THE INCREDIBLE HULK * * * *
Cert 12A 112 mins
You thought Iron Man was good? Grab an eyeful of this. After Ang Lee’s account of the the grumpy green giant proved too cerebral for the comic book geeks, Marvel decided to give the character a second try.
News that Louis Leterrier, director of Transporter 2, was taking charge underlined that the action would be there in spades while, with Elektra and X-Men sequels under his belt, screenwriter Zak Penn was clearly au fait with the genre and the Marvel universe.
When Edward Norton signed on as Bruce Banner, any worries that it might water down the intelligence were put to rest. Norton famously doesn’t do dumb. That he also gave the script a polish further served to whet the appetite.
Throw everything into the mix and you have the year’s best blockbuster so far, a film that references the character’s previous screen incarnations (look out for the Lou Ferrigno cameo), respects the comic book history and, with Robert Downey Jr’s cameo as Iron Man’s Tony Stark, also serves as the first superhero crossover movie.
Echoing the TV series by providing a quick resume of the Hulk’s gamma ray origins and central character relationships over the opening credits, the plot per se begins in Brazil where Banner’s hiding out amid the slum favelas, working in a bottling plant and trying to find a cure for his affliction with the internet help of a mysterious Mr Blue.
An accident leads to a drop of his blood contaminating a drink that winds up in the fridge of a cameoing Stan Lee. Russian born, English educated commando Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, playing to the hilt but avoiding the ham) leads a crack snatch squad to capture Banner so that obsessed Colonel Ross (a gruff, steely William Hurt), father of his scientist girlfriend Betsy (Liv Tyler, fair but a little bland), can extract the secret of his powers and continue his clandestine super-soldier programme.
Naturally, after a hairy rooftop chase and the film’s first Hulk-up, Banner escapes, journeys to America to recover the data needed for his cure and finds himself again up against Ross and Blonsky, the power-consumed latter eventually mutating himself into another gamma irradiated monster, the Abomination, for the movie’s mayhem filled epic monster mash showdown centrepiece.
Although the plot-driven narrative’s considerably more straightforward and far less talky than Lee’s version, it’s not without political subtext in regard to the American military and while the pace is action heavy, there’s still breathing space for quieter moments and emotional resonance. With in-jokes about stretch pants, purple trousers, and the famous “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” catch phrase, there’s also room for humour amid the film’s more serious-minded drama.
Aside from a couple of awkwardly abrupt edits, Leterrier doesn’t make any slips with pacing or focus, while the transformation scenes and the CGI Hulk are vastly superior this time round.
But, as Transformers so readily demonstrated, visual effects mean nothing if you don’t engage with the flesh and blood too. Just as Downey owned Iron Man, Norton is the film’s soul, finding the heart within the beast and making the film truly deserving of its adjective.
PRICELESS * * * *
Cert 12A 107 mins Subtitled
Released in France at the end of 2006 and across Europe and Scandinavia last year, it’s taken an inordinately long time for Audrey Tautou’s latest to make its way to these shores.
But for those with a soft spot for Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedies, Trouble In Paradise especially, the wait’s been worth it. Calling it this generation’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a little wishful thinking, but with some very specific nods to that other Audrey (check the hairdo) the comparison isn’t wholly fanciful.
Tautou plays Irene, a gold-digger who has carved herself a life of luxury courtesy of a string of elderly sugar daddies. Holidaying in Biarritz with current willing provider Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff), when he falls asleep on her, she makes her way to the ritzy hotel’s bar.
Here she encounters Jean (Gad Elmaleh), an apparently rich, shy and considerably younger proposition whom she seduces over several cocktails with a view to trading up.
Unfortunately, as she discovers when a family turns up at his luxurious suite the next morning, Jean is actually the hotel barman. Leaving him to face the consequences, she flounces off with Jacques. But by now Jean’s totally smitten and Irene too can’t quite shake a certain attraction.
A year later, when their paths cross again and Jacques, sussing the spark between them, dumps her, Jean follows her back to Nice where, in retaliation for having cost her a cushy number, she allows him to spend his entire savings trying to impress her.
With Jean virtually bankrupt and Irene having landed a new gullible escort, that might be the end of it. Except Jean is mistaken for a practised gigolo by rich middle-aged widow Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam).
She lavishes him with gifts in return for services rendered, prompting a jealous Irene to first tutor him in such tricks of the trade as the unfinished sentence and then embark on friendly rivalry as each looks to outdo the other. Naturally, all the while, denying the obvious attraction between them that’s founded on real feelings rather than material gain.
Although there’s a dark bittersweet centre to the film which presents a world where everything and anything can be bought and sold, writer-director Pierre Salvadori coats it with escapist froth.
He takes the sting out of the exploitation too. Both Jacques and Madeleine are well aware of the arrangements they’ve entered into, we’re allowed to see the fear of destitution that drives Irene and Jean, driven by true love, proves to have moral integrity after all.
It helps, too, that the film’s look is designed as an opulent, sun-kissed Riviera fantasy allowing audiences to vicariously wallow in Cote D’Azur splendour as they soak up the sparkling dialogue and romantic joie de vivre.
Tautou is splendid, bringing all her alluring charm and comedic brio to bear on the mischievous, manipulative but ultimately vulnerable Irene while, with his puppy sad expression and gift for physical comedy, Elmaleh is pure Buster Keaton.
Silly, old-fashioned and hopelessly sentimental, it’s irresistible fun.
SHOTGUN STORIES * * *
Cert 12A 90 mins
This first feature by writer-director Jeff Nichols is a Southern Gothic fable about the self-destructive nature of hatred and vengeance that clearly carries a resonant subtext for contemporary America.
Abandoned by their drunken father as kids, left with perfunctory names Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) Hayes were raised by their hate-filled mother.
Living in small town Arkansas, none of them have amounted to much. Boy spends his time tinkering with his old van, Son works at the fishery and has a gambling habit that’s driven his marriage on the rocks, and Kid is a slacker with vague thoughts of settling down with his girlfriend even though he currently lives in a tent on Son’s lawn.
When their mother offhandedly informs them their father’s died, they decide to gatecrash the funeral. It seems that, dad was Born Again, sobered up and remarried, becoming a respected figure of his community and raising another set of sons who have grown to be middle class farmers.
The preacher’s homilies stick in Son’s craw, and he angrily vents his pent-up anger and spits on the coffin, thereby setting in motion a feud with half-brothers Cleaman (Michael Abbott, Jr), Mark (Travis Smith), Stephen (Lynsee Provence) and John (David Rhodes) that, between hot tempers and stubborn streaks, will eventually lead to bloodshed and tragedy.
Imagine The Dukes of Hazard as written by Larry McMurtry and filmed by Terrence Malick and you’ll have a rough idea where Nichols is at. Played low key with tension rather than melodrama, it plays down the violence and puts its focus on character, deftly drawing out the sense of failure, rejection and the knowledge of being caught in an inescapable destiny that informs Son far more than just inarticulate rage.
Although the second set of Hayes siblings are rather more loosely sketched, Nichols’ insights into his characters and the world to which they are inextricably tied are as sharp as exposed bone, the buckshot scars on Son’s back are all the more resonant for the lack of explanation.
Solidly acted and directed with a spare, poetic style it builds to a redemptive climax but never short-changes the price paid to get there.
VEXILLE * * *
Cert 12A 110 mins Subtitled
Coincidentally mirroring Doomsday, this animated Japanese cyberpunk sci fi actioner is again set in a dystopian future where a female soldier’s sent to infiltrate a land long shut off from the rest of the world.
The land in question being Japan which went into self-imposed global isolation when other countries demanded it join them in banning experiments on fusing human and robot. Ten years on, following an incident involving an android, the UN despatches an elite squad led by Vexille and boyfriend Leon to find out what’s happening.
No sooner have they arrived than the squad’s attacked, Leon captured and Vexille rescued by Tokyo slums resistance fighters, the last remaining vestiges of Japan’s human population, everyone else having been mutated into mechanoid drones by the evil Daiwa corporation who plan to extend the transformations to the rest of the planet.
Filmed in Manga style with its characters sporting Westernised facial features, it’s the latest outing from the creative team behind Appleseed, the first fully CGI anime feature.
Visually it’s quite striking with a largely photo-realist style that really does the X-Box business with the explosions, high tech hardware and landscapes. But it’s also incredibly derivative, blatantly throwing together elements of Isaac Asimov, Star Wars, Philip K Dick, Matrix, and, with its desert dwelling scrap metal worms, Dune.
Driven by a relentless techno soundtrack from the likes of Paul Oakenfold and The Prodigy, it’s undeniably exciting stuff and looks fabulous on the big screen.
Cert 15 90 mins
The Sixth Sense was a masterpiece, Unbreakable a solid if underrated follow up and, despite carping about a clumsy, silly ending, Signs a thoughtful meditation on humanity’s spiritual crisis.
Then came The Village, a major disappointment that felt like a shaggy dog self-parody. To be followed by the profoundly self-indulgent and frankly terrible Lady In The Water. Things couldn’t get any worse. Or could they?
M Night Shyamalan’s latest is another twist-driven thriller, this time with a plot about neurotoxins causing people across America to suddenly start committing violent suicide.
It’s down to teacher Mark Whalberg, who’s escaped the outbreak with estranged wife Zooey Deschanel and a friend’s daughter, to find the cause.
Suffice to say this is Shyamalan’s eco movie, nature’s fighting back and, in the words of the great John Otway, it’s a case of “beware of the flowers cause I’m sure they’re gonna get you, yeah”.
I can’t offer much more than that because the distributor declined to provide regional press shows.
They say it’s to “preserve the mystery”, but with Internet buzz about wooden acting, poor scripting, narrative contrivance and a weak ending, damage limitation seems a much more likely motivation.