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Thursday, October 19

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Airbags

Hancock

A lot of people are going to give this one a pass simply because it's Will Smith doing what he's been destined to do for years: play a superhero. We've sort of been conditioned for it. I'll go on record about two things regarding Hancock: First, this is a great idea for a movie. The idea of having a truly "I don't give a fuck" hero in the public eye has been done in some comic books, but I can't think of a time when it's been done in a film with this kind of budget. Second, I have a great deal of respect for nearly all of Peter Berg's works as a director. I thought The Rundown was a whole lot of fun; Friday Night Lights might be the best sports movie of the decade; and I even thought The Kingdom worked more often than not despite its naive vision of the way the modern political world works. But I'm sorry to report that Hancock is lazy filmmaking on the part of both Berg and Smith. Perhaps equally lazy audiences will eat it up this holiday weekend. In fact, I have no doubt they will. But they're going to be hungry and hour later. Hancock feels like two-thirds of what I'm guessing was a better movie at one point. Whether the good stuff was left on the cutting-room floor or whether it ever made it from page to celluloid, I have no idea, but the film feels wildly uneven and incomplete. This is a fractured movie about a guy with a fractured brain.

Smith's Hancock has been living and fighting crime in the Los Angeles area for several years, often causing more damage to people and property than the criminals he's catching. The main reason for his destructive, albeit well intentioned, behavior is rampant drunkenness and overall belligerent feelings toward the people he's trying to protect. Not that citizens like Hancock all the much either. He's kind of a dick. And if you dare to call him an asshole, he might toss you into the stratosphere. After saving the life of Ray, the only do-gooder public relations man in the world (played by Jason Bateman), Hancock and Ray have dinner together and hash out a possible scenario that has Hancock clean up his act and his image (apparently wearing a more traditional superhero costume is part of this process). Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), doesn't like having Hancock around the house or in Ray's life, but is it because she fears for their son's well being, because she thinks Hancock is a lost cause or might it be something else?

The immediate problem with Hancock is Smith's choices as an actor. He is simply not convincing as an angry hero. I would never say Will Smith can't play anger or deep emotion; he's done so flawlessly in films like Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. But in Hancock, it feels more like mugging and pouting, like Smith the rapper pretending to be gangster. It just doesn't feel authentic. He throws back bottles of whiskey like a cartoon wino, swears at little kids and acts curmudgeonly. And I wasn't buying any of it. But if the story had looked like it was going somewhere, I would have been willing to stick with it to see if the transformed Hancock was any more interesting than Drunkie the Drunk Guy.

Without giving away what few surprises there are in the film, Hancock discovers that he is not, as he once believed, the only one of his kind. He also finds out why he has no memory beyond the incident that put him in the hospital some 80 years ago (apparently he doesn't age), when he woke up on a gurney in a Miami hospital with a brain injury, and why sometimes his powers fade. But Berg and writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan have absolutely saturated Hancock with lame sentimentality and a backstory for our hero that gets more ludicrous the more we hear. The climax set in a hospital might be the most pathetic, cheesy ending I've seen in a movie in a summer filled with such moments. When I started writing this review, I thought I'd be painting the picture of a close call, but as I've been pounding away at the keys, I realize that even my mind is trained to give Will Smith a pass. I think I've just exorcised that instinct, because I now realize that I genuinely did not like Hancock. With the exception of some choice outbursts by Smith as well as Bateman's overall performance, the comedy is stale. The effects are impressive enough, but no one will accuse them of being creative or dazzling. But the film's weakest link is it's unnecessarily plodding and disjointed plot. Yep, the more I think about it, the more I realize Hancock kinda sucks.

Mother of Tears

If you have any affection for the blood-soaked thrillers of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento then you've probably been going bat-shit crazy waiting for his latest film, Mother of Tears, being billed as the third installment of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy (after the 1977 terror masterpiece Suspiria as well as the excellent Inferno from 1980). For those gore lovers unfamiliar with Argento's work, shame on you. Still, you shouldn't have any trouble jumping right into the gory deep end of this movie. Although not connected to the other two films plot-wise, Mother of Tears shares the earlier works' celebration of all things hideous and evil, and it's a glorious combination of vile and violent behavior, suspense and bad dubbing. There's really no point in going too deep into the plot, because it's absolutely ridiculous and nonsensical. But that doesn't mean Argento hasn't created a universe that manages to blend and make some sense of the outrageous.

Argento's first masterstroke is casting his daughter, Asia, in the lead role. Asia Argento has been on a bit of an acting roll lately with stellar performances in such works as The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (which she also directed), Marie Antoinette, Boarding Gate and The Last Mistress. Even if you don't find her attractive (you insane person), she is always fascinating to observe on screen. In a strange sense, I believe she's a smart enough actress to adjust her acting style to suit a film directed by her father. Dario Argento's films are not known for their great performances—I always feel like I am watching Italian soap operas with his stuff. And in most circumstances, this would be a negative. But as I watched more and more of his works in my formative years, I began to realize that this was part of Argento's style. Not surprisingly (she's been in his films before), his daughter knows the intricacies of what makes her father's work unique and stylized, and she gives a performance perfectly suited to his best offerings. It's not the kind of acting that makes you feel like you have to lower your expectations or standards to appreciate; it's just different.

Asia plays Sarah Mandy, an American art history student who takes part in the opening of an ancient artifact that lands in a museum where she works. A woman she works with is absolutely butchered by demons after opening a sacred urn, which also unleashes upon the world an evil monkey (as a fan of "Family Guy," I had to laugh). For some reason, the opening of the urn triggers a series of mass suicides and other forms of violence. Witches start coming out of the woodwork in huge numbers, and they all seem to have their sights set on killing poor Sarah, perhaps because she escaped the clutches of the evil monkey. That's my theory, and I refuse to stray from it.

As in most Argento films, the police are useless, the villains are deliciously nasty and the "heroes" are just a series of victims awaiting a wild and chunky evisceration. In a fascinating way, the film isn't meant to be taken seriously, but at the same time it almost dares you not to treat it with respect. Sarah finds out her mother was a powerful psychic, and she soon develops her own mind powers with the assistance of her dead mother's ghost. In a different context, this plot point would be laughable, but it leads to some spectacular visuals and, of course, buckets o' blood. In case I'm not making it abundantly clear, I worship this film. It harkens back to a time in the 1980s, when Italian horror (led by Argento) ruled the world in general, and my life in particular. Lest you think I'm an Argento apologist, I've thought most of the films he's done in recent years has been utter junk. His last film, The Card Dealer, is practically unwatchable; that said, his first "Masters of Horror" entry, "Jenifer," is pretty wonderful. Mother of Tears is not only a return to blood and guts; it's a return to form and relevance for the nearly 70-year-old groundbreaking genius. Argento is one of the reasons I fell in love with horror, and this film reminds me why. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

I firmly believe there is nothing I could say about the founder and perhaps sole proprietor of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, that hasn't already been said. He may have been the world's greatest used car salesman with a typewriter (some of his editors certainly thought so), or he may have been one of the 20th century's great thinkers. But the truth seems to lie somewhere in between according to director Alex Gibney's stirring profile of Thompson's work and life. Gibney, who directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room as well as last year's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, is exactly the right filmmaker to examine Thompson's whirlwind life. He has a healthy disrespect for authority while still getting the job done and telling the most complete and interesting story using the documentary format's most convincing tools. So what if I've seen a great deal of this footage on the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas DVD extras; Gibney repackages that material and combines it with some astonishingly cool, rare recordings and home movies to make a work that attempts to scratch the surface of a man's life that few people, if any, have even come close to fully understanding.

Gibney's weight as a filmmaker has its advantages. The collection of famous faces, all Thompson's friends, at least keeps things lively. Any writings of Thompson's that are featured are read by Johnny Depp (who strangely is not interviewed). Also included in the parade of stars are Jann Wenner, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Pat Robertson, Tom Wolfe, Gary Hart, Jimmy Buffet and Thompson's regular artist Ralph Steadman. But Gibney also explores Thompson's less-known personal life with his two wives, his son, old friends, Hells Angels members and even his old landlord. Gonzo paints wonderful mosaics around each of Thompson's most famous books and article series. But it also shows us how and who he loved. Thankfully, the movie also tracks his downfall, beginning with his first major failure as a journalist (thanks to substance abuse) covering the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between his hero Mohammed Ali and George Foreman.

The film's final act is perhaps its most saddening. There's an abrupt jump in time from first wife to second, and before we know it Thompson is leading the life his admirers expect him to. One friend talks about Thompson's reaction to cartoonist Gary Trudeau's introduction of the character of Duke into the "Doonesbury" strip—he resented being turned into a cartoon, but he loved being famous. This was the essence of Thompson in his later life. He loved the idea of the writer as rock star, so why not him? Drugs, boozing and his hatred of traditional ways of life are the fuels that kept him alive, and eventually led to his suicide a couple years back. Perhaps the most uncanny insight into his gifts can be seen in an opening scene in which Depp reads a column Thompson wrote on September 11, 2001. In his correspondence, which started out as his regular column for Sports Illustrated, he mapped out the war we're in today and the circumstances that led up to it. He was either psychic, or he had an eerie sense of the wicked ways of the world. Again, I'd like to think it was a bit of both. Gonzo isn't Gibney's greatest work, but the director's admiration for his subject pushes the film into a different level of quality from a man who tends to make quality works to begin with. Ultimately the film works as great introduction to Thompson's great and worst achievements. Gibney pulls no punches in allowing a few of his subjects to really rip into the Thompson, and he does an equally great job showing Thompson's unceremonious fall as well as his meteoric rise. It's a solid work of biography making that deserves an audience that appreciates how special seeing and hearing this material truly is. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Diminished Capacity

Sometimes good intentions (and a few great shots of and discussions about Chicago) are enough to win the day. As one of the founding members of the Steppenwolf Theatre company, Terry Kinney ran a troupe of actors who believed in and sought out edgy, sometimes-dangerous plays to perform. Kinney acted in and directed many of these seminal works. As an actor, he's probably best known for playing McManus, the supervisor of a special section of the prison known affectionately as "Oz," an earth-shattering show that ran on HBO for six seasons. But for his feature film directing debut, Kinney is traveling far safer ground, which some might consider unforgivable if the film were junk. Fortunately, Diminished Capacity has some truly special elements, primarily in the acting, that push it from being overly sappy and sentimental into the realm of tender and moving (a fine line, I know).

It made my heart skip a little beat to see Matthew Broderick return to the streets of Chicago after conquering them so thoroughly in Ferris Bueller's Day Off more than 20 years ago. Broderick plays Cooper, a newspaper editor who suffered a life-threatening brain injury that has left him scattered and unable to tackle the more weighty tasks at the office. He's been delegated to editing comic strips. Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry plays Cooper's barely sympathetic boss. His doctor says Cooper will get better eventually, but the recovery process is frustratingly slow, especially for a man who prided himself on his memory. Taking some time off, Cooper heads home to a sleepy Missouri town to see his Uncle Rollie (Alan Alda, looking appropriately disheveled and sporting a scary vacant stare on occasion), who suffers from similar symptoms as Cooper but for entirely different reasons. In her best role since Sideways, Virginia Madsen shows up as Charlotte, Cooper's high school sweetie. And somehow these three (plus Charlotte's teenaged son) end up heading back to Chicago for a sports memorabilia show to sell an ultra-rare Cubs baseball card.

The Cubs' name is brought up more than a few times in Diminished Capacity. In fact, their inability to make it to the World Series in 100 years is discussed quite a bit, and their almost uncanny and constant ability to choke in the face of what would appear to be easy wins is the subject of a classic rant by one collector played by Dylan Baker. The film's release seems ill-timed in 2008, when the Cubs are doing so well, but those who see this film today probably won't forget decades of poor playing. Also putting in a great performance here is Bobby Cannavale (recently seen in The Promotion, also shot in Chicago) as a sleazy collector who attempts to take advantage of Alda's scattered mind.

Kinney and the rest of the production owe a huge debt of gratitude to Alda, who gives one of the most unexpected turns of his career. Rollie is fragile and anxious about every move he makes, but Alda still manages to inject the character with humor and strength. After seeing Broderick in last week's Finding Amanda and in this film (I believe I saw the two films in the same 24-hour period), I realize that while he can be extremely funny and ironic without trying too hard, that might be his only means of delivering any material. His wry sense of humor and absolutely flawless timing make him perfect in some roles and slightly off in others. His style didn't work as well in Amanda, but it's perfectly suited for this much lighter material. As a director, Kinney keeps things simple and to the point with few visual flairs to distract us from the acting. He clearly has a great affection for Chicago, but making the city look good is an easy thing to do. Diminished Capacity has an inherent sweetness that charmed me, and that might have been enough to have me recommend it. But when you toss in Alda's extraordinary performance, you get a film with a more substantial backbone, and that makes it all the easier to see this as a work of value. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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