Thursday, June 12, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Happening (Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, Ashlyn Sanchez, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Even as I gave Lady in the Water a scathing review and placed all the blame for its failure at Shyamalan's feet, I have remained a supporter of the filmmaker's independence and stubborn insistence on sticking to his vision, success or not. And although this movie doesn't entirely redeem him, it does move him back into more familiar territory and play more to his strengths. And even when he fails, I still respect his ambitions and willingness to take risks, which is something that's always better than bland, safe pandering (I have a certain respect for Speed Racer and the Wachowskis for the same reason). Anyone making a personal, idiosyncratic statement with a giant studio movie is okay with me. So even though I can't quite recommend seeing this movie, I do hope Shyamalan continues to make more for many years to come. Wide release

The Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, dir. Louis Leterrier)
See, this is what you get when you go the opposite route. Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk film had plenty of problems, but it also had ambition and personality, and this do-over has neither. It plays it completely safe, focusing on action and straightforward storytelling over character development or distinctive visual style, and its primary purpose seems to be set the Hulk up for his appearance in the eventual Avengers movie, teased by Robert Downey Jr.'s cameo at the end as Tony Stark (easily the most exciting moment in the movie). Leterrier and writer Zak Penn (with alleged extensive rewrites by Norton himself) take a curious route, not following the events of Lee's movie but also not retelling the origin themselves, so that they recap events that we've never actually seen (an altered origin story) at the beginning, then cut to five years later as Bruce Banner is on the run from the government and trying not to turn into the Hulk. And then he pretty much just runs through the entire film. About halfway through I wondered when the story was going to start, and then I realized: This is the story. Banner runs, the government almost catches him, he gets away, he runs some more.

There's no emotional weight to it; the filmmakers cast a strong dramatic actor like Norton and then give him almost no drama to portray. Norton and Tyler have no chemistry, and Roth is a pretty tame villain. The action sequences are nothing special, and the climactic battle features one of my pet peeves about action movies: the special effects fighting each other. It all feels so rote and perfunctory, and with none of the wit and energy that marked Iron Man, which was just as conventional in its plotting. This may put the Hulk on track to fit into the Marvel action pantheon, and that's great, but once again I have to say that I prefer failed ambition to unexciting craftsmanship. Wide release

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