Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Good Couple Weeks At the Movies


Relegated now to the status of that 'other' superhero movie, Peter Berg's "Hancock" is nonetheless a bold interpretation of this type of film- which means I bought wholeheartedly into the "twist" of the film and loved how it dared to step into some pretty mythical and even romantic aspects of the genre never before explored. I've been a fan of Berg since his incredibly well-tuned "Friday Night Lights", one of the absolute best football movies ever made and a pretty damn good exploration of small town Texas life as well. He has a way of melding music and image that transcends the genre sometimes, and with "Hancock", there's no exception (the score from John Powell). Berg also has a way of creating memorable images, as if his camera is constantly revolving and recording the action around him where gentle moments of human interaction are discovered. Think of the whisper between Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner in "The Kingdom" (a smart film that deserved more notice last year) or the fatherly tug on the helmet to a disillusioned son walking off the field in "Friday Night Lights". Berg is just as attentive in "Hancock", giving us glimpses of the scarred human beneath the superhero mantra. As the alcoholic protagonist who causes more damage than good, Will Smith ably inhabits his role. Though the first half plods along routinely, settling the desire for mainstream entertainment through unoriginal quips of dialogue and one head-ramming sequence which involves the ass of another man, Berg and screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan toss a curve ball that elevates the film into something more about halfway through. That's when it really hooked me. Essentially high priced summer fare, "Hancock" also hits high notes of genuine loneliness and sacrifice. Both Will Smith and Charlize Theron add immense depth to their roles and "Hancock" deserves to stand out from the rest of the summer shuffle for that alone.

Shotgun Stories

Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" is a remarkable assured debut film that had me spellbound right from its textured opening images of Arkansas crop fields at sunset. With David Gordon Green serving as producer, Nichols maintains a good majority of the Southern ennui and rag-tag awkwardness of Green's previous films, but "Shotgun Stories" is a much darker tale. You can feel the portentousness from the very beginning and it never lets up. Starring Michael Shannon (who'll forever be ingrained in my memory as the creepy guy from "Bug") leads a relatively unknown cast in this violent family drama. After the death of their father, Shannon and his two brothers show up to the funeral and effectively spit on the casket as its being lowered into the ground. There are hints and visual cues of a tormented past between the brothers and their now dead father. Rightly so, this action offends the four brothers of the dead father's new family- the one he created and loved after "finding God" and sobering up. Hence begins a struggle between both families as the hatred seethes and the violence mounts. Nichols handles everything in modulation. Through strong editing and a stunning visual look, "Shotgun Stories" infuses the numerous confrontations between the brothers as something almost biblical. But while it's the startling violence (mostly off-screen) that registers while watching, the overall lasting reverberation of the film is its fair and balanced representation of both sides. There are no clear cut villains here and the motives for either side (both in action and peace-keeping missions) are examined with clear eyes. "Shotgun Stories" is smart, bracing independent film making.

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" could easily earn that high praise of "" I won't go that far, but it is a stunning example of the intelligent progression of Nolan's Batman franchise. I loved "Batman Begins" enough to rank it number 15 on my favs of 2005, and I can easily see "The Dark Knight" ranking twice as high when '08 rolls to an end. This is not only a good entry into the caped crusader chronicles but its a terrific crime film, echoing the vibrancy of Michael Mann with its opening heist and sweeping helicopter pans through urban downtown and refusing to let off the accelerator as Batman and The Joker use Gotham as one giant sprawling playground of excess (both good and bad). There are some moments in this film that are so good (the quiet cut to the Joker hanging his head out of the backseat window of a police car and smiling gently or the slow tracking shots that snake around people, highlighted by genuinely unnerving drone music) they beg for second viewings. And while its hard to avoid hefting praise on Heath Ledger as the Joker, his performance is more than a stunt. His voice inflections and reaction shots are composed of perfect timing. Every time he's on-screen, you could feel the audience tense up in my showing. I've never quite experienced anything like that before. That's the mark of true screen greatness.

The Wackness

Initially drawn to "The Wackness" for its sense of nostalgia since the film takes place in 1994 and charts the tumultuous summer after graduating high school for one Luke (Josh Peck) and I myself graduated just one year later, it didn't take long for me to realize I had nothing in common with this film. Our soon-to-be college student is a pot smoker/dealer (strike 1 for me), living in the dog-eat-dog urban environment of New York City (strike 2), who listens to rap music (strike 3) and befriends his equally drug addled psychiatrist Dr. Squires played by Ben Kingsley (strike whatever). About the only strands of familiarity came in Luke's persistent search for having sex with girls.. pretty much the main focus for most high school guys, no? Having said all that negative, there is something to like in Jonathan Levin's "The Wackness" and that comes in the somewhat sensitive relationships formed between Peck and Kingsley (who gives a terrific performance and whose energy sweeps across the screen every time he's on) and the projections of his lust onto the daughter of Dr Squires played by Olivia Thirlby. The film comes to life intermittently, but Peck's constant mutterings of "waddup, yo" or "that's dope" only serve as alienating factors in a performance that's not that great to begin with. To believe in a film, one has to believe in the main character, and as Luke, Peck simply resembles a blank slate in which I checked out long before the resolution of his messy, fumbling summer comes about. I could have easily taken a film about the miserably complacent lives of Kingsley, his disaffected wife (Famke Jansen) and daughter (Thirlby) much more readily than the central focus of "The Wackness". And whether it was intentional or not, but the cinematography by Petra Korner, full of washed out browns and golds, becomes annoying in its relentless search to capture the halcyon days of '94 New York. I've never been there, but it seems to suck the life right out of the city.

Paranoid Park

Speaking of 'ennui', Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" is another trek through teen anomie, this time in the guise of Portland, Oregon's skateboard culture and the (maybe?) murder of a security guard. Starring unknown faces and shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, "Paranoid Park" is full of splendid visual moments and muted emotions as Alex (Gabe Nevins) tells his first-person story in non-linear fashion, scribbling down what happened to him in a notebook. Van Sant is faithful to the confused state of this teenager mind as his film jumps around in sync with Alex's struggle to articulate past events and how he may have been responsible for murder. Van Sant is a filmmaker I admire more than appreciate. His trilogy of films, including "Gerry", "Last Days" and "Elephant" take a remarkably European art film aesthetic (long tracking shots, strong attention to sound and lyrical movement) and apply it to the wasteland of suburban young adults in America. "Paranoid Park" is definitely the best of these films, but it still resonates as a cold, detached experiment. The best moments, though, are the opening ones as a fuzzy handheld camera documents in home movie fashion the snaking paths of several skateboarders in the concrete underpass known as Paranoid Park. With this seemingly innocuous event, Van Sant seems closer than ever in capturing the free-spirited milieu of suburban America. A nice effort.

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