July 10, 2008

Hancock

Will Smith is a drunken superhero in 'Hancock'Hancock is a mess. This is a movie that, like its title character, lacks purpose and direction. Hey, this is funny, I thought to myself as I watched. Why is everyone so down on the movie? And then it ended, just as the movie seemed to be gearing up for its second act.

There is a climax, albeit a rather lackluster one, but it's plopped down right after we've finally gotten a hang of all the relationships. The romantic leads' very miniscule shared screen time is dominated by scenes where Hancock asks what the hell is going on.

He's confused because eighty years ago he woke up in the hospital with no memory and a whole bevy of superpowers. He's filled the decades since with heroics and hangovers that dull a sense of longing for something that he can't quite place. Like Marty McFly from Back to the Future, he's got a bit of a temper problem and really doesn't like being called a certain word. He seems destined to continue on his self-destructive — really, just plain destructive — path indefinitely until he saves a do-gooder PR flack from a train wreck and gets invited to dinner as a show of gratitude.

Hancock has a major impact on the PR flack and his family, and they on him. He works to clean up his act, and public opinion turns in his favor. I actually appreciated the pro-responsibility message of the movie, but I wish it had come in better packaging. Hancock's journey is largely passive — totally submissive to the PR flack's patient direction and the PR flack's wife's fiery declarations. His only truly independent decision comes at the end of the picture, and the build-up isn't sufficient enough for his sacrifice to carry any real meaning.

There are some deliciously un-P.C. moments scattered throughout the first half of the film, though most have been spoiled by the advertising campaign. This movie had a rough go getting through the MPAA, and much of the movie's off-color flavor seems to have been lost in the process. Will Smith makes the most of a severely underwritten character; his Hancock seems to process everything that happens around him though a world-weary haze, like he isn't surprised but he somehow expected better. As the PR flack, Jason Bateman does a solid job playing the same happy-go-lucky mortal that Luke Wilson and Dick York have played before him. His even-keeled response to even the most shocking and extraordinary developments was endearing, though his nice guy nagging to do the right thing quickly becomes trying. Charlize Theron handles the wild change from stone-cold psycho in the first half of the film to bereaved martyr in the second as well as can be expected.

The ending is interesting and complex, and promises a movie full of complex characters and emotions that it has no time to deliver. The first half is a lot of fun, though each step in Hancock's rehabilitation makes the movie a little more bland. Had the movie not waited until the 11th hour to declare its ambitions, the filmmakers might have had something &151; a Highlander-esque world with polytheistic overtones. I don't mind a bait and switch, if it's interesting and well-executed. The plot twist in Hancock, in addition to being ruined in the trailers, is ultimately neither.(**)


July 06, 2008

WALL·E

WALL·E on mound of trashAs the incredible end credits unfurled for Disney/Pixar's latest effort, WALL·E, I thought to myself this must be what it felt like to be in the audience for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the first time. There are moments in the film, like a sequence involving a fire extinguisher amongst the stars, that are pure poetry. There are moments, like the aforementioned end credits, that redefine the possibilities of cinema. I'd have to go back a long time to find a better film than this one; I certainly don't expect any other film to be topping my top ten list at the end of the year.

The title character is the sole remaining and most idiosycratic of the Waste Allocation Load Lifters, Earth-Class. Mobile trash compactors on bulldozer treads, they were left behind by the Walmart-esque Buy 'N Large corporation to clean up the mess humanity abandoned. The landscape is a G-rated take on the universe of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, several generations further devolved. WALL·E travels the urban wilderness virtually alone, a persistent little cockroach his own companion. The compacted cubes he's made form towering mounds of garbage that fill the spaces between the skyscrapers. Michael Crawford's rendition of "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the Hello Dolly! cast album is the only voice we hear for a long opening stretch.

In fact, despite a heavy audio presence, the film's rythym and pacing owe more to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton than anything that's been released since. While WALL·E's physical appearance owes a lot to Short Circuit, his personality is Chaplin's enduring tramp. He's outdated, outmoded, obsolete but tender and devoted. The object of his desire is a robot named EVE; she is sleek, shiny, powerful — and totally blind to that which is outside her mission. The dynamic that plays out between the two is somewhat similar to City Lights, right down to the lack of dialogue, with the roles of the two leads reversed for that timeless ending showcasing the power of intimate physical contact.

That longing to connect reverberates throughout the film. When WALL·E makes it to the sleek, resort-esque holding the fat, toddler-esque successors to humanity, he's still the only one truly alive. His dogged pursuit of EVE cuts a chaotic part through the diverted masses. His interruption causes one couple to turn away from the screens that float mere inches from their faces for the first time in perhaps their whole lives: "Hey, I didn't know we had a pool!" At the height of a spectacle engineered by WALL·E and EVE, the two make physical contact for perhaps the first time ever. Who'd have thought it would take a computer-engineered product to warn us about the dangers of a computer-generated life?

The most optimistic note comes from the ship's captain, voiced by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin. He starts out nearly as docile and unmotivated as the rest of his species, but the shake-up of his daily routine ignites his curiosity for the first time. He seeks out information of his own choosing, instead of letting the system spoon feed him what it thinks is best. That act of intellectual independence, mirrored by WALL·E's emotional pursuit, lays the groundwork for the ending to come.

I won't give away the ending, which simultaneously fufilled and subverted my expectations. But I will say that it is unequivocally earns what sentiment it chooses to indulge in. In a vision of the future that is arguably as dystopian as you can get, G-rated and everything, it's hard to begrudge the film a little optimism. A biting satire, a tender love story, a stimulating scifi parable and a gorgeous celebration of our cinematic heritage in a package that will easily transition across foreign languages and cultures. All of these things make WALL·E an instant classic that will be appreciated even more in the years to come.(****)