Thursday, November 27, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Directors: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: PG

*** (out of ****)

Kung Fu Panda is a fun and reasonably entertaining family film that can’t help but suffer a little from Post-WALL-E syndrome. While this was released into theaters nearly a month before Pixar’s masterwork I’m just getting around to it now and that timing isn’t exactly beneficial. In telling a simple story in a simple way and not aspiring to do much more this could be considered the cinematic animated equivalent of a pleasant walk in the park. It’s unfair to hold Dreamworks to the same standard as Pixar but taken on its own terms this is still the kind of movie that would have you leaving the theater telling your friends how “cute” it was. And you’d be right. That’s pretty much what it is. But there’s still some honor in executing a tried and true formula efficiently and in such a way that audiences of all ages can enjoy it.

For older kids and adults it really won’t be anything they haven’t seen before but I'm guessing small children will absolutely love it and likely beg for multiple viewings. In fact, they’ll probably like it much more than WALL-E because it movies at a brisker pace, is easier to understand and doesn’t contain jokes that will fly over their heads. In other words, they won’t be bored. But the more important newsworthy item coming out of this is that it took an animated film to give us one of Jack Black’s more restrained, intelligent performances.

Po (voiced by Black) is a Panda who works as a waiter at his father’s (James Hong) noodle restaurant and daydreams of becoming a martial arts hero, despite being rather lazy and out of shape. The old, wise Yoda-like turtle Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has a vision that the vicious snow leopard Tia Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from prison to gain vengeance on his former master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and wreck havoc in the Valley of Peace. He must choose and anoint the Dragon Warrior to defeat him.
Despite having top candidates for the honor amongst the "Furious Five," comprised of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (David Cross) and Crane (Lucy Liu), Oogway selects Po, the overweight Panda with no martial arts experience. The "Five" are none too happy about it, nor is Shifu who’s designated the thankless, near-impossible task of training him for his showdown with Tia Lung. At first all seems hopeless, but Shifu finds a way to unearth his true potential and prepare him for battle with the dangerous Tia Lung.

The film boats an impressive array of big-name actors providing voice over work, yet strangely it seems as if only a couple contribute anything of value. A big fuss was made about Angelina Jolie’s presence but it’s a completely useless part and hardly the co-headlining role commercials and print advertisements have made it out to be. The same could be said for the other four members of the "Furious Five" as well. With talent like Seth Rogen and David Cross on board you’d figure they’d be given much more to do. It doesn’t really hurt the film per se and the roles fill their necessary (if somewhat lackluster) function in the story but it’s obvious the studio was just seeing dollar signs and not thinking whether their vocal talent would add anything to the film. It’s the very definition of stunt casting.

Luckily, the two major roles of Po and his trainer Shifu are exceptionally cast with Black and Hoffman. Those worrying that the usually manic Jack Black providing a voice for an animated feature would conjure up images of nails on a chalkboard can rest easy. He invests Po with a low-key charm and easygoing nature making him impossible to not root for. Of course you could joke that all of Black’s roles are cartoonish in nature so this would seem right up his alley, but he’s surprisingly restrained in this and while his voice is recognizable, it’s never a distraction. Hoffman’s voice is a little less recognizable (I didn’t even know it was him until after checking the credits), but he brings an authoritative but ultimately very caring dimension to Shifu. McShane’s voice is appropriately menacing for Tia Lung, even if this is your typical animated villain interchangeable with virtually any Disney film from the past 30 years.

Kung Fu Panda’s greatest strength is the writing as screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger know what boxes to check and do so in an effective, workmanlike fashion. You have an outcast with a dream who must dig down deep inside himself to overcome impossible odds and the mentoring figure who helps him do it. We know how it starts, how it develops and where it ends up, although at a very quick 90 minutes it seems to get there before you can blink. Honestly, this movie felt like it was no longer than five minutes, which is probably a compliment.

The animation is just fine. Nothing special, but it doesn’t need to be because the film’s bread is buttered with the story and likable protagonist. I can’t say I was at all emotionally involved in what happened to him since the set-up is so standard but I was smiling the entire way through. If there’s a weak link it’s the action scenes, which are so fast-paced it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s going on. It’s also hard to be concerned about the safety of Po considering no one in the film seems capable of even being hurt.

Have I made the movie sound unexciting enough for you? It’s actually a lot fun but if you go into expecting anything more than that you’re in for a letdown. I wish I could tell you about all the groundbreaking revelations Kung Fu Panda provided but the truth is that it’s good in the most average, common way possible. It’s proof that sometimes a really good movie can be less interesting than a bad one when it follows a predictable pattern we’ve seen many times before. I’d much rather watch a movie with more ambition that tries something different and fails than this, but since it’s frequently entertaining and hardly missteps it earns a passing grade. The film will be Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature not because it’s so great but because there are only three slots to fill in that inane category. It will also lose.
I’m not surprised the movie raked in as much money as it did because it caters to its target audience really well and packs enough extra in to satisfy everyone else. Yet when it ended I couldn’t help thinking it could have been much better. Or even more perplexingly, maybe it couldn’t have been. Maybe this really is as good as was possible and we’re just spoiled. If that’s the case then there’s cause for celebration. It means we’ve come so far in animated family entertainment that calling Kung Fu Panda merely “fun” could almost be considered a backhanded compliment.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise

Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Tropic Thunder is the ultimate inside joke, made by actors for themselves. It’s pointless and directionless but is at times often hilarious. There hardly a performance in it that’s of any sustaining value or a plot that comes together in a way that resembles a story at all, yet I couldn’t look away. It’s like watching a car wreck. Credit star, director and co-writer Ben Stiller, who while a gifted comic actor, has proven over time to be a somewhat unfocused director. This film, which is nothing if not a fascinating experiment, just reinforces that.

Making movies about making movies is tricky business and I’ve read this one being compared to famous Hollywood satires like The Stunt Man and The Player, which isn’t particularly accurate or fair. This movie isn’t satirizing or spoofing anything, because doing that would actually require ideas. All we have here is Stiller throwing material against the wall to see what sticks, which actually yields better results than it should from time to time. Much of that can be attributed to two big stars tackling roles that are completely unlike anything we’ve seen them do before. It goes a long way because there isn’t much else to latch onto in what ultimately amounts to an audacious, risk-taking misfire. Only a filmmaker with a lot talent, and/or a variety of illegal substances in his system, could have made this. Stiller gets an “A” for an ambition but a “C+” for everything else.

The movie within a movie is Tropic Thunder and it’s based on Vietnam War vet John “Four-Leaf” Tayback’s (Nick Nolte invoking his mug shot) best-selling memoir of the same title. Helmed by novice theater director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and set on location in the Vietnamese jungle the film stars a myriad of self-absorbed, insecure actors wrestling with career and personal issues. We have a faded action star named Tugg Speedman (Stiller) whose only departure from that genre resulted in the I Am Sam-like catastrophe, Simple Jack, in which he played a mentally retarded farm hand. His headlining co-star is Oscar winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, who prior to shooting underwent drastic skin pigmentation surgery for his role as African American soldier Lincoln Osiris.
Joining them is the drug-addicted star of a series of flatulence comedy films, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and up and coming unknown Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the only actor who seems to have actually researched his role. Cockburn, overwhelmed and in over his head, must also deal with the threats of short-tempered, foul-mouthed Hollywood studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) who won’t hesitate pulling the plug on this production unless he gets his act together. This leads the rookie director to take desperate measures in adding realism to the film and motivating his prima donna actors, the consequences of which result in disaster.

Tropic Thunder starts off on the wrong foot right away by just dumping these guys in the jungle with little to no explanation of who they are except for a couple of fake movie trailers preceding the film (two of which are funny). It also employs one of the most annoying devices that all movies about making movies seem to feel the need to include. It’s that action scene that goes on for 10 minutes until the camera pulls back to shockingly reveal a director yelling, “CUT!” I wonder how many action movies would actually contain a continuous 10-minute take? That’s beside the point though, since we’re watching this for laughs, not a lesson in filmmaking. The laughs are scattershot but when they come they arrive fast and hard.

I’d say at about the half-hour to forty-minute mark if someone asked me what the film was about or what was happening I couldn’t tell them. It completely flies off the rails and that’s not necessarily a criticism. Something big happens with the director and the entire shoot becomes a lot more realistic than any of the actors anticipated, specifically for Stiller’s Tug Speedman, who suffers a very unusual form of torture while being held for ransom by the enemy.

It’s difficult to really care what happens to any of these characters or about the making of the film in general since everything is really just an excuse for Stiller and the other actors to goof off. The idea of them starring in a movie that turns real never seems like it’s exploited to its full potential because the narrative is jumping all over the place trying to do a million things at once. It’s a jumbled mess with no real plot to speak of but I’ll admit at least 50 percent of what’s thrown out there is funny, which isn’t as bad a figure as it sounds considering the ambition of this project. Tropic Thunder is supposed to be an Apocalypse Now sized war epic and Stiller shoots it like it really is one. Of everything he tries, he has the most success invoking the look and feel of a big budget Hollywood action film, perhaps even better than a real one would.

The two performances in the film that have been most talked about and make the biggest impact, at least in terms of shock value, are those of Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise. A lot of Oscar buzz has started to build around Downey’s portrayal of a self-absorbed method actor completely oblivious to how offensive his black-faced take on an African-American soldier is. It’s ironic that awards talk would circulate for Downey since his character’s primary goal in life is to collect Oscars. Lazarus even gives a hilariously accurate speech to Stiller’s character explaining the kinds of roles that usually net Oscars.

Technically, Downey’s performance is a work of immersive comic genius but I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of it all was or what we’re accomplishing. Sure, he’s in black face but do we applaud him because the performance manages to not be offensive? Aside from him being in black face there’s nothing particularly controversial about the character and it’s far from a tightrope walk given the nature of the script.

If another actor (say, Tom Cruise) had played the role I think everyone would have been in an uproar regardless of whether he excelled at it. Downey probably will get a nomination for this but I think it’s more because he’s Downey and with a couple of obvious exceptions this wasn’t the strongest of years for supporting performances. He’ll also probably win Time "Man of the Year" and the Nobel Peace Prize at the rate he’s going. Still, I'll admit there aren’t many (if any) actors that could have pulled this off as well as he did.

It almost goes without saying that the unrecognizable Cruise’s role as fat, balding Hollywood power player Les Grossman couldn’t have come at a better time in his career. It’s a thrilling, hilarious, out of context departure and also the closest the movie comes to really skewering Hollywood. Cruise may be known for a lot of things that have nothing to do with his acting craft but when he shows up and delivers like this it reminds us why he was famous to begin with. I’m not sure how much of my massive enjoyment of his work here had to do with the actual performance or the jarring fact it was Cruise giving it but it doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s hysterical and his final scene is a real keeper. The performances of both Downey and Cruise deliver in much the same way clever Saturday Night Live impersonations would but I guess that’s fine. It’s entertaining.

Stiller and Jack Black pretty much just play variations on themselves with Black having nearly nothing to do most of the time. I actually forgot he was in the movie until the last 15 minutes. Only Baruchel seems to be given a real, relatable character to play and how he manages to slide in somewhat of a fully realized, sympathetic performance amidst such chaos is admirable. Danny McBride has a small, throwaway part as the special effects expert while Matthew McConaughey steps into the role of Tug’s agent, Rick Peck, which was originally supposed to be filled by Owen Wilson. Of course, as everyone knows by now, he dropped out due to highly publicized personal issues. Watching, I couldn’t help but think Wilson would have been a better fit as McConaughey again just coasts along on his charisma even though not much of it is even present this time.

A lot of people loved this movie and I have no difficulty seeing why. There’s a lot to admire but for me all the pieces just didn’t come together like they should have. I wish it were more focused, although part of me wonders if it would have been as interesting to watch if it was. Maybe not, but I know the result would have been a better film. This is the kind of big event action comedy that plays better on the big screen and it’s reasonable to argue if I had seen it in a packed theater on opening night it could have made the half-star difference. Even then though, once the high wore off a couple of hours later it would probably hit me that what I saw was essentially empty and pointless. That’s not something you'd expect with this kind of talent involved. Tropic Thunder may be a bad movie but at least it’s more entertaining than many of the good movies I’ve seen this year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss. Anna Walton, John Hurt

Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: PG-13

***1/2 (out of ****)

In case you didn't hear, 2008 is the year of the superhero film. The most recent entry, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army was the one I was looking forward to the least. More accurately, I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I enjoyed the 2004 film for what is was but it didn’t strike me as a story that needed to be continued and I definitely could have lived without seeing any of the characters on the big screen again. But since this is a comic book character with a solid fan base and the film brought in a modest amount of money its sequel was inevitable.

Burnt out on superhero films already I had to force myself to watch this, and that I ended up enjoying it so much despite my attitude going in speaks volumes. This film does everything a sequel should, then takes a few steps further and does even more than that. The story is more interesting, the characters evolve and deepen and the sense of wonder that was hinted at in the original is fully realized. Like the best sequels, seeing the previous film isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying it. Those unfamiliar with the character’s history may actually enjoy it more, because they can just lose themselves in the wonder of it all and not nitpick the details. It’s also more involving than the two other superhero outings this summer, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (The Dark Knight shouldn't be considered a superhero film).
I’m now convinced this franchise, which on paper boasts a ridiculous and unfilmable premise, is successful because of Del Toro, and if anyone else directed it would be a failure. The guy just gets it. Watching, I was reminded of Star Wars, only not the torturous prequels George Lucas inflicted on us, but the real thing. If Lucas saw this film it would probably be a wake-up call and a reminder of what he used to do well. He could learn something. And if he ever got the itch to revisit that classic series (which isn’t out of the realm of possibility) Del Toro would be the only filmmaker capable of making it work. He proves it here. When it ended I had only one question: "When is Hellboy III?"

In a brief prologue, young Hellboy’s adoptive father (John Hurt) tells him the legend of The Golden Army, essentially a band of mechanical monster soldiers once called upon to wreck havoc on humanity. And now, centuries later and after laying dormant for years, the evil elf Prince Nuada (Luke Gross) looks to recover the three pieces of the golden crown, that if assembled, gives him control over the Golden Army, the potential consequences of which are very, very bad. Family loyalty isn’t exactly high on the Prince’s priority list and he’s determined to do whatever it takes to get the third piece of that crown from his disapproving twin sister, Nuala (Anna Walton). She needs help.

Enter New Jersey’s “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development” which includes the wise cracking cigar chomping Hellboy (Ron Perlman), his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who’s pretty normal save for the fact that she spontaneously bursts into flames at a moment’s notice, and his amphibious sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). And of course there’s their boss, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) who can’t control any of them so this time brings in snooty know-it-all Johann Kraus (voiced by Seth MacFarlane). He ends up being a welcome addition and serves the story well. Together they have to stop the elf Prince from getting his hands on the missing piece from his sister and unleashing the Army.

Nearly all the effects in this movie are CGI and for a change it’s actually necessary to announce that because it isn’t glaringly obvious. This is good CGI, not the kind you saw in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In other words, it looks real and doesn’t call attention to itself or take you out of the movie. It draws you in. You have to wonder how Del Toro is able to do this so effectively while big names like Lucas and Spielberg (who are working within a massive budget) look like they’re making cheap video games. And because the effects scenes are handled with intelligence and restraint the rest of the film ends up coming off better as a result.

Some of these scenes are just jaw-dropping, specifically a street fight with a giant mutant plant known as the Elemental Forest God and the climactic battle that closes the film. A visit to the Troll Market recalls the cantina scene in Star Wars in visual detail as much as setting. It would have been easy for Del Toro and co-writer/comic creator Mike Mignola to just rest on their laurels when it comes to story and get away with it since the film looks so good but they don’t compromise there either.

Sequels to comic book movies are hard because once you get past the origin story (where most of the interest lies) there’s the question of what's left. That initial feeling of discovery for the audience where we watch the protagonist get to know themselves and their abilities are gone and a new plot has to be concocted, seemingly out of thin air. And it’s difficult deciding not only where to take your hero, but the supporting characters as well. That’s why so many sequels in this genre fail.

Here a cleverly fashioned plot takes advantage of Hellboy coming to grips with his identity and having somewhat of a public relations problem. He and Liz are now a bickering couple, which should be very annoying, yet isn’t because Perlman and Blair are so entertaining together. The performance of Perlman is destined to go underappreciated since its masked under CGI and pounds of makeup. It’s almost impossible to believe there’s actually an actor under there, a sign Perlman was born to do this. He adds the humor, which is integral to the series, setting it apart in a genre that usually basks in dreariness. And you have to love any superhero movie that features a drunken Barry Manilow sing-along.
Liz was already the rarest of superhero love interests in that she was an independent thinker who actually did something. That’s improved upon even further here, as she’s now a full-fledged ass-kicking heroin who does what she wants. If anything, Hellboy has to lean on her for guidance. And Abe, a pretty forgettable second-hand in the previous film, is given an excellent supporting story that lets us know more about him as a character. I hardly remember a thing he did in the original but he nearly steals the show in this. The entire plot is very much of the fantasy nature and doesn’t contain a great deal of depth but for what it is it’s very tightly constructed and doesn’t hit many wrong notes. But while the writing delivers, its Del Toro’s direction that holds it all together so well.

I had ZERO interest in seeing this and know next to nothing about Hellboy as a comic character, so if I like this that much then actual fans are in for a huge treat. Why the director of 2006’s Academy Award nominated Pan’s Labyrinth would use his newfound clout to direct a sequel to what was only a mildly successful superhero film was a mystery to me. Now it isn’t. Del Toro knew he could make it better and it’s because of filmmakers like him that these types of movies are of a higher quality than ever before.

The past year in cinema has proven that he word “sequel” no longer has to have a negative connotation if the person behind the camera knows what they’re doing. We’ll get sequels for Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk and I’ll watch and probably enjoy them. But I can’t say that they’d be necessary. With Hellboy II, Del Toro has actually earned the right to continue and I’m anxious to see where he takes us next.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Which 5 Films Will Be Nominated For Best Picture?

Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that we were making jokes about milkshakes and pregnant teenagers? Here we go again. You may have noticed those pesky “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” banner ads popping up all over the place. As tough as it is to believe the announcements of this year’s Academy Award nominations are just over 2 months away (January 22nd to be exact), which means we’re just now entering the prime time for some HUGE releases vying for the top prize. This will continue non-stop until that date so it’s best to get used to the titles you see below because you're sure to be hearing a lot about them everywhere.

Last year’s Oscar telecast was one of the lowest rated in the Academy’s history and while the show was stacked with critical favorites, the films failed to resonate with the casual moviegoing public. The result: a painfully boring show. Thankfully, this year’s show looks more promising with big stars like Pitt, Jolie, DiCaprio and Eastwood (Clooney’s sitting this one out) and big movies that people may actually go out and see. The quality may or may not be there like it was in 2007 but anyone who expected families to gather around the TV last year to see the Academy honor dark art house films featuring priests being bludgeoned to death with bowling pins and high-pressure air gun murders were out of their minds. Fantastic films, but I understand why many didn’t tune in. That doesn’t look like it will be an issue this year and if a certain suspected win occurs in the Supporting Actor category we’re guaranteed at least one of the more emotional moments in recent Oscar memory.

Even better news for fans of The Dark Knight is that many of the potential contenders released in the fall (like Blindness, Burn After Reading, Changeling and Miracle At St. Anna) fell by the wayside and lost any buzz they may have had. Additionally, a few films with “Oscar” written all over them (like The Soloist and The Road) were surprisingly pushed to early next year. That clears the path a little but as you can see below it’s still going to be very, very tough for that film to hold on and make it to January. And that’s not even taking into account the Academy’s prejudices against the genre, the fact it’s a sequel, the film’s flaws and its summer release date. That’s a lot to overcome. But if just a few of the top contenders fail to register Christopher Nolan may be able to pick out a tux. Actually, he will anyway since the movie is pretty much guaranteed a bunch of technical nominations.

In breaking news, one sure thing The Dark Knight isn't being nominated for is Best Original Score. According to this article in Variety it's been disqualified. I can't comment as to whether the score is actually deserving since everyone in the theater was talking and I couldn't hear it, but I can state the reason for its exclusion (much like that of Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood score last year) is completely insane.

All of this is a little silly to speculate on since most of these films haven’t been released yet. Below I list the top contenders and their chances based on the Academy’s preferences and other factors. This isn’t a discussion about which films are “the best five” since I haven’t seen most of them yet but an educated prediction on which way the Best Picture race will go based on the info we have and the Academy members’ voting history. And if you don’t see a film down there (hello, Twilight) it’s because I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in hell of being nominated. Interestingly, in all the years I’ve picked my personal choice for best film of the year it wasn’t a Best Picture nominee, which either speaks poorly for my taste or theirs. My prediction for the five nominees is at the end.

WALL-E (opened June 27)-It’s encouraging news that the folks at Disney recently announced that they plan on pushing it for Best Picture, despite the existence of a separate Best Animated Film category. But sadly, this has no chance, despite the film containing the timeless themes voters love. It will hurt voters’ brains enough reaching back into the summer to consider The Dark Knight so this figuring into the Best Picture hunt is unlikely, especially since there's already another category honoring its contribution.

fate was sealed in 2001 when the Academy created the animated award, not to honor the genre, but blacklist those films from intruding in the "real" races. They’ll see its inevitable win in that joke of a category (which only features 2 other nominees) as good enough. What a shame. This deserves to compete for the big one.

The Dark Knight (opened July 18)- While I didn’t think it was the greatest film ever anointed on the human race like everyone else seemed to there’s no way I can name five movies better than it…at least so far. In fact, naming one would probably be a stretch. And it would be tough for me to tell anyone with a straight face that I thought it was worse than Juno or Michael Clayton (especially Juno). One of the more ridiculous complaints I’ve heard against nominating it is that it’s a “comic book movie.” Sorry, but this is in no way, shape or form a comic book movie. More reasonable is making a case that the film is too flawed. Strangely though, no one seems to be doing that.

Warner Brothers is pushing it hard and have set up a "For Your Consideration" site. I couldn’t help but laugh at some of it though. Pushing Maggie Gyllenhaal as Best Supporting Actress is funny but suggesting Christian Bale be nominated for Best Actor is flat-out hysterical. Sorry, but that was NOT an Oscar-worthy performance. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie succeeded in spite of him, it was Ledger’s show all the way. Plus, do you really want Bale giving an acceptance speech in his deep, gravely “Batman voice?” What isn’t a joke is pushing Eckhart and Oldman in the supporting race. They were amazing and deserve serious consideration.

In about a month's time we’ll have a better idea where this stands but that it’s still being discussed is probably encouraging. The tragic circumstances involving Ledger and its box office take should keep it in the forefront of voters’ minds and it does contain the hefty themes they tend to like. In any event, I’d love to see how the Academy could justify not nominating what’s not just the second highest grossing film of all-time, but the best reviewed movie of the year. Desperate for ratings for the telecast they’ll likely cave in. Maybe not the best reason, but you can't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Milk (Nov. 26)- No, this isn’t a film exploring corruption in the dairy industry, but rather the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor assassinated in 1977. The Academy loves Penn, or at least I thought so until his Into the Wild was criminally snubbed in nearly every major category last year. But voters always preferred his acting to his directing and he’s a lock for a Best Actor nod here. How much further the film can go is questionable since they tend to overlook biopics for Best Picture unless it’s an exceptionally weak year (remember Ray), and it sure looks like it could be.

Working against the film could be that it lacks the warm, mainstream audience-friendly vibe of director Gus Vant’s only previous Best Picture nominee, Good Will Hunting and there's always the possibility its November release could cause it to peak early and fizzle, even if Penn’s performance doesn’t. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a timely film about a politician overcoming the odds slides in. It has a great chance. But there’s a better chance Josh Brolin will finally be recognized with a supporting actor nod after 2 straight years of tireless hard work in a wide variety of films. He might be our best un-nominated actor right now.

(Nov. 26)- Since this is a Baz Luhrmann film people will either love it or hate it. There’s no in between. And since it stars Nicole Kidman critics and the media will try to cut its legs off before it even gets close to the Best Picture race. It could be terrible, but if it isn't would anyone have the guts to admit it? While the Academy loves big, sweeping epics l see this turning into more of a Romeo + Juliet than a Moulin Rouge! in that it has an enthusiastic cultish following, but doesn’t make a huge dent in the major award categories. Look for it to clean up in costume and production design.

Slumdog Millionaire (Nov. 27)-Truthfully, despite the strong buzz, I thought this was going to shape up to be just another little critical favorite that didn’t stand a chance until I read this synopsis on imdb:

“The story of Jamal Malik (Patel), an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much? Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika (Pinto), the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show's questions.”

And they say there are no original ideas left in Hollywood. If it ends up being even half as good as that synopsis implies then watch out. Combine that with a director (Trainspotting’s Danny Boyle) long overdue to the Oscar party and we have a very serious contender. Voters always seem to find room for an indie, or even films just pretending to be one. And if that’s not enough it’s being distributed by Fox Searchlight (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno). This checks every box. In limited release now, but when it opens wider expect it to pick up massive momentum heading into December and January.

(Dec. 5)- In an election year the Academy will feel they have to nominate a political film and since Oliver Stone’s W. is too polarizing and controversial for them this fictionalized account of David Frost’s (Michael Sheen) TV interviews with Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) may be the perfect antidote. Still fuming after being passed over for his supporting turn as Skeletor in The Masters of the Universe, Langella aims to become the first actor to win an Oscar and a Tony for the same role.

I saw the trailer for this before W. and thought Langella’s take on the disgraced President looked goofy and cringe-inducing but I’m not about to judge a film based on a 2-minute clip. Or an unintentionally hilarious poster that misrepresents it as a campy 80's horror outing. Voters love Ron Howard and usually eat pseudo-historical stuff like this up, just as long as it’s directed by someone other than Stone.

The Reader (Dec. 10)- This is that OTHER Kate Winslet movie. Kate’s looking to pull a Cate from last year and pick up two nominations in two different acting categories with her supporting turn here as a Nazi war criminal hiding a scandalous secret. Given the dearth of contenders in that category every year it’s certainly possible, but Revolutionary Road is the Winslet movie to watch, not this one. All it does is clear the path for the more prestigious release because there won’t be enough room for both. If this film is even mildly successful all it will do is boost the prospects for her more anticipated project and put that in a better position come January. Winslet benefits, The Reader does not.

Doubt (Dec. 12)-Let’s just call this what it is: a vehicle for Meryl Streep to land her 500th Oscar nomination and nothing more. If she can be nominated for playing essentially a cartoon in The Devil Wears Prada voters will drool all of themselves with her turn as a nun. Oh, and Philip Seymour Hoffman will be losing to Heath…I mean nominated for Best Supporting Actor as well. But that’s it. This is an actor’s film, not a Best Picture nominee.

Gran Torino (Dec. 17)- Spike Lee may hate the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood but the Academy LOVES him. He could direct an episode of Sesame Street and they’d find a place for him on their ballots. Here he plays, an old, cranky Korean War vet who very reluctantly bonds with the Asian immigrant who tries to steal his ’72 Gran Torino.

If there’s one thing the Academy loves more than a film directed by or starring Eastwood, it’s a film directed by AND starring him. I predict he’ll win Best Actor for this because the Academy realizes the window is closing to honor him for his acting. He may get a director nod as well, but I just don’t get the impression it will be competing on the biggest stage. On paper it just doesn’t seem like it has that “big event feel” voters go for. So Eastwood will just have to settle, as if that’s settling. But it wins for most bad-ass poster. I love it. This is almost guaranteed to be nominated for SOMETHING.

The Wrestler
(Dec. 17)-Oh, this is interesting. A low budget film without a distributor as recently as a couple of months ago has suddenly shot to the top of everyone’s Oscar prediction list. Hollywood still hates Mickey Rourke but they love a comeback story more. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the inside track is on him being nominated but I just can’t see the stuffy Academy rewarding any film having to do with professional wrestling with a Best Picture nod, no matter how good it is. Then again, I suppose the same could be said about boxing…and that won. If any filmmaker can overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds it’s Darren Aronofsky so I’m curious how this turns out.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dec. 25)- YES! Could it be? Could a David Fincher’s film FINALLY be nominated for Best Picture? Could he finally get that long overdue Best Director nod? Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of a man who ages backwards and starring likely lead actor nominee Brad Pitt, this is by far his best shot yet. Of all the movies on this list, this is the one I must want to see and it’s also the closest thing on here we have to a lock. It finds itself in the same comfy position as There Will Be Blood and Juno in that it’s being released in late December and hits wide in January. The studio didn’t just carelessly dump this in an Oscar dead zone like they did Fincher’s Zodiac last year. The Academy owes him a statue for that, The Game and Fight Club so it may be time to pay up. My expectations are through the roof for this.

Valkyrie (Dec. 26)-Don’t underestimate this Cruise guy. If anyone can make a story about a one-eyed Nazi plotting to assassinate Hitler work it’s him. This was actually pushed to early ’09 due to rumored production difficulties but was moved up again to capitalize on the goodwill surrounding Cruise’s performance in Tropic Thunder. Matt Lauer may have forgiven him for his loony antics but the Academy hasn’t… yet. This will do better than people think it will but no way will it be nominated for the top prize, or anything else for that matter. That it's directed by Bryan "Superman Returns" Singer doesn't help.

Revolutionary Road (Dec. 26)- Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet, the two stars of one of the most inexplicably reviled Best Picture winners in history are together again, this time as an unhappily married 1950’s couple who….um, honestly, I have no idea. I’ve read the synopsis of the film and I still couldn’t tell you what it’s actually ABOUT. It sounds like nothing happens at all. But that does that even matter to voters? They’ll see those two names and that of an Academy-Award winning director (Sam Mendes) not even bother watching the screener (it’s probably too long for them anyway) and vote for it. It’s about as safe a pick as there is and they can go to their cocktail parties telling everyone what a masterpiece it was. You have to give Kate and Leo though. They could have quickly sold out and reunited onscreen years ago but they waited over 10 years for the right project to come along. That makes me think it’s very good. And it could be the movie that finally nabs Winslet the gold.

Defiance (Dec. 31)-Here’s a case where having Daniel Craig in your movie really hurts and you pay the price during Oscar season. Coming a month after Quantum of Solace everyone will have Bond hangovers. And even though it covers dark, historical territory the Academy often rewards (anti-semitism), the field is just too crowded for this to make any kind of splash. It’s also directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond) who has a gift for somehow turning deadly serious topics into mainstream, popcorn fare. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it never plays well with voters. The Zwick we have today is not the same one who directed Glory.
Don’t expect much.

My Prediction:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight

Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

Monday, November 10, 2008

Get Smart

Director: Peter Segal
Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terrence Stamp, James Caan, Dalip Singh
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

**1/2 (out of ****)

Get Smart is a rarity among TV to film adaptations in that it actually manages to get a few things right. It’s perfectly cast. It’s well-acted. And it even stays reasonably faithful to the spirit of Don Adams’ 1960’s spy spoof series from which it’s based. I want to recommend it…badly. But I can’t because while it only does one thing wrong, it’s the most important thing. The story is lacking, an effort close to bordering on complete laziness. While nothing about the movie necessarily screams that producers were just trying to make a quick buck, the script feels like it was haphazardly hammered out on a napkin at Starbucks during someone's lunch break.

Because of the actors’ energetic performances I cared about the characters but not what happened to them. Save a couple of scenes, there’s nothing about the story that’s funny or engaging. It’s a somewhat enjoyable romp but at the end of the day there’s just not a whole lot here and its two extremely likable stars have to carry the whole thing. I expected one those stars to easily be able to do that (which he does), but the other really surprised me. When both are on screen together the film is at its absolute best but when they’re not, we’re reminded just how messy everything else is. Comic performances this strong deserve better material and if the forthcoming sequel to this film provides that for them, I’m all for it. All the ingredients were there for this to be great, but because of lazy writing the film toils in mediocrity. But sadly, as far as dreaded TV adaptations go, it could almost be considered a modest success.
Steve Carell is the bumbling Maxwell Smart, a detail obsessed information analyst at the top-secret government intelligence agency, CONTROL, led by The Chief (Oscar winner Alan Arkin). When CONTROL headquarters is ambushed by its rival KAOS and many of their agents are killed or have their identities compromised, Smart finally achieves his career goal of being promoted to field agent. Of course, it’s more by default and necessity than any faith in him being able to excel but Smart is so happy he couldn’t care less.

Now known as “Agent 86” Max is partnered with the sexy “Agent 99" (Anne Hathaway), who (in a really unnecessary plot detail) was forced to undergo radical plastic surgery to alter her appearance. She isn’t the slightest bit pleased in having to show this incompetent rookie the ropes while the agency’s gifted but arrogant “Agent 23” (Dwayne Johnson) is stuck pushing papers at headquarters since he’s instantly recognizable to the enemy. Together, Max and 99 have to bring down KAOS’ evil operative Sigfried (Terrence Stamp) and thwart his plans to nuke everyone.

Criticizing the plot of Get Smart may seem a little silly since this is supposed to be a mindless comedy and the original series wasn’t exactly known for its Emmy-award winning writing. But even by those low standards it feels very much like everything was thrown together on a whim. You’d figure the first order of business would be to give Max a strong villain to play against and by casting Stamp in the role I figured they did that. Unfortunately he’s hardly in the film at all and the few scenes he has don’t generate much heat. Since this is essentially a spy spoof not having a strong, central villain takes away many comic possibilities. Although there is an amusing periphery villain played by Dalip Singh (better known as WWE wrestler The Great Khali). His scenes are funny, but a lot of that probably has to do with just how freakishly goofy and big he looks.

Johnson, as usual, oozes charisma, but isn’t given much to do. It was probably wise from a career standpoint for him to take the role but it can’t help but feel like a step-down after his impressive lead turns in The Game Plan and Southland Tales. While this part fits him like a glove and he plays it well it’s still underwritten and beneath him. The role should have (and easily could have been) beefed up to better exploit his talents.

Stars like Billy Murray and James Caan have pointless cameos with Murray’s being especially unfunny. He actually got paid to show up and do THAT? What a waste. There’s also some shenanigans involving nerdy CONTROL analysts Bruce (Heroes’ Masi Oka) and Lylod (Nate Torrence), characters spun off into a direct-to-DVD release, Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control. I’m not inclined to check it out after watching their antics here, even if they’re not nearly as annoying as I thought they’d be. Combine all this with an obvious third-act plot twist you can see coming half a film away and you have a rather disappointing effort overall.

With Carell they found the perfect actor to tackle the role made famous by Adams. When he was announced as the lead for this I immediately became interested because I thought it was brilliant casting. The rest of the film may not hold up its end of the bargain but Carell definitely does. What’s so special about his take on the character is how he effectively balances portraying Max as somewhat as a moron, yet resourceful and still very good at his job. It’s an important component that gives the film an undercurrent of intelligence absent in the script and is faithful to Adam’s version, without trying to mimic it. While I have only a passing, casual familiarity with the old series I appreciated the nods to it such the very funny opening sequence with the locking doors and phone booth that takes him to headquarters, the shoe phone and Carell memorably delivering some of Max’s classic lines.

Carell has slowly been flying under the radar to emerge as one of our most talented comic actors. Will Farrell, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler’s attempts to balance slapstick projects with more meaningful work and have failed either critically, commercially or both. Meanwhile Carell has been the best thing in bad movies (Evan Almighty) and has elevated standard material (Dan in Real Life) to a higher level. He’s kind of like a modern day version of Peter Sellers in that he’s capable of playing any role believably.

If Carell was a sure bet as Smart but I thought the idea of Hathaway trying to fill Barbara Feldon’s shoes as Agent 99 was a terrible idea. To say I never found Hathaway the slightest bit attractive would be the understatement of the year and as an actress I didn't think much of her either. Going into this I was fully prepared to bash her. To me the idea of her playing a sexy super spy was not just a massive stretch but flat-out miscasting. I thought it was a joke, even for this movie. As it turns out, she shut me up.

First of all, Hathaway looks so incredible in this I practically didn’t recognize her. In fact, she looked so good I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else in the film. All red-blooded males owe it to themselves to see this just for her and if you’re worried your girlfriends won’t like that have no fear. When they see her they’ll probably want to bat for the other team anyway. But I hesitate dwelling on her looks because that would imply the role is just eye candy. It isn’t. Not how Hathaway plays it.

Besides being completely believable as an ass-kicking secret agent she’s saddled with the film’s most thankless dialogue when her character has to pour her heart out about her past. Somehow, inexplicably, she manages to make this dumb confessional scene emotionally moving! Don't ask me how but she does. If she’s that good in inconsequential fluff like this it’s scary to think what she could do in something with real substance. Her acting future is very, very bright. Anyone who thinks this is just a throwaway part and Hathaway could have been replaced by any random hottie is WRONG. Just try imagining what kind of film we'd have with Jessica Alba in the role if you don't believe me.

It’s sad that writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember actually took the time to come up with a silly plastic surgery sub-plot for Agent 99 to “justify” the age gap between and Carell and Hathaway because it isn’t necessary at all. Carell possesses a youthful exuberance while Hathaway radiates a class and sophistication beyond her years. This might actually be the first believable May-December pairing we’ve seen in a while and age was the last thing on my mind…until the writers decided to point it out.
Strangely though, when the movie tries to take their relationship to the next level it doesn’t feel right. They have incredible chemistry as partners and friends but it never comes across as anything more than platonic, which isn’t due to a lack of effort from the actors. Nearly every scene the two share together is funny and entertaining, especially a memorable ballroom “dance off” in the middle of the film. Whenever the actual plot interferes the fun stops. Maybe it would have been better if they just let the two stars do an hour and a half of improvisation. Actually, I KNOW it would have been. The creative forces were working against them.

This is such a close call. It may be the first film I didn’t like where I’m looking forward to the sequel. I want to see Carell and Hathaway in these roles again (especially Hathaway) because I think with a better script this really has the potential to be a successful franchise and produce a great series of films. I think this was a modest hit only because of its two stars and the critics were kind because they were shocked that a television adaptation came along that actually didn’t suck. While it’s true that Get Smart could have been much smarter, its actors couldn’t have come across any better.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Go-Getter

Director: Martin Hynes
Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Zooey Deschanel, Jena Malone, Judy Greer, Maura Tierney, Jsu Garcia, Bill Duke

Running Time: 94 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

One of the greatest gifts a movie can give is to make a promise, then actually keep it. Martin Hynes’ The Go-Getter makes two promises and not only delivers on both, but exceeds our expectations. It’s one of those films that when it’s over you’re not exactly sure what you’ve seen or what you thought of it but you know it was different and special. The story it tells is straightforward and really rather simple but the way it’s told is anything but. All of it is presented in a fresh and interesting way that we’re not used to, almost like a bizarre, surrealistic fusion of Into The Wild and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And it’s unlike anything you’ve seen in terms of its performances, cinematography and music.

While it runs just over an hour and a half it feels much longer, and that’s a compliment. It’s filled with so many great ideas and is so ambitious that it feels epic in scope, bursting with moments of beauty that almost can’t be contained in a story so small. Yet somehow, Hynes (making his directorial debut) not only contains it, but guides it with care and intelligence the whole way through. Because it’s so unusual you may be fooled into thinking it’s better than it is, yet because the story it tells is so basic you could also be fooled into thinking its worse. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
When it was over I wanted to watch it again. Instead of asking people whether they’ve seen it the more appropriate question would be: “Was it your first time?” This takes multiple viewings to fully process, but I’m still trying to sort out the first one. I do know that with lesser talent involved this wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. One actor gives a surprisingly lived in lead performance and an actress, already among my favorites working today, continues to amaze. And she does it without even being on screen for over half the film.

19-year-old Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci) lonely and reeling from the recent death of his mother impulsively steals a car from the local car wash and embarks on a road trip to find his long estranged older step-brother Arlen (Jsu Garcia) and break the news. Along the way he has a series of bizarre encounters with a hippie (Judy Greer), a pet-shop owner (Maura Tierney) and a porn director named Sergio Leone (Julio Oscar Mechoso), finding out from them that his long-lost brother may even be a worse guy than he thought.

Most memorably, Mercer reconnects with an old middle school crush, Joely (Jena Malone) a slutty, drugged-out vixen who travels with him to Reno. Malone plays her as more than that broad description implies. He thinks she’s what he wants but who he really needs is on the other end of a cell phone. It’s the stolen car’s flirtatious owner Kate (Zooey Deschanel) and in a neat twist she isn’t the slightest bit upset. Actually, she thinks it’s kind of cool and wants frequent updates on his journey.

There are many beautifully shot, creatively edited sequences such as Mercer trying to imagine what Kate looks like and a cowboy shootout dream sequence on the beach. The purpose of Mercer’s trip may be to find his brother but as the film progresses that’s not the encounter we’re most interested in. It’s him coming face to face with Kate, who just may be as lonely a soul as he is. He’s found his perfect match, but the closer he gets the more frightened he is that he’ll lose her. We see how he would be. By the time they do meet their relationship has come a long way since that first phone call.

A lot of reviews of this movie, a modest hit at Sundance last year, have slammed it for being soaked in indie film clich├ęs. The road trip as a metaphor for self-discovery. The insecure man-child. The quirky girlfriend. I see the point, but that’s more a testament to the amount of independent dramas released in the past couple of years than any particular failing with this one, especially when the approach is this fresh. The sun-drenched photography by Byron Shah gives the film a unique look, almost as if it were made in another era. In fact, if I had just been blindly shown the film completely unaware of its release date I’d probably think it came out of the ‘60’s or‘70’s.

Why is it that films shot on a shoestring budget often seem to look better and more realistic than the most expensive big budget studio offerings? I have a theory that with less money the filmmakers are forced to come up with more inventive ways to use what they have, which can only make the film better. That’s exactly what Hynes does here and the look of the picture fits its story perfectly, as does the score provided by singer/songwriter M. Ward. Ward, best known as the “Him” in the folk duo She and Him with Deschanel, also briefly appears at the start of the film. This is one of those soundtracks where you don’t realize just how good it is until the movie’s conclusion because it never needlessly calls attention to itself.

Pucci, last seen atop a flying ice cream truck in my favorite film of 2007, Southland Tales, gave no hints in his few scenes there that he was capable of a performance with this much depth. It’s calm, soulful and restrained, lacking any deliberate attempts at pulling on the heartstrings. You’d think Hynes paints himself into a corner creating a character as interesting as Kate and trusting that when she’s revealed the actress will play her to meet expectations. That would be an issue if that actress were anyone other than Zooey Deschanel, who it seems was born to play this type of character. And this may be the first film she’s starred in that’s as quirky as she is. She’s not only what we imagined Kate would be from the phone conversations, but a whole lot more. It's getting to the point where I'm starting to wonder if Zooey is even capable of starring in a bad movie (no The Happening jokes please), and if she did, whether I could bring myself to acknowledge it. The mere presence in a film pretty much guarantees a certain level of success.
I think Hynes missteps a little as a writer in the third act by trying to provide too much of an explanation as to why Kate is so invested in Mercer’s journey. It feels a little contrived but that doesn’t make the outcome any less satisfying. The eventual encounter with Kate and the resolution to the story about his brother both pay off in a big way.

e all know the drill by now. An independent film is released that I tell everyone they should check out, they tell me they will, and it falls to the bottom of their queue, never to be heard from again. But this is different. It isn’t a hyped up independent film that insiders at festivals gushed about to sound cool but was met with widespread indifference when it landed in theaters. This has no buzz so there’s no possibility for disappointment.

While the film is far from easily accessible and not for everyone, even those who don't care for it would agree it isn’t forgettable. You just need very high tolerance for deeply personal, emotion-filled films to get on board. Yes, it’s self-indulgent and contains some very familiar elements but who cares when it looks and feels this good? You don’t watch a movie like this for the story, but for the experience. On that front it delivers. Hynes will probably go on to bigger and better things but with the Go-Getter he succeeds where other films have failed in showing us that life is about the journey.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Spoiler Warning! The following review reveals details about the film's ending

I’m not usually one to say “I told you so” but when the box office receipts started to trickle in for The Incredible Hulk and it was just barely able to top Ang Lee’s returns for 2003’s unfairly maligned Hulk I just couldn’t help myself. While I was one of the few who enjoyed Lee’s film, I’ll acknowledge that it definitely had some issues and wasn’t what fans of the comic or television series had hoped for. But it wasn’t so much of a disaster that I thought there was an immediate need to hit the re-set button. Plus, releasing another Hulk film when the bad taste of Lee’s had yet to wear off for many didn’t seem like the best idea. When I heard the talent involved in the re-boot my interest piqued, but only out of a desire to see it fail.

Lee’s film, though not great, was just about the best I thought we’d get out of that character so the idea revisiting it again reeked of pointlessness. Despite seeing no purpose for its existence I was still prepared to go in with an open mind and at least give it a chance. Good thing, because The Incredible Hulk is a lean, exciting picture that not only corrects some of the mistakes made in Lee’s film but points out other ones I wasn’t even aware existed in it. Comparing the two films side by side is slightly unfair though because I think each work well for what they are: Radically different takes on an iconic comic character. But I did get the impression that this is the version the late, great Bill Bixby would have preferred, which really counts for something in my book. I appreciated that director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) embraced the classic 1970’s television series rather than run from it.
It’s unfortunate this film is more known for its behind the scenes creative conflicts than what’s up on screen because I think it’s a slightly superior to Iron Man, the other summer super hero movie this year with which it’ll most likely be compared. And I had to wonder what exactly alleged “control freak” Edward Norton hated so much about the picture that he fought with the studio for months and flat-out refused to do any publicity when it was released. Or at least I WAS wondering…until the end of the film, when a really ill conceived creative decision is made that infuriated me. If it’s in any way indicative of how the studio treated the film, maybe Norton had a point. Someone’s head wasn’t screwed on straight. There’s so much I admired about this that I want to give this a higher rating, but just can’t. The ending is the last and often most important thing you remember and this one is just about as insulting as they come.

Leterrier’s approach is clear from the get-go. Take everything Ang Lee did in his film and do the opposite. This is a break-neck paced, Bourne-like action vehicle stripped of all excess fat and padding, clocking in very briskly at just under 2 hours. In a wise move, he condenses a more faithful backstory to the opening credits since those in the know are familiar with it anyway and those who aren’t probably don’t care or would just be bored. After a government experiment involving gamma rays had gone very, very wrong Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is on the run in South America, struggling to control his monstrous green alter-ego the Hulk and still searching for a cure. General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) is alerted of his location at a bottling plant and dispatches a team led by ruthless special-ops expert Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to capture him. Instead Banner escapes to America where he re-connects with former flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) while The General injects Blonsky with a serum that transforms into a much more formidable foe for the Hulk.

The film’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness, but the trade-off was worth it. Zak Penn’s script (co-written by an uncredited Norton) is so tight and focused its almost sickening. The result is an action picture that’s nearly flawlessly put together, but doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for emotion and character development, likely to avoid any parallels with Lee’s film. This was supposedly Norton’s big bone of contention and on one level I can see where he’s coming from, but on another I can’t. By excising scenes to cut down on character and emphasize action it plays as little more than just a chase film at times, but at others the results are downright thrilling. Leterrier frames the film around three main action scenes and stages each expertly, the best of which involves sound wave cannons descending on the Hulk at Culver University.

Unfortunately, they still haven’t found a way to physically render the Hulk on screen in a way that’s entirely believable, although it’s a definite step-up from Lee’s effort in terms of CGI. I’m not saying we should be painting a bodybuilder green instead, but that this was done pretty well and still didn’t look quite right speaks to just how difficult it is to translate this character. Mostly, I think it was fine considering the thankless circumstances and is at least visually closer to comic incarnation. Leterrier also thankfully does away with a particularly annoying aspect of the previous film, where the Hulk would inexplicably grow bigger when shot at.

While there’s a heavy emphasis on action, most of the film’s plot deals with the plight of Banner so Norton’s performance is key and that’s where the movie really clicks. Norton re-establishes Banner as a mild mannered intellectual bewildered by his inability to control the Hulk, something that was absent in Eric Bana’s portrayal. The idea of introducing the watch that tells him his pulse rate was brilliant and gives a real sense of urgency to every scene. You can tell the creative forces behind this movie sat down and really thought the details of this movie out and worked hard to present it in way that was faithful to the essence of the character. They even threw in Joe Harnell’s classic “The Lonely Man” theme music from the TV series and of course cameos from Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee and one more you’d have to watch more closely to catch.

After a relatively sedate turn in Funny Games, Tim Roth is back to his old menacing self again infusing just the right amount of menace into the power-hungry Blonsky whose transformation into the giant reptilian Abomination leads to the film’s thrilling climax. Tim Blake Nelson has a fun, quirky role as “Mr. Blue,” better known as Dr. Samuel Sterns, a cellular biologist who may be able to cure Banner’s condition. William Hurt is as good if not better than Sam Elliot was as General Ross, even if his character is a bit of a bore. The relationship between he and his daughter and the conflict interest that arises because of Banner is well handled. Of everything, I was least looking forward to seeing Liv Tyler attempt to fill the shoes of the lovely and talented Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, but as much as it pains me to admit it, she does a pretty decent job. She’s especially effective working opposite the Hulk (or rather a blue screen) conveying a quiet, calming, reassuring presence. She also shares surprisingly good chemistry with Norton, which I never would have expected.

After watching this and The Strangers I’m convinced Tyler must have it written into her contract that every movie in which she appears has to have an awful ending. I’ll be careful not to spoil too much, which shouldn’t be difficult considering the final scene of the film is so completely removed from everything else that occurs, and therein lies the problem. I would have given it a pass if the movie ended on the terrible scene that unwisely invokes the closing moment of Ang Lee’s picture, but it turns out Leterrier wasn’t done. There's more. The next and final scene was so incongruous and stupid that when the movie ended I rushed to the computer hoping to discover that maybe what I'd seen had been some kind of crazy, alternate DVD ending. No such luck.

This pointless scene involves a very well-known actor from another superhero franchise making a ridiculous cameo appearance. Now before everyone jumps down my throat I know the scene was put in to set up The Avengers movie in 2011. But all that does is explain its relevance in the “Marvel Universe” not its justification for placement in a movie about The Incredible Hulk. It’s great that Marvel wants to push their franchises but would it kill them to do their advertising and cross-promotion elsewhere… instead of at the climax of THIS FILM!
I don’t consider myself someone with a fragile ego but if I were Edward Norton and found out that the final scene for a film I poured my heart and soul into would be a commercial plugging an upcoming studio project and feature another big-time A-list actor from a more popular superhero franchise, I’d be furious. I know everyone loves this actor and so do I but this is not the way you end a film. If you start a movie off on the wrong foot there’s time to recover but a botched ending is trickier. Would everyone be praising The Dark Knight as much as they have if it ended with Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent sharing a drink and some laughs with Commissioner Gordon in a bar? It’s a valid comparison. The scene may get comic fanboys drooling for The Avengers movie but it doesn’t work and sends this one off on the worst note possible.

If this ending occurred in a film I didn’t like I wouldn’t care. But there’s so much to enjoy and appreciate in The Incredible Hulk that I really wanted it to go out on a high note. As much hell as I’ll catch for saying this I still think it was better than Iron Man, although the fact that I have more familiarity with this character through the old television series could play a role in that. Despite the somewhat disappointing box office take of this there are plans to go ahead with a sequel, ironically after The Avengers is released. I guess we know where Marvel’s priorities lie, as if there were any doubts. Instead of scratching their heads yet again wondering why the Hulk didn’t catch on maybe they’d be better off asking themselves why they’ve been treating the character like a second-class citizen.