Summertime. The living is easy and the popcorn is high. And the time is right for . . . intelligent design? That’s just my lazy way of introducing two unrelated movies about cult-like crazies who harbour some preposterous conspiracy theories. Neither movie makes much sense. But in the case of Wanted, an action blockbuster starring Angelina Jolie as an über-assassin working for a mystical fraternity, who cares? It’s a wild ride, and Angelina looks and behaves like the scandalous bad girl we want her to be despite all those children and all that charity work. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a documentary polemic arguing that believers in intelligent design (i.e. creationists) are being persecuted by “Big Science” and that theories of Darwinian evolution helped spawn Hitler and the Holocaust. There’s not much action in Expelled, but it made me want to throw things at the screen.
Judging by the poster and the trailer, you’d be inclined to think of this as the new Angelina Jolie movie. But as it turns out, Wanted is more like the new James McAvoy movie. The plucky star of Atonement and The Last King of Scotland stars as the story’s protagonist, a downtrodden white-collar weakling named Wesley who is rescued from his nowhere job in an office cubicle and recruited into a secret fraternity of assassins. But hey, you could also call it a Timur Bekmambetov movie. . . Timur who?
Timur Bekmambetov is a filmmaker from Kazakhstan who directed the two biggest box-office hits in the history of Russian cinema (Day Watch, Irony of Fate: Continuation). After slaying audiences on spartan budgets, now he gets to spend real money, making his English-language debut with this sexy, violent studio blockbuster. As someone quipped walking out of the screening I attended, “this is Kazakhstan’s revenge for Borat.” Whatever. Wanted is one whiz-bang action movie, and Bekmambetov shouldn’t have any trouble finding work in Hollywood from now on. Maybe he should slim down to a one-name moniker: Timur.
Wanted is based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. But it’s not for kids. The action is pretty hardcore and there’s rivers of blood. Whenever I stopped to think about this movie too much—which wasn’t often, as my brain got sucked dry by the centrifugal force of Bekmambetov’s kinetic direction—there were things that irked me. Wanted is strictly a boys’ club fantasy, and it’s laden with misogyny. That’s apparent right from the the first act, as Wesley is being terrorized by his fat, shrill, ball-busting boss, then whining to us in a voice-over about his obnoxious tramp of a girlfriend, who’s sleeping with his even more obnoxious cad of an office mate. All the female characters are heartless bitches, including the assassin played by Jolie, but she, at least, is a hoot to watch. If you like that sort of thing.
Angelina Jolie is such an exotic creature, she needs very little adjustment to be credible as super-powered dominatrix killing machine, which is her role in Wanted. As Fox, she belongs to a 1,000-year-old fraternity of assassins who chose their victims according to names spelled out by a binary code derived from errant threads woven on a Loom of Fate. Don’t ask. The loom is not a metaphor. It’s an actual loom in the fraternity’s castle-like headquarters, where a soft-spoken patriarch played by Morgan Freeman presides over the operation with arcane dignity (kind of like John Fraser in his role as master of Massey College at U of T).
Fox recruits Wesley into the fraternity, explaining that his father, one of its members, has just been killed by a rogue member. Like his father, Wesley has the ability to harness his adrenaline into superhuman feats of strength and marksmanship. He just needs some training. And thus begins an ordeal of S & M boot camp, with Jolie—the personal trainer as dominatrix—torturing McAvoy into finally revealing his manhood. And by sheer force of will, a white-collar weakling is transformed into a super-assassin who can bend the trajectory of bullets.
Although the script is silly, there are kicks galore in Wanted. Jolie’s performance, a jacked-up rock-star pose of self-parody, is quite delicious. McAvoy, who’s making a habit of playing desperate young men, enacts his nerd-to-killer transformation with a visceral intensity. And Bekmambetov shows great virtuosity in composing his action scenes, especially a couple of spectacular set pieces involving trains.
For more on Wanted, and Angelina Jolie in particular, go to my article in this week’s magazine: You Think Raising Twins Scares Me
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
I found this film so distasteful I hesitate to dignify it with even a thumbnail review. But what makes it noteworthy—aside from the minor celebrity of its host, Ben Stein—is that it’s an example of a rare breed: the right-wing documentary. Like artists in general, but even more so, documentary filmmakers tend to be of a leftist persuasion. And Michael Moore has led the way in turning the left-wing documentary into a thriving commercial genre; his movies are the most successful docs in history.
It was inevitable a right-wing propagandist attempt the same thing, and in this case director Nathan Frankowski, has ripped off a number of Michael Moore’s techniques. Like Moore, Stein serves as a disingenuous host, feigning naivete as he asks questions while pretending not to know the answers. He has a camera crew follow him into the Smithsonian Institute, and because no one will see him without an appointment, we’re expected to think he’s being muzzled. And, in a tawdry imitation of Moore’s style, Expelled also attempts deadpan humour and makes ironic use of vintage film clips, including The Wizard of Oz (which Moore used in Fahrenheit 9/11). In its attempt to sex-up the case for creationism, it also uses lots of cool music on the soundtrack, including a jazzy version of All Along the Watchtower, Johnny Cash’s Personal Jesus, John Lennon’s Imagine and the Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done (“I’ve got a soul but I’m not a soldier. . . “). The problem is, it seems the filmmakers didn’t pay to license all the music they used. Yoko Ono took them to court over their use of Imagine, which has John Lennon singing “. . . no religion too” over shots of Stalin, and there’s also been controversy over the use of the Killers’ song.
I won’t go into the details of the film’s polemic. But one of its problems is that it has a double agenda. First, as if making a credible case for freedom of thought, it tries to show that “Big Science” is discriminating against academics who believe in intelligent design. And it feigns an even-handed approach. But then it abandons its token balance altogether by trying to show how theories of Darwinian evolution helped engender a litany of evils, including Hitler and the Holocaust. The connections that it draws are specious and its argument consists of vile innuendo.
Stein serves as the film’s host/hitman, using droll sarcasm to make fun of opponents like atheist author Richard Dawkins. In a ludicrous sham of trotting out both sides of the argument, the film mocks the demagogic fringe of anti-creationist ideologues. And its “investigation” is so skewed, and so obviously vested in propaganda rather than legitimate inquiry, that it’s hard to imagine anyone buying it other than the already converted.
I interviewed Ben Stein for a Newsmaker in this week’s Maclean’s, and he did acknowledge the debt his film owes to Michael Moore. “We were greatly influenced by him,” he said. “He showed you can make a documentary on a political subject and make money.” But Stein couldn’t really elaborate on how Moore’s influence was applied. After all, he reminded me, unlike Moore he was just the host, not the filmmaker. Besides, he’s never seen more than two minutes of a Michael Moore film. “It makes me sick just to look at him,” he said. “He’s physically revolting. He so angry. I like to look at people who have sweet, nice faces.” Stein—whose face is familiar from his roles as a teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Wonder Years—immodestly included himself in that sweet, nice camp.
He did, however, concede with a sigh that Expelled is a whole lot less successful than Moore’s films, “so whatever secret he has, we haven’t learned it.”