by Steve Habrat
If James Cameron’s day-glo spectacle Avatar had you longing for another visually immersive event movie, then you need to run, not walk, to Ang Lee’s shipwrecked epic Life of Pi. Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name, many fans of the book argued that the story would never transfer properly to the big screen but we all know that will never stop Hollywood from trying. There is no argument that Lee’s Life of Pi has plenty of emotional force and spiritual weight behind all the dazzling visuals and eye-popping 3D but the major problem with the film is that it does seem to loose its way more than a few times. At slightly over two hours, Life of Pi does get a bit long in the tooth, especially when the film trades the dry land whimsicality for Pi’s soggy Pacific adventure. Still, Life of Pi has plenty of cutesy humor, young love, religious curiosity, and tough life lessons worked into the first half of the film to shape the towering second half. Despite boredom setting in here and there, you can’t ever take you eyes off of star Suraj Sharma and his growling travel buddy, Richard Parker, a savage Bengal tiger eager to claim their little slice of lifeboat heaven for himself. It is a joy to watch these two try to establish a mutual trust so they can work together and ultimately be saved.
Life of Pi begins in the present with a Canadian writer (Played by Rafe Spall) approaching Indian immigrant Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Played by Irfan Khan) about an incredible story that would make a great book and make him believe in God. Pi agrees to share his story, which begins in Pondicherry, with how he got his unusual name (he’s named after a swimming pool in France) and how he got his nickname Pi (he gets sick of being called “Pissing” Patel by his classmates). Pi also dives into how he became interested in religion (he follows THREE religions) and how his family owned a local zoo that contained a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. At the age of sixteen, Pi (Played by Suraj Sharma) and his family decide to close up their zoo and move to Canada. They board the Japanese freighter Tsimtsum along with their family of animals and they settle in for what they assume will be a relatively smooth journey. Shortly after setting out, the ship encounters a terrible storm and Pi’s entire family is killed as the ship sinks. Pi manages to find his way into a lifeboat but a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker soon join him. All alone and fearing for his life, Pi has to learn to work together with his wild travel buddies and hold on to his faith in face of the impossible.
Considering that a majority of Life of Pi is set in a lifeboat, one could assume that the film would get awfully dry very fast. How do you keep the viewer hooked and entertained visually? Lee seems to understand this so he crafts a number of hallucinatory sequences that boast Avatar’s neon glow and 3D that expands Pi’s watery environment. Near the end of the film, Pi stumbles upon an island that is paradise by day for the hungry and thirsty traveler and then a glowing Hell in the same vein of Pandora by night. The island is inhabited by armies of meerkats, who munch on the algae and roots in the sunshine but dash into the trees when the sun sets to avoid the acid that takes the place of the fresh water. Even Richard Parker can sense that something is off in this island that may or may not exist. Then there are the moments where Pi’s boat drifts silently over smooth waters that reflect the starry sky above. It would seem that Pi is floating through the stars. And we can’t forget the humor from David Magee’s screenplay, which infuses a little more pep in Life of Pi’s step. The crown jewel is the scene in which Pi tries to establish territory on the boat using urine. Of course, Richard Parker doesn’t take kindly to this and proceeds to pee on Pi.
Life of Pi is basically a one-man show in the acting department. Sharma is incredible as the crafty Pi, who has to figure out a way to keep away from his ferocious travel buddy. Lee allows him to pepper in some physical comedy as well as play with his faith to give his performance a powerful punch. He did move me when he shouts at the sky in a storm, demanding to know what else God wants from him. We share in his joy when he catches a massive fish and feel his disappointment when he spots a ship far in the distance ignoring his flares and sailing the opposite direction. You may even fight back a tear when Pi attempts to grieve for his dead family but he doesn’t get much time to properly mourn. In the present, Pi is portrayed by Khan, who is basically the storyteller and boy, does he sell it. His tear jerking final moments will floor you. Spall’s writer is there just to move the story along and to act as a Ryan Reynolds lookalike (Maybe Reynolds was too busy?). Tabu is another stand out as Pi’s loving mother, Gita Patel, who is tickled by Pi’s curiosity in religion. Adil Hussain leaves a mark as Pi’s strict but wise father, Santosh Patel. And we can’t forget Richard Parker, a mostly CGI creation but one that really seems to be flesh, hair and blood. The relationship that builds between him and Pi is wondrous.
While I hate to criticize Life of Pi for loosing my interest in a few parts, I feel as though a film should hold me every single second it is on the screen. I should be wrapped up in every single moment, big and small, but sadly, there were parts where I found myself drifting out of Pi’s adventure. No matter how much spectacle Lee threw my way, I wanted the story to progress and at times I felt as though it wasn’t. I did enjoy the out-of-left-field twist at the end, which does leave a lump in the viewer’s throat. I also really liked Pi’s mini pit stop on that seriously astonishing island. If you are planning on checking out Life of Pi on strictly an entertainment level, you are going to be broadsided by how heavy the film gets at points. The film makes the bold claim that by the end of this story, you will believe in God. Whether it accomplishes this task is completely up to you but I wasn’t necessarily swelling with faith by the end credits. Overall, like a moth to a light, you can’t help but be drawn to it’s idea that even when facing impossible odds, hope will deliver you through it. It will also be very hard to resist Lee’s marvelous direction (I smell a Best Director nomination) but at over two hours, Life of Pi is a bit bloated. It may not rank at Lee’s best film but Life of Pi is certainly a rousing and tender work of art that will have a heavy presence come awards time.
by Steve Habrat
After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.
The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.
In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.
The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to. The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.
The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor. Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.
Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.
The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life. Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.
While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.
Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.
With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.
Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.