Wes Anderson may be the currently working director least suited to using 3D. His scenes are often flat tableaux with his characters spread out laterally across the screen. If he was telling the story of Moonrise Kingdom 1,000 years ago it would be a tapestry, like Bayeux, and I think he’d probably be OK with that.
That visual style suited the puppetry of the delightful Fantastic Mr Fox but this new film populates the flat, theatrical, planes with living, breathing human actors – not just actors, movie stars (including Bruce Willis and Ed Norton).
I think we can safely call a halt to these semi-annual Hulk movies now – the new one is good enough that we can all move on (Ant-Man is evidently next). The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s attempt to wrestle back the franchise that got away from them under Ang Lee in 2003 and eventually re-unify the Marvel universe under the suave, unstoppable box office force of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. To retrieve The Hulk, Marvel cast Hollywood’s weediest leading man, Edward Norton (Fight Club), not realising that Norton also has a reputation as a bit of a meddler who then re-wrote the script and sat in on the editing.
The result, as you might expect, is a bit of a noisy mess, but far from disastrous. After a splendidly condensed opening title sequence which takes us through the back-story of the original experiments that Gamma-ized poor Bruce Banner, we meet him on the run in Brazil, labouring in a bottling plant, taking anger management classes and collaborating online with a mysterious scientist who may hold the key to a cure. Unfortunately for him, the General (a suitably comic-book performance by William Hurt) arrives with a squad to take him home. This makes him angry, of course, and unleashes the green beast within.
If anything, it is more respectful of the TV series than the comic book, featuring cameos from original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and a clunky posthumous cameo from TV Banner Bill Bixby. In fact, looking back on it the film spends more time honouring the past than it does driving into the future, often falling prey to cutesy touches like having Norton Anti-Virus fire up when Banner logs on to a computer. Chief Villain Tim Roth looks like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, which makes his character name, The Abomination, perfectly apt.
Paul Haggis created the Oscar-winning Crash back in 2004 and, after helping reinvent Bond in Casino Royale, has gone back to the political well with the heartfelt In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones. Jones plays former Army investigator Hank Deerfield. His son has just returned from Iraq but immediately gone AWOL so Hank travels across Texas to find him. What he discovers shakes his faith in his country and the military and (I’m guessing) is supposed to have some metaphoric weight about the state of the nation and the world and it probably does. I was one of many who found Crash to be appalling, un-watchable, rubbish but Elah (perhaps because it doesn’t try and do so much) is better.
While Haggis wears his heart on his sleeve, what he really needs is a copy editor on his shoulder. Someone needs to tell him that when you cast someone as soulful as Tommy Lee Jones you can just let him tell the audience what is going on with his eyes – you don’t then have to then verbalise it in the next shot. Probably an easy mistake to make when you are a writer first and a director second…
If Haggis needs a copy editor then M. Night Shyamalan needs a security guard on the door of his office, holding the keys to his typewriter. The Happening is an eco-thriller about a mysterious “event” that causes people across the North East of America to lose their minds and then do away with themselves. Among those caught up in the mess is high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg who thinks the mysterious disappearance of America’s bee population might have something to do with it.
Shyamalan has obvious talent as a director: he has an eye for an arresting image and has seen enough Hitchcock to construct effective set-pieces but he can’t write dialogue that human beings can actually say which continually drops the audience out of the moment. Luckily, whenever I lost connection to the story, there was Zooey Deschanel (as Wahlberg’s wife), whose electric blue eyes should be categorised as an alternative fuel source.
Outsourced is returning to cinemas after a brief turn at the World Cinema Showcase. It’s a beguiling tale of a Seattle call centre manager (Josh Hamilton) who has to go to India to train his replacement when the novelty company he works for relocates “fulfilment” to Gwaripur. The usual cross-cultural misunderstandings occur but the characters all grow on you, much like India grows on our hero.
Finally, legendary social commentator Adam Sandler takes on another pressing political issue (after gay marriage in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and helps solve the conflict in the Middle East with You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a hit and miss comedy that is mostly hit for a change. Sandler is the Zohan, number one Israeli counter-terrorist operative, who is tired of the endless conflict and yearns to emulate his hero (Paul Mitchell), cut hair in New York and make everything “silky smooth”. So he fakes his own death and smuggles his way in to America where the only job he can get is in a Palestinian salon. His unorthodox methods with the ladies soon make him very popular indeed but the conflict is never far away.
There are plenty of jokes per minute and the relentless teasing of Israelis for their love of fizzy drinks, hummus, disco and hacky-sack is pretty entertaining.
W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel The Painted Veil has been given a handsome new adaptation by Australian director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). Naomi Watts takes on the role of naïve young Kitty Fane (once portrayed by legendary Greta Garbo) who marries dour Scottish scientist Walter (Edward Norton) and travels to China to escape her overbearing parents. But she indulges in a foolish affair with handsome Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and Walter insists that she accompany him to the cholera-ridden interior as punishment. While Walter tries to save the lives of the locals by cleaning up their water supply, Kitty discovers herself via the local convent and an unlikely Diana Rigg. A fine film (with an award-winning score butchered by a faulty digital soundtrack at the screening I saw), the images are ravishing, the performances are uniformly excellent and you could do a lot worse on a wet weekend.
After loathing last year’s Meet the Spartans and cursing it’s predecessor Epic Movie, it was with a heavy heart that I took my seat for Superhero Movie, another parody pot-pourri. One name in the credits lifted my spirits a little (no, not Pamela Anderson): David Zucker, director of Top Secret!, Airplane and The Naked Gun. As it turns out the few funny moments in the film are gags that could have come straight from those earlier films (“Fruit cake?” “No, I’ve just never met the right woman”) but the rest is a repetitive waste of time. Why bother parodying films that are essentially only parodies themselves?
Talking of repetitive, I got an odd sense of déjà vu during Superhero Movie before I realised that Dragonfly’s love interest Jill Johnson was being played by someone called Sara Paxton who had also been the villain in Sydney White not two hours before. It’s an odd item, Sydney White: the Snow White fairy tale re-located to College and starring Amanda Bynes (She’s The Man) as a working class tomboy trying to get into a snooty sorority. Kicked out in disgrace, she has to shack up with the seven dorks next door (each dork is a re-imagining one of Disney’s original dwarfs – can you name them all?) and then bring the school together under an Obama-like banner of inclusiveness, at the same time finding her own Prince Charming (who even manages to wake her with a kiss). Strangely watchable.
Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to believe in any of Four Minutes, from the unlikely teenage piano-prodigy / murderess combo (Hannah Herzprung) or the bitter old lesbian prison piano teacher (Monica Bleibtrau), or the opera loving but brutish prison guard (Sven Pippig). I wish I could have watched it with the subtitles turned off so that I could enjoy the music and art director Silke Buhr’s amazing sense of texture and architectural environment. Every location has an almost tactile quality, from the decaying brick prison to the gilt Opera House at the climax. I was particularly taken with a concrete neo-brutalist concert hall reminiscent of Wellington’s beloved Hannah Playhouse.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday April 30, 2008.
Nature of Conflict: Four Minutes is released in New Zealand by Arkles Entertainment who pay me to work for them on occasion.
This week’s Capital Times film review: Mr Bean’s Holiday (Steve Bendelack); Twice Upon A Time (Antoine De Caunes); Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro); The Illusionist (Neil Burger); Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella).