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Posts Tagged ‘Ang Lee’

There was a point, during the Great Late Summer Interesting Movie Drought, that I took to hanging around the local library in the afternoons while waiting for the evening Almodovar revival to get under way. One of the books I dipped into was The Greatest Movies Never Made, an account of just exactly what went wrong with the production of Brazzaville, Superman Lives, The Defective Detective, and many others. Of course, ‘never’ is a big word, and I must admit I derived some amusement from the fact that at least two of these ‘never made’ projects had of course either been finished or were well on course to make it to the screen – Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, long a near-mythical enigma, is currently available on Netflix, while Gemini Man, for decades a resident in Development Hell, is out at the moment, finally dragged to the screen by Ang Lee.

A list of all the people at one time tipped to star in this movie reads like a who’s who of Hollywood leading men and action stars: Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and so on. The fact that we have eventually received a version starring Will Smith… well, I suppose it depends on what your opinion of Will Smith is, but I can’t help feeling that he does not have quite the same legendary status as someone like Connery or Eastwood, at least. One must try not to dismiss a film just because another possible version sounds more interesting.

For once, this is not a TV remake and has nothing to do with Ben Murphy turning invisible for 15 minutes a day. Smith plays Henry Brogan, one of those either very trusting or morally flexible chaps who has had no problem with making a career out of being an assassin for the US government, on the understanding he only has to shoot baddies. However, now Brogan is knocking on a bit and decides to retire, rather to the dismay of his handlers. It turns out he has left this just one job too late, as he discovers his last target was not a terrorist as advertised, but a genetic scientist. Dark forces within the military-industrial complex, chiefly personified by private security contractor Clay Varris (Clive Owen), decide that he knows too much to be allowed to live. But how are they going to take out the world’s greatest killer?

Well, it turns out that Varris has got just the man for the job: he’s young, gifted, and black, not to mention the owner of an impressive set of ears. But hang on just a minute here! What can this possibly mean? Well, you’re probably way ahead of me, or have read the publicity for the movie: Owen has sneakily had Smith cloned, and is sending the younger version out to eliminate his progenitor. Older Smith is obliged to go on the run in the company of friendly agent Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winsome) and an old comedy-relief buddy (Benedict Wong). Will the day be won by age and experience or youth and commitment?

As noted, the script for Gemini Man has been doing the rounds since the late 1990s, and the finished movie does have a weirdly old-fashioned vibe to it – perhaps that’s just because it stars people whose years of greatest star wattage do seem to be rather behind them – before Aladdin this year, Will Smith hadn’t had a significant hit in a long time, Clive Owen’s years of being talked of as a potential Bond-in-waiting are long over, and even Mary Elizabeth Winstead seems to have been focusing on her TV career of late. But perhaps it’s more than just the personnel choices – the script is functional enough, but the whole film feels glib and superficial, about surfaces rather than details.

This is, by any reasonable metric, an SF movie of sorts, but the opening section at least feels much more like a slightly hackneyed action film about an aging hitman beginning to grow a conscience. In this respect it has a definite Bourne Identity feel to it, with rather less grit – the presence of Owen probably adds to this. As such it trundles along quite cheerfully. But the clone element is badly fumbled in all sorts of ways – the big reveal that Smith’s pursuer is, well, him, has minimal impact, the revelation sort of seeping into the film rather than being a significant, discrete plot point. The script fails to engage with any of the potential of the idea of being confronted with your own double – it doesn’t address nature versus nurture, the desire for second chances, the potential for resentment, and so on.

The script may not be much cop but what I must concede is that Will Smith does give an unexpectedly good performance – as the older Brogan, anyway. He manages to find some soul and depth and is probably rather better than the script deserves. Everyone else struggles a bit – Owen plays a cartoon baddie, while Winstead is stuck in a largely decorative, transactional role: box office considerations mean there is no prospect of her and Smith, er, getting jiggy with it.

As for the junior Smith – well, the special effects involved in rejuvenating him are somewhat variable, to be honest. In places they are astonishingly good – at one point Smith engages in a complex fight sequence with himself, and the deep-fakery involved is virtually flawless. Other scenes, particularly ones with the two of them wandering about in wide shot, are less than fully convincing. This may also be a consequence of the way the film’s been made – it is available in super-high-frame-rate-3D (I gave it a miss and saw the regular version, as six dimensions of Will Smith is far too many for me), and to make this work it has been shot on special cameras. The end result is crisp and bright and colourful but also strangely lacking in atmosphere. The fact the whole screen is in pinpoint focus all the way through is also strangely distracting and unnatural – it’s not just Smith who spends half the time in the Uncanny Valley, the whole film is there throughout.

Still, as noted, it does work quite well as a weirdly old-fashioned thriller, and there is some well-choreographed action at several points in the movie, even if the climax is vaguely unsatisfactory in a couple of ways. Gemini Man isn’t exactly a bad film, it’s just that given the premise and the talent involved, you would be forgiven for expecting something rather more substantial.

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I have an open offer of a bet that anyone who knows me can take up. The terms are as follows: together we will walk down the high street of any small town in England and visit every charity shop we pass along the way. For every such shop which contains a copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi amongst its second hand stock, you give me £5. For every shop from which Life of Pi is completely absent, I will give you £15. I am confident I will make money on this, for Martel’s book does seem to be one of those which was avidly purchased but not much retained (or, one suspects, finished). Nevertheless its combination of popular and critical success means that a film version has appeared, directed by Ang Lee.

Now, this movie has been released in glowing colour and stereo sound, with 3D also being available should that really be your cup of tea. I have to take all the foregoing for granted, as, in an attempt to foster the success of small independent cinemas across the UK, I went to see it at the Island in St Annes. I saw The Hobbit again there in their main screen and found it perfectly acceptable, but in screen 3 for Life of Pi all was not well: there was some kind of issue with the aspect ratio, the colour was washed out, the sound was a bit iffy and the auditorium too bright. All of this made long sections of the film look and sound about 35 years old (which is sort of ironic as this is when it’s set). I’m all for helping the little guy out, and admittedly it was only £3 a ticket (special New Year offer) – but come on, Island St Annes. You have to do better than this.

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Moving on from the latest instalment of New Cinema Review: in Lee’s film Rafe Spall plays a fictionalised version of Martel himself, a blocked writer who has been directed to talk to middle-aged Asian academic Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), as Pi apparently has the world’s most extraordinary story to tell him. What follows at first is a series of charming, fabulist anecdotes about someone collecting swimming pools, Pi quite wisely choosing to shed his birth name of Piscine Molitor Patel and doing so by a wholly remarkable method, his adoption of three different religions at the same time, and so on.

Then Pi’s father, a fiercely rationalist zookeeper, decides to relocate the family to Canada, taking all the zoo animals with them to sell. En route the ship encounters a savage storm and is lost. Pi, aged 16 (and played by Suraj Sharma), is the only survivor, finding himself adrift in a lifeboat with only a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger for company, and most of the rest of the film concerns his various battles with nature and despair, with little hope of returning to dry land and an unpleasant death in the offing from any number of directions. (I had a similar experience on the boating lake at Butlin’s Filey in 1983, although come to think of it there wasn’t a tiger involved that time.)

Life of Pi‘s combination of narrative quirkiness and peculiar formal challenge instantly made me think that this was the kind of film entirely up Danny Boyle’s street – perhaps this would have been a little too obvious a choice for him, given he’s already done the remarkable life story of an Indian youth, as well as a struggle for survival with only one real character and a single location involved. Anyway, he spent most of last year either pepping up Baron Frankenstein or wondering at aisles, and so the job went to Ang Lee. The golden thread running with utter consistency through Lee’s filmography is that his films have virtually nothing in common with each other – this is the guy who’s done the costume drama literary adaptation, the martial arts arthouse favourite, the one about the gay shepherds, and the first version of Hulk, and so one shouldn’t be surprised by anything he chooses to do.

Personally I find I can take or leave Ang Lee’s movies – they all look good and are clearly the work of someone thoughtful, but quite often I find I can’t really engage with the story for whatever reason. I thought Life of Pi was one of Lee’s better films, although as a technical achievement more than anything else. You would think that an hour-plus of someone stuck on a raft or in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger would quickly get monotonous, if not actually boring – but the film remains engaging and nuanced throughout, with a distinct sense of a developing narrative (though I did wonder why the lifeboat never filled up with tiger dung). Sometimes it is tense, sometimes moving, sometimes funny: and this is largely down to Lee’s direction and a very assured performance from Suraj Sharma – given the prologue and epilogue sections of the film are very voiceover-heavy, Lee employs this device surprisingly sparingly for the main part of it. Richard Parker the tiger appears to be a fully CGI-ed creation, and an impressive one – presumably the original footage features a lot of Andy Serkis in a striped onesie.

The main section is also surprisingly light on obvious symbolism or Big Questions, especially given that the lengthy prologue seems to be going out of its way to raise serious issues concerning faith and religion, and our relationship with the natural world. The fact that the animals in the lifeboat are not remotely narrative-friendly or anthropomorphised in the slightest is a crucial one and seems to me to be central to the film. At one point this seemed to me to be becoming a deeply and openly allegorical story, with all sorts of parallels to different religious stories – but also one about what it means to be a human being trying to make sense of a complex and chaotic world. The film doesn’t really make much sense as anything else, so it’s just as well that it’s quite effective in those terms (although there’s a sequence where Pi encounters a very odd island inhabitated solely by meerkats that I’m not sure completely works – thankfully none of the meerkats try to sell him insurance, though).

This is a well-made and striking film about what it is that distinguishes us from the other animals of the world: and seemed to me to be suggesting that it’s our capacity for faith that makes the crucial difference. I’m not sure I agree with that myself, but Life of Pi is interesting and enjoyable enough whether you agree with its central thesis or not (or even with my idea of what its central thesis actually is). Probably not quite strong enough to pick up the big awards in the looming gong season (with the possible exception of Suraj Sharma’s performance), but a classy and serious film, worth seeing in a decent theatre.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  17th July 2003:

When it comes to the big, mega-profitable, summer event movie blockbusters, who would you say was the most influential man in Hollywood right now? Spielberg? Nah. His last few films have shown an edginess which, while welcome, is rather uncommercial. Lucas? Give me a break. The man’s head is wedged firmly up his own thermal exhaust port, and in any case, the original Star Wars owes a clear debt to the work of the real big cheese – octogenarian comic book writer Stan Lee.

My evidence? Four of the most financially successful action movies of the last year or so: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X2, and now the long-awaited adaptation of Hulk, directed by Ang Lee (no relation) – all of them fruits of a relatively brief period of extraordinary creativity for Lee, nearly forty years ago. Co-created, like the X-Men, with legendary artist Jack Kirby, the Hulk has always been the darkest, strangest, and most morally ambiguous of the big-name superheroes. The fame of the character, in the UK at least, is largely due to the TV series of the late 1970s, where a rather domesticated and wimpy Hulk travelled America as a kind of hitch-hiking social worker. Lee’s film returns to the original comics, with impressive results.

Hulk opens with a sequence set in the 1960s, as army scientist David Banner struggles to artificially augment the human immune and regenerative systems. Forced to test his work on himself, he is shocked when his wife gives birth to a son, Bruce, who possesses a unique genetic anomaly – and his attempt to rectify his mistakes will have tragic consequences for all three of them. Thirty-five years later, the now-grown Bruce Banner (played, slightly confusingly, by Eric Bana) is a civilian researcher in the same area, though unaware of his past – or that his girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, once again playing the love interest to a genius with a split personality) has a distant connection to it. But Bruce is forced to confront his personal demons as his father (now played by Nick Nolte) reappears, and an accidental dose of gamma radiation leaves him rather green around the gills. And everywhere else…

This film has taken a fair bit of stick for being overly long and wordy and slow to get going. And to be totally honest, this is not entirely unfounded. It’s over half an hour before the Hulk puts in an appearance, and prior to this it is quite talky, with Ang Lee seemingly obsessed with close-ups of lichen growing on rocks. This is nothing like as faithful an adaptation of the comic as, for example, the Spider-Man movie, but given the extent to which the Hulk changed in the early years of his career this was probably inevitable. It’s to the script’s credit that nearly all the regular characters from the early books appear (no sign of Rick Jones or the Grey Hulk, though) and it wholeheartedly adopts the psychological take on the relationship between Banner and the Hulk which Peter David brought to the comic in the early 1990s. This is why the film takes its time to begin with – establishing Banner’s character and inner turmoil is crucial to the story it wants to tell.

But once the Hulk does appear, things pick up pace rapidly. This is the real deal, the comic-book Hulk – all the movie retains from the TV show is the iconic ‘Don’t make me angry…’ line, and even this is given an arch twist. (Oh, and TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno cameos alongside Stan Lee himself near the start.) The CGI Hulk is hugely impressive, both in the action scenes – demolishing redwoods during a startlingly brutal fight with irradiated pit-bulls, casually ripping tanks apart, leaping miles at a time – and in the quieter moments when he confronts Betty or his father. It’d have been nice if the big guy had been given more dialogue, but I suppose you can’t have everything. (The perennial question of ‘Why does the Hulk’s shirt fall off but not his trousers?’ is also sort-of addressed, a source of much sniggering during the screening I attended.)

The film stutters a bit in its closing stages. Clearly recognising the similarities between the Hulk and Godzilla – both the result of accidents with radiation, both slightly morally ambiguous, both very bad news for insurance companies – the film-makers give him an opponent worthy of his mettle in the final reel (the lack of which was one of the main flaws in the Emmerich Godzilla of five years ago). Without wishing to spoil it too much, the villainous character is essentially new, but his superpower should be very familiar to long-time comics fans. However, his actual agenda and motivation are rather unclear and – while undoubtedly spectacular – the actual battle is too brief and poorly lit to be really satisfying.

This doesn’t detract too much from a satisfyingly meaty and intelligent action movie. All the main roles are solidly played – with the possible exception of Josh Lucas’ slightly hammy performance as Banner’s rival Glen Talbot – and Ang Lee directs with impressive pace and energy, using split-screen and a range of imaginative cuts and wipes to great effect. This possibly isn’t a movie to take small children along to see, as it is a slow starter and what humour there is is subtle and quite black – but with its brooding intensity and emphasis on characterisation it fully does justice to the source material. Now all we need is for the Hulk to fight Wolverine in the sequel, and a spin-off starring Michelle Rodriguez as the She-Hulk, and I can die a happy man.

Another one for the ‘rather over-enthusiastic and over-generous’ file, I fear…

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