Saturday, July 5, 2008

Summer Movies 4: Wanted, Hancock

There are several factors I use in deciding whether I liked a movie or not. First and foremost – was I entertained? The whole time? Second, was any wisdom imparted, was there any pithy social commentary or glimpses into the human condition? Third is financial – did I pay to see it, and if so, did I get my money’s worth? There are plenty of movies that are good when viewed gratis on TV, decent when rented, and total rips at $10 in the theatre. Hey, here’s a perfect example. I just watched Resident Evil 3 on Starz, and I thought it was pretty entertaining, but I didn’t pay to see it and I had the ability to pause at any time and go check my email if I felt my attention start to wander. Which I did, right around the Las Vegas showdown. So I’d give it, say, seven out of ten stars. But I wouldn’t be so generous if I’d plunked down an hour’s wages to see it on the big screen. With that criteria in mind, here are my thoughts on Wanted and Hancock.

First off, Wanted. Okay, the movie didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. It mashed up Office Space with The Matrix with a twist of Star Wars. But was it entertaining? Hell yes. Did I regret paying $10 to see it? Nope. Did it change my life? Well, no, but not every movie has to do that. Some can just be wicked fun. The way I see it, a movie’s primary job is to entertain me. If it’s deep and makes me think a bit, well, that’s just gravy.

First and foremost, this is a movie to be seen on the big screen. The effects are spectacular. Gruesome, but spectacular. One caveat, though – the slo-mo stuff works against the movie towards the end, especially in the climax. Because when everything is slowed down, James McAvoy’s face looks all wobbly and nebbishy, which is fine when he’s the “before” office nerd, but not so much for the supposedly-transformed superbadass he’s supposed to be by the end of the movie. Human fighting-based slow motion (as opposed to bullet/machine-based) only works for Jet Li and other super-honed human fighting machines, not for the average actor.

And okay, the fruity loom ex machina – terrible, hilariously terrible plot device. But come on, we’ve all swallowed more ridiculous and outlandish bits of frippery in the name of a cool action story. It, along with the bendy bullets, is a little bit of disbelief worth suspending. In fact, it’s probably best not to poke too hard at the seemingly anti-office life morale, either, since it seems to flip flop a tetch. (Normal life sucks! I'll be a badass assassin like my father! Oh, wait, he wanted a normal life for me! Oh, crap, what do I do now?) Yeah, basically I’m asking you to sit back, watch the movie, and don’t think too much about it. Do we not deserve action movies with airtight, totally logical plots, movies that stir the soul and make you Think About Stuff? Sure. And hopefully some will come along soon. In the meantime, I look at it this way – I spent $10 to sit in a dark room, have an enjoyable two hours filled with amusing antics, and left happy and slightly buzzed. No different than putting that $10 towards two beers at a bar, really, without the messy hangover or creepy old barflys.

And then there’s Hancock. I was highly anticipating this movie, as I highly anticipate all Will Smith movies. The guy never disappoints me, never. Even when he seems to disappoint everyone else (I, Robot). But I’d read a lot of the mostly negative reviews beforehand and so I was a little wary when I settled in to watch this. The main criticism is that it plays like two movies welded together. Fair enough. As the movie approached what felt like its logical climax - what would have been the climax had this been the fairly standard Hero’s Redemption story the first part made it out to be - I checked my watch, thinking time had somehow slipped by quickly and we were nearing the end. But no, it was only at the hour mark. Huh. Sure enough, the movie made a sharp right turn from action-comedy to weird drama. But here’s where I disagree with the critics. While Hancock plays like two separate movies, I think they’re both very good movies. I was entertained the whole time, my attention never flagged – and I have ADD so that’s a feat for any film. And a lot of the flaws might have been caused in editing. I mean, these are the people who wanted a less pornariffic title so they changed it from the original Tonight, He Comes to Hancock. Riiiiight. And then they edited it not with a surgical scalpel but a weed whacker in trying to get it from an R rating to PG-13. And then they made some really headscratching musical choices, like a whimsical ting-tingy happytime underscore to the dramatic scene between Hancock and Mary in the trailer. That’s gonna eff any movie up. Because if you step back and look at it from start to finish, the structure isn't in bad shape. The first act does set up the third act, there is a rising narrative that pays off. The story itself is pretty solid, and what changes midway through is not the narrative itself but the tone. And until the DVD release, we won’t know whether to fault the script, direction, or editing. This article (warning: heavy spoilers) lays out pretty well a few of the places it went wrong, but I disagree with point #8 that suggests the love story be canned. I think all the movie’s plots are crucial to the movie as a whole and necessary for a satisfying ending. Hancock just needed a more uniform tone throughout. (Also, let me take a moment to say that Charlize Theron for some bizarre reason looked a helluva lot like Ali Larter in Heroes, especially when she started going heavy on the eyeliner starting in Act 2.)

Now, it does pass my “Did it entertain me the whole time?” test, but I think financially it’s better off as a rental than a big screener. It’s a largely charming, at times touching, quite funny movie, but it falls short of its massive potential. So if you’re on the fence as to which movie to catch during what’s left of this weekend, my vote is for either Wanted or Wall-E dependent upon your mood, but make sure Hancock is at the top of your Netflix queue when it comes out.

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