Sunday, September 28, 2008

Summer movies

Usually I more or less “keep up” with summer movies for about the first half and then due to work miss much of the second. Wrote about Iron Man and the new Indiana Jones earlier but here are more:

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) - Pixar started its decline a few years ago (though if nothing else their tedious shorts have always showed that they were definitely falliable). The Incredibles turned out amusing but almost nothing else, was so unimaginative in fact that they had to bring in elements from spy films to fill out the running time. Cars was an almost total botch, an After School Special based on the bad idea of anthropomorphized cars. Or more exactly because the story was merely a human story with cars portraying people; no attempt was made to reimagine it (or for that matter ever explain why certain cars have specific genders). The end result looked just like a Pixar ripoff (though not one of those strange Brazillian ones that show up on YouTube). Ratatouille was back to amusing but was also a first for Pixar: their first film that clearly would have been improved by cel animation.

So WALL-E ends up being nearly a perfect children’s movie--cute, involving, worthwhile message--though without much of the resonance that powered the earlier Pixar. Structured almost as a diptych, the film first drifts through a nearly lifeless, brown-and-white wasteland then jumps into a kaleidoscopically colored wonderland that’s annoyingly lively. I can’t help but regret that the first section allowed some speech rather than being entirely dialogue-free just as I almost half wish the second part had employed complete gibberish rather than actual English (and honestly it would have been completely understandable). As satire it’s pretty obvious and more or less toothless, at least for most adults - kids might see it differently.

Get Smart (Peter Segal) - Didn’t expect much and I didn’t get much but to be fair the resulting spawn of Hollywood remake labs shambles around a bit better than it should have. It was smart or at least smart-ish or maybe just somewhat clever-esque to portray Max as something other than a complete bumbler who would have been fired immediately. He’s still implausible but not irrationally so and for a feature film that’s a worthwhile distinction allowing Get Smart to function reasonably effectively as both an actual spy film and a romantic comedy. (“Reasonably effectively” meaning that you’re not really squirming for the film to be over though afterwards you suspect that you probably should have been.) There is one moment, though, when Hathaway talks about her extensive plastic surgery (a necessary plot device to explain the age difference in the two co-stars - the days when Cary Grant could have a couple decades on his love interest seem over). Hathaway wistfully notes that before the surgery she used to resemble her mother. It’s a line that belongs in a much better movie even if it’s hard to imagine what kind of movie that could possibly be.

Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov) - Talk about low expectations: when it was revealed that the filmmakers had completely de-superheroed this it also sounded like they had removed its core concept. And to some degree they have. Along with ripping the story completely out of context, almost all the sex and a good bit of the violence in the original book are gone and the protagonist’s complete amorality has been adjusted to Hollywood standards (seriously nobody expected the scene where he rapes Britney Spears to survive into the movie).

But what turns out is easily my favorite movie of the summer. It’s a total goof-ball, half-stupid but completely energized action film that has so much CGI it’s partway to being animated. The bluntly stated theme of self-actualization is a bit silly (in the book this comes across as not entirely a good thing) but for Hollywood that’s like filming in color - nobody decides this, it just happens. That’s not the point anyway. The point is simple: flying cars, gunfights, Angelina’s naked backside, gunfights, conspiracies, gunfights, revenge and gunfights. Plus Morgan Freeman curses like nobody else.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro) - The first film seemed a bit uncertain about what to do with the books. 50s-style rubber monsters and stop-motion would have been a more accurate film equivalent of the books than CGI and despite a fairly limited cast they were never quite integrated properly. The sequel, though, works on its own terms, leaving the source while making its own way. Del Toro still seems to feel that he has to elevate it some and thus we get the blather regarding Hellboy’s confusion about exactly which side he’s on. It’s not that we already know what he will decide--after all the conventions of the time made it perfectly clear that theatre-goers would know Hamlet’s decision from the start of the play--but that it’s barely dramatized. The journey is the point, not the destination. (Oddly enough del Toro made sort of the opposite decision in his previous film Pan’s Labyrinth when he chickened out at the end to reveal the fantastic elements as mere fantasy, practically pushing the whole thing into irrelevance.) Instead the domestic squabbles and Abe’s blooming romance have more bite and life, forming the real core of the film (or at least a film with two cores - the other being the ever popular smash-monsters core). Del Toro’s knack for barely plausible gadgets and a densely crowded mise-en-scene rivals Gilliam’s and similarly needs to be kept under control.

Hancock (Peter Berg) - Kudos to the makers of the trailer who kept all hint of the film’s biggest surprise hidden, so much so that what seemed like Will Smith being completely miscast turns out to be almost the only possible choice. Too bad the people more officially in charge of the film itself wouldn’t really face up to the racial issues that are clearly intended but also carefully obscured, almost like we're supposed to be on an Easter egg hunt. The result is amusing for most of the running time but something that will fade from memory as soon as the credits start.