Jun 13, 2008

Wild, Weird and Wonderful: Appreciating Ang Lee's Hulk

Five years later and Ang Lee’s audacious addition to the superhero genre remains among the most misunderstood creations of its time, as hindered by audience expectations (who seem to watch films more for specific components than any sense of search or want for discovery, especially amongst the intended audiences of this genre) as by its own multilayered complexities and occasionally overreaching hindrances. Just as often as with people, we like some movies for their strengths while finding that we love others for their flaws. Half a decade hasn’t yet diminished Hulk’s numerous potholes but the retrospect has further illuminated its groundbreaking efforts, strengthening those whose creativity and stamina are rooted equally in the reflexivity of cinema and the implied visual dynamics of the comic book panel.

As far as genre infusions go, Hulk defies categorization, both in terms of its illustrated source material and its stylistic executions. I’ll say right up front: I’ve never read a page of any comic featuring “The Incredible Hulk” and I don’t see myself getting around to it in the near future (so the rules say, never see a movie with an expert on its subject matter). Cinema, at its purest, glides through drama, while adherence to external rules (be they the concrete rules of our physical world or the pre-existing culture surrounding a chosen topic, hence disapproving fanboys deprived of Hulk Smash! adrenaline) are less important to any particular work than is its ability to function according to its own established modes of logic. Faithfulness never guarantees a good adaptation (yet another assumption extending from cinema’s misinterpreted literary functions), and whether it’s Spider-Man or Pride & Prejudice, every adaptation has the inalienable right – to be frank – to do whatever the hell it wants.

The opening credits of Hulk are a movie unto themselves, the green-tinged Marvel logo disappearing into a drop of water that triggers the films own Big Bang – an exploding universe of galaxies, nebulas, and synapses from which the first cells of life develop, mutate and divide, quickly growing beyond nature and into the burden of consciousness. Lee’s montage here is infectious, tracking the origins of the Hulk amid test tubes, experiments and lab notes with enough efficiency as to effectively summarize an entire prequel. As complimented by Danny Elfman’s equally underrated score – a perpetually downward spiral of psycho-spiritual chaos – it’s the overture to all that follows, declaring itself grandiose and impressionistic, favoring emotionally abstract imagery over realistic representations (although, as a former student of genetics, the basic groundwork is, at the least, fairly accurate). In its best moments, it brings to mind none other than Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (available here; watch it, because if you haven’t seen Un Chien Andalou, you haven’t seen jack).

A momentary diversion for clarification purposes. Above you will see a screen cap of the films title, spiraling out of and back into a genetic code. What do you see? More specifically, what don’t you see? “The”. For the last god damn freaking time, the title is Hulk (to date, only Roger Ebert has written about the film more than once and continued to address it correctly). This has as much to do with how we consume our movies as it does my own anal pet peeves (I’m similarly staunch about the non-“The” School of Rock). Not once in Ang Lee’s film is the word “incredible” used, and “hulk” only makes a singular, practically incidental appearance. As represented by the title, Hulk isn’t a physical thing – it’s a mentality, an idea, manifest of the materials implicit evolutionary connotations (an equally appropriate title had already been used, that being Ken Russell’s Altered States). Try getting that across to audiences expecting familiarity (thus pandering) and you’ll know the experience of pounding one’s head into a brick wall.

As Hulk continues, Lee’s nerve astonishes even as his moments of inarticulate conception stick out like sore thumbs. Much has been made of the films comic book visual design, though these acknowledgements, be they positive or negative, have done more damage understanding of the film than anything in that they’re almost exclusively limited to the films more literal screen divisions, in which separate panels appear and disappear, pan and fade in an effort to recreate a traditionally printed artifice. More important are the films no less explicit but infinitely more balanced fades, cuts, and blends, traditional cinematic devices given new potency via almost perfectly conceived stylistic utilizations, channeling the inherently static dynamics of graphic novel language into a distinctly filmic form.

More than anything, Hulk is about images clashing together, and Lee’s best decisions are not unlike the overlapping pieces of an orchestra. Amongst almost countless examples are the contours of scribbled lab notes morphing into the eye of a reptile (see above), whereas the headlights of a car blur into the form of the full moon. Climaxing in a multi-panel sequence (reminiscent of Harryhausen stop-motion techniques) in which the Hulk (Eric Bana, when not in mandatory CGI form) and an energy-transformed David Banner (Nick Nolte, ditto electrifying special effects) battle amongst the nighttime sky, leaping from cloud to cloud via bolts of lightning, such are the highlights of Hulk’s dynamic vocabulary of images, though not without a few sore spots. The majority of such are among the misguided split-screen compositions, which too often clutter the frame with varying angles and viewpoints that reveal no more information together than apart (no choice is more disastrous, though, than Josh Lucas’ hilarious death). Credit, though, to those that effectively emulate cinematic shot/reverse shot techniques within multi-layered panel frames (see the Hulk’s escape from the government lab), imperfectly yet poetically signifying Hulk’s own distinct qualities while collapsing otherwise routine exposition into something more flavorful.

Freud gets tossed around a lot when Hulk is at the discussion table, yet the films psychological inquiries are more instinctively exploratory than scientifically ponderous. A reliance on tight shots during dialectic exchanges emphasizes Hulk’s focus on the emotional over the physical, the framing (often shot simultaneously from two angles) used more to emphasize expression than to define spatial relationships, often pushing logical details out of frame to focus more prominently on the eyes or center of the face. Such exquisite compositions speak wonders; from a cut between Mrs. Banner and the young Bruce – one of the most wondrous mother/child communications in recent memory – to any number of climactic stare-downs or soul-soothing tableaus, Lee knowingly utilizes his actor’s eyes, as they are the windows to the soul.

Like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Hulk is a superhero movie only incidentally about superheroes, the visceral flights of fancy a mere manifestation of the core themes of parent/child conflicts and the resulting scarring. Like him or not, Lee knows his predecessors, Hulk’s indebtedness to the surreal drama of the 1930’s horror lexicon knowingly indicated by two shots – one of the Hulk, one of Bruce Banner – lifted from Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein and Dreyer’s Vampyr (not to mention Jennifer Connelly, channeling countless damsels from decades past with a new sense of modern feminine empowerment). If Burton’s film is the more accomplished of the two (and by a great deal at that), it’s because that auteur was more comfortably learned in his canvas. Lee’s most recurrent theme is that of characters rectifying their inner struggles with external demands, and Hulk is his work most intrinsically representative of these notions. The film almost matches the inner conflict of its titular character, intermittently bogged down even as it soars to seemingly impossible heights.

Rating: A-

Jun 11, 2008

Funny Games (2008): C+

A funny thing happened the other day. I rented and watched - with much trepidation and skepticism, wondering almost aloud to myself before and during if it was even worth my while - Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own Funny Games, a film I despised and still find to be more than a bit infuriating in retrospect. Relativity is key here, as I can't say I liked this new version, but viewing what was virtually the same film from the deliberate standpoint of having already seen it, hence knowing what was coming, I was able to appreciate it more even as it pushed all the same wrong buttons again. My favorite review of the new version - unofficially dubbed Funny Games U.S. - was that of Ed Gonzalez (check out Jim Emerson's intelligent take-down, too), who merely reprinted his review of the 1998 original, word for word, save for the respective names of the new actors and actresses. Such was a delightfully understated commentary on the nature of the film itself, although like Gus Van Sant's unfairly maligned Psycho, Haneke's commentary here doesn't seem so much an empty grab for cash (anyone familiar with his obsessions and themes should know better) than an experiment in both familiarity and precision. Haneke's argument remains the same: that violence is bad and anyone immoral enough to obtain pleasure or prosperity from such (case in point here being destructive American culture, most blatantly signified by the image of a blood-spattered television) could stand to endure a dose of their own medicine. Funny Games' central concept - a vacationing upper class family is terrorized by two disquietingly pleasant thugs who challenge their moral and physical limitations with a series of intimidations and physical threats/punishments - remains theoretically brilliant, though again undone here by a sense of superiority devoid of self-examination; just a smidgen of reflexive humor alone could have saved the day, or the more constructive notion that our doomed "protagonists" have even the slightest say in their fateful outcomes. (Spoilers ahead.) A nearly ten-minute, static take in which Naomi Watt's housewife - bound, practically nude - suffers the initial pangs of shock and downfall following her son's horrific death exhibits Haneke's commanding technical skills, and so too does the entirety of Funny Games U.S. exhibit similarly honed talent in framing, lighting and editing, subtle differences (like the re-assembled footage that differed between Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux) that may not speak to their own presence but ultimately lend a different feel, even if at but a subconscious level. Most significant a difference, though, are the performers, who aren't necessarily better than their predecessors than they are less conducive to the unfairly calculated inhumanity of Haneke's dead-end maze, lending pathos and hope to a scenario in which none has otherwise been permitted. Haneke's statements are no more so agreeable than the last time I saw them at work (fascinating to behold even as they are difficult, if not impossible to get behind in such an incarnation) but his execution has proven more powerful than I expected here, empowered, in a way, but this version's more pronounced thematic tones, as if admitting relative obviousness as a means of disarming an otherwise condescending sense of banality. Still, it's almost completely for naught when Haneke plays so deliberately unfair, from a most unfortunate of (apparent) coincidences to the still ridiculous "rewind" sequence. Flogging the audience is one thing, but to deny them free will in their role - thus responsibility - is something else

Jun 10, 2008

Hellboy (2005): B+

Hellboy suggests the kind of loquaciously laid-back, dialogue-driven movie Kevin Smith only wishes he could make, wickedly cool and soulfully deep amidst its superhero outsider story. Artistically resonant even as it deliberately follows a contemporary narrative structure, Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mignola's graphic novels remains among the most humanistic of modern action films, shedding faux-ponderous attempts at seriousness for out-and-out juvenile bliss - a throbbing vein of humanity running through the core of a dank, lavish and evil world. The film declares its themes early on when our narrator asks us if a man is defined by his origins or his actions, and so too must the supernaturally endowed Hellboy embrace his torn identity as a socially yearning person and a misunderstood beast, his role as a government-funded defender against the forces of evil separating him from practically all human contact. Freed from an alternate dimension by the experimenting Nazis before being taken in by an American scientist, his is a part that may prove the penultimate of performer Ron Perlman's career. Cocky and snazzy and entirely detailed in his methodical approach, his is a turn that belongs with the greatest makeup-reliant roles of all time, which is to speak no ill of the rest of the cast, who approach the material with the same zestful imagination. Torn love haunts the titular beast, who searches often aimlessly for meaning amidst the life-threatening woes of his nature-nurture existence. Del Toro constructs his fantasy with bold colors that emphasize character natures and relationships while also making for visually sumptuous setpieces between our Devil-spawned badass and a number of monstrous hell-hounds (among other encroaching forces of evil). Hellboy emphasizes his existential plight so effectively that an external conflict concerning resurrected Nazi forces seems comparatively dull, but such forcible emotional entanglements are among the distinct pleasures of Del Toro's painterly canvas. Finding legitimately (which is to say, cool) quirky humor in both the extreme (the curmudgeony laments of a resurrected corpse) and the mundane (Hellboy's lair - the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defense - is located in Newark, New Jersey and is disguised as a Waste Management business), this is an origin story turned character study of legitimate staying power, with brains, brawn and heart to spare.

Jun 5, 2008

Batman (1989): C

Despite representing his newfound status as a major Hollywood player, Tim Burton’s much-hyped 1989 smash Batman remains little more than a curious relic deprived of personality – a manufactured widget less influenced by poetic artistry than capitalistic greed. There’s plenty there, for sure, but for a movie so purportedly big, Batman is disconcertingly small, conceptually and visually, as if Burton’s own input was deliberately siphoned off lest the end vision be too unique to trust with such potential blockbuster revenue at stake. Whether executive pressure or the sheer intimidation of the production put the squeeze on Burton, the end result has always been one of supreme apathy to these eyes, both in its lack of stylistic fervor and in the impression left on the heart and soul; the film screams out for an expressionistic wallop of action, romance, and fright, but finds only a void of underdeveloped style and halfhearted execution to call its own, as if rushed to completion without a moment's glance at the dailies along the way. A feature-length nip and tuck, it suggests – among other things – a film edited so as to squeeze in as many showings per day as possible. The beast isn’t quite soulless, but the flashes of euphoria are so few and far between that it may as well be, if only to put an end to its own misery.

At their best, Burton’s films are not unlike miniature universes unto themselves, clearly defined spaces populated as much with people as with teeming feelings and ideas manifest within the visual sphere. This alone would make him a prime choice to breathe life into the world of the Dark Knight, but being loosely cobbled together with matte paintings, poorly shot miniatures and scrunched together sets, Batman’s Gotham City feels less like a genuine setting or character than it does a half-hearted production design. The detail work is there but there’s no connective thread running throughout the picture, no point of reference by which these characters exist within their cinematic realm. Cutting immediately from the opening wide shot of the cityscape to the ground level of urban decay, Burton fails to grasp the largeness of Gotham, both physically and spiritually; the landscape wants for a sense of placement within and between its scantly established locales (one imagines how much of the budget that went to securing star power would have been better spent producing a more encompassing vision of Batman’s world). Ultimately, it’s Blade Runner for tykes, as the film falls back on preschool conceptions of film noir to suggest the city’s sickly moral infestations. From the grizzled, crooked cop who appears ready to die via heart attack at any moment to the shrieking, faceless henchman trained in martial arts by way of Saturday morning cartoons, Batman trades in extreme caricatures played straight, a relative flaw that may have proven otherwise were the film more substantially concerned with its character’s supposedly weighty psychological foreplay.

While more recent superhero fare may have rendered Freudian 101 character studies all but moot, at least even the most simplistic of offenders (I'm looking at you, Ghost Rider) at least made an effort to explore their heroes’ tortured souls. Batman bears witness to Bruce Wayne’s (Michael Keaton) troubled past – a fateful encounter that saw both of his parents murdered before his very eyes that ultimately led to his secret life as the caped crusader – but fails to connect the character’s history to his vigilante activity in ways more than incidental, culminating in a flashback reveal so obvious that it only serves to solidify our billionaire hero as a grade A idiot. Keaton works small wonders given how underwritten the part is, using his subdued charms (as opposed to contrived tics) to emphasize Wayne’s repressed emotions, but the psychological connection to Batman is so tenuous that, whenever he dons the costume, the impact of his screen presence can be said to equal that of The Matrix’s spoon. The top-billed Jack Nicholson, then, is the one who gets the spotlight, in a performance so overboard that it may very well qualify as the most self-indulgent of his career. It doesn’t help much that his Joker makeup looks like shit (the character’s permanent grin looks less like frozen muscles than a Greek theater mask missing its tragic counterpart), but Nicholson does no favors to his character’s thwarted humanity, his constant winking to the audience coming off less like the mannerisms of a madman than the obnoxious antics of a hammered celebrity (one must imagine, though, how leaden the film would be without his chewing of the scenery, given that it already comes close to qualifying as an all-out sleep aid).

Though lack of cohesion can be said to summarize the bulk of Batman’s far-reaching flaws, that doesn’t stop the occasional moment of wonder from shining through, be it the rare instance when a performer approximates the pulpy wonder the film perpetually reaches for, or the handful of shots readily identifiable as coming from Burton’s keen and deliberate eye (it's a sad state when the high water mark of a film is the opening credits sequence, here a miniature masterpiece of music and shadows from which the rest of the film could take a lesson or three). Pity, then, that the majority of Batman feels like it was crafted by McDonald’s executives intent on selling as many Happy Meals as possible with minimal advertising investment. Even when the scenery proves visually striking, the film rarely fails to shoot it from the most mundane angle possible, editing patchwork sequences together so wildly that one can’t help but think of Ed Wood, assembling stock footage together from earlier, now dismantled productions. Batman should be a dark and brooding world; rather, it’s just a hole into which bits and pieces of inspiration have been dumped: blatant attempts at iconic imagery, stock characters lacking necessary genre heft, and a script that mistakes surface scratching for deep probing. Nevertheless, all this and more would prove a worthwhile sacrifice when Burton would go full throttle for the sequel Batman Returns, a film as atmospheric, profound, emotional and thrilling as this unfortunately misbegotten predecessor is not.