Just wrapped up a show for HBO/Cinemax (via Universal) about a remarkable new movie, WANTED, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman among others. It’s ironic that this entry should come right after one about kids because this is about as far from a kids movie as you can get. Or is it? Certainly, from the perspective of creative energy, the movie scores high and will match any kid’s imagination for crazy things to do with items like bullets (crush each other in mid-air, decorate them, bend them), cars (gymnastic flips, jumping off buses, driving on walls) or trains (becoming surfboards, getting wedged in chasms) to mention just a few items. But any peace-loving analysis of the film — a coming-of-age-story set in a group of hereditary super-assassins — will inevitably lead to its extreme moral shadiness.
Still (and this may just be because I have been staring at every frame of it for the last couple months) the sheer beauty of the filmmaking makes it impossible to ignore. It has what I like to call “Piñata Energy”. Though possibly the most savage moment at any kid’s birthday, the piñata — ripe with a volatile mixture of violence and sugar — also usually represents the peak moment of “togetherness” the party will experience. Not even the blowing-out-of-the-candles causes such a focus of attention. As Marshall Rosenberg, guru of Non-Violent Communication, likes to say, our society has — over the last 10,000 years of “Domination Culture” — figured out many ingenious ways of making violence fun. WANTED is a great example of this. Bekmambetov, who owns his own visual effects house (and the VFX are truly brilliant), adds a dark Russian humor to the spectacular, and completely surreal proceedings. In a scene with blatant piñata parallels, for example, the lead character Wesley (pitch perfectly played by James McAvoy) smacks his pompous, two-timing best friend in the head with a computer keyboard (see Figures A and B below). A mixture of computer keys and torn out teeth, floating in mid-air, spell out his newly empowered spirit.
Here Bekmambetov explains where he’s coming from:
I love the audience. I want to give them something exciting for two hours of their life. Because life is not so easy and happy. And for two hours they should enjoy something rich and enthusiastic and energetic and funny.
And, like a the true artist he is, Bekmambetov has clearly poured abundant love into every shot of the film. The story doesn’t lack self awareness — with Dostoevskian damnation, the ending leaves Wesley in even worse condition than when we met him — but that, very clearly, isn’t the point. Bekmambetov’s business is to, with almost childlike enthusiasm, render his (and probably our) world as fully and vibrantly as he possibly can. The spontaneity — or the grand illusion of spontaneity — is infectious: watch now, ask questions later.
But what are the questions? Should we boycott the tooth-rotting, violence inducing piñata — as well as movies like WANTED — because of the negative cultural conditioning they doubtlessly contribute to? My wife and I refused to have piñatas at our kids’ first few birthday parties. Now, even though we try to stuff them with healthy treats, they are at every party we throw. Have we succumbed?
The answers to these questions are very tricky, and dig very deep. It seems worth it to ask them, though, while we still can.
My show on WANTED premiered on Cinemax on June 19th. Please see my long form page for an excerpt.