Thursday, 10 July 2008

Recent Round-Up: The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock & The Mist

The Edinburgh Festival caused me to be away from updating these reviews for longer than intended, so as a way of getting back up to speed here’s my brief verdicts on the biggest movies of the last few weeks, with two notable exceptions. The first is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which was so bland and boring that it should have been called The Nothing Happening, and the other is Prince Caspian, which I still haven’t found the time or sufficient enthusiasm to go see yet. So with that sorted, here goes…

The Incredible Hulk – Marvel’s so-called ‘reboot’ of the Hulk franchise, after Ang Lee’s largely unloved 2003 effort, has a few good things going for it, but didn’t do much to convince me that its central character deserved another movie attempt. On the plus side, Ed Norton is always watchable, and his Bruce Banner is certainly more compelling than the version played by Eric Bana in Lee’s film. The film also has some exciting action scenes, particularly at the beginning, where director Louis Letterier keeps the Hulk hidden in shadow for his first freak-out, which works well.

But the film suffers from some long dull stretches, where it retreads the old Jekyll/Hyde split personality trauma that the first film already well and truly covered. Okay, it’s the defining aspect of this character, but couldn’t they have come up with a more interesting plot in which to explore it? Towards the end of the film there is a noticeable development in the Hulk’s character, suggesting that he can become more of a harnessed, morally-driven being in further adventures. This seemed to me a good direction in which to take the character, but why take 90 plodding minutes to get there?
Screen Fever Score – 5/10

Wanted – The trailer promised jaw-dropping action, but while Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) delivers some undeniably exhilarating scenes – particularly an initial car-chase sequence that threatens to explode right out of the screen – Wanted is empty-headed and instantly forgettable. The story has James McAvoy’s office drone Wesley recruited by the smokin’ hot Fox (Angelina Jolie) to fulfil his destiny and join a team of assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). It’s Matrix rip-off territory, but where The Wachowski Brothers brought a sense of philosophical depth and internal logic to their far-fetched action adventure, Bekmambetov doesn’t even pay a passing nod to the notion of coherence. The result is completely unbelievable, even on its own terms, and by the time the stupid plot twists kick in Wanted starts to really test the patience; you’ll find it hard to care who lives and dies by the end. As it piles on the excessive profanity and countless bullet-in-the-head shots, Wanted becomes less and less fun.
Screen Fever Score – 4/10

Kung Fu Panda – Now this is more like it. With a central character you can root for, some great laughs and some butt-kicking action scenes, Dreamworks’ latest animation hits all the right buttons. Jack Black is perfectly cast as the voice of Po the Panda, the kung fu geek who ends up training alongside his martial arts heroes under the tutelage of the Dustin Hoffman-voiced Master Shifu. Black’s unique bombastic delivery suits the hyper-enthusiastic Po to a tee, although his funniest dialogue is right at the beginning of the film in a dream sequence filled with “awesomeness!” The script raises consistent chuckles rather than big belly laughs, and the animation is simply amazing, making the fantastic fight scenes really feel alive. Fun for all the family.
Screen Fever Score – 7/10

Hancock – I also enjoyed this a lot, so don’t listen to all the harsh reviews it’s been getting. Will Smith and Jason Bateman are both great as the titular alcoholic superhero (Smith) and the PR guy who tries to reform him (Bateman), and the film is a much more interesting take on the superhero genre than most of the recent comic-book adaptations we’ve seen. It’s refreshing to see a superhero film that acknowledges the audiences familiarity with the conventions of the genre; we are introduced to Hancock fully-formed, there’s no time wasted on ‘how he got his powers’ nonsense – it just throws the character at us and expects us to keep up as the story unfolds.

Most of the criticism the film has received is to do with a major twist two-thirds of the way through the film, but I don’t think this is as much of a problem as many critics would have us believe. The seeds for the twist are laid very early in the film, and it isn’t as much of a tonal shift as has been made out; the film has a dark streak running through it from the start. There are some big laughs to be had early on, but the film never pretends to aim for straightforward comedy. It’s more complicated than that, and the twist is a natural progression along these lines. Hancock tries to be a bit original, and in the realm of summer movies that deserves praise.
Screen Fever Score – 7/10

The Mist – This latest film from Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile director Frank Darabont is another Stephen King adaptation, but it’s much more representative of the ├╝ber horror-writer’s signature style than the aforementioned epics. The Mist is a no-nonsense, old-fashioned B-movie scare-fest, complete with giant bugs and splattery gore. But this is no slapdash, thrown together affair; it’s tightly constructed, creepily atmospheric and has a terrifically shocking ending. It seems clear that, having taken the critical and commercial failure of his Jim Carrey starrer The Majestic on the chin, Darabont has gone back to stripped-down basics and rediscovered his raw passion for movie-making.

Unfolding almost in real time as the population of a small community hole up in the local supermarket, surrounded by an inexplicable mist containing all manner of horrific beasties, the film is gripping and very scary, and even has an effective underlying social commentary. It won’t be in cinemas for half as long as any of the aforementioned blockbusters, but it’s superior to all of them, and represents a very welcome comeback from Darabont.
Screen Fever Score – 8/10

The Incredible Hulk (12A), Wanted (18), Kung Fu Panda (PG) and Hancock (12A) are on general release now.
The Mist (15) is in selected cinemas now. Don’t miss it!

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