The Hulk

The Hulk is pursued by the U.S. military through the streets of San Francisco.
Dir. Ang Lee; writ. James Schamus, John Turman, Michael France; feat. Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Josh Lucas, Paul Kersey (PG-13)

First things first: In the weeks before The Hulk's opening, the question on prospective viewers' lips was "Does he look real?" Can the CGI monster hold his own as the main character in a summer blockbuster? The answer is yes. Ang Lee's green-skinned, digi-created giant looks every bit as convincingly life-like as his human-born peers Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pamela Anderson, and Calista Flockhart.

Maybe that's catty. It makes better sense to compare the beast to movie stars with a little more personality, like King Kong, and the various spawn of stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen. In that company, the Hulk fits right in; the soul behind his eyes isn't 100 percent convincing, and his placement in a live-action world is not seamless, but he is a compelling movie monster - and frequently, as when grabbing a tank by the snout and tossing it across a desert, his physical feats are thrilling.

Just as important for some of us, the movie is rich and varied, able to match the visual giddiness of a '60s comic book up with a brooding story of buried secrets, unforeseen betrayals, and the horror a man feels when he realizes he is capable of the unthinkable. Some audiences have found the film's human side lifeless, and it's true that Eric Bana's Bruce Banner is an unengaging fellow; that fits with the filmmakers' understanding of the character: Banner is a man who knows instinctively that passion is off limits to him, who has bottled himself up so successfully that, deprived of oxygen, the flames within him died long ago. If a guy like that bores you, rest assured that Bruce's papa - played by the unhinged, perpetually bedheaded Nick Nolte - has passion to spare.

Back to that visual giddiness, though: Lee appropriates the visual language of the comics in a delightful way, especially in the film's first half hour. From the rapid-fire visual exposition of the credits sequence, to the frequent use of split-screen effects, to the way one scene will crash into another with graphic elements that jut into the still-unfolding preceding shot, the director uses special effects and editing to tweak us in the same way comics can. Other comic-book adaptations have employed the visual elements of their source material, but none have hybridized the static and the cinematic in quite this way.

Like most super-hero tales, The Hulk has its blemishes. The screenplay requires its characters to do some fairly implausible things in order to lay the groundwork for spectacular set-pieces, and an entire storyline (in which the elder Dr. Banner goes through his own gamma-ray changes) challenges our suspension of disbelief. But if The Hulk isn't quite a match for Lee's best work (the shockingly diverse Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Eat Drink Man Woman, and The Ice Storm), it's still a fun romp with more cinematic flair than most of the spandex sagas that have preceded it. John DeFore

Together (Han ni zai yiki)

Dir. Chen Kaige; writ. Chen Kaige, Xue Xiaolu; feat. Tang Yun, Liu Peiqi, Chen Hong, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Kaige (PG)

Not too long ago, during the Cultural Revolution, fondness for Tchaikovsky could earn a Chinese comrade time in a rural reeducation camp. In the new China of cell phones and shopping malls, Liu Cheng (Liu) and his thirteen-year-old son, Liu Xiaochun (Tang), set out for Beijing in hopes that the boy, a violin prodigy trained in the European repertoire, will earn admission to a prestigious conservatory. A bumpkin who wears his meager capital in a cap - until it is stolen - Cheng learns that talent counts for less than cash in advancing a career. But, stubbornly determined to get his son on a concert stage, he bullies a scruffy teacher into giving Xiaochun private lessons. Professor Jiang (Wang), a sweet mentor more attentive to missing notes than his own missing socks, insists on two rules: "You must work hard. You must enjoy playing." Xiaochun's second tutor, Professor Yu (played by director Chen Kaige himself), declares: "Music without feeling is like an empty gun."

Together overflows with feeling - between father and son; teacher and pupil; a worldly young woman, Lili (Chen Hong), and the adolescent musician who develops a crush on her. The film, which seems like chamber work after Chen Kaige's orchestral Farewell My Concubine, is a foundling fable, a coming-of-age story, and an affirmation of art and love together. Like Tchaikovsky, whose lush Violin Concerto provides a recurring theme, Chen must enjoy playing with a viewer's emotions. He does it relentlessly, and he does not strike a false note except at the end. — Steven G. Kellman

28 Days Later

London is made a ghost town by a killer virus in 28 Days Later. Cillian Murphy stars as a survivor.
Dir. Danny Boyle; writ. Alex Garland; feat. Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Noah Huntley, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns, Stuart McQuarrie, Christopher Eccleson (R)

It turns out, after much speculation, that the world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper - but at the hands of a trio of self-righteous laboratory-animal liberators. The do-gooders break into a lab and, over the terrified objections of the monitoring technician, open the cages of primates infected with a horrific, highly contagious, and lightning-quick-acting virus.

Twenty-eight days later, London is a ghost town.

And though he doesn't spend a lot of time there before moving on, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) captures it on video in dreamlike starkness. Our hero awakens in a hospital room, mysteriously uninfected, and wanders the streets - where he, like Charlton Heston before him, finds zombie-like post-humans and a handful of unharmed survivors. These aren't any Night of the Living Dead zombies, either; instead of lumbering like Frankenstein, they clamber after victims like wind-up toys with overstretched springs and evil on their minds. They're fast, they're scary, they vomit a lot, and if their bodily fluids splatter on you in the right way, you'll be one of them in a matter of seconds.

Our still-healthy heroes escape London for Manchester, hoping to find a group of soldiers who are broadcasting a radio message and claiming to have a cure to the disease. (On the way out, they execute a troublingly implausible hair's-breadth escape in which they risk grisly doom in order to change a flat tire.) When they get to Manchester, the nature of the threats they face changes substantially.

There are bones to pick with the plotting of this thrill ride: As in most horror films, characters do some awfully unlikely things to get themselves into trouble, and the filmmakers could have exploited the first act more fully before moving on. But the film is so much more compelling than most scare-fare - the washed-out videotape photography complements the post-apocalyptic feel without sacrificing creative visuals; the mostly unknown cast has none of the teenybopper hamminess so common in horror cinema; and the story gets in its share of both "gotcha" thrills and slow-mounting chills in a lean plot that feels much shorter than its 112 minutes. 28 Days Later ain't brain surgery, but it's an awful lot smarter and more gripping than most of the frightfests adrenaline junkies usually have to endure. John DeFore

Whale Rider

Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider.
Writ & dir. Niki Caro, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera; feat. Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis (PG-13)

Taunted by a cetacean, Ahab might have envied Paikea, founder of the Ngati Konohi subtribe. According to Maori legend, he arrived in New Zealand in the 8th century riding the back of a whale. Paikea established a dynasty of leadership. The oldest male in each successive generation inherited his authority.

Whale Rider, which pakeha - non-Maori - filmmaker Niki Caro adapted from a 1986 novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, is set in contemporary times in which villagers travel the local roads by car and neglect the ancient ways. The film begins with a woman's death during the stillbirth of a male child who might have become chief. However, the infant's twin survives, and though she is a girl, her father Porourangi (Curtis), names her Paikea, to signify her privileged lineage. Himself a first-born son, Porourangi eludes his tribal destiny in Europe. He leaves his motherless daughter, nicknamed Pai (Castle-Hughes), to be brought up by his parents.

Distraught over the degeneration of his people and the irresponsibility of his son, Koro refuses to recognize his granddaughter as heir to the authority of Paikea. He pointedly excludes Pai from lessons in stick-fighting and other martial arts he offers the local boys in a desperate effort to sustain his warrior culture, but the girl trains in secret and outdoes them all. Whale Rider dramatizes the conflict between a stubborn old patriarch and a 12-year-old who defies tribal traditions of primogeniture. It is a feminist fantasy of empowerment whose fairy-tale plot demands an oceanic suspension of disbelief.

Endowed with great dignity by actor Rawiri Paratene, Koro is a worthy adversary to the spunky Maori Supergirl who is his granddaughter. "Sometimes you've just got to let him think he's the boss," wise and loving Nanny Flowers (Haughton) advises Pai about her husband, but the film leaves no doubt about who deserves to wear the tattoos of command. Filmed in spectacular coastal Whangara, on New Zealand's North Island, Whale Rider is a beguiling exercise in both ethnography and wish fulfillment. It is a South Pacific fish story that assumes respect for history and sympathy for social justice - and provides an inspiring, implausible conclusion that reduced the woman I saw it with to blubbering. — Steven G. Kellman

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