Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Dir. Louis Leterrier

Viewed: In the Balcony

Since I'll probably be watching all the comic book based movies this year (there's only two more, right?) I figured I might as well offer up some thoughts on the new Incredible Hulk v2.0: Faster and Furiouser. It's been close to 2 weeks now since I've seen it so it's safe to say that it has been fully digested.

I'll state up front that I dug Ang Lee's Hulk. I still consider what he did with framing, editing, movement and splicing up the screen to be the closest film has come to duplicating the experience of reading a comic book. That in and of itself makes Hulk worth watching. But Lee turned the Banner/Hulk story into one of internal struggle with daddy issues and repression and people reacted somewhat negatively. People seemingly didn't want a brooding Hulk despite the character(s) being all about internal conflict manifesting itself.

The general public think of the story of Hulk and they imagine shit being smashed up good. People hear "comic books" and they envision tights, capes, kapows, explosions and a good guy beating up a bad guy. Maybe one of these days comic books will cease to be a mini genre that needs to fall under these guidelines. Just as animated film is finally getting through to people that it can tell a story just a profound as Bergman could, maybe some day the comic book film will prove to be a genre that can offer up just as good a revelation. Maybe the Watchmen can help. But I'm not holding my breath.

Until then, we have The Incredible Hulk. The effort for respectability is clearly here, to be sure. While Ang Lee's angst is tossed aside in favor of a streamlined plot in the form of a chase movie, it makes its attempts at dramatic conflict by having Banner struggle with his want to get rid of this infection and his conflicted desires regarding Betty Ross, his lost love since the accident and daughter of the General who's pursuing him. These are peppered in between the Hulk Smash scenes and unfortunately handled with a thudding delicacy by Leterrier. The director excels with the action, to a point. A scene early on with Banner/Hulk (Edward Norton) running atop the stacked housing in Brazil loses some of its would-be awe after Jason Bourne's recent amazingly captured adventures.

It's the scenes with Banner and Betty that come off a bit fumbling despite an almost simmering Norton and Liv Tyler (was Bruce Banner the awol dad in Lonesome Jim?) -- as is his hand at juggling tonalities, which the script asks for. Most of the movie is a bit melodrama and some of the scenes try to end with a punchline and instead leaves the viewer scratching their head rather than having a good laugh. For the most part these scenes are few and far between. The sub-Bourne storyline works well with the Hulk mythos. In one of many nods to the 70's television show, we have our Banner on the run with Sgt. Ross (William Hurt, who does an admirable job if not quite Sam Elliot level cool) hot on his trail, only one step behind. When Sgt. Ross gets one step ahead is when the movie catches its spark and the confrontations between Hulk and the rest of the world around him are sometimes goose bump inducing -- as much as a mid -range CGI character can be.

[This picture is what I imagine The Hulk saying about Bruce Banner. One of the ideas I always liked about the comic book Hulk stories is Hulk always putting down stupid, puny Banner, which is one element that was missing from the movie. Having the Hulk talk though worked surprisingly well even if they didn't really do much with it.]

The idea of a Hulk movie is a tough nut to crack. We've seen two possibilities and I can't see another avenue brining any more success -- I can't really say, maybe they should have done this or that -- we're dealing with a big, green, dysfunctional CGI character who's story and relationships aren't exactly brimming with the kind of stuff that makes for classic movie fodder. They're never going to get the budget Jackson did for King Kong so you'll forever be dealing with a less than great realization of the big guy which will always be distracting no matter what. Having said that, I certainly wouldn't mind seeing the continuing adventures of Hulk, preferably in The Avengers movie hinted to at the ending, but definitely with more story and thematic heft to the ongoings.

Making it a simple chase story is certainly a nice option but it's not nearly as exhilarating as Iron Man (who boasts a much more tactile feel to his CGI parts) -- but it has enough moments, especially in the early going, that make it worthwhile and worthy of making a few bucks without me complaining about it. Hellboy, like Iron Man, is an example of the benefits of practical special effects, non-CGI agenda, selling the story better and making the scenes work better every time (I'm looking at you George). I think Nolan agrees with this too and so I'm still looking forward fondly to Batman and Hellboy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Be Scientifc Douchebag (The Happening)

Dir: M Night
Viewed from: The Bed

Maybe M Night Shyamalan pictures work better on the small screen. Bored with work and ill from viewing too many baseball stories, I took a flier on The Happening on my computer. And I liked it. Weird. Very Weird.

The Happening is in no way a quality movie in the sense of meaningful characters, intriguing intellectual arguments, or even entertainment. I would hesitate to even say I enjoyed it, but I did stay still for most of the time and felt, for a quick two hours, that I was really inside the movie. Any movie that limits the amount of times where the viewer is thinking "hey, I'm watching a movie" counts a success for me.

The plot is a fairly straightforward apocalypse plot, one of the most tried and true, from Camus and The Plague to Steven King in The Stand, to Jose Saramango in Blindness, and most recently Cormac McCarthy in The Road (hey, at least M Night got beyond two syllables!). Unlike these last two, however, the gradual destruction of mankind doesn't carry with it any existential themes or interesting metaphors; just an incredibly shallow investigation of environmental destruction and SCIENCE. More interesting than the idea that plants want to kill people (not a spoiler), or the elusive nature of scientific methodology, however, is Shyamalan's seeming misanthropy, where the lives of everyone are put in danger the more they are around other people. I suppose you could even make a case for this being a Sartrean allegory of the hell of other people, but I doubt he had No Exit by his side as he wrote the script. (In fact, I can't quite recall any of the Existentialist dramatists having characters chastise themselves to "Be scientific douchebag" at crucial moments of the story)

But it isn't the plot that matters, rather the surprisingly genuine affection you have for the characters. Star Mark Wahlberg's barely goes beyond an "aw-shucks" character out of a Steinbeck novel, Zooeoooeooey Deschanel is just nuts, and the little girl is basically mute, but somehow you really care about them (John Leguizamo almost brings a tear to you eye). The movie is also helped along by nice touches, such as the dead-on Philly burb accent by a few homicidal shut-ins and a clever idea involving an old hideout on the Underground Railroad. These never go beyond nice touches (or convenient plot points), but I still appreciated the cleverness involved. (Less clever is setting one scene in a model real estate house for no apparent reason other than the director possibly watching too much Arrested Development).

Beyond cleverness, The Happening transcends its monochrome ideological palate because of one thing: voice. Voice is usually applied to writers, but in the case of Shyamalan, I think it's his greatest strength. I've only seen The Happening and The Sixth Sense, but the man clearly can establish a consistent visual mood and stick to it. His ideas may be dull, and the narrative invented as the movie goes along, but Shyamalan is a remarkably consistent visual director. By keeping the same tone and style throughout, he never lets you escape his vision, uninteresting as it is.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Watch Isabella Rossellini Hump a Mantis

Over at the Sundance Channel's website there's a big Green thing going on. A lot of tv channels are doing this. Discovery Channel recently claimed to be the first channel to run 100% off of "green energy". Whatever. The Discovery Channel doesn't have Green Porno -- my new favorite thing on the interwebs.



There are currently 8 Green Porno episodes. Each one written, starring and co-directed by Isabella Rossellini wherein she describes and acts out how a particular insect or bug bumps uglies. Rossellini is wonderfully uninhibited and is having a blast doing these little short movies -- her joy is infectious. Knowing David Lynch's fascination with bugs you can easily picture him loving these movies. I particularly love the low budget special effects like the expanding pool of blood in the Bee episode. The costumes and props are all beautifully made and keep each episode unique and imbue a certain anticipation as you look forward to the next one.

I certainly hope there are many more to come. If you never thought you'd here Isabella Rossellini say, "...my penis will break off! It will be stuck in her like a cork in a bottle!" then you were wonderfully mistaken. Now go and enjoy...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Look at the Upcoming Brussels Film Fest From the Guy Not in Brussels

Now that Wario Wares has been forcibly removed from the household (good game by the way) and the temperature has fallen back into a non-lethal comfort zone I feel I should take this opportunity to chime in before the oppressive, doomsday-like weather strikes back up and reduces me once again to a gelatinesque substance unable to do much more than grunt and intermittently rise from the couch to pour water on my head. Yay for summer! Oh wait, it's still spring? Anyfuckles...

Taking a look at the lineup for the quickly approaching Brussels (European) Film Festival, BEFF, there are certainly some contenders that stand out from the crowd. The first being The Early Years - Erik Nietzsche Part 1. One guy who always inspires my curiosity with anything he's involved in is Lars von Trier. With Erik Nietzsche he's only working in writer capacity but since he's writing his own quasi-autobiographical story I'm sure it'll be interesting.
[Note: there's a whole lotta skin on the program guide pics... odd European thing?]

Isabelle Huppert is one of those gals who always makes everything she's in worth watching. Here she shows up in two movies -- Medee Miracle a sort of modern Medea re-telling -- and Nue Propriete what sounds like a bleak look at a family falling apart. Not happy go-lucky viewing from the looks of it but this is Isabelle Huppert we're talking about, what else do expect but utter devastation?

Hong Sang-soo (or Sang-soo Hong?) is a big part of the South Korean film movement that's been blossoming for the past five or so years and he's bound to make his masterpiece sooner or later. And us Yanks probably wouldn't even know because since 2004's bittersweet Women is the Future of Man his movies aren't even getting to Netflix (and word is that his two follow ups to that one have only been better). Will Bam Gua Nat (Night and Day) be the one? I don't know, but I'd put his lost Korean in Paris story at the top of my list. [That pic in the program (again with the nudity!) makes me laugh every time I see it.]

Besides those, and the "open air screenings" (seeing Delicatessen on the big screen outdoors in Brussels seems like nirvana to me) I can't say I know much at all about the film makers or the casts that make up the rest of the schedule but there are a few others that pop out simply from reading about them...

Liverpool has RFC Couchie all over it. "Both a geographical journey and a voyage into the interior, Lisandro Alonso’s film captures the intangible (as did Los muertos, Age d’Or Prize in 2004). A work of remarkable coherence, Liverpool is a radical film, with a plastic beauty that is rarely seen." That'll do.

Der Freund sounds like it could be creepy fun.

Ultranova has a striking still and could be a success in the vein of Wes Anderson.

I could go on speculating -- Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald (The Heart is A Dark Forest ) has the Tom Twyker stamp of approval, which could be anything really -- and Saddo Bakeshon (Sad Vacation) sounds like it could be the return of a promising talent.

Whatever the case may be, Paddy, you're in an enviable position to get a look at some films that may never see the inside of a darkened theater in this neck of the woods. I hope you get to see at least a few of them and can get a word or two out to the internets about them.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Rated: Are (Nicolas Provost)

Nicolas Provost

Due to the combination of losing my internet access and some surprisingly productive research time, the Court Metrage posts sort of fell off a few weeks back. However, I do want to write a summation (I saw them all!) soon. Before that, however, I have to write on the highlight of the festival: a screening of short films by Nicolas Provost that will likely take my movie interests further away from the mainstream, with the consequence that my posts may become more elitist and more condescending towards the traditional narrative film.

Nicolas Provost, a self-described "experimental filmmaker," not only made me rethink the rest of the festival, but has likely provoked a general interest in what may be called non-narrative art films. This is really good stuff, and proof again that the world is almost always more interesting than you give it credit for.

More than half of these films were made entirely in the editing room by altering old films. The two most striking involve reimaginings of Kurosawa's Roshomon by a technique called "mirroring." that, as the name would imply, takes one half of the screen and creates a mirrored image on the other side. The scenes Provost choses from Roshomon are two of the most powerful in cinematic history - the possession of the soothsayer woman and the fight. Reworking a classic of cinema, and adding music, is an ambitious idea, but Provost manages to create images as striking, and in some cases moreso, than the originals. I could try to explain the beautiful monstrosities that are created, but fortunately Papillon d'Amour (soothsayer scene) is available here.

The fight scene, called Bataille, is almost as effective even without the industrial sounds, as the two warriors seem to dive into and out of the screen. There are distracting moments when the mirrored images do no quite match up, but the effect is still magical. Mirroring may seem like a simple (or contrived) idea, but I count anything this engaging and memorable as great success. I imagine that 99% of the time if you tried to do this, the result would be awful.

Provost's other two video "mash-up" are less effective, especially I Hate This Town which takes (I think, I can't find citation of the source film) scenes from Debby Does Dallas and turns them into the visuals for a bad techno video. I appreciate the intellectual idea here of stripping (heh) all the eroticism away and showing filmed sex acts for what they are - monotonous and ugly - but the end result is as empty and dull as your average porn flick.

Better is Gravity which functions as a love short to the history of classic cinematic embraces. Using a stobe-like effect that alternates between split second scenes from different films, Provost creates odd images like Kyle MacLachlan from Blue Velvet embracing Jimmy Stewart, and Ingrid Berman walking away from Carey Grant (though neither of the spliced images are from Notorious). Golden era Hollywood is not my strength, but this short would definitely appeal to cinephiles steeped in knowledge from this era. Probably the sweetest film of the bunch, it is remarkable for the time and effort it must have taken to put all these images together and for the lasting impression it leaves.

But Provost isn't only interested in collage and exploring the history of cinema; he also makes great original narrative films. The two showing here - Exoticore and Induction - were stunning. Both staring Issaka Sawadogo, an arresting actor from Burkina Faso, they demonstrate a definite Lynchian sense of a deep horror lurking just beneath the placid surface of everyday life.

Exoticore
could almost be a normal film about the struggles of an immigrant in a new country. Sawagado, as an African in Norway, is just about as isolated as possible, yet in a broken Norweigian he does his best to meet new people, offering to go out with drinks with his fellow co-workers, and inviting woman to see The Lord of the Rings. Mostly he fails however, despite an indefatigable spirit and genuine willingness to get along. There is no real indictment of Norway (where Provost lived for a time) or its people; it's just hard to get along in a foreign land.

Now a story like this could be depicted in a straightforward way, where we see the hardships of the hero, and do our best to identify with him (however impossible that is). This would lead to a recognition, one we likely already have, that it is difficult to be an African immigrant in Norway, and that we feel sad. But Provost I think doesn't want a simple recognition of misery or unhappiness, he wants you to feel what Sawadogo feels: terror. While some of the shots are staged in a normal way, Provost also hints at terror through keeping certain images just off-screen or (again, here's Lynch) in adding bracing industrial music to seemingly banal shots.

This was something of a breakthrough film experience. There are only a few features that I can think of as truly experiential, rather than empathetic, where the filmmaker does not what to just present a story but wants the viewer to be the story. Off the top of my head, I can think of 2001 as being like this, Apocalypse Now maybe, and just about anything by Lynch. I mention the last again not only because Provost's style so clearly resembles the best modern director, but because I have a tough time thinking of many filmakers who really approach film in this way. I think Herzog does this some in some of the non-Kinsky films (Klaus is just too big a personality to allow the viewer to share in the experience) like Wild Blue Yonder and Stroszek and my personal favorite Tarr, but even these two directors still present their stories in an understandable chronology. Tarr especially is capable of unbelievably beautiful shots, but they don't grab you quite the same way as something like Exoticore.

The other feature, Induction, basically eliminates any narrative at all, instead offering a series of almost still images: a naked Sawadogo frightening a bourgeois couple in a country house; their child creeping around the house; Sawadogo fucking the wife; plumes of smoke from the child's hiding space. I won't make much of an effort to explain this, because aside from the seeming commentary on racial fears and sexuality (Provost is from Belgium, after all), I don't think I can. But again, the images themselves are stunning and you feel something while watching the movie, and not a feeling that can easily be explained. Most likely, you are feeling the same kind of anxiety that Provost himself has felt, the same anxiety that caused him to make the movie in the first place. In other words, Induction is a direct transfer of the director's state of mind to yours, bypassing the normal medium of narrative.

It's strange when you think about this, about how an ordinary director will have some feeling (I say anxiety but it could just as easily be a fear or joy), then will set about trying to craft a story in which the actors in some way portray this feeling to the audience. The audience member, then, if they are even a halfway decent viewer, goes beyond the literal reading of the story to uncover the themes or whatever hidden behind the story. In all, it's a very elaborate process.

But with experimental films, or at least with Provost, the artifice of story is just abandoned and the feeling of the director is, well, mainlined right into the viewer. This isn't really so odd, it's how most big "A" Art (painting, sculpture, etc.) has worked for about 100 years, but films are not like art in that they generally cost a lot more money and involve a lot more steps. Therefore, the stories, the action, the movie stars, etc. While the art business is far from a meritocracy, the scales of economics are at least such that pretty much anyone can paint and exhibit their work without either a) running their idea through 20 different levels of bureacracy or b) being famous enough to secure overseas funding.

I certainly don't hope or expect all movies to be Lynch or Provost anymore that I would expect all books to be literature. So I'm not just excluding 98% of movies because they bother with all of the superfulous elements, but rather realizing that only some mainstream directors understand that the story, or the narrative, is the just the element by which to get the feeling across, but that it is the feeling that matters. I would see this group would include Kubrick, both Anderson's, the Coens, Spike Lee, and some others. All of these directors seem to understand the balance between the means of film and the ends of emotional and intellectual expression (for a contrast, see the comments from the previous review of Speilberg, who I think is all means, no ends).

James Joyce had a famous response when asked what Ulysses was "about." He said: it isn't about anything, it is something. On a large spectrum of movies ranging from about something to is something, Provost is all the way to the side of is. To talk about what his movies are about sort of misses the point, in the way that saying Picasso's early cubist period was about guitars. His movies just are.