Sunday, August 18, 2013

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2008)

Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, a few years ago, was in Roger Ebert’s words “a comic book movie for people who wouldn't be caught dead at a comic book movie,” or in other words, a movie of little interest to anyone. It was highly resourceful and even beautiful at times, with the feeling of an anguished chamber piece played out on an absurdly vast canvas, but it never felt as if the director had cracked its centre. In my review I wrote: “Lee obviously understands the Hulk’s potential as metaphor – how could you not? – but seems to have no specific strategy for unlocking it, other than to have his camera stare somewhat plaintively at the characters.”

The Incredible Hulk

The movie duly failed to spawn the intended franchise, but Marvel’s trying again with the new The Incredible Hulk. No counterintuitive artistic decisions this time round – it’s in the hands of efficient, seemingly introspection-free action director Louis Leterrier. The movie starts with Bruce Banner hiding out in Brazil, trying desperately to gain control over his affliction, while the army – viewing him as the paradigm-changing laboratory animal that might provide the key to future military glory – closes in on him. Edward Norton plays the lead role, which would have seemed like more slumming a few years ago, but his initial bloom is off now. He’s properly gloomy and focused here, nothing more. Liv Tyler is quietly affecting as the woman he loves.

It’s an effective movie with no obvious major faults, but it doesn’t give you much to think about either. Leterrier’s Hulk has much greater presence than Lee’s, but the discrepancy between the haunted actor and his computer-generated alter ego is still jarring. And contrary to my earlier “how could you not” remark, there’s little sign that this film does understand the Hulk’s potential as metaphor.

The Canadian Young People F*****g, as we must call it here, kept the media busy when it became the poster child (or would have, if its name were allowed on a poster) for perhaps wasteful and depraved government film funding. Almost inevitably, the finished product hardly supports the controversy – it’s a flat, rather joyless concoction, suggesting that the showmanship ran out after thinking up the title and general premise. Four couples and one threesome go at it, intercut in six stages, from preamble to aftermath.

Young People…

It’s not particularly raunchy or titillating, and although the five stories seem intended to provoke somewhat contrasting tones, they actually all have the same kind of so whatness. It’s also seldom particularly funny, and some of the episodes clearly miss the intended mark – one strand appears to be intended as a “biter bit” kind of tale, but it’s so murkily set out that it’s hard to tell. It doesn’t feel particularly Canadian, except in the rather dispiriting sense that you suspect it would have had more distinctive colour if it had been made virtually anywhere else (maybe it’s telling that the most calculating character is actually British). And, likely, it would have had more of what the title promises.

The British film Irina Palm is basically pretty silly, but has some of the ingrained grubbiness that YPF might have benefited from. Marianne Faithfull (enigmatically but effectively flat and frumpy) is an inconspicuous widow who urgently needs money to finance her sick grandson’s operation; misunderstanding the meaning of a “hostess wanted” sign in a Soho window, she finds herself a sex worker, servicing unseen males through a hole in the wall. She turns out to be great at it, and soon has regular line-ups of clients waiting for their turn with the mysterious Irina Palm, as the boss christens her.

The film has elements of a distorted (sure, very distorted) fairy tale, ending up on a warped note of self-empowerment, crossed with truly ridiculous romance. It’s entertaining enough viewing, and I always have a soft spot for these nutty misbegotten productions that somehow make it to life – often, as in this case, by stringing together bits of finance from virtually every country in the European Union. I can’t imagine what Luxembourg or Belgium (to name a couple of the credited backers) thought they’d get out of this, but we all know the Europeans have it figured out better than we do in some ways at least (see preceding comments).

The Happening

I’ve beaten up M. Night Shyamalan’s films quite a few times in this space – this is a popular bandwagon now, but I believe the record shows that I was securely perched on there before everyone else jumped on board. I did myself, and perhaps all of us, a favour by skipping his last one, Lady in the Water, but I ventured back into the wasteland for The Happening, a title that reminds me of that old sixties chestnut, Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title. The premise here is an unknown force, perhaps emanating from plant life, that has people suddenly becoming suicidal – starting in the cities and working outward, it almost eradicates the entire north eastern US in just a day (so there go Obama’s chances). Mark Wahlberg is a science teacher/everyman caught up in the evacuation, somehow muddling through with his wife (Zooey Deschanel) as all around them gradually succumb.

The high-concept premise is in line with Shyamalan’s previous works, but the general tone and execution largely isn’t. His normal pretentiousness is well under wraps here, as if he was truly chastened by the beatings he’s taken – in fact, the film is oddly non-committal on many fronts. He sprinkles in more explicit nastiness than usual, and it’s somewhat creepy at times, although the occasional echoes of George Romero’s recent Diary of the Dead show up Shyamalan’s lack of whatever you call the death genre equivalent of joie de vivre. This extends to Wahlberg’s extremely reticent performance, and to the failure to exploit the imaginative casting of the kooky Deschanel. Still, despite its clearly minor status, by not being actively annoying and off-putting, the film represents a relative triumph for the director.

Peter Berg’s Hancock, about a drunken, abrasive superhero undergoing an image clean-up, sounds like another comic book movie for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at same, and promisingly starts out that way; Will Smith plays committedly mean-spirited, and Berg finds some room for intimacy among the digital pixels. Then it takes a sharp turn and becomes all mythological and ornate, to no great end. It’s hard to imagine this was the best possible use of the general concept. But the way things are going, it can only be a matter of time before a movie places its Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne not in a newspaper office or mansion or science lab, but in the grubby milieu of an Irina Palm. Or in the midst of Young Superheroes F*****g.

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