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by Bill Gibron

18 Oct 2008

The verdict is in and the decision is, to say the least, confusing. When Ang Lee’s interpretation of the classic green-skinned Marvel character arrived in 2003, it was considered a massive failure, not only commercially but critically. Fans of the anger-inspired behemoth were not pleased with all the psychological mumbo jumbo, and the father/son issues explored seemed to take a back seat to any kind of recognizable action or spectacle. A mere $140 million at the box office and a marginal 61% “freshness” rating at Rotten Tomatoes remains its unfairly marginalized legacy.

So when it was announced that the comic book company itself was “reimagining” the potential franchise, righting the graphic novel geek wrongs attempted by Lee, the fanbase celebrated. After all, anything had to be better than an excessively dramatic take on the radioactive rage-aholic Dr. Bruce Banner and his oversized inner demon, right? Well, not exactly. With a very similar sounding $140 million in revenue and a 67% “freshness” assessment at RT, it looks like once a Hulk, always a Hulk. Of course, we might have had a monster movie version of The Dark Knight had star Edward Norton and director Louis Leterrier had their way. On the recent DVD release of the summer smash from Universal, the filmmaker discusses the ambitious version of the narrative that was shot down by a studio that wanted more bang and less brooding.

It’s been several years since Bruce Banner accidentally overdosed on gamma radiation, changing the entire genetic make-up of his body. Now, whenever he gets too excited, or angry, he turns into a monstrous behemoth, a creature capable of unbelievable strength and unconscionable violence. Just when he thinks he’s stumbled upon a possible cure, Army General Thaddeus Ross reenters his life. The man in charge of Banner’s initial experiments, he lost more than a potential weapon the day his subject went haywire. His daughter, the dedicated scientist Betty Ross, refuses to forgive him for what happened, and she’s now disowned him. When a Russian/English mercenary named Emil Blonsky decides to undergo a similar procedure, he doesn’t become the “ultimate solider”. Instead, he becomes an ‘abomination” that the ‘hulk’ must battle. 

Again, it has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision. Those who claim it far surpasses the 2003 original are merely applying their own form of aesthetic selective memory. Though Louis Leterrier has a limited pedigree as the creator of big time blockbuster fare, at least his time taking the Transporter franchise through the action genre motions means this version of the Marvel monster can really kick some butt. Sure, our French filmmaker is still enamored with a chaotic, quick cut style of cinema that renders carefully choreographed battles a blur, but there are moments in this movie where his constantly moving lens add authenticity to the otherwise fantastical elements. There is one sequence in particular where Hulk battles the military among the trees and grounds of a college campus. Here, Leterrier’s style clearly complements the ballistics.

The Incredible Hulk also gets an upgrade when it comes to casting. Norton may not be everyone’s idea of a solid superhero, but he brings the right amount of humanity to the role. He manages to enrich even the most routine lines, and he’s a clear step above the rather sedate Eric Bana. Similarly, Liv Tyler trumps the zombie like zero that was Jennifer Connelly in Lee’s version. Sure, Betty is still reduced to emotional eye candy, standing by her shapeshifting man through thick…and thicker. But Tyler retains her dignity. Tim Roth’s arrival as the main villain, Emil Blonsky is okay, if nothing truly spectacular. After an opening sequence where he slaughters anything that moves, we never really experience his true evil. It’s just a given, considering the lengths he will go through to get to the Hulk. With William Hurt hilarious in a wry, smirk supporting moustache and Tim Blake Nelson as a helpful scientist with a secret agenda, this is a capable company of performers.

Still, there are parts of the script that can’t help but get in the way. If Banner says it once, he says the “weapons” line about 20 times. It’s as if Norton loved the idea of playing on the “military industrial complex” nature of the character and went overboard. Also, there’s no real backstory built in. The opening credits feature a recreated montage of material straight out of the old TV intro, but we never discover why Banner is in exile, how he has battled the armed forces to maintain his privacy, why Betty would be against his attempts at curing/helping his affliction, and how our hero could continue his research in what looks like one of the more squalid slums in Brazil. Between the initial encounter/take down with the factory worker bullies to the eventual arrival of superbeast Abomination, there’s a lot of interpersonal padding, material that seems mandated by Norton’s desire to tread as close to Ang territory without pissing off that other important Lee - Stan.

Of course, this was not always the case. As we learn countless times during the DVD presentation, there was almost an hour of material cut from the original Incredible Hulk release. Per distributor mandate - and over the fiery objections of Leterrier and Norton - the character complexity and darker nature of the narrative was undermined so there would be an emphasis on popcorn pyrotechnics and the usual Summer season bombast. Prior to the films opening, the filmmaker had hinted at a Special Edition release of his longer, more involved “director’s cut”. Sadly, as of now, this is not included as part of any Incredible Hulk digital package. The one disc set has a small selection of deleted scene. Multi-DVD collections have some more (including a sneak peek at Captain America), but nothing else.

All of which begs the question of intent. If Marvel took back the control of its characters to make sure another Ang Lee experiment wouldn’t occur, why did they allow Universal to destroy that conceit? Why make a new Hulk if you were simply going to improve the cast and yet walk down the same mental/emotional path? Norton does give things more gravitas, and when he turns into the title creature, the CGI is smoother and more striking, but that’s about all. Unfortunately, no one is comfortable enough with the technology to allow for that all important full blown head on transformation money shot. There is an “almost” moment when Banner is undergoing the experimental treatment that may cure him, but Leterrier’s cutting countermands any awe. In fact, there is so much down to editorial earth control over the context that the cautiousness grows aggravating.

There are those who have likened The Incredible Hulk to Marvel’s other Summer stunner, Iron Man and argued for the company’s retention of creative control. Granted, the comic company made many of the right decisions, especially when it came to allowing real actors and capable directors to helm their efforts. Yet before the accolades get too bulky, one thing is certain - this reimagining of the big green beast with unfathomable brute strength is not the success of his metal suited brethren. Historically, both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk will be viewed as decent, dependable hits, with the latter satisfying the all important nerd contingent. In that regard and that regard alone, it was a success. All other aspects demand a draw.

by tjmHolden

17 Oct 2008

Rob Horning’s contribution, The Pejorative Gay, yesterday drew attention to one word (“gay”) and the (negative) traction it has gained in (English-speaking) society. As he observed, it has come to be associated with a particular (pejorative) meaning, with attendant implications (and negative outcomes). His discussion was interesting as far as it went—a consideration of the power of a particular word in a society—but as I read it, my first thought ran to origins. Whereas Rob’s point of departure was how “gay” once mean “lame” (to him), my first association (and the one I tend generally to employ) was of “merriment” or “mirth-full”; and in Pop-cultural terms, the first voice I heard was Dylan’s: his (intentional) choice in Standing in a Doorway to croon: “I’m strummin’ on my gay guitar”—a very different use of the word, and one which hues more closely to its original intended meaning and accepted understanding. Reminding us that language is organic and what words become—the life that they take on—may differ greatly from what they were, where and how they began.

I would have left it there—a one-off thought flitting through the (hopelessly unchartable) labyrinth of my mind—had it not been for John McCain’s coincidental appearance on Letterman last night. For those who didn’t catch it, or wish a refresher, you can find it here:

 


 

by Thomas Hauner

17 Oct 2008

Ray LaMontagne is that unassuming success story of awe-shucks charm and high-end luck. He worked a dead-end shoe-factory job in Lewiston, Maine after barely graduating from high school in Utah until one morning he heard Stephen Stills’ song “Treetop Flyer” playing on the radio. After purchasing Stills Alone he made the decision to follow in his absent father’s footsteps and pursue music. 

Demo tapes followed as did local club appearances and sooner than later his tape found its way to a publisher at Chrysalis Music, who recorded his first album and then sold it to RCA records. That album, Trouble—full of melancholy acoustic ballads, echoey melodies, and serenading fiddles—was his launching pad into the folk-rock realm. Since then he has steadfastly, but timidly, held his own, refining his sentimental songwriting and soaring arrangements with producer Ethan Johns, who helped merge LaMontagne’s intertwining folk, rock, and funk sounds.

His current tour, in support of his third release Gossip in the Grain, features LaMontagne with the new album’s musical personnel and a gracefully mature, sensitive sound. He also brought his notorious reclusion, gently leading off each song with a whispered, “One, two, three, four…”

The evening’s setlist heavily favored tracks from Gossip in the Grain, which was understandable as the instrumentation on stage suited the album’s rich arrangements. Beginning with the blues-trodden opening track “You Are the Best Thing”, LaMontagne’s adaptable brass section punched lively despair into it. “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and the crowd pleaser “Three More Days” also received the full funk brass treatment, while others evoked a more traditional Preservation Hall jazz sound.

Most remarkable was the touch and dynamics applied by LaMontagne and his ensemble—which included Wurlitzer, pedal steel guitar, drums, and bass. Known for his devastatingly evanescent Van Morrison-style voice, (on “Roses and Cigarettes” his voice even seemed to sublimate, one moment solid, the next vaporous) the ability of the band to match his hazy vocal idiosyncrasies gave shape and emotional weight to each of the songs.

This was most effective in gorgeously slow pastoral ballads like “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)”, “Sarah”, the ambiguously ironic but still playful “Meg White”, and the evening’s denouement, “Trouble”. Later solo, LaMontagne reverberated off of Radio City’s stellar acoustics.

Though LaMontagne maintained his shy persona, he could not hide from the crowd’s roaring response. It necessitated playing two encores (six songs total) to complete his own pinch-me, “Are you kidding me?” Radio City return—something the folk singer does not succumb to that easily.

by Rob Horning

17 Oct 2008

It’s easy to think of financial industry honchos as a bunch of arrogant, entitled creeps, but maybe they aren’t all bad. Hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde recently quit running his fund, and his letter to investors is a must-read. Apparently he’s a champion of building a meritocracy, having a new Constitutional Congress, and letting everyone get high.

by Bill Gibron

17 Oct 2008

Some legends are impossible to capture on film. When an icon inexplicably becomes something to everyone, no matter the era, that personal pliability and universal appeal is as elusive to illustrate as any other kind of large scale cine-magic. For decades, the mythos of Charlie Chaplin, one the greatest silent comedians of all time, was an incomprehensible motion picture mystique. Because of the public adoration of the man combined with his undeniable skill as an actor, director, innovator, and visionary, the subject promised to be too big, the scope too massive, for a standard mainstream audience to appreciate. But Oscar winning director Richard Attenborough wanted to try. Hiring the then hot Robert Downey Jr. for his biopic on the little tramp, Chaplin offered up history as half-baked studio schmaltz. Some 15 years later, we can utilize many of its numerous charms to overcome some of the obvious creative flaws.

It is clear from the earliest days of young Chaplin’s life that he would grow up to be a complex, incomplete man. While exceptionally talented, his mother had difficulty raising both he and his brother Sidney. The boys eventually wind up in the poorhouse, creating a lifelong desire for success in the small Charlie. Eventually, their parent goes insane, and the Chaplins are left to fend for themselves. Using his extraordinary abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian, Charlie becomes a UK musical hall sensation. While on tour in America, he learns about films, and is instantly fascinated. Starting with the famed Mack Sennett before striking out on his own, Charlie takes the country by storm. Soon, he has brought his family over to help with his career, while scandal bubbled beneath the surface. As with modern superstars, his status brings scrutiny from the press, the FBI, and his fellow Hollywood heavyweights. 

Using the bookend narrative device of an elderly Charlie recounting his life to a biographer (Anthony Hopkins), Attenborough’s attempted encapsulation of his celebrated subject (offered up on a brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD by Lionsgate) has flashes of familiar genius. We love the moment when a stage struck Charlie learns the magic of live laughter. We relish the introduction to Sennett, the minor bit of pantomime confirming the actor’s ID to the egotistical producer. When he hobnobs with fellow motion picture personalities, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, we enjoy the celebrity camaraderie. But then Chaplin stumbles once the man’s unusual personal life comes calling. Charlie was someone who liked his women attractive, available, and often underage. It would be one of several dark clouds that would hang over, but not destroy, his megaton reputation.

Indeed, the balance Attenborough tries to create throughout Chaplin, an uneasy equilibrium between what happens on set and what occurs in the bedroom (and later, the courtroom), seems counterproductive to the story he is attempting. This is cinematic hero worship, make no bones about it, a clear endeavor to redefine the man outside of his obvious character flaws. By employing Downey, who was beginning his own downward spiral toward tabloid infamy at the time, Attenborough found a kindred spirit. Only 27, he captured all the elements of Charlie, from his free wheeling love of life and the art of creation to the more miserable moments when the world seemed to strategically target his fame. A great mimic, the actor brings many classic moments from the idol’s canon to life. Yet as with most biopic presentations, he seems as aloof and incomplete as the film surrounding him.

And as if to remind audiences of how great Downey was (he was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman), the new DVD set offers up a selection of featurettes which focus almost exclusively on the link between the subject and the performer posited to take him on. “All at Sea” provides a rare glimpse of the real Chaplin at home. Here, he takes a boat trip with then gal pal Paulette Goddard. “Strolling in the Sunset” is a very frank discussion about the flaws found in the film. Oddly enough, most of the criticism comes from the mouth of Attenborough himself. As if to emphasize the already obvious impact of his monumental renown, “The Most Famous Man in the World” and “Chaplin the Hero” are exercises in deconstruction, explaining the actor’s ability to maintain his mythos even in light of the controversy he caused.

Of course, the most important added content is not found on this new release. Attenborough claims that his original cut of Chaplin was over four hours long. At the studio’s behest, he went back to the editing bay and trimmed the picture down to 150 minutes. Still not satisfied, he was mandated to remove an additional quarter of an hour of what he now considers to be “crucial” material. As a result, the filmmaker is still not entirely happy with the end results. Why Lionsgate didn’t appease the 85 year old stalwart and provide the missing footage remains a mystery. Perhaps they understood the limited appeal of the film itself - it was not a box office hit upon release, and remains a movie of mixed reactions - and figured a few new extras and a polished up transfer would be good enough.

Except when it comes to Charlie Chaplin, merely average is not acceptable. Like the other silent greats who he often battles for cinematic supremacy (Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, FYI), his importance to the artform and the overall growth of the burgeoning medium cannot be underestimated. These were men who made history by actually opening up a blank page in cinema’s struggling primer and writing down the very first rules. They didn’t redefine a genre or reinvent a type. Instead, they laid the foundation for almost everything that film would become in later decades. While one would never suggest that their story is incapable of being told properly, it’s clear that Chaplin’s outsized importance can’t be reduced to a single storyline - four hours or forty hours long. Robert Downey Jr. is a significant reason why this 1993 effort is worth revisiting. Everything else feels piecemeal and perfunctory.

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