What happens when you hire a poet to direct a comic book action movie? You get The Hulk, the most introspective and literary comic book movie to date. Audiences expecting to turn off their brains and sit back for another blast of mere eye candy may stagger out of this 138-minute epic wondering what hit them.
It sounds like an unlikely project to begin with: "From the director of Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm comes the story of a man transformed by anger into a raging green monster!" But Ang Lee's films have always had something to do with the difference between self-control and repression. Thus it is no surprise that The Hulk is more interested in the inner struggles of its characters than Spider-man, Daredevil, or even Tim Burton's tormented Batman films.
What is surprising about the film is Lee's inventive use of comic book framing devices. Instead of going for simplified imagery or an emphasis on primary colors, he turns the screen into a series of shifting frames that show us scenes from multiple perspectives. One scene leads to another with screen wipes that feel like turning a page. It's a wonderful, dizzying style, most of the time. But occasionally it becomes distracting, and later in the film it seems to disappear altogether.
But that is the only thing "comic" about the film. Lee asks us to take his characters seriously. His cast members convince us of the extraordinary things happening to them.
Eric Bana turns the temperamental Bruce Banner into a troubled adult who is afraid to unearth frightful repressed memories. But those memories hold the key to the secret of the monstrous transformation that comes over him when he gets angry. And what a transformation. The effects are sometimes awe-inspiring as Banner lets loose his angry inner child and suddenly resembles a green, overgrown toddler throwing a tantrum in his terrible twos. We may not understand how he got these abilities from a few "gamma rays" and some starfish genes, but hey, who wants to quibble about scientific gobbledygook when the Hulk puts on such a show!
When this happens, Bana portrays both fear at what is happening to him and a wicked glint of exhilaration at realizing what he can do. Thus the story asks us to admit the thrill we all can know in wielding power over others, and then to consider the consequences of such power and the need for responsibility. As the beautiful and brainy Betty Ross, Jennifer Connelly basically repeats her Oscar-winning performance from A Beautiful Mind—but you can't blame her. Once again she is cast as the only one who cares enough to see past a gruff exterior to the great mind and the beautiful heart within. She gives us a powerful image of the way that love and compassion can quiet rage.
In contrast to Betty's peaceful solution, her frowning father, the decorated General Ross (Sam Elliott), has been sent by the U.S. Government to apprehend the Hulk so the military can get its hands on his genetic secrets for weapons development. If Hulk proves too much trouble, though, Ross will have to destroy him. Elliott steers Ross away from being a stock villain, making him a complicated officer with good intentions and a grudge. The lesson here: military action is not an effective anger management technique. It's a timely and effective metaphor.
But the story's central lesson comes from the struggle between the Banners. Bruce's father (Nick Nolte) is a mad scientist with a warped desire for power, and his genetic meddlings have had a hand in Bruce's strange development. When Bruce finally uncovers the truth about his origins, he marches toward a spectacular confrontation in which the full consequences of his father's sins will threaten to consume them both.
The Hulk's rampages are an amazing feat of special effects and choreography. You can't take your eyes off him, even if the animation is occasionally undercooked. (At times he's a convincing, complex, superhuman brute, and at others he looks more like Shrek's crazy uncle or a Jolly Green Mr. Hyde.) Audiences will cheer as Hulk takes on pit bulls that look like they're literally "from the pit" and then again as he takes on a troop of tanks in the desert. Lee once again indulges his love of heroes who can soar through the sky—Hulk's mile-long leaps are exhilarating.
These sequences offer some relief from the poorly written, angst-heavy dialogue of the in-between scenes. I have no problem with the plot, and I like action movies that take their time. But the lines these talented actors must deliver are bland and often silly. The film's weakest link is Nick Nolte's crazed genetic engineer, who is prone to melodramatic rants that become inadvertently funny. And the film's culminating confrontation between power-mad father and tormented son overtaxes our imaginations, venturing too far into the implausible and abstract to be compelling.
In spite of these disappointments, it is exciting to see another comic book movie going beyond the call of duty to challenge audiences and give them more to think about than the typical summer blockbuster. Ang Lee's Hulk is not as confident, cohesive, and watertight as Bryan Singer's X-Men franchise or M. Night Shyamalan's contemplative superhero film Unbreakable, but it does aim to go deeper and to offer echoes of age-old myths and fairy tales. For his ambition, imagination, and his ability to offer lessons we need to learn, Ang Lee remains one of the most important directors working today.
Dumb and Dumberer
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) offers a summer movie preview this week, noting in dismay that, having already seen Matrix Reloaded and X2, we have another 11 sequels this year. "And that doesn't even include Dumb and Dumberer," he says, "which is technically a prequel of the Jim Carrey/Jeff Daniels laugher of several years ago."
The success of Dumb and Dumber can be easily explained—Jim Carrey can make even the lamest comedy funny by his trademark over-the-top antics. But Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd does not star Carrey or Daniels. I'll bet that the studio, unable to lure the actors back for such puerile nonsense, changed the story so it could cast two younger, more persuadable actors to mimic the stars associated with Harry and Lloyd. The plot takes us to 1986, when the two teenagers attempt to break out of their "special needs" education program and enter the regular high school fray. I could make a remark about the "special needs" of moviegoers who spend money and time on this film, but that might be insensitive.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The only thing this clunker succeeds at is making the original stinker look almost Shakespearean by comparison. The film relies on crude humor to conceal its overall lack of anything resembling comic wit, resorting to gross sight gags to elicit cheap, forced laughs."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "Sheer embarrassment over the thought of actually buying a ticket and walking into such a lamebrain movie should successfully keep most families shopping instead of watching. If that's not enough, foul language, sexual crudeness, rude insensitivity to mental challenges and a lesbian kiss should more than seal the deal."
Don Patton (Movieguide) says, "There's not much humor in this poorly done numbskull comedy. You can guess the plot in the first several minutes of the movie." He also warns viewers about the language, innuendo, crass humor, "and a politically correct message about homeschooling."
In another case of a critically disliked film becoming a critically disliked franchise, acclaimed director John Singleton (Boys N the Hood, the Samuel Jackson version of Shaft) brings us the sequel to The Fast and the Furious. Paul Walker is back as ex-cop Brian O'Conner, and Tyrese plays his ex-con buddy Roman Pearce. The two join forces in an effort to entrap a criminal import/export dealer in Miami (Cole Hauser.) High-speed highway hi jinks ensue as the undercover police work becomes a demolition derby.
Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) calls it "a yawner, unable to interest the audience in what is happening to the characters or produce more than mild excitement with its action scenes."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says it "callously bashes law enforcement, making mincemeat of officers' intelligence, honor and vehicles. Here in Colorado Springs, police departments are doing everything they can to thwart the movie's dangerous messages. There's not enough driver's ed in the whole world to compensate for what teens see glorified in 2 Fast 2 Furious."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the box office hit "has no aspirations to be anything but the mindless, ear-splitting romp its fans want it to be. So what if star Paul Walker is as interesting or appealing as toast? So what if the actions taken by most of the characters make no sense? So what if the cars perform feats which defy gravity, physics and just about every other law in the universe?"
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) is nicer to Paul Walker and the others involved. "Singleton does a wonderful job directing Paul Walker and Tyrese in what could turn out to be a new Lethal Weapon-buddy type of franchise. It has more of the fast action street racing of the original and a little of the Dukes of Hazard thrown in for fun." He does caution parents to help their children understand that the characters "are endangering people's lives and are ultimately just criminals."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "exciting" and "witty," concluding, "This is simply a good popcorn movie that is entertaining."
Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The innumerable chases and races succeed in creating the intoxicating illusion of desperate speed, so that even this cynical (and generally responsible) film critic found himself unconsciously flooring his car on the way home, foolishly exceeding all posted limits. Fortunately, no law enforcement figures turned up to discourage my law breaking and to provoke some feeble excuse."
"It's not a horrible sequel," says J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth). "Those looking for a few decent car chases and some gotcha con games won't be disappointed. Unlike The Italian Job, which is a better though more predictable film, 2 Fast 2 Furious has the advantage of not showing all its cards. I wasn't always sure of what was coming next, which is a rare experience for a moviegoer these days."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The film is not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination—so in this regard, poor reviews are understandable. However, when a film connects so well with an aspect of the culture, one needs to look beyond a viewing room impression. The question needs to be: Why has this film series connected so well to the culture?" He goes on to speculate about why the film connects.
Director Ron Shelton's new thriller/comedy (thriledy?) Hollywood Homicide follows the antics of two detectives distracted by their off-duty interests. Detective Joe Gavilan (Harrison Ford) is dabbling in real estate and struggling with alimony payments. K. C. Calden (Josh Hartnett) is torn between law enforcement and jumping in bed with the Beverly Hills ladies attending his yoga courses. Together they investigate the onstage murder of a rap group, and discover that the clues lead to a rap music kingpin notorious for punishing the artists who want out of their contracts. When Gavilan has the brilliant idea of having an affair with a psychic (Lena Olin) who is connected with a bad cop, things go from bad to worse, for them and for the audience.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The narrative is weighed down by drawn-out foot pursuits, car chases, and shootouts that have been similarly filmed umpteen times before. The sight of Ford sliding down an escalator banister isn't particularly funny, but then neither is this muddled movie."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it "mindlessly (and rather aimlessly) ambles along for three-quarters of its running time, until it evolves into an elongated chase scene … [that's] hardly worth the wait. Part of the problem is that the film doesn't do a very good job of showing us the inner conflicts of its central characters."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) asks, "What's Harrison Ford's excuse? It has now been a full decade since [he] took on a role worth caring about. How sad to see the man who … was Han Solo, Jack Ryan, Richard Kimble, John Book, and Rick Deckard reduced to this." He calls the movie "as undistinguished and unmemorable as any film in recent memory."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) also bemoans Ford's latest fumble. "How the mighty have fallen. Hollywood Homicide is a ridiculous film made even more ridiculous by its astonishing lack of focus. It's rarely funny, never romantic, hardly suspenseful, and too clumsy to be intriguing about anything."
Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The waste of talent on this puerile project feels more criminal than the activity of even the movie's most nefarious characters."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) says it "not only suffers from a pathetic, unbelievable plot, it also stretches the limits of PG-13 rating well into R-rated territory."
Again, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) liked it. "What makes the story work is the 'bad boy' chemistry the two have with each other." But she concludes, "There are better [movies] to spend your money on."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) writes, "No one east of San Bernardino will be able to identify with these mismatched, moonlighting partners. Beyond its artistic failings, Hollywood Homicide is loaded with offensive language, takes joy in violence, and asks families to cheer studs Ford and Hartnett as they 'score' more often than the Anaheim Angels."
These critics may be relieved to Hollywood Homicide is not impressing moviegoers much either. The film, which cost $75 million, opened in fifth place at the box office with $11.7 million, and the president of domestic distribution at Columbia Pictures says the results have left him disappointed.
In Rugrats Go Wild, the popular Nickelodeon cartoon kids run into characters from another series—The Wild Thornberries—in an adventure that leaves them stranded on a jungle island where a dangerous clouded leopard is on the prowl.
But forget about the plot—this is the only film of the summer to boast "odorama" cards, a special bonus handed to viewers on the way into the theater that give them the chance to whiff various smells experienced by the characters over the course of the movie! Just match the number on the screen with one of the cards, and you will inhale things from the smell of wild strawberries to the smelly feet of the young adventurers. In hopes of getting the attention of grownups, the movie features Bruce Willis as the voice of Spike the Dog.
Movieguide's critic says, "Children, especially fans of the two series, will enjoy the antics on the island. There's a lot of fun things going on to keep them interested." The reviewer praises the "positive moral message," but cautions parents about "some crude bathroom humor and crude language."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "While sitting through this crudely drawn and absurdly exaggerated story, I found myself wistfully thinking back upon the brilliant animation and precise storytelling of last week's Finding Nemo."
But Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) calls it "a really fun summer film to watch with your kids."
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Overall this is a fun-filled family movie that little ones will enjoy because it stars familiar characters from TV that they've come to know and love. Parents, you'll enjoy a few laughs along with the kids and overall, the family will be able to enjoy the adventure."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) writes, "The film moves along at a good pace and packs enough of a satirical punch to allow parents to leave the No-Doz pills at home. And whereas fans of the highly successful TV shows will have fun watching their favorite little rascals on the big screen, older viewers along for the ride should get a kick out of the many cinematic references peppered throughout. In addition to imparting a strong message about the importance of families spending time together, the film also promotes a healthy respect for nature."
Ever dreamed of flying? Winged Migration is the movie for you. Not even Superman offers such an exhilarating thrill as the soaring sequences in this awe-inspiring documentary. Producer Jacques Perrin and a crew of 450 took to the skies for several years in order to document bird migrations across all seven continents. The result has audiences spellbound.
Movieguide's critic calls it "a masterpiece of natural filmmaking. After the fiftieth time of asking yourself how in the world they captured that shot, you will get caught up in the grandeur and thoroughly enjoy the flow of this stunning display of God's wonder. It is a terrific choice for families who value beauty, education, and summer togetherness."
Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "Nature is the special effect here. To say the film is escapist fare is to trivialize the wonder and beauty of it—but one does get lost in it. Entertaining as well as educational for all in the family, Winged Migration also has a philosophical frame to it. Questions about man vs. nature, human beings' responsibility in caring for the Earth, and God's role in the cycle of life and death come to mind. [It] helps the viewer appreciate nature's awesome power and maybe even feel a little closer to God."
Religious press film critics are not done debating the plot convolutions and philosophical conundrums of The Matrix Reloaded.
Joining the ranks of the disappointed, Roberto Rivera y Carlo (Boundless) writes, "As expected, the special effects and fight sequences were more elaborate than those in the original. Still, they brought to mind something that my grandmother used to tell my brother when we were kids: lo poquito divierte, lo mucho enfada. (A little entertains, a lot annoys.) What's true of the action sequences is doubly or triply so when it comes to the film's attempts at philosophizing."
At Metaphilm, Rebecca Rhee offers a comparison of Neo, hero of Reloaded, and John Anderton, the hero of last year's philosophical sci-fi actioner Minority Report.
And at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Journal of Religion and Film, Julien R. Fielding explains how "no one religious worldview helps to connect the dots," and that fragments of Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are mixed throughout the franchise.
Elsewhere, Christian critics are continuing to celebrate the virtues of Pixar's latest box-office champion Finding Nemo.David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) praises Nemo, saying, "It is a powerful story of the sacrificial love of a mother, and determination of a caring father. It is the story of being lost, and then found. It is a story that can help you understand God and his love for you."
And Josh Hurst (The Rebel Base) refuses to apologize for his rave review of a family film. "This review might be nauseatingly positive, but I can't help it. Finding Nemo dazzles, entertains, and stuns. It also addresses some surprisingly heavy issues, at least for a family movie. If there's one thing that this movie proves, it's that the Pixar folks are untouchable. Nobody makes consistently excellent movies like them."
J. Robert Parks was happy to get away from the box office champions and sample something new and unusual. At The Phantom Tollbooth, he examines Chi-Hwa-Seon, which he describes as "a familiar story dressed up in beautiful colors."
Then he samples Chen Kaige's latest offering, Together, and concludes, "The movie's first half is charming despite the clichés, but the movie's final 45 minutes are simply terrible. They feel as if they were written using a fill-in-the-blanks screenwriting program, and even the most novice of moviegoers will be able to predict the movie's banal conclusion."
Finally he checks out Ken Loach's latest film, Sweet Sixteen, which he says "is fantastic in portraying how one small dream and one bad decision spiral downward into much bigger problems. [The film] has many strengths but can't measure up to its director's better efforts."
Elsewhere, Movieguide's critic calls Sweet Sixteen "a depressing morality tale which would have had more impact if Mr. Loach had trimmed the foul language and violence and added the hope of Jesus Christ."
David F. Dawes (Canadian Christianity) offers a focus on the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose work is being exhibited in a special marathon at Vancouver B.C.'s Pacific Cinematheque, from June 20 to July 2. "His films possess a rare emotional and spiritual depth, full of complex, haunting images," writes Dawes. "He is one of the few filmmakers whose work can truly be described as visionary."
Last week, Film Forum featured long lists of our readers' favorite big-screen Christians, and then criticized some of the most dismaying Christian characters.
But David Buchanan of Stillwater, Oklahoma, writes, "I am less concerned about the stereotypical fanatic Christians like the one you mention in Inherit the Wind than I am about totally ineffectual Christians like the priest in the movie M*A*S*H. Ironically, the same character in the television show is one of the most positive and realistic portrayals of a Christian in TV or movies. That [version's] Father Mulcahy is … a complex character with human weaknesses, but has a faith that helps to overcome those weaknesses. The power of God in the process of healing is mentioned numerous times, and he is greatly respected by the other characters, even though few of them appear to have a particularly meaningful personal faith."
Kathy Shaidle (Relapsed Catholic) writes, "Great piece about Christians in the movies. I was disappointed, though, that the heroic priests in The Exorcist garnered so many 'no' votes. I so often feel people misremember or misunderstand that movie."
Denny Wayman, a pastor and film critic with Hal Conklin at Cinema in Focus, explains his firsthand difficulties in sorting out positive portrayals from negative ones. "Since I'm a pastor, I tend to see films that portray pastors negatively with a hypersensitivity that Hal has to balance out in our reviews," he writes. "And since Hal was a politician … he sees the portrayal of politicians negatively with hypersensitivity that I have to balance out. I think, in part, we identify ourselves with certain groups and then become over-sensitive to criticisms of that group.
"Having said that, we must admit that there are some with agendas and they need to be held accountable for their consistently derogatory presentations of their specific villains. If every Christian is 'Bad' or 'Ugly' in an artist's work, for example, we need to point that out—both for the artist's sake as well as the rest of us! As Christians we must also admit that there are some 'bad' and 'ugly' Christians who do make interesting characters in a film, but unlike having only one 'good' Clint Eastwood, there are millions of "good" examples of Christians living faithful and humble lives of service for our Lord. These should have a place within an artist's work as well."
Next week: Every year there are a couple of films that seem to come out of nowhere and catch audiences by surprise. This summer's pleasant surprise is Whale Rider.
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