Monday, 7 July 2008

Hancock Defeated By Wuxi Finger Hold And Awesomeness

I was really really rooting for Hancock. Shades of Caruso loves Peter Berg, and wants his movies to make enough money that he can salvage the many box office disappointments from his back catalogue. We also wanted Hancock to be good enough to silence the doubters who have been complaining about it since it was announced, and, possibly most of all, wanted to see Will Smith being generally excellent. Well, it's made a boatload of money (and its overseas gross is big too), and Will Smith was great, but his performance was not what we expected. In fact, the film is not what anyone would have expected, and for that, we have to blame the marketers for making this look like a funny film about a self-loathing superhero when it mostly isn't, and also we need to point a finger at writers Vincent Ngo and X-Files ace Vince Gilligan, and director Peter Berg, for not knowing how to make the material they had work.

I'll go into details after the spoiler marker, but consider this my capsule review. John Dykstra's effects are pretty undistinguished and messy. Berg's decision to film this the same way he filmed Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom might have made some sense thematically, but it's a horribly ugly film with a sickeningly grey palette that made my head hurt (not helped by seeing the jawdroppingly beautiful Kung Fu Panda first).

I didn't totally hate it, though. The three leads are great, which is a big deal for me as I'm not a fan of Charlize Theron but was impressed by her in this (Canyon was less impressed). Jason Bateman is so likeable in this he steals the film, adds a lot of emotion that would otherwise be lacking, and though he at first seems to be nothing more than Michael Bluth after marrying Rita, comes good in the otherwise frustrating final act. His dramatic role in The Kingdom was no fluke, it seems. Will Smith comes out okay too, and the box office gross suggests we are still on our way to renaming the next thousand years the Willennium. That said, in terms of his career, he just made his Golden Child, or Far and Away. I hope his next project is a 100% success. FYI, I will never apologise for being a Will Smith fan. Get used to it.

Even better than those little pleasures, my personal superhero movie bugbear didn't come into play; Hancock might start the film as an asshole, but he is really a hero, a proper hero who helps people and doesn't just fight supervillains with whom he has a personal connection. One of the main themes of the movie is about wanting to do the right thing even though it doesn't seem to be worthwhile. That character trait really pleased me, and made up for a lot of the unfocused events in the latter half of the movie.

Anyway, time to carp. Kung Fu Panda praise follows later.

--------------Hancock spoilers follow-------------

The biggest problem in Hancock is the mid-movie twist, which, after we left the cinema and discussed it, isn't really a twist, more a shift in story perspective that makes the first half of the film seem like a pre-inciting incident sequence stretched to 45 minutes. That section of the movie, concerning Hancock's depression and attempts to better himself and become a beloved hero, contains many funny moments and unexpected pathos, but if you've seen the trailer, you've seen a lot of the best parts. However, the trailers will make you think this is the whole point of the film, and give no hints as to what it really is. The depression and bad behaviour of Hancock are the set-up for the big reveal later in the movie, and if you thought you were going to see a superhero spoof, you're wrong. It's a straight superhero movie with a mythology that might have made more sense in the first draft (though some people are not too keen even on that), that has been mistakenly seen as a twist movie whereas it is a story different than the one we were sold, one which has its emotional centre buried in the final moments of the film, which then crawls over the finish line with zero energy and a frustrating lack of resonance. That's a problem with the script, but also with the handling of it. It's fair to say that Berg, who re-edited the finale several times in order to beat the bad feedback from test screenings, had to change even more than just the underwhelming ending, considering how the original script featured Hancock having ejaculation issues, something that is totally absent from the movie.

Too much of the movie is lying on an editing room floor for it to make any sense. Perhaps a two hour version would work better. This ninety minute version feels like two episodes of a TV show called Hancock shmushed together to make a feature film (just like in the 70s when Glen A. Larson was trying to squeeze more money out of his creations), but sadly the Hancock showrunners have ineptly combined a mid-season comedy episode and an end-of-season high drama episode, not realising they don't quite go together. With two halves battling against each other, what's the story it's trying to tell? Even once we had picked it over while eating an excellent burger just off Abbey Road neither of us had a clue, and after tinkering with it for a long time, I doubt Berg knew either.

The second half of the movie concerns Hancock discovering that he is one of many millennia-old heroes created by the Gods to protect humanity, but forced to be apart from them due to his immense power. Luckily, the Gods knew that their minions were bound to want to settle down eventually, and so created them in pairs, where each one of them acts as a power dampener for the other, allowing them to live as a human couple if they so wanted. That's happened to every other hero on the planet, except for Hancock and his opposite, Charlize Theron. All of the others are now dead, for reasons not clearly explained. It's either old age, accidents, or "Them" that have picked them off. Who are "Them"? You've got me. Neither of us could understand that plot point, or if the evil Red, played by Eddie Marsan, is one of these "Them"s that are important enough to be referred to but not important enough to be explained. One thing that is stressed very late in the film, however, is that proximity to each other sets off the power drain, and only living as far apart as possible allows them to remain super.

I can get behind the idea of a mythology not being fully explained, so as to generate some mystery (as in Unbreakable), but if the events of a movie make no sense (as the actions of the main characters seem completely mysterious without a full explanation), you cannot connect with the events on the screen. One gets the idea that editing the movie into this empty mush has taken out a lot of exposition that might have helped. To make things worse, a lot of the information I explained above is all delivered just moments before it becomes relevant in the last five minutes of the movie, so you spend the majority of the movie not really understanding what the hell is going on, or why you should care.

It's like the latter hour of Atonement, with a lot of things happening for no explicable reason, and then the final scene comes along to straighten everything out, except that here, nothing really gets explained properly. Again, it might have been in order to generate mystery, and curiosity about the mythology, and in that sense it works, as I'm inspired enough by the vagueness to want to read the previous drafts, and hopefully see a longer DVD cut to find out more about these individuals, but as it stands, the film falls completely apart at the end of the second act, and the third act did nothing more than annoy me greatly. Contrary to the marketing, the movie is not just about a drunken hero, but with a second half as ill-formed and messy as this, I guess it might as well have been.

Even worse, some iconic moments in the trailer are either omitted or just breeze by, so badly edited is the film. It felt like every decision made in post-production was a mistake. John Dykstra's effects are rushed and unappealing, the action scenes have no oomph as the editing obscures events, and the soundtrack is horribly misjudged, either trying to generate the emotional connection that is missing onscreen, or being brassy comedy plinky-plonks you'd expect on NCIS or something equally silly. As for the leads, I liked them, but their efforts often make no sense at all. The best thing I can say about it is that I went along with it simply because they obviously believed in what they were doing, but I have no idea what that thing they were doing was. Is Hancock about loneliness? About responsibility? Does Hancock do the right thing at the end to save Theron? Or is he still out for himself? I can imagine we're meant to think of his actions as selfless, but that's just because we expect the film to follow certain conventions. As it stands, the movie doesn't make it clear enough on its own. When it was over, we were approximately this nonplussed.

---------------------Spoilers Over------------------

I think I liked it more than Wanted, and probably less than Jumper, another compromised movie from a director I like from a concept I loved, but it didn't help that prior to that we saw the eagerly awaited (by me) Kung Fu Panda, which was not only way better than anything else I've seen this year, but thousands and thousands of times better than I had hoped it would be. The opening scene alone was better than I thought Dreamworks/PDI would ever aspire to, the sequence so funny and clever and eye-blisteringly beautiful that I was helpless in the storytellers' grip. The voice casting is spot-on (especially my main man Jables, who is utterly sincere and hysterically funny), the direction perfectly judged, the action more exciting than most action films I can name, and the emotional arcs totally satisfying. The showdown between Shifu and Tai Lung was a magnificently cinematic moment, with genuinely resonant power. Make no mistake, the studio might not have made anything worthwhile before, but this is Pixar-good. I'd even put it above Cars, Finding Nemo, and maybe A Bug's Life, and possibly on a par with Toy Story 2, it's that good.

Some UK critics have treated it as a mildly amusing spoof of Hong Kong cinema (the increasingly off-target Peter Bradshaw reckoned it was dumbed-down and less sophisticated than the first two Shreks!!?!?!!!). However, the majority of critics got what it was aiming for. Even the perenially grouchy Cosmo Landesman loved it, which means we have seen eye-to-eye twice this year. The other time was Speed Racer; he was pretty much the only UK critic to like it, though the Times website has decided not to reprint it, thus making me seem delusional.

It's no wonder even critics who often turn a blind eye to genre movies understand the ambition of Kung Fu Panda. the opening ten minutes of Kung Fu Panda should have clued any viewer in to its utter sincerity. This is a real movie, a simple tale beautifully told by people who understand not only the conventions of the genre and the signifying details that make it distinct (watch the wonderful Master Oogway's final scene under a peach tree and tell me they don't love the genre and want to do right by it), but they also understand how to tell a story. Perhaps this story is less complex than what I assume the makers of Hancock were aiming for, and perhaps it is more straightforward than Wanted (a movie with a similar character arc involving destiny and self-belief), but it is almost infinitely better than either of them for one simple reason; everyone involved in the making of this film knew how to tell a story, knew what worked and what didn't, and just made it knowing the audience would be right there with them. Sometimes that's all it takes.

So yes, I recommend Kung Fu Panda with every fibre of my being. And Canyon's too! We loved it so much we're hoping to see it again this week, this time on IMAX. Something this beautifully crafted and sumptuous to look at needs to be seen on as big and clear a screen as possible. If I could describe its level of quality in one sentence while resisting the urge to just wail nonsense sounds of joy, that sentence would be, "It does everything right." It really, really does. If you've ever enjoyed a martial arts movie, you must not miss it.

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