your lowest blow came when you compared "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" to "The Lost World" ...shudder. :)
I also liked Iron Man (for all the reasons you stated), but not nearly as much as the rest of the universe seems to; I found the story a little too slight to support its 126 minute running time.
One of my favorite aspects of your work is your refusal to jump on the critical bandwagon, if a movie is a bit of a snooze (There will be Blood) you aren't afraid to point it out.
Anyway, keep up the great work!

Thanks John!

From Randall Derchan:

Actually, I'm sorry to say but I enjoyed the Indiana Jones movie. Compared to the dreadful Star Wars films. I though it hit the mark, mostly. I can see why some of the fans didn't like it, and there were some stuff in it I wish had been done differently. All in all, I thought there was some great Indy maerial and some pretty good visuals. Some bad ones also, but mostly good. I understood what they were going for, with the fifties nostalgia including the giant saucer, but few remember the Chariots of the Gods phenomena that the film tried to utilize in it's script.

As far as Iron Man, there was a film that was pretty good till the last quarter. After that, it became ridiculous and uninspired. It didn't finish in the direction they started.

Kung Fu Panda was very entertaining with a nice score by Zimmer and Powell, but the rest of the summer looks dull. Minus Wall-E which I have no doubt I will love. Well there's always Bond in the Fall.

Indeed, I’m looking forward to QUANTUM OF SOLACE too...the trailer looks terrific!

NEXT TIME: MAD MEN on Blu-Ray! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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