The Wackness (2008)

Remember the summer you graduated from high school? How about the summer of 1994? Me neither, but you might if, like Luke Shapiro, the protagonist of *The Wackness*, you spent that summer selling weed from a street cart. Or you might not, if, like Luke, you spent a good deal of that summer sampling your own wares.

Luke's got a lot on his mind, and so does *The Wackness*, I suppose, although there's a certain been-there-done-that familiarity to the movie, and not just because of it's mid-90s nostalgia. It's about a misfit guy who longs to be popular, a guy with a crush on one of the cool, popular girls (and he's a virgin and she's not). Check. It's about a decent guy who sells drugs to nice folks who need a little extra-pharmaceutical assistance. Check. It's about a teenage boy who sees a psychiatrist. Check. It's about a teenager who discovers that the psychiatrist, and all the other adults in his life, are even crazier, more miserable, and more immature than he is. Check. It's about a boy on the verge of manhood, living that summer that changed his life, etc. Check. It's *Rushmore* meets *Charlie Bartlett* meets *Running With Scissors*... with a hip hop soundtrack.

It's set in New York City in 1994, so there's lots of ranting about Giuliani (everybody hates him), and Luke (Josh Peck) listens to Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls on *tape*. He has a pager, too, and, it being those halcyon days before cellphones and ringtones became ubiquitous, he uses a pay phone to make calls. Despite his badass hip hop pretensions, he's a nondescript, slack-jawed white kid who seems not to attract the attention of the police as he peddles grass from an ices cart. His most loyal customer is Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), his kooky pothead psychiatrist, who trades grass for couch time and keeps a bong in his desk drawer. That's an original twist that will ultimately get even more twisted as Squires seeks to relive his wasted youth with help from Luke. Squires' advice to stressed, depressed Luke is to have sex. He doesn't know that the girl Luke would most like to get therapeutic with is Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, *The Wackness* has a grubby, hazy, melancholy sweetness beneath all the strenuous quirkiness, mostly due to Peck, who is convincing as the lonely dork who wants desperately to be cool. Luke approaches his illicit trade with a genuine work ethic -- the kid is on the job night and day, but he's not exactly living the dream. Kingsley, sporting an odd accent and even odder hair, wrings as much as he can out of a character that walks the thin line between believably nutty and completely unbelievable. He offers up another of his tightly-wound, over-the-top, completely screwed up performances, putting the wack and the wacky in *The Wackness*. Both men -- the man who would be a boy and the boy who would be a man -- are likably odd and oddly likable. The same can be said for *The Wackness* which, despite working in cliche-riddled territory, tries hard to avoid cliches, and partly achieves that goal. *The Wackness* works as hard to be cool and popular as its characters do, and succeeds just about as well.


The Dark Night (2008)

When early images of The Joker started trickling onto the web last year, shivers of excitement followed: this was one creepy, crazy looking clown, with greasy hair, smeared, cracked greasepaint, and a crooked, grinning gash of a scar bisecting his skull-like face. That was before Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in *The Dark Knight*, died of an accidental overdose this past winter, which both intensified the buzz, and took a lot of the joy out of the anticipation. Fear not. Ledger's performance in *The Dark Knight* is so vigorously menacing, so chillingly nutso, so insistently, gloriously *alive* that it is easy to forget reality for the duration of the movie, and easy to get swept along (or pulled under) by the Joker's chaotic wake. Ledger subsumes himself in a performance that is simply great, and he's loaded the Joker with tics -- he's tightly-wound and loose-limbed, his thick tongue flicking in and out of that sinister, wounded mouth as he bares his yellow teeth. The Joker is a chatterbox, but he looks like the wheels are constantly turning in a head that's as scary-crazy on the inside as it is on the outside. No joke, this Joker isn't kidding around.

*The Dark Knight* is the sequel to writer-director Christopher Nolan's *Batman Begins*, and like that movie, *The Dark Knight* entirely casts off the campy old Batman for a provocative post-millennial look at the superhero (and the superhero genre) that is far, far darker, and more thoughtful. There's a genuine ambivalence at the heart of *The Dark Knight* (which Nolan co-wrote with his brother Jonathan Nolan) about Batman himself. Is he nuts? (Likely.) Is he just a really well-armed vigilante? (Probably.) Is he on the side of justice? (Maybe.) This Batman (Christian Bale) is like the back side of the joker cards his nemesis leaves as calling cards -- looks like all the other cards, until you look underneath. And that's the question at the thumping, moody heart of *The Dark Knight*: are Batman and Joker really two sides of the same card?

The Joker seems to think so, casting himself as a self-styled agent of chaos, and Batman -- or "the Batman" as he is called, in a nod to Frank Miller's *Batman: Year One* graphic novel -- as an agent of order. The Joker has no agenda, no purpose, other than creating chaos and fear. He's a terrorist for whom the *only* goal is to create terror. The million dollar question for millionaire Bruce Wayne is whether or not upholding order is the role he's meant to play -- his Gotham is a city overrun with graft and corruption, with a thriving criminal underworld, and with a few good cops like Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a crusading, lantern-jawed new DA named Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt) trying to clean things up. Onto this scene, the Joker drops fully-formed, fully-loaded, fully-homicidal. He takes on the good guys and the bad guys, but his real prey is Batman.

As for the Batman, he's something else here too -- stranger, more conflicted, more sinister, working the extra-legal beat where the moral lines get blurred. (His conscience is external, located in trusted advisors Alfred the butler, played by Michael Caine, and Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman.) Batman does the dirty work of controlling crime, but with a joyless resignation that makes him both menacing and a little tragic, a creature who plays on our sympathies, but also preys on them, exploring the darker, weaker side of human nature both in himself and in the world at large. Is he the scapegoat, the sacrifical lamb, or the savior of Gotham? Does Gotham need a hero, or are we in a world where there's no room for heroes, super or otherwise?

But this is not just the story of Batman's inner struggle with good and evil, but a larger story of darkness and light, of might and right, and of humanity at a pivotal moment of choice -- do we listen to the better angels, or let the demons fight it out? When the lunatics have taken over the asylum, are more lunatics the solution?

*The Dark Knight* is a long, dark night -- intensely violent, but also at times darkly funny. (There's a very obscure, inside joke in the casting of Nestor Carbonell as Gotham's mayor -- he played the cowardly superhero Die Fledermaus in the shortlived *The Tick* TV series.) And it is transportingly beautiful in that way that only a city at night can be, even if it is illuminated by fire. There are spectacular gadgets and stunts, massive explosions, and all the other things you'd expect and want from a Batman movie, but Nolan is a director who understands and revels in the power and beauty of cinema and the cinematic image. *The Dark Knight* is entertainment, but it is also art. It is pulp and it is poetry. It's a freakshow, but it's a poignant and oddly moving one that turns the world upside-down and gives it a good, hard shake. *The Dark Knight* is heavy because it has gravitas, but it is also light because it thrills us with sights we could not, and maybe should not, otherwise see.


Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

'Tis the season for tormented superheroes, and even without Peter Parker swinging around, there's been a bumper crop this year, between Iron Man, The Hulk, and Hancock. And we haven't even gotten to Batman yet. But can it get any better than Hellboy?

Certainly it won't get weirder than *Hellboy II: The Golden Army*, in which writer-director Guillermo del Toro (*Pan's Labyrinth*) opens up his abundant doodle-book imagination and unleashes an underworld teeming with strange, strangely cute, strangely winsome, spooky, and grotesque beings. The plot is faux *Lord of the Rings* piffle, involving an ancient war between humans and elves. The elves are ready to rise up again, under the leadership of evil, pasty-faced Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), who is just plain tired of living underground (and under Manhattan, no less). He sets out to work on his tan and to revivify an army of thousands of indestructible golden warriors. But first, he needs all three pieces of an ancient golden crown, and, (as Hellboy himself might say), blah blah blah BLAH.

The Tolkienish plot serves as a reminder that del Toro's next project is *The Hobbit*, and if *Hellboy II* is any indication, he is more than up to the task. *Hellboy II* is the sequel to del Toro's equally funny, rousing, surprising, and devilishly good *Hellboy*. This time around, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the big, red, stogie-chomping, cat-loving demon spawn, is a bit of a celebrity, and relishes the spotlight. Like any modern celebrity, he learns that the public and the press are happy to turn on him, which they do. He's got bigger problems though -- Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), his incendiary ladylove, is mad at him (and when she's mad, she's on fire -- literally), and Prince Nuada keeps unleashing ferocious, carnivorous critters on the city. Hellboy's pal Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a fishy fellow, is even more blue than normal, as he pines for Prince Nuada's twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton). Hellboy's new boss at the super-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane), is a gasbag -- literally. He's a being of ectoplasmic gas, encased in a sort of diving suit that gives him human form and, apparently, an officious German accent and attitude.

Someone who isn't a windbag is the prodigious del Toro, who is a remarkably efficient storyteller, given how much plot and subplot he crams into the relatively compact 110 minutes of *Hellboy II*. More important than his efficiency is his attention to character, personality, and temperament, something every critter, no matter how small, inconsequential, or fierce seems to have in abundance in *Hellboy II*. Even a tumor growing out of a grotesque beast has personality. The movie, a busy, abundant (you could say overflowing) grab bag of special effects, imaginatively choreographed fight scenes (involving spears, mechanical fists, giant plants, babies...), and Barry Manilow singalongs is gleefully controlled chaos, a humorous, whimsical, touching, romantic, bloody-gooey noir-fantasy with the genuinely appealing, genuinely human Hellboy at its heart, keeping it real. Perlman invests Hellboy with the sort of cynical on the outside, soft on the inside, grouchy through and through attitude of an old-school, world-weary movie gumshoe -- he could just as easily be battling Nazis (which, as a matter of fact, he did in *Hellboy*) or hunting Maltese Falcons as fighting elves and giant trees.

There's a handful of filmmakers who can make a throwaway movie like this with all the care and purposefulness of an "important" movie. del Toro knows that *Hellboy II* (based on the graphic novels by Mike Mignola) is pulp, but it's extravagant, beautiful, joyful pulp, rendered with plentiful enthusiasm, pull-out-all-the-stops cleverness, true artistry, and a sense of humor.


Hancock (2008)

Most superheroes have a certain amount of grace and control, whether they're leaping from tall buildings or stopping speeding bullets or spinning webs. Hancock is more anti-hero than superhero, and he's more of the smashy-smashy type, not exactly light on his feet, and generally doing more harm than good. This is partly because he's almost always drunk, and partly because he's almost always angry. He's a human-sized despicable Hulk who generally leaves everyone wishing he'd go do his superhero thing somewhere else.

Everyone except Ray Embrey, a do-gooder PR guy whom Hancock (Will Smith) rescues from a speeding locomotive. It's a particularly destructive rescue effort, but Ray (Jason Bateman) is grateful nonetheless, and takes his hard-living savior home for spaghetti and meatballs with the family. Ray's kid Aaron (Jae Head) thinks Hancock is pretty cool; Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) disagrees, and gives the stinky hero the dirty eyeball and a wide berth. Ray decides to put his PR skills to use giving Hancock an image makeover -- his efforts to turn the angry, disheveled crimefighter into a truly super guy gives *Hancock* a goofy, sharply comical and edgy originality that sets it apart from most movies about brooding, tormented superheroes.

Screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan are a little vague about the details of just what sort of super-being Hancock is exactly, but they're to be commended for giving Hancock a compellingly poignant backstory, and one with unexpected depth (turns out there's a reason his name is John Hancock). Hancock, though far from perfect, and not exactly human, is vulnerable to certain forms of emotional kryptonite, and all-too-human frailties. Hancock's weary and mad, with a supersized chip on his shoulder, but he's got a curious penchant for doing the right thing in spite of himself. He also does the right thing very badly, and often while doing very bad things to bad people, so it doesn't hurt that he's got Will Smith's bulletproof charm, even if Smith does his best to hide his light under a layer of grime and stubble.

Director Peter Berg (*The Rundown*, *Friday Night Lights*) has a taste for the dark, violent, and twisted in his comedies, and *Hancock* is no exception. (Parents are duly cautioned that this is a movie in which the gastrointestinal epithet that really ticks off Hancock is frequently uttered by children.) The director, and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, go for a lot of extreme close-ups in *Hancock*, which gives the movie intensity and intimacy to go along with the big action and yuks. About halfway in, the movie takes an unexpected and surprising turn, with a plot twist that marks a change in tone and mood, and adds a layer of complexity to what had been, for the most part, a genuinely weird (and genuinely satisfying) superhero comedy.

*Hancock* has an adequate amount of adequately staged action sequences, but it doesn't turn into a big, loud, stupid spectacle at the end -- the ending is plenty chaotic, but it's also strangely intimate. Some things that can rarely be said about action movies these days can be said about *Hancock* -- the movie is consistently interesting and satisfying, but it's a little rushed, a little clipped, and it really could have been a little longer.