PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Incredible Hulk (B)
U.S.; Louis Leterrier, 2008, Universal
After Ang Lee's 2002 Hulk, a somber, thoughtful look at Marvel Comics' greenest and most angst-ridden superhero, the new Marvel edition of the saga, The Incredible Hulk, piles on the action, thanks to hyper-active French director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) and blockbuster-prone scriptwriter Zak Penn (The Last Action Hero).
They deliver what you might call (if you were a publicist) a rock 'em, sock 'em action tornado. It's a mile-a-minute bash-and-crash-athon that taps back into the original comic book's wish-fulfillment wellsprings, sports a fine new cast (Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and Liv Tyler and William Hurt as Betty Ross and her general father Thad), brings on an odious new villain (Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky/The Abomination), simplifies the angst, pours on the CGI, and finally fits to a bloody T the Hulk's own catch phrase (and by now, a constant litany in The Incredible Hulk movie reviews): "Smash!"
It's been a good movie year for Marvel, and this DVD can only make it better, at least financially. (As if to remind us, Robert Downey, Jr., in his Iron Man mood, pops up at one point, to seal the deal.) I'm not being sarcastic here. I liked the movie, and it held me all the way, though the film's grip relaxed pretty soon after I left the theater.
Why? Perhaps it's because the cast and the production, not the story, are what make this movie click. Lee cast his earlier version somewhat strangely, with pretty boy hunk Eric Bana as Bruce and Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott as more plausible Rosses, sacrificing some of the story's action-hero, worm-turning fantasy. Norton is a more ordinary-looking and empathetic Bruce, and he even suggests a deeper character psychologically -- while Tyler is a more fetching Betty and Hurt a more complex Ross. As for Roth, as a competing monster-antagonist, he's off the charts: a fishy-eyed, dead-souled bastard who keeps getting meaner and more dangerous with every scene.
The plot is fairly standard and, in a way, it picks up from Lee's movie: Bruce, on the run from relentless, icy-eyed Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (Hurt), and faced with his own imminent Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into the huge, green, screaming-mad Hulk (tipped for us by time titles), sneaks back from Rio to the States where he'll pursue his antidote and meet up with his love, Betty -- while Ross protégée Blonsky fouls things up by misusing the "Hulk" serum, and getting even more of a kick from unscrupulous scientist Professor Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), finally turns himself into a worse, scaly, mad-eyed nightmare. At the end, the Hulk meets the Abomination. Smash!
One of the reasons that the Spider-Man movies, Iron Man and now The Incredible Hulk play so well with both huge audiences and (sometimes) critics is that the transformational aspects of the stories allow the filmmakers to cast less hunky actors highly capable of wit, depth and emotion (Tobey Maguire, Downey, and now Norton) in the hero roles, something which nicely balances the dramatic and action scenes. You don't have to wait, and pray, for a Christopher Reeve to show up for these parts. As an action movie, this new Hulk is something of flame-thrower. But having Norton around for the dialogue scenes, not to mention having Hurt and Roth too, gives them an extra charge.
Norton, with his sensitive shifty eyes and hurt face, makes the stakes higher, the predicaments realer. And since Leterrier has a flair for non-stop, down-and-dirty action, the movie would wear you out, if the actors weren't there to shoot some reality into the quieter (or at least, less spectacularly noisy) scenes.
There's also a socio-political edge to the conflicts between Bruce and Gen. Ross, and The Hulk and the Abomination. "The Hulk," "Spider-Man" and most of the other fabled Marvel characters were conceived in the '60s, and they reflect those '60s values, in more evolved ways. Bruce is a reluctant rebel, trying to control his uncontrollable inner self, trapped between the cold, self-serving establishment (Hurt), his true love (Betty), and an utter nihilist (Roth). We wouldn't love the Hulk if he weren't a trapped outsider, wouldn't thrill to his transformation as much if we didn't find his mad rages, on some level, an irresistible release.
Stan Lee's heroes and their alter-egos were always much more emotional, more sympathetic than the average comic book secret identity guys were in their beginnings. Putting an actor like Norton or Downey in these roles now seems like a stroke of genius -- or a least a stroke of ultra-financial savvy. I wish, in the end, that writers like Tolstoy, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, or Shakespeare, or, to get more contemporary, Thomas Pynchon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, could command the budget and resources now regularly lavished on Lee's work, by Lee's companies. But at least the studios show some good taste in comic books. Anyway, the whole huge deal is more a matter for accountants than aestheticians, or even movie-lovers. Aw…Smash.
U.S.; Costa-Gavras, 1982, Criterion
Costa-Gavras' top-grade political thriller considers the 1973 disappearance of irreverent young American Charlie Horman (John Shea) during the anti-Allende coup in Chile, and the determined attempts of his conservative dad (Jack Lemmon, at a dramatic peak) and liberal wife (Sissy Spacek) to find him. Solid, all the way, with fine extras.
Flight of the Red Balloon (B)
France; Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, Criterion
Hou has created a beautiful tribute to Albert Lamorisse's beautiful original 1956 The Red Balloon. You should see both: one because it's a pure, lilting kid's masterpiece and the other because it's one great filmmaker's homage to another. Though the story, with Juliette Binoche as a troubled mother, eschews the fantastical, there is a balloon here, but it's no whimsical pet and martyr. It's just a kibitzer on Hou's sublime long takes. (In French, with English subtitles.)
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women (A)
Japan; Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936-56, Criterion
Four modern Japanese film-tales of fallen women --geishas, mistresses and prostitutes -- are presented by one of the greatest of all cinematic visual stylists and, in the three cases, from his best scriptwriter, Yoshikata Yoda. This four-disc tribute to Kenji Mizoguchi is a must for foreign film connoisseurs.
Osaka Elegy (A)
The perils of office adultery, with Isuzu Yamada.
Sisters of Gion (A)
Misoguchi's greatest pre-war film and his only Kinema Jumpo Best One winner: a withering study of the dark side of the geisha world. With Yamada.
Women of the Night (A)
A raw portrait of postwar prostitution, filmed in a very atypical but powerful near neo-realist style, starring Mizoguchi's favorite actress, Kinuyo Tanaka.
Street of Shame (A)
Contemporary prostition again, this time, in a film so popular, it spurred government legislation. With the sexy Machiko Kyo of Rashomon.
All films in Japanese, with English subtitles.
Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume Six (A-) U.S.; Various directors, 1930s-2000s, Warner Bros.
Here are sixty vintage Looney Tunes -- including all the gang, the "incorrect" Bosko and Buddy, one-shots and wartime cartoons -- plus Looney extras and a well-deserved tribute to the great voice man Mel Blanc. This is the least of the six in the collection, but still a corker. Includes: Hare Trigger, Birth of a Notion, My Favorite Duck, Horton Hatches the Egg, Bugs Bunny in King Arthur's Court, The Draft Horse, Fresh Airedale, The Hole Idea and many others.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Strangers (D+)
U.S.; Bryan Bertino, 2008, Universal
The Strangers is a monomaniacal put-them-through-the-wringer horror movie that invites you to watch Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a comely young couple besieged by three sadistic oddballs wearing masks who torment them during a long night in an isolated vacation home. It's a first time effort for young writer-director Bryan Bertino, 28, and while he shows talent, you have to question his judgment. Why are we supposed to get involved in this creepy, gory little story?
In the beginning, it looks like Tyler's quiet Kristen McKay and Speedman's reckless James Hoyt are just the victims of jokesters: jerks who keep knocking loudly on the doors, playing Merle Haggard records and creeping around the lawn. Kristen and James just don't take the intrusion seriously, and, after their cell-phones and car are kaput, it's too late. The masked marauders -- listed in the credits as Doll Face (model Gemma Ward), The Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks) and Pin-Up Girl (Cindy Margolis) -- have already tipped their bloody hand.
Why are the trio doing this? Did they see the similarly plotted French horror movie Them too many times? And why do they insist on prowling around in those damned masks -- unless they're trying to cop a resemblance to the Scream phantom or a Rolling Stones Honky Tonk Women doll? I guess the sheer irrationality of their attacks is supposed to make them terrifying. But, after a while, they begin to seem more annoying -- three costume party creeps who don't know when to go home or stop torturing the hosts.
Casino Royale (Collector's Edition) (A-)
U.S.-U.K.; Martin Campbell, 2006, Sony
Daniel Craig, a newer grittier 007 -- less funny but more dangerous -- takes over the hot center of one of the fastest, most violent and gadget packed of the Bonds. With Bond Girl Eva Green, Judi Dench and Jeffrey Wright. I prefer Sean Connery, but this Bond is closer to the nastier guy created by Ian Fleming.