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This Week in Film: Capsule Reviews – 7.04.08

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic


This week, we take a look at a superhero with a bad attitude, a pot smoking shrink, and a dreamlike train ride

Hancock

Image Will Smith is the perfect choice to play a character such as Hancock, the grumpy superhero at the center of Peter Berg’s fantastic film. When we first meet him he’s sleeping on a bench at a bus stop in downtown Los Angeles while some bad guys are being pursued by the L.A.P.D. a la O.J. Simpson. A young boy wakes him up and pointing to a television in a nearby store window says, “Um, Hancock..Bad guys!” The look on Smith’s face is priceless, a why should I give a fuck grimace that could be the look of anyone who has a job that they really would rather not have. However, like most people he has little choice, so off to work he goes. Shooting up into air while leaving lots of wrecked pavement behind him, Hancock flies over the city and right into the pursued car. “I really don’t care about what you’ve done, but if you don’t cooperate I’m going to shove your head (pointing to one bad guy) up your ass (pointing to another).”

This is the signature slogan of John Hancock, and it suits him well. Smith’s reluctant superhero is truly a good guy for our times, the superheroes of the 50s are no longer wanted here, they can keep their cheesy ways, Hancock just doesn’t give a shit. One of the many clever touches in the film is that Hancock does get the job done but he leaves much damage in his wake. One day he saves Aaron Embrey (Jason Bateman) from being annihilated by a train and Embrey, being a PR guy, decides that he’s going to help Hancock with his image. His makeover involves Hancock turning himself over to the D.A. and spending some time in jail for some prior disturbances he caused. Embrey knows that soon enough the citizens of Los Angeles will need Hancock’s help. While Embrey believes wholeheartedly that Hancock will be able to turn his image around (he even buys him a jazzy new uniform to wear), his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) isn’t so sure.

The first half of Hancock is funny, irreverent and just plain entertaining as we watch Smith’s superhero try to abide by Embrey’s plan and become loved by residents and police alike. The film places him within the fabric of modern day Los Angeles, he’s been there forever, and we never doubt that he belongs there. The second half turns more serious as we learn about his past and the stakes are raised as another superhero is revealed, one that Hancock may have a history with. Some will argue that this part of the movie isn’t fleshed out well enough, but I’ll argue that it’s developed just enough to satisfy our need to know more about Hancock, and to add some much needed tension. The fact that Hancock is more ambitious than most summer movies shouldn’t be disregarded. Its greatest accomplishment is that it creates a truly flesh and blood superhero that is so much more than some of the cardboard cut-outs that have occupied movie screens in the past few years.

The Wackness

The Wackness is one of those rare gems that only come along once or twice a year. It played at this year’s Seattle Film Festival and not knowing much about it I was completely blindsided by its wonderful coming of age story that takes place in 1994 in New York City. The film centers around the unlikely relationship between a pot dealing teenager named Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) and his oddball shrink, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). Luke pays Squires with nickel bags (for a short session) and dime bags (for a longer one). With his family facing eviction Luke must ramp up his business at a time when Rudy Giuliani is cracking down on crime. Luke also falls in love with Squires step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) much to the dismay of Squires. The good doctor meanwhile is having his own relationship issues with his wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) who has fallen out of love with him.

Director Jonathan Levine gets the time and place perfect, but it’s the relationship between Peck and Kingsley that makes The Wackness shine. While Squires may be a psychiatrist he’s anything from “normal” and while Peck is a drug dealer, he’s far from a bad dude. The film throws stereotypes to the wind to show how two people at very different points in life can have similar struggles and how they help each other move on. Kingsley once again creates a totally unique character in Squires, a 1960’s guy who sometimes wishes he were still there. Peck is a pure revelation as the hip-hop loving Luke, without the usual marquee looks that so many young actors sport these days, Peck fits right into his character and vise-versa, he gives The Wackness a real life quality without even trying.

 

My Winnipeg

Those of you who have never seen a film by Guy Maddin will wonder why I’m going to have such a hard time describing his new film My Winnipeg. Those who have will understand totally. I’m afraid that most of you will fall into the former category. Maddin, a Canadian filmmaker, has made what he calls a “docu-fantasia” and that description makes sense. As we watch him traveling on a train (or at least watching the actor playing him) through his hometown of Winnipeg, he tells us in his own voice over narration that he needs to leave Winnipeg behind him once and for all. How he’s going to accomplish this feat involves not only re-staging certain scenes from his life growing up (with actors playing his family members) but by traveling through his memories of his unique town and coming to terms with how things have changed for the worse. Maddin talks about his “white block house” and his domineering mother (played by golden age actress Ann Savage). Maddin tells us a lot of “facts” about Winnipeg, such as how the homeless live on the rooftops of the buildings downtown and that some of the former hockey greats still play games in the abandoned and demolished building where the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL used to play. Can this stuff be true?

It’s not long before truth and myth get intertwined to the point where one can’t be distinguished from the other, not unlike our own memories when you really think about it. Maddin’s films look like no other, using a combination of silent film techniques, newsreel like footage and sound stage reenactments. As I said Maddin’s films are impossible to describe so I’m going to stop trying, what I can describe is the feeling I had while I was watching it and it’s the same feeling I have now as a write about it. My Winnipeg feels like an opium driven fever dream, where fading memories collide with reality. To watch this film is to be inside the mind and soul of its creator, why Maddin would want to leave this town is understandable, why he can’t is as mysterious as our deepest dreams, or nightmares. My Winnipeg is some kind of masterpiece that’s for sure.

Author: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

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