Universal Pictures

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)

During To Kill a Mockingbird’s exceptional opening titles, I wondered how it was possible the film was going to look so amazing yet had no reputation for being some exquisitely, precisely directed piece of cinema. Then up came Stephen Frankfurt’s credit for title design, which kind of dulled my excitement for a moment. Could Mulligan maintain what Frankfurt set up—along with composer Elmer Bernstein, who’s score is essential to the film–with these opening titles?

Short answer, yes. The first hour of Mockingbird is, while obviously not as fastidiously executed as the opening titles (which examine the various contents of a child’s mementos box), is exquisite. Mulligan, Bernstein, cinematographer Russell Harlan–Mockingbird is a gorgeous black and white—screenwriter Horton Foote, and actors Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna create this bewitching window into a memory of childhood. An uncredited Kim Stanley narrates from—presumably—the present; she’s grown-up Badham, who’s just about to start school (South in the early thirties, guessing first grade versus kinder); Alford’s her older brother, Megna’s the new kid on the block, an out-of-town visitor. Her dad’s a widower, respected lawyer Gregory Peck. They’re not rich but they’re respected. They’ve got a Black housekeeper (Estelle Evans), who Peck treats with as much respect as if she were his white housekeeper slash babysitter. It’s a progressive block. They’re not country white trash. The first hour has a little about race, but a lot of it is about how tomboy Badham learns about class differences and societal norms.

The first hour is this lovely, mostly lyrical look into Badham and Alford’s childhood. Running through the distant background is Peck’s subplot about defending a Black man accused of rape. The kids aren’t allowed in the courthouse (by Dad Peck); Foote and Mulligan gradually introduce the subplot. And the idea of Peck as the lead. Until the second hour, it’s from Badham and Alford’s perspective. A little bit too much from Alford’s given Badham’s literally the narrator but thanks to Mulligan’s gentle, deliberate direction of the kids’ perceptions of events, Harlan’s great photography (which is even better at night), and Bernstein’s music, it gets a pass; narrative-wise. The film’s got enough going for it, you can give it slack for not sticking close enough to Badham.

In fact, the film’s got so much going for it, you want to give it that slack even after it becomes obvious it’s never looping around to Badham again. Even with further narration breaks, once the film starts straying from Badham’s perspective, it never comes back. It goes to Alford, then Peck—albeit for the continuous second act courtroom sequence—then back to Alford in an almost peculiar way (the film avoids Badham during the court scenes), then to Peck for the finale because he’s got top-billing. Though not in a significant way. Even though he’s top-billed, even though he’s got the lengthy court scene mostly to himself, Peck always feels like a special guest star. “And Gregory Peck as Atticus (Dad).”

Whenever Peck comes into the film in the first act, the kids bring him in somehow. Either they call him into the scene or go find him or call him into the scene… but it starts with the kids. Foote and Mulligan keep that perspective in the second act, just before the trial starts, when the kids go and stand by Peck as he’s standing off against a white trash lynch mob. It’s a good segue to the courtroom and Peck taking over the narrative. It makes sense; his subplot’s been building and the trial is occupying the children’s minds too.

So during the trial—Brock Peters plays the accused, not actually appearing onscreen until his day in court—the kids (Badham, Alford, and Megna) watch from the second floor balcony, where a kindly Black minister (Bill Walker) they know gets room for them. The trial seems to take less than a day. 1930s South. Every once in a while as Peck tries to convince his fellow white people Black people are people too and you can’t frame them for rape just because you’re an asshole, the film cuts up to Alford watching his dad crusade, presumably inspiring him. Megna gets some reaction shots too, which makes it seem like as long as Southern Whites aren’t white trash they won’t be racist but… I don’t know, aspirational 1962 film. The film’s got a few moments of bald-faced white saviorism but since it’s 1962, it’s not like the Black characters appear enough to be shown in specific suffering. It’s a weird way to get a pass but… it works.

But no shots of Badham. Not even after the end of the trial. Not right away. And they’re way overdue. We don’t get any idea how Badham experiences the trial, other than she’s tired when it’s over. It’s all about Alford. And not from Badham’s perspective.

The third act epilogue, which resolves everything and ends in a nice narration bow from Stanley and very deliberate, effective direction from Mulligan, somehow centers on Badham but, again, not her experience of it. Mulligan and Foote commit to one way of doing a big scene, maybe the only way they could do it in 1962, and it’s a well-executed scene with some great filmmaking… but it doesn’t do anything for Badham or give her much to do. Then it tries to wrap it up with Peck and it’s… awkward. Not even because of the narration.

Lots of great performances but the kids are where it’s at. Badham and Alford are phenomenal. Megna’s really good too but he’s more functional. The film takes its time with Badham and Alford’s character development, showcasing it, which just makes downgrading them in the second half even worse. Evans is good (there’s a film in her perspective of the events), Peters is excellent, Frank Overton’s good as the police chief. James Anderson’s terrifying though a little thinly written, which is weird given how the film goes out of its way to empathize with “redeemably racist” white men, as the victim’s father. Collin Wilcox Paxton is okay as the victim. If the film ended strong for Badham, she’d get a pass… but she’s another example of how Foote and Mulligan try to avoid giving the female characters too much focus.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent film. But there are some asterisks after that positive adjective.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Mary Badham (Scout), Phillip Alford (Jem), Gregory Peck (Atticus), Estelle Evans (Calpurnia), John Megna (Dill Harris), Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Frank Overton (Sheriff Heck Tate), Rosemary Murphy (Maudie Atkinson), Collin Wilcox Paxton (Mayella Violet Ewell), James Anderson (Bob Ewell), Ruth White (Mrs. Dubose), Robert Duvall (Arthur Radley), Richard Hale (Nathan Radley), Steve Condit (Walter Cunningham Jr.), Crahan Denton (Walter Cunningham Sr.), Bill Walker (Reverend Sykes), and Paul Fix (Judge Taylor); narrated by Mary Stanley.


Hobbs & Shaw (2019, David Leitch)

Hobbs & Shaw is a tad too aware of how little it needs to try to succeed. Like it knows it doesn't just have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it's got him giving a downright good performance in an energy drink version of a James Bond movie. Sure, Jason Statham–Shaw to Johnson’s Hobbs—doesn’t really work out, but Vanessa Kirby makes up for him as his fugitive secret agent sister. Rounding out the leads is Idris Elba as the villain. He’s basically a Bond henchman but well-acted (one wonders how Elba kept a straight face during some of the exposition); he’s got an unseen boss with an electronically disguised voice so they can wait for the sequel to cast him. So Elba’s stuff when he’s talking to the unseen Big Bad is silly but Elba still keeps it going. If Statham were better and the script weren’t insipid, the movie might have more of a chance. And if the second act weren’t such a slog.

But the first act and the third are really solid, mostly because of Kirby in the third and Johnson in the first. Despite being a Fast and Furious spin-off, the movie’s got no attachment to its parent franchise other than Johnson, Statham, Johnson having a kid (Eliana Sua), and Statham having a criminal Helen Mirren for a mum. Mirren’s got a fine cameo, but given how much she’s holding Statham up for it, it should’ve been a sign he was going to run out of energy. But he actually never gets it. Kirby’s got it, Johnson’s got it, Elba’s got it. But not Statham. He never does anything wrong in a scene, but he never tries either. The scenes where he and Johnson banter back and forth, Johnson’s carrying Statham and the scene. Same goes for Kirby. Maybe they cut out Statham’s subplot because the movie’s already two hours and seventeen minutes and it’s incredibly bloated in the second act.

Or maybe Statham just isn’t enthusiastic enough for the movie. Hobbs & Shaw, in general, confuses bombast for enthusiasm. Statham has neither. Johnson’s got enough to share, so it works out.

There are also the silly cameos, which are funnier than they ought to be because their inclusion is so desperate. Because the biggest one is for Johnson, who doesn’t need the help; unless the Helen Mirren scene with Statham is supposed to count but it doesn’t. For a movie with endless exposition, somehow Hobbs & Shaw is always missing the right exposition. Instead it’s nonsense about cyborg supermen, human evolution, and programmable viruses. It’s cartoon blather but the film knows it doesn’t have to do better because Johnson’s charming and is about to have a decent action sequence—albeit one with lousy digital background composites, a problem plaguing the film and its action—so it doesn’t try. It doesn’t make Statham do better, it doesn’t worry about the messy second act.

It’s not wrong about it’s ability to land the proverbial plane despite the turbulence. The film finds a way to get sillier but also more human, becoming cartoonish in a good way, and the third act is good. The sequel set up is obnoxious but as long as Kirby’s back, it’d be worth it.

Also perfectly good in the supporting cast are Eddie Marsan and Cliff Curtis. Marsan’s a little rocky at the start, but he finds the film’s rhythm. Curtis is so sturdy you wish he’d had a bigger part.

Hobbs & Shaw is stupid, fun, and funny. The soundtrack is loud and omnipresent—including a full song montage presumably for the artist placement—and never seems like the track complimenting the action is as important as the track getting used. The film’s also big on production placement, McLaren underwrites Statham’s garage of sports cars while Elba’s cybernetically-linked (it’s a cartoon, just go with it) Triumph motorcycles gets a lot of screen time.

It ought to be better, it’s not as good as it should be, but it makes clear it could’ve been worse. Johnson, Elba, and especially Kirby make it work.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, based on a story by Morgan; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; produced by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Hiram Garcia, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Shaw), Idris Elba (Brixton), Vanessa Kirby (Hattie), Helen Mirren (Queenie), Eddie Marsan (Professor Andreiko), Eliana Sua (Sam), Cliff Curtis (Jonah), and Lori Pelenise Tuisano (Sefina).


The Watcher (2000, Joe Charbanic)

I do not regret watching The Watcher, which features Keanu Reeves as a serial killer who sees the world like a shitty late nineties video camera. It might not even be a video camera. The shots might just be through a shitty video viewfinder. There’s a lot of… competency on display in the film, but it’s never from director Charbanic. Charbanic’s hilariously incompetent. Well, sort of hilariously. Sometimes the bad goes on too long and gets tiring. The therapy sessions haunted ex-FBI agent James Spader has with Marisa Tomei are always tedious; the writing (from David Elliot and Clay Ayers) is godawful, but Tomei also looks like someone’s pointing a pistol at her dog offscreen to keep her on set. Given how Charbanic doesn’t do establishing shots, there’s sometimes no evidence Spader and Tomei are on set together. Spader can handle it. Tomei cannot.

Because until the last act, when Reeves kidnaps Tomei and Spader, it’s Spader’s movie. It’s about this guy who has moved to Chicago from L.A., on full disability after he ran into a burning house to save his lover (Yvonne Niami). Only then we find out through flashbacks Spader left Miami tied up to go chase Reeves. His lasting damage from the rescue attempt doesn’t always allow him to remember the fire. Tragic.

For more reasons than one. Niami seems awkwardly filmed. Maybe it’s because she’s one of the producers’ wives. The shlock producer. The film has three. Two seem legit, the third—Nile Niami—did a bunch of low budget action crap. The Watcher feels like low budget action crap, but filmed on location. Because even though there’s the interesting behind the scenes story about how Reeves was buds with director Charbanic from when Reeves toured with his crappy band instead of doing Speed 2 and verbally agreed to do this shitty script and then some assistant forged Reeves’s name on an actual contract and Reeves was trapped—even though there’s that story, whatever the deal with the Chicago location shooting is far more compelling. Because they go all out shooting in Chicago. It looks terrible, because Charbanic sucks and Matthew Chapman’s cinematography looks like a syndicated TV cop show and Richard Nord’s editing is atrocious, but whoever coordinated and managed all that location stuff—great job. The CG explosions look like crap, but the real ones look awesome… well, look awesomely executed. They don’t look awesome because the direction’s bad. Though the big explosion shot is one of the better, more approaching competence moments.

They’ve got a gazillion cop cars, they’ve got helicopters flying into the city from over Lake Michigan–the movie goes all out as a Chicago travelogue. At first it seems like it’s some kind of promotional video to shoot in Chicago, then it seems like it’s some crappy action movie just shot in Chicago—like a Chicago investor or something—but apparently it’s something else entirely. Kind of interesting. Far more interesting than the movie. And the Reeves casting intrigue. Because Reeves is just bad. He’s really bad at playing the serial killer. The script’s dumb, Charbanic’s a suck director, but Reeves is still just bad.

Spader… works it. Sometimes you can just pass the time watching Spader figure out how he’s going to essay this crap role. It’s like watching the performance occur to him. It’s not a great performance by any means—the script’s crap, characterization’s crap, part’s crap—but it’s interesting to watch Spader. Less Tomei. Chris Ellis is really good as Spader’s Chicago PD sidekick. Ellis doesn’t have a single acceptably written line but somehow he makes it work. He’s very enthusiastic. Like somehow he’d convinced himself The Watcher was going to be the next Matrix. It has Keanu Reeves in a leather jacket all the time after all.

Marco Beltrami’s score isn’t good—Nord’s cutting for music, Beltrami or the light metal soundtrack selections is terrible—but Beltrami works it too. He’s got some good technique, but there’s no way the final product is going to come across.

The Watcher’s atrocious. You shouldn’t watch it.

Though, if you’re interested in the Chicago area and seeing an expansively but poorly shot film showcasing it… you probably can’t do better than The Watcher? But also don’t watch it. It’s terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Charbanic; screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers, based on a story by Darcy Meyers and Elliot; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Richard Nord; music by Marco Beltrami; production designers, Maria Caso and Brian Eatwell; produced by Christopher Eberts, Elliott Lewitt, Nile Niami, and Jeff Rice; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Spader (Joel), Keanu Reeves (David), Marisa Tomei (Polly), Chris Ellis (Hollis), and Ernie Hudson (Mike).


Waterworld (1995, Kevin Reynolds), the extended edition

I haven’t seen Waterworld since the theater–probably opening day. I remember it being an unimpressive sci-fi adventure without a lot of distinct characteristics, but certainly not a disaster. Watching it again after fourteen years, that description holds (for the most part). The film–even in the three hour extended version–moves quickly. There’s always something going on, some bit of tension to pass the time. But I certainly didn’t remember Kevin Costner’s character was such an unrepentant bastard. He might be the worst protagonist in a major Hollywood summer tent pole. It’s stunning how little the film–until the third act–cares about making him a likable character. The way the film works, how to plot unfolds–and how long they manage to keep pertinent information (information the viewer knows) from the protagonist is something.

Costner has some good acting moments, but the script doesn’t provide many of them. He’s fine throughout, but it’s frequently a physical, silent performance. He has a good conversation with Jeanne Tripplehorn at one point and then, at the end, he has a fine standoff with Dennis Hopper. That final standoff comes after the viewer is told all about Costner being a dangerous person. The film only shows the aftereffects, which makes the sequence awkward, but when Costner faces off with Hopper–those previous, iffy sequences get an automatic pass.

Hopper’s okay as the villain. He’s got some good moments and some bad ones. He’s really funny with Tina Majorino. Waterworld‘s interesting today because of its rather neon anti-American sentiments. The villain wants nothing more than to turn the mythical Dryland into a golf course development. Not to mention the ice caps melting (from an unmentioned global warming)–it’s kind of strange, but also an indicator of when the film was made. I don’t think any big Hollywood pictures today are going to allow any “anti” American sentiments in.

Waterworld‘s most successful as a spectacle. It cost a bunch of money and it looks great. There’s some definite 1995 CG, but it’s certainly excusable, given the amazing practical effects. Kevin Reynolds knows how to shoot action scenes–complex ones with intricate geographies and lots of players–and Waterworld‘s exciting when it’s trying to be exciting. James Newton Howard’s fine score only amplifies the film’s (relative) success. It’s a big action-adventure movie with zero sequel prospects included–a dead sub-genre.

Even though it doesn’t affect Waterworld‘s quality overall, the third act features some truly idiotic developments. It humanizes Costner all of a sudden, with one particular scene being the turning point. Except that scene doesn’t have anything to do with humanizing him. Either there’s a scene missing or Waterworld‘s makers thought the audience wasn’t going to be paying enough attention. It’s an annoying misstep, the first of many in the conclusion. After spending at least two hours inflating the viewer’s suspension of disbelief–everyone speaks English (and some can read it), there are still discernible ethnicities, there’s oil around and the ability to refine it–Waterworld ends on fast forward. There’s a rapid-fire romance between Costner and Tripplehorn, which doesn’t make any sense since she kind of seduces him and then, in the next scene, has given up hope. There’s the convenient return of the people from the first hour–I mean, R.D. Call’s good and I was glad to see him back, but come on–and then there’s the conclusion. It’s not like they’ve got Hercules’s twelve labors to get to Dryland. It’s kind of sitting around for anyone to find and it’s unbelievable only two other people did. Waterworld plays fast and loose with its time frame, which is fine until the lackluster ending, when it should come through and doesn’t.

Some of Waterworld‘s failures have to do with Costner. When he made this film, he wasn’t a big star–he was on the way down, as I recall–but he made epic films. Waterworld is a finely paced summer diversion masquerading as an epic. It needed a solid rewrite, another half hour and, surprisingly, a bigger budget (for more characters and sets).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Reynolds; written by Peter Rader and David Twohy; directors of photography, Dean Semler and Scott Fuller; edited by Peter Boyle; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Charles Gordon, Lawrence Gordon, John Davis and Kevin Costner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (The Mariner), Dennis Hopper (The Deacon), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Helen), Tina Majorino (Enola), Michael Jeter (Old Gregor), Gerard Murphy (The Nord), R.D. Call (Enforcer at the Atoll), Jack Black (Smoker Plane Pilot), John Toles-Bey (Ed, Smoker Plane Gunner), Robert Joy (Ledger Guy), John Fleck (Smoker Doctor), Kim Coates (Crazed Drifter), Sab Shimono (Elder of the Atoll), Leonardo Cimino (Elder of the Atoll), Jack Kehler (Banker), Rick Aviles (Gatesman at the Atoll), Sean Whalen (Bone), Lee Arenberg (Djeng), Robert LaSardo (Smitty), William Preston (Depth Gauge) and Chris Dourid (Atoller).


Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Guillermo del Toro)

Once I heard the concept for Hellboy II–Hellboy versus elves–I knew what was going on. Del Toro was going to make a (tonal) sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth instead of an actual one to Hellboy. As my wife said on the way home, there’s a big difference between demons and elves. It’s like del Toro’s psychic and was jockeying for his Hobbit gig before it was even announced.

It’s hard to identify the movie’s biggest problem. There’s the flushing of the original’s atmosphere for a fantasy one (it’s never scary or disturbing–Luke Goss’s villain is created from special effects, not a performance… he’s as intimidating as Bronson Pinchot on “Perfect Strangers”). Del Toro also fills the film with fight scenes in confined areas and he’s not particularly good at making the fight scene interesting. I mean, Hellboy’s never going to die, right? The one great “fight” scene is more an action sequence, with Hellboy trying to save a baby while battling a giant tree. That scene works, mostly because it’s more like the action in the first film.

As a sequel, Hellboy II compares terribly. It isn’t just the script, it’s practically everything. But the script’s lack of real development is problematic. The present action is short, probably two days, and the setup reveals the characters aren’t much different than they were in the first one (four years ago). Except del Toro has changed Jeffrey Tambor’s character completely (for the worse, he’s a babbling buffon and the idea of him holding an advanced degree is sillier than the elves), in one of the movie’s stranger moves. The other negative developments stem from del Toro’s direction… basically, he’s asking his actors to do things they cannot.

First, Doug Jones. Doug Jones cannot act. From the first moment he utters a sound, the absence of David Hyde Pierce is felt. Jones tries to mimic Pierce’s performance, but a) doesn’t sound smart and b) can’t really properly emote. Jones isn’t an actor, voice or otherwise. He’s the guy they dub over. Still, del Toro does give him some amusing scenes–most of the scenes not involving the elves are okay, even if they are just filler.

Worse is Selma Blair, though I almost think del Toro noticed how terrible she is doing a Ripley impression. She’s in it sparingly after a point and other times she’s just silent and background. Del Toro’s subplot for Blair and Ron Perlman is idiotic, mainly because it leads to him ripping off the end of Patriot Games (sort of).

Perlman’s great.

John Hurt shows up for a second and he’s real good. Seth McFarlane’s a poor choice for the headless German guy, because McFarlane just does his German accent from “American Dad.” I guess it’s fine, but it’s kind of stupid. The only other actor is Anna Walton as Goss’s sister and Jones’s love interest. Her character is terribly written, but I suppose she isn’t atrocious.

Besides the last shot, Guillermo Navarro does a wonderful job shooting the film. His lighting works well with del Toro’s frequent CG composite shots (del Toro’s an amazing fan of CG composites apparently). The special effects are good and the visuals are interesting and impressive and all… even if it is dark and claustrophobic. Hard to see why the elves are so great if they live in caves all the time. Danny Elfman’s score is terrible, derivative of his Batman work–and most everything else he’s ever done.

Hellboy II kind of reminds me of Batman Returns, actually. Del Toro got free reign much like Burton did on that film (del Toro even apes some Nightmare Before Christmas here). The difference is what Burton did with his free reign and the narrative pointlessness del Toro commits with his here.

Perlman makes the whole thing passable–and del Toro still is a fine director, he’s just become an insipid storyteller.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by del Toro, based on a story by del Toro and Mike Mignola and on the Dark Horse comic books by Mignola; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Stephen Scott; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson and Lloyd Levin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), Luke Goss (Prince Nuada), Anna Walton (Princess Nuala), Seth MacFarlane (Johann Kraus) and John Hurt (Professor Buttenholm).


Howard the Duck (1986, Willard Huyck)

It’d be interesting to know how much of the relationship between Howard and Lea Thompson got toned down, like if Huyck and Katz originally had them more visibly romantically involved. It wouldn’t be interesting to see cut scenes or even to read old drafts of the script, it’d just be interesting to know. Seeing cut scenes or reading the script would require one to endure more of this intolerable production.

Howard the Duck has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Casting Richard Kiley as the Voice of the Cosmos aside, it’s worthless. All I could think, as the terribly acted Duck got to Earth and met Thompson was–these people wrote American Graffiti. The duck planet scenes at the beginning, which should have been amusing and inventive is more instead tired. There’s no exuberance to the scenes, they’re mundane. As a director, Huyck is never willing to acknowledge Howard the Duck‘s idiocy. It’s about a talking duck who gets it on with a human girl. It ought to be dumb, fun and outlandish–and aware of it. Instead, it’s all about not selling out the music for the man. It’s embarrassing to watch it, much less to imagine having participated in its making in any capacity.

I’m not real familiar with the comic books, but the movie Howard is a unfunny whiner who’s mad he had to get a job. I can only figure the comic book Howard is probably a funny whiner. The occasional promises of a smoking and drinking duck are never realized (he gets whisked to Earth before he lights his cigar and his beer later magically disappears into PG-land). Sadly, Howard the Duck probably isn’t even the worst of the atrocious teen-minded sci-fi movies on the mid-1980s, just the most famous.

The acting is unspeakable. Lea Thompson has never been really good so her inability to act opposite a guy in a costume who talks (the cast of “Alf” did far better) is no surprise. But Tim Robbins? Robbins is awful. Jeffrey Jones is awful. Some of the blame has to fall on the script and direction, but good acting might have made it a little less unbearable.

As for the costumed Howard the Duck… the costume’s not detailed enough to be convincing in regular shots. It looks like a television commercial. And Chip Zien’s vocal performance as Howard might be the worst thing in the movie, which is a hard thing to be.

The only other thing worth commenting on is John Barry’s score. When I saw his name in the opening titles, I figured at least the music would be good. It isn’t. It’s John Barry trying to be zany. It’s a metaphor for the whole movie–a bunch of squares pretending to be zany and not even managing to make an unconventional failure.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Willard Huyck; screenplay by Huyck and Gloria Katz, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Michael Chandler and Sidney Wolinsky; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Katz; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lea Thompson (Beverly Switzler), Jeffrey Jones (Dr. Walter Jenning), Tim Robbins (Phil Blumburtt), Paul Guilfoyle (Lieutenant Welker) and Ed Gale & Chip Zien (Howard T. Duck).


The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

All I wanted from The Incredible Hulk was dumb fun. I figured Louis Leterrier could deliver. Unfortunately, it’s not dumb fun, but Leterrier does deliver–and instead of fast food, it’s rather good French. Frequently, Hulk showcases Leterrier’s directorial abilities and they’re significant. Leterrier handles everything the story needs–be it rural or urban, Brazil or New York (well, Canada). The Incredible Hulk has a distinctive, maturing visual style. Leterrier adds on to the beginning until he reaches the end, which is his sole misstep.

But I’ll start at the beginning. The Incredible Hulk drops the viewer into a continuing story (sort of, again, more on this bit later) and doesn’t give he or she a lot of information. For example, expatriate Edward Norton seems to have a flirtation with his neighbor and co-worker, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Norton spends most of this time alone, not even with his dog, and it doesn’t move. Norton can make watching “Sesame Street” interesting, but the script cannot. So there are lots of cuts to William Hurt’s pursuit of him. Hurt’s not an Ahab here, which is an interesting move, but one of the script’s eventual bungles (it fails to recognize what it’s done with the character). Eventually, Norton heads back to America and the script hits the first enormous logic hole. Hurt returns to the U.S. too, but has no idea Norton wasn’t still in Brazil. Norton’s reasons for heading back are inferred, rather than explained. They’re neither shown nor told. Except maybe in the press release.

As Norton gets back, the movie starts toward its now inevitable conclusion. The Incredible Hulk is not really a continuing story, it’s just a story deferred. Apparently, in the five years in between the opening titles recap and the present action, there haven’t really been any interesting Hulk sightings. It’s an origin movie, only with the fight scene five years later than it should be.

But the break does make the relationship between Norton and Liv Tyler better. Tyler starts incredibly weak, but once she and Norton get together (actually, it starts with her and the CG Hulk), she gets good. Even though she’s a scientist (sure), her voice turns their relationship into an analog of Toad and Debbie’s, from American Graffiti, and the relationship sustains through the rest of the film. But the movie’s already half over when they finally get together alone and the third act and the big fight scene hang over the scenes like the Sword of Damocles.

The big fight scene at the end starts all right, but then it gets real dumb. Zak Penn’s a terrible plotter. The fight gets boring once it’s the two CG monsters duking it out, the only accessory a helicopter. It’s just nowhere near as interesting as the idea of the fight putting people in danger. When everyone shows up to (silently) commend the Hulk, it doesn’t make any sense… only two people saw the fight scene besides the viewer.

The script’s the big problem, summarizing too much or just insinuating too many important details. There are some great moments–and they do resonate and they are memorable–but there’s too much malarky.

Norton’s amazing–I don’t think any other actor could have made the Brazilian exile believable. Everything he does is gold in the film. Tyler’s got that incredibly problematic start (why does she have to be a scientist too?), but then she’s fine. Good even. Hurt’s okay, nothing more. He’s probably never had such a poorly written character. Tim Roth’s decent, until the script fails him. Tim Blake Nelson’s strangely bad, overdoing it as a generically eccentric scientist. His character and the lack of explanation is another big script defect.

The tie-ins to the Marvel comic books are almost all terrible. They’re only goofy at the start, then there’s the excellent scenes with Norton and Tyler on the road and the hints of what a good movie it could have been (not dumb fun either)… or the nice references to the television show. With the exception of the use of the show’s theme music, which is disingenuous. Then there’s the Robert Downey Jr. cameo at the end, which is a disgrace. Maybe if they’d stuck it after the credits, but it basically takes the movie away from Norton and gives it to Downey. I’d be shocked if Norton ever makes a return to the character, given the diss.

With Leterrier’s direction, with Norton, The Incredible Hulk should have been good. With Leterrier turning out to be a great director (though the fight scene at the end is too Hollywood, not at all visceral), it should have been ever better.

Instead, it hints of a good film and it should do much more. Especially given how… incredible the love story turns out to be.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Zak Penn, based on a story by Penn and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by Rick Shane, John Wright and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Dr. Samson), William Hurt (General Ross), Christina Cabot (Major Sparr) and Lou Ferrigno (the security guard).


Hulk (2003, Ang Lee)

Hulk had a huge box office drop-off after its opening weekend–wow, almost seventy percent. It’s actually somewhat lucky, because I’d have thought people would have gotten up and walked out of the theater. The Hulk doesn’t show up until about an hour into the movie and doesn’t do anything interesting for another half hour after the first appearance. There’s a lot of angst in the first couple Hulk appearances, before it finally gets to him fighting tanks and such. The tank fights and the helicopter fights and the Hulk jumping all over the place–those scenes Ang Lee does all right with. The Hulk doesn’t look “real” in any of the close-ups, but given how unbelievable the acting is from the principals… ILM’s Hulk by far gives the film’s best performance.

The worst performance is–just because it’s so absurdly easy–Josh Lucas. I don’t remember him from anything else, but his big business scientist seems to be an homage to… Himmler, maybe. The actor is bad, nothing else. For all the pseudo-angst Lee and James Schamus drown Hulk in, they don’t mind one of their principal characters being shallower than a piece of newsprint. I think they even gave Lucas extra blue eyes, though I’m not sure why… It’s a horrific performance, but the terrible writing contributes.

The other two–primary–terrible performances are Jennifer Connelly and Eric Bana. Bana hurts the most, since he’s the ostensible lead (it’s really Nick Nolte). Either Bana was on tranquilizers the whole time or mastering getting rid of his Australian accent also removed all animation. Connelly–for the first half–acts with her hair. Once they change the style, though, look out. She’s incapable of doing anything realistically. A big problem with Hulk seems to be casting actors who think the project is crap. Both Bana and Connelly are abjectly disinterested in their performances.

Sam Elliot’s also bad, but that one’s not particularly surprising.

Once again, Nick Nolte shows off just what he can do with a wacky, crazed role and turns in the film’s most sympathetic character.

Lee’s stylistic choices are car wreck interesting. For example, what were the producers thinking trusting Lee with a $140 million budget (glib answer, they weren’t). Lee can’t handle the money, but the other choices he makes–the split screens meant to imitate comic book panels (doesn’t work) or using comic sans as the movie’s font (that one should get one ejected from the DGA, if not incarcerated). But at the beginning, when Lee’s zooming in on all sorts of molecules and lab animals and doing all sorts of dumb fades, Hulk actually works as a super-budget b-movie from the 1950s (the dangers of nuclear power and all). It’s interesting to look at, interesting to experience. Of course, once the Hulk shows up, Lee flushes all that stylization (but sticks to his multi-screen thing, which seems more inspired by security cameras than comic books).

Hulk is a disaster, as the lack of a definite article should suggest, but it’s a disaster caused by incompetence. How hard is it to mess up a big green guy breaking stuff? Very easy, apparently.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ang Lee; written by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus, based on a story by Schamus and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Rick Heinrichs; produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Avi Arad, Schamus and Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Eric Bana (Bruce Banner), Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross), Sam Elliott (Ross), Josh Lucas (Talbot) and Nick Nolte (Father).


Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

Shadow of a Doubt is a strange one–the presence of Teresa Wright and the small town atmosphere and the Gregg Toland-esque (but not Gregg Toland) cinematography make it feel like William Wyler, the presence of Joseph Cotten and the camera angles and intricate sound design make it feel like Welles (or at least an RKO picture Welles produced and did uncredited directing on), and some of the feeling in the shots… only some of them… make it feel like a later Hitchcock, like Psycho or Marnie, anything but one of his early American pictures. Shadow of a Doubt feels absolutely foreign from something Hitchcock did in the UK, The Lady Vanishes for easy comparison, but also unlike his more well-known American works of the 1940s. Artistically speaking, it’s the most exciting Hitchcock got after he gave up all the filmic experimentation with the move across the Atlantic and it’s some beautiful stuff in Shadow, because he hasn’t got a formula worked out, because Hitchcock’s successful formulas tend to rely on the intrigue, not on the lack of it. Shadow of a Doubt works in the end not because of Hitchcock’s efficiency as a suspense director, but because that Wyler-esque family drama (the contribution of Thornton Wilder?) works so well.

Two different things are going on, from the actors, in Shadow of a Doubt. Teresa Wright does her thing, essaying this conflicted, happy, sad, romantic young woman who’s petrified, but who’s also able to navigate an impossible situation with seeming success–falling in love during it as well. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, who’s playing a character much like one Joseph Cotten would play for the next ten years, both as good guys and bad guys–the guy who’s completely evil, but maybe not wrong about his motivations for being evil, also not so evil he can’t care about people. Cotten is not a Hitchcock actor, which makes Shadow an odd favorite for Hitchcock to pick from his oeuvre. There’s just something about Cotten–you can see he’s doing what he’s doing, Hitchcock’s direction be damned. It’s another reason Shadow of a Doubt is so different–all the excellent, excited performances. Hitchcock usually sucked the enthusiasm out of actors, even in good films, instead letting them be themselves with written dialogue, but in Shadow of a Doubt, it’s a much, much different situation. Patricia Collinge does some excellent work in the film, usually in scenes unlike any other Hitchcock scenes. The most Hitchcockian actor is Macdonald Carey and Carey is essential as Wright’s love interest and Cotten’s pursuer, but he’s got that blander Hitchcock acting style going. He’s good, but it’s not a textured, tortured performance, not like Wright, Cotten or Collinge.

I’d only seen Shadow of a Doubt once before, maybe ten years ago, and for the majority of the film, I was upset, remembering it being much better than it unfolded. But once the end came around and especially the neat coda, I had bought into it entirely. Hitchcock’s visual style, while incredibly fun to watch, is nothing compared to the film’s unlikely emotional impact.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville, from a story by Gordon McDonell; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Jack H. Skirball; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Teresa Wright (Young Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Jack), Henry Travers (Joe Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Det. Saunders) and Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton).


Sea of Love (1989, Harold Becker)

So, I was worried about Sea of Love. After all, the last movie Richard Price is credited with writing is Shaft (though I realize it was changed from what he wrote by Singleton, who’s just a screenwriting dynamo). So, I was worried. Sea of Love was a film I loved–absolutely loved–when I first got into film, when I finally decided I needed to sit and watch a film, not read at the same time, not sit in the room while it played. Frighteningly, this evolution was late in life–it was 1994 or so, when I was sixteen, the Robocop Criterion laserdisc. I sat and watched it.

I’ve seen Sea of Love since, of course. Universal was a great laserdisc company in the 1990s and I had the Sea of Love laserdisc (I still might, in storage, since I never got around to selling M-Z). The first DVD release was pan and scan, so I missed that, but Universal did a widescreen edition and I rented it from Blockbuster–Netflix is no good if there are two versions.

Sea of Love is a great film. Richard Price’s writing is beautiful. For the first three quarters of the film, until the mystery takes over for a half hour, the nuance is unbelievable. Characters saying things, the meanings involved, just beautiful. Sea of Love is, I think, the last film written by the novelist Richard Price, everything after was by screenwriter Richard Price, who was still good, but reserved the good stuff for his novels (Clockers, incidentally, came from the research he did for Sea of Love).

It’s one of Pacino’s two or three best performances. I actually don’t know, off the top of my head, what I’d assign to the other two slots, because you have to decide between Pacino the star (as much as he is–Pacino is a star in The Godfather, Part II and Heat) and Pacino the regular guy. Pacino’s a regular guy in Sea of Love, when he’s in a fight, there’s a chance he might not make it. Sea of Love is from the era before the happy ending… Though Price would argue otherwise (sorry, I’ve read his collected screenplays and the studios always changed his downer endings).

It’s Ellen Barkin–I never realized how much I miss Ellen Barkin. I’m aware of how much I miss actors like Madeleine Stowe and (good) Elisabeth Shue, but Ellen Barkin’s from before that era of recognition. Barkin’s someone who should have transitioned to some great TV in the early 1990s, she should have gone to “Homicide” or something (damn you, Barry Levinson, you know her!).

I really need to see Night and the City now. I actually probably ought to see both of them, but I was thinking the DeNiro/Lange version.

Anyway, if you haven’t or if you haven’t for awhile, see Sea of Love. It’s New York City when that actually meant something, when it was actually a place that changed people, when the city was still alive. I went to New York City, the first time, in 1987 and it was scary. I didn’t leave Manhattan, so it wasn’t quite Fort Apache, the Bronx, but it was ominous. The second-to-last time I went there, maybe third to last, actually, was in 1999, to see a Broadway Show (“The Wild Party”). It wasn’t scary anymore, it was Disneyland. It doesn’t change people anymore….

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Becker; written by Richard Price; director of photography, Ronnie Taylor; edited by David Bretherton; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Jay Moore; produced by Martin Bregman and Louis A. Stroller; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Det. Frank Keller), Ellen Barkin (Helen Cruger), John Goodman (Det. Sherman), Michael Rooker (Terry), William Hickey (Frank Keller Sr.), Richard Jenkins (Gruber), Paul Calderon (Serafino), Gene Canfield (Struk), Larry Joshua (Dargan) and John Spencer (Lieutenant).


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