By the calendar it’s not quite summer yet, but the northeast has already wilted under August heat — and the movies already feel spent and depleted, in need of a second wind. The Pixar movie, WALL-E, might do it: a film without dialogue seems like a mighty good idea given the screenwriting of late. But this week’s comedies — I had held out hope for Get Smart, but based on word-of-shoe-phone will likely get it on Netflix or HBO next summer — feel like filler. I’m lukewarm on Will Smith’s latest Fourth of July picture (I’m lukewarm on Will Smith, period). There are indies to be considered, but by and large, I can Rip Van Winkle the hoped-for Hollywood hits till mid-July, when The Dark Knight and, yes, Mamma Mia! open. I have a growing curiosity about Hellboy II, but it’s hard to see a cult-ish sequel getting much traction.
Still, I’m not entirely disenchanted, though you might think me so given last week’s no-show. I went to the press screening of The Incredible Hulk, like a good little critic, and banged out a few paragraphs on it, admittedly a bit late. But WordPress ate my homework, which I didn’t realize till yesterday. Now, I could push the “delete” key, and be done with yesterday’s hit, which you can already scrape mold from. But, no — I made the effort, dammit, so having raged at the machine here it is, slightly freshened as we head to this week’s haul.
The dumb-ass Hulk movie some of you have been waiting for has arrived. Hear me out: While Ang Lee’s much-mocked V.1 of 2003 makes a mountain out of a molehill, digging deep into a simple Marvel concept, it has an abundance of style, and maybe too much of everything, really. There’s a crazily Freudian father-son dynamic, Pop Art editing matched to comic book frames, and loony flights of fancy (the untamable Hulk leaping over mountains) that only a top-flight filmmaker would dare to risk. By contrast, there’s nothing particularly at stake in the new do-over, The Incredible Hulk. It’s an unleavened summer blockbuster, an entertainment machine that blows things up, sputters, grinds, and stops after two hours, then resumes to pick up new passengers at the multiplex.
Hulk left me feeling overstuffed, but I knew I had seen something that departed from the comic book adaptation template. The Incredible Hulk clings to it for dear life, too timid to do anything out of the ordinary and jeopardize the gross and the franchise possibilities. What backstory there is comes under the opening credits. We are then sent packing to Rio, via swoony, sweeping cinematography that gave me eyestrain, where the hunted and haunted Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) ekes out a living in a soda-bottling factory situated in the favela. (Zak Penn’s script, rife with the usual incoherencies in this type of film, is obliged to explain how the all-American Norton fits in with the slum dwellers.) Mostly, he tries to keep his temper in check, and pines for the love he left behind in his flight from the States, Betty Ross (played, with Hulk-sized lips, by Liv Tyler). But her Rumsfeld-like dad, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (a slum-dwelling William Hurt, outfitted with bad hair and a cigar), gets a bead on him, and he and an elite unit flush out the Hulk in a moody, Bourne-style sequence through alleyways and over rooftops that is the highlight of the picture. (Rather than look for something fresh, the director, Louis Leterrier of The Transporter pictures, borrows the last big thing.)
It’s not really clear to me why Ross wants Banner and his 9’-tall alter ego. After the Hulk eludes his pursuers, Ross tells Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), the team’s wild card, that he has a “super-soldier” formula of his own. A painful injection gives the middle-aged Blonsky, who’s hoping to recapture his youthful mojo, enough quicksilver moves to parry with the Hulk on their next go-round, on the Virginia campus where Banner goes to find a cure and Betty. That would seem sufficient to me for the U.S. to lick its adversaries. How would the military handle a bunch of uncontrollable Hulk-sized WMD? How much would all those extra plus-sized pants and insignia cost?
Leaving character motivation behind, there are two big problems with the film: Bruce Banner, and the Hulk. Norton is a fan of the comic, and is said to have futzed with the screenplay, but I suspect he and Lee might have been more in sync. The actor has of late specialized in doing quiet, reflective work in good films (like Down in the Valley and The Painted Veil) that combined earned less than this one will made in its first showings, and I don’t begrudge him his payday in a lighter-weight assignment. But he gives a weary, bedraggled performance, or, rather, half of one — there’s nothing of him in the CGI when the workstations kick in and Banner hulks out. (And he and Tyler, the poor woman’s Jennifer Connelly, do not sweet music make in the marking-time love scenes.) The root of his failure to do much with the role is, I think, the role itself. Banner isn’t much of a hero, much less a superhero. He’s a victim of circumstance, always acting on the defensive or having to clean up the military’s messes. Worse, from a dramatic standpoint, he’s uninterested in plumbing his condition, and just wants to get rid of the inconvenient Hulk. He’s hard to get behind.
The flip side, of course, is supposed to be the raging and ever-aggressive Hulk himself. Writing about Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake for Cineaste magazine I noted that Lee must have wept when he saw the film, as two-and-a-half years of digital advances would have corrected its biggest flaw, the Gumby-like creature at its center. Wrong. There must be a glitch in the software: What worked for Kong (and the Transformers) doesn’t compute for the Hulk. He looks painted into the frame, and never registers as anything but a highly variable special effect. The disconnect is compounded when, late in the film, Blonsky ingests some Hulk-making formula and mutates into the spiny-backed Abomination, who battles the Hulk on the streets of Harlem. The movie itself morphs, not into a live-action comic book but a live-action cartoon, as one-dimensional as the dialogue the two talking man-beasts are given (Hulk: “Smash!” Abomination: “Is that all you got?”). Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (who cameos) got the dynamic right in far simpler times. One can only wonder what the late, great Stan Winston might have made of the Hulk. This is a 2008 movie with 1998 effects.
Helpful hint for Hulk-watching: Unlike Iron Man, you can leave at the first sign of the closing credits. The collective-building bit that’s the worst-kept secret of the picture comes at the very end. I’d think twice, though, about getting him off the bench. This uninspired incarnation of The Incredible Hulk is second-string and not A-team.
Okay then…I marked Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, as one to watch this summer, and I’m sticking to it. His last co-production with the Discovery Channel, Grizzly Man, fit the station’s basic format. The new, more Herzog-ian one is likely to befuddle viewers when it reaches them. It begins with the “good stuff” that people watch Discovery for, diving footage beneath the glaciers of Antarctica, and there will be more of that, as researchers at the McMurdo Station put on wetsuits and photograph the weird cephalopods that skitter beneath the surface of the deep freeze. But at the outset Herzog announces that there will be no “cute penguins” in his film, a shot across the bow of armchair navigators used to their creature comforts. You may relax when one does turn up. But Herzog pulls the rug from out under us: It is terribly befuddled penguin, listless in the cold, that we see, and its fate is left dangling.
Life is hard here, Herzog insists, and should not be mistaken for fun. We watch as a simple training exercise on outdoor survival for the scientists, conducted under clear skies, quickly comes to ruin as they lose their way in the snow. Observing the sea creatures, which make their home amidst crystalline shards of ice, is no occasion for rhapsodizing over nature. Evolution, Herzog muses, must have been prompted by fear and terror of the oceans, pushing the tyrannized onto dry land. The drily amusing undercurrent to all this is his annoyance that man somehow makes it worse for himself. McMurdo itself, a utilitarian jumble of featureless buildings and ghostly structures left behind in the Shackleton era of exploration, is “like an ugly mining town, filled with Caterpillars and noisy construction sites,” as if Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano should hop on the next flight and fix the mistakes. Not unlike Leni Riefenstahl, with her exquisite visualization of Olympic games and Nazi rallies, Herzog, who thrusts himself into extremes, is inclined toward unity and order.
But our German host is patient with the mostly American eccentrics who live on the edge of this icy abyss (of McMurdo’s 1,100 inhabitants during Antarctica’s austral summer, which lasts from October to February, someone explains, “It’s like the Earth was turned upside down and all the weirdos fell to the bottom”). Their stories are wry and humorous, one-thing-leading-to-another, then onto the South Pole and the Ross Sea. And the good stuff, limpidly filmed as always by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, is good indeed. Big, scene-stealing seals are almost too cuddly for words, and you can sense Herzog’s impatience at having to film them as the cuteness factor ratchets up beyond his control. But an ethereal sequence dedicated to their eerie undersea cries, likened to Pink Floyd’s music and envelopingly separated on the soundtrack, bring the filmmaker, his home audience (try to see this in a theater) and the gorgeous bleakness of the environment into perfect harmony.
Mother of God, I have seen Mother of Tears. Forget Indiana Jones; it’s been 28 years since Italian horror maestro Dario Argento left a proposed trilogy of films about “the three mothers,” witches who control our destiny, dangling at part two, not that continuity has ever been a big part of his filmmaking. Shot in the last gasp of voluptuous Technicolor, 1977’s Suspiria is one of the most cruelly elegant films of its type; the sinuous camerawork, and ear-splitting music (by Goblin), is to die. 1980’s Inferno is a fever dream, starting with a beautifully filmed opening sequence set in a flooded basement, then splintering into near-abstraction. After 1982’s mostly terrific Tenebrae, however, it was Argento’s career that fragmented, into increasingly weaker films conspicuously lacking the qualities of their predecessors in the late Sixties and Seventies. 1987’s Opera was a rare exception, but the Eighties and Nineties pictures were difficult to see till the advent of DVD opened up the transatlantic terror pipeline.
Thanks to not-bad segments of Showtime’s Masters of Horror program and sufficient buff interest, Argento has concluded his three-parter with the new film, the first of his to get a decent U.S. release, uncut and uncensored, in at least a generation. (His Phenomena, in 1985, gave Jennifer Connelly an early starring role.) In my summer movies roundup I mentioned that Mother of Tears was a movie I could only safely recommend for myself, but I’m not so sure of that. Like a present you give yourself, it’s disappointing. And I’m afraid that, for the uninitiated, the movie could be marketed as a comedy. It’s extreme in all the wrong ways — Argento is incapable of recreating the seductive atmosphere of his past triumphs, but his finger if way off the pulse of what a contemporary audience might find intriguing. The movie falls haplessly between two stools.
More presence than actress, Asia Argento, his daughter, stars as an art student enmeshed in the resurrection of the “third mother,” a bare-breasted pestilence who sets the populace of Rome to bumping each other off. Mother is accompanied by a goon squad and vampy minions straight from an “I Love the 80s”-type program, plus a none-too-frightening monkey that is always giving away poor Asia’s whereabouts. Asia, who was repeatedly raped and beaten in her dad’s Stendhal Syndrome (1995), gets off fairly lightly this time, and is mostly tortured by bum dialogue such as “I’m crazy!” or “You’re crazy!” or “We’re crazy!” (The film was written by the Americans who brought you the remake of The Toolbox Murders, a movie you may not have known was produced in the first place.) Faring worse in this family affair of a thriller is her mother, Daria Nicolodi, whose spectral appearances, awkwardly digitized, had the audience possessed — with laughter. I felt bad sitting in a theater with people who were guffawing at a new film from a director with admirable chops, who only quieted down at the occasional orifice-ripping displays of makeup effects.
But I concede that they had just cause. In one scene, a distraught mother throws her baby off a high bridge into a river. Now, I have never made a film. But I know enough about filmmaking to sense that, if the prop baby comes apart at impact, with one or two doll pieces visibly cracking off when it hits water, you retake the scene. You don’t leave it in the movie. That’s contemptuous.Worse, when Mother of Tears hits DVD, I’ll buy it anyway, to complete the trilogy. Old affections die hard, and are beyond reasoning.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.