Green Eyed Monster

Louis Leterrier’s surprisingly compelling re-imagining of The Incredible Hulk (more the 1970s television show than Ang Lee’s overly lyrical misfire from 2003) sees Edward Norton takes over from Eric Bana as Bruce Banner; a government scientist blasted by gamma rays when a nuclear experiment goes wrong and condemned, Jekyll & Hyde-like, to carry a monster within him that he cannot control.

Be in your seat on time because much of this Hulk’s origins are explained in the opening credits, flashes of prologue flitting between images of mutating cells and pumping veins, accompanied by a reworking of the haunting score from the 1970s television show. As an on-screen graphic explains, Banner hasn’t had an ‘episode’ for 150 days, thanks to the meditation techniques he has learned from a martial arts master at his hideout in Rio de Janeiro’s favela. Banner’s attempts to control his body are part of his search for an antidote to his unique condition, which famously becomes unmanageable when he is angered.

But his military paymasters, personified by grim-faced General Ross (William Hurt), who also happens to be the father of Banner’s girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler), want him back in the US so they can use his irradiated blood to create a new breed of genetically-modified super-soldiers. Ross sends a crack squad of commandos, led by the deadly Blonsky (Tim Roth) down to Brazil to bring Banner back. Following a breakneck chase, he escapes, making his way back to Betty’s office in a university campus and a painful reunion. But the army are close behind, and Ross has found a way to create a worthy adversity for the all-powerful Hulk by injecting a willing Blonsky with a sample of his blood.

Norton, always willing to take a risk, gives an excellent performance as the tortured boffin desperate to exorcise a curse of his own creation. At least, until the computers take over and he morphs into a giant, green, imaginary object. Even Norton cannot act through such a dense binary mask. Nevertheless, when in human form, Norton is always interesting and self-contained. Alongside him, Liv Tyler offers heart and hope as the loyal Betty with the two of them presenting a likewise credible and frequently touching romantic relationship, quickly drawn in tight, emotional scenes and well sustained throughout.

Director Leterrier, working from a script by comic-book specialist Zak Penn and Norton, brings his high-octane action movie sensibilities to the material, staging a well-measured succession of blistering set-pieces and pyrotechnic fight scenes. Banner and Betty don't become fully rounded characters, but this lack of probing insight suits the material far better than his predecessor’s tortured art-house moping. This Hulk hasn’t got time for angst; the film is driven at a breathless pace by a straight-ahead plot and endless action. There are frequent asides for summer-friendly comic moments – Marvel creator Stan Lee gets his obligatory cameo and the original television behemoth Lou Ferrigno pops up as a pizza-munching security guard.

Never short on spectacle, this bravura blockbuster noticeably collapses in the last twenty minutes into a mush of over-digitized combat - the streets of New York are again, flattened-but what had gone before was solidly entertaining, hitting all the marks expected by fans with careful - probably too careful - precision.

We Are Three

It's the third blog-a-versary here at Confessions of a Film Critic. Yay me. Thanks to those that read the posts, nobody seems to comment much but thanks to those few that do and roll on another year.

It Keeps Happening...

Reading these guys pick apart just how awful The Happening really, truly is, almost makes me want to see it again.

Just to keep up with the dissection, like an anatomy student in a glass-walled gallery flipping through a textbook. In comparison I was only prodding the corpse with a stick, from four feet away.

It goes to show you how important film criticism is, even if only to shield the audience from the gore. And a surgeon gets to wear rubber gloves.

What Happened?

M Night Shyamalan might have come a long way since The Sixth Sense frightened the tar out of us back in 1999, but it’s been steadily downhill. Signs was a misfire, The Village a mess and Lady in the Water an abomination. His star has fallen so far that his latest film, The Happening, almost didn’t happen at all. The script was rejected by his usual backers, with the writer/director eventually finding the funds to make the film from an Indian conglomerate more used to producing Bollywood musicals.

Whatever the film’s genesis, in keeping with the director’s Hitchcock-aping affinity for narrative contortion, it would be unfair on any prospective audience to reveal too much about the story. In short, New York is subjected to a suspected terrorist attack, where suddenly and for no apparent reason, a deadly toxin is released into the atmosphere, which causes people to kill themselves. Soon, this strange phenomenon spreads throughout the North-Eastern United States causing everyone to flee in panic, although they are unsure what they are fleeing from. After an opening credit sequence of gradually darkening clouds and a quick introduction to the mayhem, the film settles on Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a high-school science teacher and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) as they escape the city for the supposed safety of Philadelphia, trying to figure out the mystery and find refuge in the remote countryside.

Judging by his jaunty line-readings and ludicrously befuddled expression, Wahlberg appears to be under the impression that he is in a comedy about a whiney, passive-aggressive child-man struggling to complete a particularly tricky crossword. He is just awful, unable to muster an iota of threat or panic, constantly checking the colouration on his “emotionally significant” mood ring – yes, mood ring – for guidance on how to arrange his face. Blue is happy, red is sad, purple is, honest to God, horny. So good in Boogie Nights and The Departed, Wahlberg can do nothing right here, and it’s entirely the fault of his director. Beside him, Deschanel plays the dutiful wife as if heavily medicated, unable to rouse herself from a dippy-eyed, half-smiling trace even as she flees for her life. Dependably cute and disarmingly pretty she is comprehensively wasted here but she is not alone.

Alan Ruck is given a momentary cameo as a grave faced school principal. Spencer Breslin remains anonymous from under a mop of curls. John Leguizamo appears as best friend Julian, mangles his cloth-eared dialogue for twenty minutes then disappears once his assigned task – placing his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) in the couple’s care – is completed. In an attempt to add some tension between them, unnecessary given the apocalyptic circumstances, Shyamalan introduces an undercurrent of emotional adultery (even playing the part of the other man, thankfully only on the phone), but this is just another mishandled, tedious element of what quickly descends into a litany of bad ideas, unintentional jokes and logical hiccups.

The Happening is truly a terrible film, a stupid premise poorly executed and, even at a scant 90 minutes, an ire-raising waste of time. For a film that revels in showing various inventive ways to commit suicide, makes umpteen po-faced and misinformed speeches about climate change and repeatedly evokes the spectre of terrorism and the ghosts of 9/11, Shyamalan’s childish character construction and inane dialogue is startlingly wrong-headed. Emotionally false, torturously contrived and dramatically rushed, this is a mindless, mirthless assemblage of reheated cliché, cod Hollywood science and half-hearted doom-mongering. But hey, it’s just another pompous, self-important dud from the diminished Shyamalan. It’s not the end of the world.

From The Vaults: Denzel Washington & Deja Vu

Denzel Washington marches into the plush hotel room in Paris, folds his lanky frame into his seat and immediately laughs very loudly at nothing in particular. It’s a laugh of impatience from this famously reticent actor, never entirely comfortable when meeting the press; a noise made to signify his presence and mark his space, like a lion roaring at sundown. Before we start into the questions, Washington makes some general chit-chat about the French weather (cold, wet) and the approaching Christmas season (family, food, church) before smoothing down his shirt-front and jutting his chin out, awaiting the first of my enquiries.

It would appear that we’re in Paris to talk about the action movie Déjà Vu simply because the movie has a French title, although when it comes to the phenomenon itself, that unsettling sensation of recall that almost everybody gets now and again, Washington hasn’t much in the way of personal insights to share. “I can’t give you a specific example, you know, but to me that uncanny feeling comes when I hear something or see something that strikes me as familiar, somehow. It’s difficult to describe, but you know they say we only use ten percent of our brains. I think that instinct and intuition, this is my own little theory, come from an old part of our minds that we don’t use anymore, like a muscle that’s not used all the time will weaken, will fade away. I believe there’s an echo of that in it”.

In the film Washington plays Doug Carlin, a smart, intuitive agent for the US bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and, the movie tells us, the newly added ‘Explosives’), who is called to post-Katrina New Orleans to investigating a terrorist bombing on a ferry loaded with military personnel. Assisting him in his investigation is a shadowy government spook, played by Val Kilmer, and a team of fast-talking boffins, led by Adam Goldberg, who are using a top secret time-travelling machine which allows them to ‘see’ four days into the past. The only clue Washington has is the body of a recently dead, innocent young woman (played by relative newcomer Paula Patton), whose death holds the key to catching the bomber (played with religious-inspired zeal by Jim Caveizel). Washington figures out that the only way to solve the case, and get the girl, is to use the secret machine to physically travel back in time. It’s a wild mix of a love story, pseudo factual sci-fi and gritty police procedural, as spectacular as it is preposterous, that marks the double-Oscar winning actor’s third collaboration with the master of breakneck pyrotechnics, director Tony Scott and his blockbuster producer, Jerry Bruckheimer.

Washington prepared for the role like he does every other role, he thought about it long and hard, and spent face-to-face time with the professionals. Tony Scott thinks the actor is almost unique in his methods, saying that “many actors talk about doing research, but in fact very few of them do. When you put their feet to the fire, they’re lazy. Whatever Denzel does, audiences trust that he is giving an honest representation of the man he’s putting on the screen. Also, and this never hurts, he’s sexy and charming and he’s got all of those movie star elements as well.” Scott’s six-time producer Jerry Bruckheimer is just as complimentary, saying that the actor “reeks of intelligence. He is just a very smart man and I think audiences love that about him. The sense of authority he brings to a role is an extension of that – he is a very powerful actor and a powerful human being”.

Washington deflects the not altogether unexpected compliments with a wave of his hand and seems reluctant to analyse his approach to his work. “I’m just me, and what you see is what you get. I’m not the kind of guy who just works all the time. For me, this work is simply how I make a living. When they call ‘wrap!’ - he claps his hands – I’m gone. Zoom.” He does pay homage to the real-life detective the writers, Bill Marsilli and Terry Rossio, based his character around. “His name is Jerry Rudin, and he’s a 20 year veteran of the ATF. He was the first investigator on the scene of the Oklahoma bombing back in 1995 (the film references that atrocity a number of times) and what I took from his is that he is the kind of a guy who likes to sneak up on a situation. He doesn’t wear a uniform; he prefers to blend in and walk around and work quietly and unobtrusively but still has this tremendous sense of authority.”

The film had just started shooting in and around New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in late August 2005; an event that the actor admits took on a special resonance. “It was important to me that we stuck it out, and returned to New Orleans to continue filming as soon as we could. Three months after the water receded, we were filming in the 9th Ward (the area of the city most devastated by the flooding) and we did that intentionally, to show the people that big projects like ours were not going to abandon them when they needed us the most. Think about a big movie production, the amount of people employed and all the others services that depend on it, from catering to hotels or what have you. I thought our presence sent an important signal, but I’ll say this on the whole thing; Spike Lee made a brilliant movie called When The Levees Broke, and that puts the Katrina story into perspective far better than I could, in the time we have now”.

I don’t get the sense that Washington is being deliberately evasive, but since the film makes pointed references to the War in Iraq, 9/11 and the earlier Oklahoma bombing as well as Katrina, all still issues very much at the forefront of the American consciousness, he is perhaps choosing his words carefully. Regardless of the real-life events the film includes in its story, Washington doesn’t believe Déjà Vu has any overt political message. “This wasn’t, for me personally, a political film, even if we touch on those issues. The movie wasn’t shaped like that in the first draft of the script, but it became that with what was happening around us, the research that Tony did, the input from a guy like Jerry Rudin, who was on set a lot during filming, but its not meant as a political film, no”. Before Washington arrived, I had asked the same question of Bruckheimer, specifically if he saw the film’s incorporating real-life tragedy as a deliberate effort to remind Americans that their problems are not all coming from overseas. The ultra-smooth producer was having none of it. “I don’t think that was out intent, really, I think we were just trying to make an entertaining and exciting story, and that was the way it was written. I like verisimilitude and I know the audience can spot baloney, but there’s no specific message."

Bruckheimer didn’t bite and for his part, Washington doesn’t either. Not that there was much chance of my line of questioning getting past the actor, who has a BA in Journalism from Fordham University and twenty five years of celebrity behind him. I’m not really getting anywhere, so move the discussion on from the sad realities of the modern world to the realms of science fiction and the film’s central notion of travelling through time. I ask him if he needs to have a concrete, philosophical belief in a script before he accepts it, particularly when it relies on a babble of science double-speak to get over the humps in the plotting. He stops me before I can finish the question, with a wry smile. “Well, you’re assuming that I know what philosophically sound is, you know. But, it hasn’t been proven that man can travel through time, but it hasn’t been proven that we can’t. So, I ask you, why not?” (Earlier, while trying to explain the story, Tony Scott told me, rather redundantly, that he ‘isn’t a quantum physicist, but…’). “I personally don’t think it’s that far fetched. You know, thirty years ago nobody would have said this (he reaches into his pocket and extracts his swanky, slimline mobile) that this was a telephone. For me to bring everything down to my level of understanding is limited thinking. Just because we as humans can’t figure something out, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If that was the case, then the world would be flat and the human mind wouldn’t be inquisitive and able to make connections and remain thirsty for knowledge".

The science of moving through time and the Theory of General Relativity aside, the film is also a more prosaic love story, albeit one constrained by the early death of the female lead. When Washington’s character, rather cleverly, discovers the woman is still alive, albeit in another timeline that he must visit, he sets out through a specially opened wormhole to save her and stop the attack taking place. The actor says he always saw the film as being a romance first, and was at pains to point that out to the director and producer before they started filming. “When they talked to me about the script the guys were like, ‘it’s a love story told in reverse’, and my response was, no it’s not – she might be dead when he first meets her, on a slab in the mortuary, but as the story evolves into something else, so does their relationship, which I found to be very real. I take elements like that one step at a time in a movie. I don’t like to get ahead of myself, because I think it will affect the performance. Paula’s character and my character have strange journeys in and out of the timeline in this movie, so I didn’t even want to get into thinking through all of that. I think it is better, sometimes, if I don’t know, or at least haven’t thought about, where this guy’s emotions are likely to bring him at any given point”.

Real Real Gone

Say what you like about Ben Affleck as an actor - I certainly have and none of it was kind – as a director he shows some considerable promise. For his feature debut, Affleck follows another performer turned helmer, Clint Eastwood with Mystic River, in adapting a tough novel from Denis Lehane about the disappearance of a small child in Boston.

Gone Baby Gone opened in the US last year but the release here was postponed owing to sensitivities surrounding the Madeline McCann case, to which the film bears a superficial resemblance. The director’s younger brother Casey, mesmerising in The Assassination of Jesse James, plays Patrick Kenzie, a low-rent Boston private detective who, together with his girlfriend and business partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), specialise in exposing adulterers and finding bad debtors. They are dragged into the investigation surrounding the abduction of a four year old girl, Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien) when the child’s frantic Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) and her husband Lionel (Titus Welliver) knock on their door, thinking that low-profile locals who aren’t carrying badges or guns might be able to uncover fresh evidence.

The police investigation is being led by the soon-to-retire Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), head of the Crimes Against Children task force and his two best investigators, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton). They’ve interviewed the child’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan) dozens of times, but the inexperienced Kenzie and Angie ask different questions and get better answers. The drug-addict Helene has been dragged into a cocaine supply operation by a boyfriend, and the two soon discover there seems to be a connection between her and a powerful local drug lord, who has recently lost a pile of drug money.

There is infinite darkness here. Was the child abandoned or abducted by a paedophile? Kenzie and Angie use their street-smarts to isolate a suspect, but even to them, this development appears suspiciously convenient. Helene herself is clearly hiding something, but perhaps she is afraid of drawing any more attention to her hard-partying lifestyle. Then there is the police investigation, partly played out on the television news, which follows the standard procedure but with a distinct air of futility.

When we sit down to watch a hard-boiled detective story, typically the desire is to see somebody smart and straight-backed solve a problem, applying their curiosity and gut instinct to restore order. Here however, the issue transforms in the third act, from the hunt for a missing child into a bleak moral inquiry, a question of right and wrong that Kenzie must make a call on, even as he realises the case has become a zero-sum game without any hope for a satisfactory outcome. If he does the right thing he will cause people to suffer, if he does wrong, someone else will. He cannot do nothing.

In these late scenes, Affleck the director uses his brother’s mournful face and strangled voice to brilliant effect, even as he struggles to find a role for Monaghan’s point of view beyond providing a conscientious sounding board, looking to create a divide between the lovers that is undermined by the timid way their relationship has been drawn beforehand. Despite some decidedly shaky character development and the film’s uncomfortable resonance with the headlines, this is a film of genuine moral complexity, well played and handsomely photographed, made all the more involving by its immediacy and authenticity.

Never Mind The Blahniks

In case you are today just emerging from a decade-long coma, Sex & The City is a television show about four mickey-mental New York women who shop, eat, frolic and gossip, mostly about the ins and outs of their torturous romantic lives. Through six series and millions of DVD box-set sales, the show has become a cultural phenomenon amongst women, but having seen say, seven minutes of it in total while flicking through the channels, I couldn’t care less about it.

And having watched the long-delayed yet crushingly inevitable big-screen outing, I still couldn’t. Written and directed by series originator Michael Patrick King from Candace Bushnell’s original chick-lit novel, the saga continues with a bumptious opening crawl of flashbacks to high-points of the tv series, by way of reminding us who these characters are. We see the grand nabob Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) try on shoes, man-eater Samantha (Kim Catrall) enjoy a fulsome orgasm, boffin Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) scratch her red head with a pencil and nice-but-dim Charlotte (Kristen Davis) simper sweetly.

The players established, and that’s about as three-dimensional as it gets, the story picks up four years after their small-screen farewell with Carrie still madly in love with Mr Big (Chris Noth) and preparing to move into a cavernous Manhattan penthouse just as soon as she can have the wardrobe space expanded. After a coy proposal over chopped tomatoes, the two are planning to marry. Big, for his part, has already been hitched twice, so is somewhat nervous about the proposition, fearing it will bring about change and of course all men, even billionaire property developers, are terrified of that. Such concerns are made real with word that the fire has gone out between Miranda and husband Steve (David Eigenberg), leading him to adultery and her to develop a scowl that doesn’t leave her face for the remainder of the film. Charlotte, the ever present cheerleader, is blissfully married to Harry (Evan Handler) and parading their adopted five-year old Chinese girl like a Hermes bag. Samantha, the most obviously pantomime character and as a result the most fun, flits in and out of the story from LA, where she is now a high-flying agent for toyboy Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), busy guiding him to stardom by being snippy on the phone, sipping champagne and balancing her sunglasses on her head.

For all the early character-establishing shenanigans, after the first hour the film remains virtually plotless. It nips along at a lively pace, but remove the central narrative – Carrie and Mr Big’s stumbling walk down the aisle – and there is little else to engage. Gathering these characters together again apparently took considerable negotiation, not to mention large wads of cash, but the results are nowhere near worth the delays and reported bickering. Although these women can deliver reams of quick-fire, back and forth dialogue, when the script asks them to actually act, in scenes designed to expose the loneliness of the middle-aged, the weary trudge of life after romance or the complications of marriage, they crumble. Although all four are still game, there is nothing to stretch them here, with both situations and dialogue lifted straight from the cheesiest soap opera, dramatically coarse and shabbily arranged.

Part of the blame here lies with the director, whose idea of a motion picture is four episodes of television without any advertisements. Running just shy of 150 minutes, Sex & The City is lavishly lengthy but almost entirely empty, composed of endless product placement, easy montage (moving house, trying on wedding dresses), tittering sex-chatter and slapped-face surprise. Emotionally underwhelming and lacking any real imagination or wit, there seems to be little point to the film beyond window-shopping; oohing and aahing over lovely frocks and just-so accessories, a banal catwalk of splashy colour and orthopedically-taxing jewellery. Brands, botox and bullshit, basically. It will be a smash hit.