‘The Incredible Hulk’ Proves to Be a Decent Marvel Reboot

The Incredible Hulk poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Well, it’s not incredible, but it’s still pretty good. “The Incredible Hulk” is not so much a sequel as it is a reboot. Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was not the movie Marvel Comics fans were waiting for, and the backlash against it was pretty severe. This was a shame because Lee’s movie was not at all bad, but I came of it knowing it would get a lukewarm response from audiences because it was more of a character driven piece which the summer movie season typically relegates to arthouse cinemas. But with this action-packed blockbuster, fans will likely get more of what they were looking for the first time around.

“The Incredible Hulk” thankfully sprints past this particular superhero’s origins by doing a quick recap of Dr. Bruce Banner’s accident which turned him into the ferociously mad and enormous beast who tears through all of his clothing with the exception of his underwear (very convenient for a PG-13 rating). We catch up with Dr. Banner, now played by Edward Norton, in Brazil where he has successfully managed to control his anger for over 130 days. While working a menial job at a bottling plant, he continues to look for a cure which will keep him from turning green and becoming super pissed. As a result, Banner is one of the few people on this planet determined not to go green in order to save the environment. But despite all the breathing exercises he does to control his anger, we all know he will soon find it’s not easy to keep from being green.

This Hulk movie is a lot more action packed than the previous one as it starts up quickly and never lets the pace go slack. Directing this superhero reboot is Louis Leterrier who directed “The Transporter 2” and “Unleashed.” He clearly likes the hyperkinetic style of filmmaking and it shows throughout. The direction is not necessarily outstanding and Leterrier doesn’t seem to quite have a style of his own yet, but he gets the job done and he keeps the film entertaining from start to finish.

The cast is different as well, with nobody but Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, doing their mandatory cameos, returning from Lee’s film. Norton is in some ways a better fit for Bruce Banner than Eric Bana was, and a lot more animated too. He may not physically look like someone who could become the Hulk, but that’s the point. Norton also did an uncredited rewrite of the script, but the Writer’s Guild of America denied him credit (Zak Penn gets story and screenplay credit). As always, Norton reminds us why he is one of the best actors of his generation, and he comes across as an ordinary joe thrust into circumstances beyond his control.

Liv Tyler takes over the role of Dr. Betty Ross from Jennifer Connelly, and while she doesn’t have much of an acting range, she is always a nice presence to have in any film (not just as eye candy mind you). She holds up well next to Norton as they both work to find a way to stop him from becoming the Hulk again. William Hurt plays her father, Gen. Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, and he is always an interesting actor to watch. All the same, I have to admit that I liked Sam Elliott better in this role when he played it in Lee’s version. Elliott comes across better as an army general than Hurt does, and he was one of the best things about the previous film.

But the best addition to “The Incredible Hulk” is Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, chief nemesis to Dr. Banner and his angry alter-ego. After playing a wuss of a man in the highly disturbing remake of “Funny Games,” Roth is in bad ass mode as a soldier who wants to take the Hulk down, but soon finds himself wanting his power. In the film, Emil ends up getting injected, by choice mind you, with the same stuff Banner got injected with. It’s enough to give him the power to overcome the most serious of injuries, but he soon finds that he wants more of that power which leads him to become the Abomination. Roth’s character is actually one of the more complex and most realized characters in the movie.

Roth’s performance here is a reminder of what a strong presence he is and watching him here should help ease the memories of the torture he endured in “Funny Games.” How refreshing it would have been to see he Abomination take out those two young cads who tortured that family. Of course, Michael Haneke would just rewind back from Abomination’s victory to intentionally frustrate the audience.

If there is anything lacking in “The Incredible Hulk,” it is not as strong on character development. One of the strengths of “Hulk” was the attention it paid to its characters and how they really drove the movie. I know Marvel Studios didn’t want to get too caught up with this in this reboot, but it would have been nice to see more character work here to keep this from being just an average action movie. In the end, this was a movie made to please the fans who felt let down by what they saw in 2003.

I wish I could say that I loved this incarnation of the Hulk, but it didn’t quite reach the heights I wanted it to. But it still was a lot of fun and kept me entertained from start to finish. It is a flawed film, but we do get to see Hulk smash in a way we didn’t get to see as much of previously. That was probably the best thing about this film, seeing Hulk smash stuff up. Using two halves of a police car to take out stupid humans makes for great action. All the same, it could have been better.

* * * out of * * * *

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Arbitrage

arbitrage-movie-poster

Definition of Arbitrage:

  1. The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or foreign exchange in different markets in order to profit from price discrepancies.
  2. The purchase of the stock of a takeover target especially with a view to selling it profitably to the raider.

Arbitrage” looks like the average thriller better suited to the usual made for TV movie on network television or the Lifetime Channel. However, it turns out to be a brilliant thriller which takes a seemingly simple story and spins it into a complex one filled with characters that seem easy to figure out but prove to be anything but. Just when you think this will be a film about what’s right and wrong, it becomes one in which everyone finds their moral values permanently compromised no matter how good their intentions are.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a hedge-fund magnate whose every inch of his being oozes success like it’s supposed to. Robert looks to have all the money he ever needs, a loving family, a loyal wife, grandkids and the whole nine yards. We soon find, however, that he is deeply immersed in fraudulent practices which could tear his whole empire down if exposed. Robert’s only salvation is to sell off his trading empire to a major bank before his wall street crimes are revealed so he may pay off all his debts for good.

But things get seriously complicated for Robert when he is driving to upstate New York with his mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) and their car flips over on the road. The crash ends up killing Julie and leaves Robert in a serious predicament as he cannot report what happened to the police. If he does, it will seriously delay the sale of his company which could put him and his family on the brink of financial disaster. The walls continue to close in when NYPD Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is assigned to the case and finds circumstantial evidence implicating Robert in Julie’s death. The question is, how much longer he can keep up this moral duplicity before it undoes him permanently?

“Arbitrage” marks the directorial debut of writer Nicholas Jarecki whose work deals with larger than life characters and morally ambiguous themes of industry, power, and corruption. What I loved about his direction here was how naturalistic everything seemed, be it the acting or the setting. No one in the cast overdoes their performance which makes for a more invigorating cinematic experience than we typically get.

Jarecki also gives us some brilliantly conceived characters who appear to represent right and wrong very clearly, but as the story goes on, we find they are not immune to moral compromises. Even the police detective who represents working class Americans sick of being screwed over by the rich proves he is not above bending the rules to get a conviction. All this time, Julie becomes less of a human being and more of a bargaining chip for everybody involved.

I was listening to an interview with Gere and NPR’s Audie Cornish who remarked how she’s always rooting for the actor no matter what character he plays. Whether he’s playing a slick defense attorney who lives for self-promotion in “Primal Fear” or as a seriously corrupt cop in “Internal Affairs,” Gere comes across as strangely likable even when his characters are jerks to say the least. His role as Robert Miller is further proof of how brilliantly he portrays the kind of people we love to hate in these endlessly difficult economic times.

Robert is at his heart a slick manipulator and a liar; he deceives his children, cheats on his wife, is knowingly committing fraud, and is not about to accept any responsibility for his mistress’ death. Throughout “Arbitrage’s” running time, Gere is riveting as he tries to stay one step ahead of the law, and we find ourselves rooting for him to do so. We should despise this man and his morally duplicitous ways, but you have to admit Robert is a very smart guy who has managed to stay afloat despite some bad decisions.

Although his New York accent sounds a little weird, Tim Roth is also excellent as NYPD detective who becomes bent on taking Robert down. His character of Michael Bryer is on the side of law and justice, but he proves to be as ruthless as Robert while he pursues witnesses relentlessly, and he has no problem threatening their livelihoods in order to get a conviction.

Nate Parker plays Jimmy Grant; a family friend of Robert’s who helps him out of and then finds himself in the middle of his problems. Jimmy is a familiar character in that he is caught between doing the right thing and keeping his mouth shut and we see so many of them in movies. But Parker does great work in conveying Jimmy’s inner turmoil to where this character seems like anything but a cliché, and he makes you feel what it’s like to walk in his shoes.

Brit Marling is wonderful as Robert’s daughter and heir-apparent Brooke, and seeing her transition from loyal daughter to one whose trust is forever shattered is heartbreaking. Her scene with Gere will remind those of us who have been put into impossible situations we cannot easily extricate ourselves from, and the look on her face is one which never goes away.

But it’s Susan Sarandon who almost steals the show as Robert’s wife Ellen, and she reminds us what a powerhouse of an actress she can be. Sarandon portrays Ellen as loyal almost to a fault, but she reveals vulnerabilities throughout which indicate she knows more about what’s going on than Robert realizes. Sarandon’s final confrontation with Gere is a knockout as she comes up with an extra strategy which is as brilliant as the one Katie Holmes pulled on Tom Cruise.

In addition, there’s also a wealth of beautiful cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and a music score by Cliff Martinez which fits this material like a glove.

I was stunned at how much I liked “Arbitrage,” and it really is one of the best movies I saw in 2012. It’s the kind of film you can’t quite prepare yourself for how good it will be because it came cloaked in trailers and advertisements which make it look ho-hum. Jarecki, however, gives us a film which is anything but average, and I thank him for that.

* * * * out of * * * *

Selma

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Had “Selma” been released a number of years ago, people would probably just see it as another movie which chronicles a historical moment which has long since passed us by. But with all the upheaval in places like Ferguson, Missouri where violence against people of color is increasing substantially and the Voting Rights Act having taken a very unnecessary hit, this movie could not be timelier. What we see in “Selma” now feels like prologue as the fight for equal rights continues on to this very day. By now we should very well know we’re not living in a post-racial society.

“Selma” takes us back to the year 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) and several others led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to obtain equal voting rights for African Americans. It was tough times indeed as Dr. King faces an uphill battle with everyone including President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) who is not quick to pass a Voting Rights Act as he is still dealing with civil unrest in the South which he is desperately trying to get under control. But King knows this is not an issue that can wait much longer to be addressed.

I have got to start off by saying David Oyelowo is a powerhouse in his portrayal of Dr. King, and he holds our attention completely from the very first moment he appears onscreen. It should be noted how Oyelowo campaigned for this role for seven years and managed to keep it even after the original director, Lee Daniels, departed the project. I have seen Oyelowo do memorable work in movies like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Lincoln” and “A Most Violent Year,” but I couldn’t find a trace of him in “Selma.” It felt like I was really watching Martin Luther King Jr. resurrected and walking among us again. Not once does Oyelowo succumb to doing a mere impersonation of the man who had a dream we still want to see become a reality. There’s a saying that in the theater you play a character and in film you are the character, and Oyelowo is definitely the man here.

The other big star of “Selma” is its director Ava DuVernay who brings this ever so important story to life so vividly. Granted, in some ways her presentation of the 60’s feels a little routine, and some scenes feel one-sided when they shouldn’t. Her portrayal of the marches, however, is appropriately devastating as she makes you feel ever blow inflicted by those afraid of change. These scenes do not leave the mind easily. King and his supporters are determined to protest in a non-violent way, and it’s hard not to feel for them when their supporters are being beaten senselessly. Deep down you want to see them fight back against the brutality even though we’re aware to do so will be giving the opposition far more ammunition than they deserve.

“Selma” also features a wealth of great performances from actors like Oprah Winfrey who channels her inner Sofia (the character she played in “The Color Purple”) for her role as Annie Lee Cooper who, at the movie’s start, is cruelly denied the opportunity to register to vote. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson as he adds layers to the former President which the screenplay doesn’t always give him. Tim Roth also turns in a strong performance as George Wallace, the always welcome Wendell Pierce is excellent as Hosea Williams, and Dylan Baker is ever so effective as J. Edgar Hoover to where I ended up trying to remember the actor’s name while watching this film.

Another performance worth giving special note to is Carmen Ejogo’s as Coretta Scott King. Ejogo played this role previously in the 2011 movie “Boycott.” She and Oyelowo have a great scene together when she questions him about his alleged infidelity, and no music score is needed to empower it as DuVernay wisely focuses on the actors for all they are worth. Watching these actors here makes for one of the most compelling scenes I have seen in any 2014 movie.

Is “Selma” accurate to what actually happened in history? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. All that matters to me is that it is true to the spirit of the facts more than anything else. We are beyond the point where we should expect movies “based on a true story” to be completely accurate to what actually occurred because dramatic considerations have to be taken into effect. While some argue Johnson was more open to King’s request for voting rights than he was shown to be here, there’s no denying the one most passionate about this issue was King himself. Whether or not this movie fails on a historical accuracy level, it does succeed on a dramatic one.

Having said all this, I kind of wished “Selma” didn’t paint a number of its character in such broad strokes. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which observed its characters, regardless of color or nationality, with a lot more thoughtfulness and dimension. The fact that “Selma” doesn’t quite succeed in doing this is a bit frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the powerful effect the movie will have on those who take the time to see it.

“Selma” doesn’t just take us back to an important period in history; it reminds us of the things we as Americans should be fighting for. The movie shows many people of different races and religions joining Dr. King in this fight for an equality no one should have to fight for in this country. But here we are years later, and it turns out the fight is far from over. Once again, we have a lot to learn from history.

* * * ½ out of * * * *