Movies postsMonday June 16, 2008
The Pretty Good Hulk
[Harrison] Ford, now sixty-five, is still playing Indy, but he can’t be described as a man relaxing into middle age. He’s in great shape physically, but he doesn’t seem happy. He’s tense and glaring, and he speaks his lines with more emphasis than is necessary, like a drunk who wants to appear sober.
I also liked his recent review of The Incredible Hulk. Three criticisms stood out: 1) that King Kong and Frankenstein’s monster are Byron and Keats in comparison with the Hulk, who’s a dull, soulless beast, 2) That “Thunderbolt” Ross’s attempt to make soldiers out of the Hulk serum is idiotic, since the goal is always to control soldiers and you can’t control the Hulk, and 3) that the film misses the make-my-day thrill of turning into the most powerful creature in the world.
Now that I’ve seen the film I feel that 1) this Hulk is very King Kong-like in both his anger, his sadness and his protection of his girl, 2) Ross wants to contain Banner the way he would an advanced-weapons system that got loose, while the super-soldier forumula alluded to is something else entirely (i.e., Captain America fans, awake), and 3) the make-my-day thrill is still there, for the audience anyway, since Banner only turns into the Hulk when he’s being bullied. That Banner gets no thrill from this also makes sense. Who knows what he’ll do as the Hulk? Who knows whom he’ll kill?
So after all the hand-wringing and all the unncessary articles, The Incredible Hulk turned out to be a pretty good popcorn movie. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes (64%) is only slightly higher than the rating Ang Lee’s version got five years ago (61%); but if you look at only top critics, the numbers shift from 53% to 67%. Even here, I feel, RT’s critics are probably lowballing Hulk, influenced, no doubt, by all the hand-wringing and unnecessary articles. No wonder Hulk mad. No wonder Hulk smash.
The movie picks up where The Hulk left off. It gives us the origin during the credit sequence, in case we need it, then takes us to Brazil for sweeping shots of the teeming slums of Rochina Favela in Rio. Bruce Banner is now working at a soda-bottle factory there, studying Portugese via “Sesame Street” and corresponding via IM with a scientist named “Mr. Blue” on a possible cure for his monster problem. He’s also studying martial arts, less for the self-defense (which he’s got in spades) than for the discipline. “The best way to control your anger,” his teacher tells him, “is to control your body.” Then he slaps him hard across the face. Twice.
The script by Zak Penn is frequently smart and fun. Homages are prevalent. Flipping channels in Brazil, Banner comes across an episode of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” starring Bill Bixby (the ‘70s Banner), and a security guard in Virginia is played by Lou Ferrigno (the ‘70s Hulk), and taking on some Brazillian bullies, Banner says that show’s most famous line but messes up the Portugese translation: “Don’t make me...hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m...hungry.”
In the end, even Rio isn’t far enough away. The U.S. Army finds him and there’s a good chase — complicated by the bullies and the fact that Banner can’t let his pulse race. But of course it does. Boom. And there go the bullies and the fully loaded army men, including Tim Roth as a former Russian, raised in Britain, who’s entranced by all that power and will eventually become the Abomination. Many critics have been as unimpressed by this CGI-Hulk as they were five years ago but I think the technology has come a long way — not least in giving the Hulk weight. This time around he feels part of the action rather than some video-game blip that bounces around a lot. When Banner wakes he’s laying by a picturesque waterfall. Holding up his pants and flagging down a driver, his newly-learned Portugese gets him nowhere since he’s now in Guatemala. The problem of being the Hulk. At least he was nice enough to choose the waterfall.
Everyone’s got their agenda here. Banner wants to return to normal while Ross wants Banner for study while “Mr. Blue” (Tim Blake Nelson) is after...what exactly? Our final shots of him indicate he might be back as...The Leader? Modok? The Rhino? The movie leaves it open-ended. The movie leaves a lot open-ended — including to what extent Banner can control his body and his problem.
The Incredible Hulk is only the second movie, after Iron Man, produced by Marvel Studios, and they seem to be forging a new paradigm for superhero movies that recalls their Silver Age of comics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most modern superhero movies are self-contained — all plot points are resolved, while Batman doesn’t appear (or even exist) in Superman movies — but Iron Man included a cameo by Nick Fury and Hulk includes a cameo by Tony Stark, who tells Ross, “What if I told you we were putting a team together?” So we know it’s building toward that Avengers movie and beyond. As Jack Kirby’s characters couldn’t be contained by the arbitrary limits of the comic panel, so Marvel’s superheroes, under their direction, can’t be contained by the arbitary limits of a single movie. They're spilling out. Makes me think that, if you're going to keep making superhero movies, this is the way to do it.
Web-head vs. Shell-head
Update on that Michael Cieply article. Two weeks ago he wrote that “As hot as ‘Iron Man’ is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, ‘Spider Man 3,’ by about 25 percent in the same time.”
Now it's about 16 percent. Iron Man is at $258 million while at this time last year Spider-Man 3 was at $307 million. And this isn't just the shortening shadow of percentages: Iron Man is also closing the gap in gross numbers. While Spider-Man 3 outperformed Iron Man during the first two weeks ($240M to $177M), Shell-head has outperformed Web-head during the next two weekends ($31 and $26M vs. $29 and $18M).
What's the point of this superhero horserace? Just this: In the long run, in some small way, quality matters. People seem to forget this when discussing movie box office.
Memorial Day weekend
This weekend, between moving down the hallway and going to a friend's dinner party on Saturday night, Patricia and I watched two films, both of which surprised.
The surprise in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was just how good Ethan Hawke was. I'd never been much of a fan. He always seemed a little too sure of himself without having reason to be. Here he goes opposite, playing a loser, a man without many choices left in life who nevertheless keeps choosing the wrong path. There's no even keel to his character. He's desperate in his sadness and desperate in his happiness: eyes a little too wide, smile a little too quick. There's nothing comfortable about him at all. I remember when the movie came out last fall but I don't remember Hawke getting much of a write-up. He deserved it. Great cast, of course (I'd watch Albert Finney anywhere, anytime), in a good, painful movie that loses a little something in the end.
The other surprise was less welcome. I assumed Le Souffle au coeur would be a good film — Louis Malle, coming-of-age, sex — but it was made in 1971 and it's set in 1954 and they do nothing nothing nothing to reflect this difference. The haircuts, the styles, the attitudes, all feel like 1971. The haircuts are floppy sixties haircuts, the rebellion has the anti-authority bent of the late 1960s. Seventeen-year gaps are pretty hard to bridge anyway but this one, from uptight to anarchic, close-cropped to free-flowing, is particularly wide. Wish I could've gotten past it but it bugged me every second I was watching.
On the other hand: What's interesting about the film is that it sets up a tension and keeps teasing you with it until you want that tension resolved. Even though the resolution is immoral. In this way it's a little like Paradise Now.
Why is the New York Times encouraging Hollywood's myopia?
When I began reading Michael Cieply’s article in yesterday’s New York Times, “For Movies, A Summer That’s Shy on Sequels,” this was my main thought: “What’s the point?”
A year ago, the headline would’ve read, “For Movies, A Summer That’s Full of Sequels,” which, it turns out, is exactly their point. Last summer, three sequels (Spider-Man, Shrek and Pirates) and one movie based on a toy/TV show (Transformers) each took in over $300 million at the domestic box office, leading to one of Hollywood’s best summers. This summer, insiders believe only Raiders can reach the $300 million mark. They’re bracing for an off-summer.
Even so: What’s the point? Or better: How is this news? It’s prognostication. It’s a kind of vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn’t occurred. Cieply uses the conditional or tentative form of “could” five times in a pretty short article. He uses “may” five times. He writes:
- “…that could be a problem for an industry that has done well lately by peddling the familiar.”
- “‘Hancock’...could match [Will Smith’s] recent hit ‘I Am Legend,’ and still fall short of the $319 million in ticket sales for ‘Transformers’…”
- “‘Kung Fu Panda,’ from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as ‘Madagascar’…”
- “[‘Sex and the City’] could become a hit on the order, of, say, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’…”
- “With a little luck and a few crowd pleasers, the business could look good, by comparison, at year’s end.”
With all the rules the New York Times has in its style guide, you’d think they’d have some limits on conditionals or hypotheticals in a non-Op-Ed article.
Still, if you're going to write about this kind of non-news, at least be imaginative with your use of box office stats. Cieply isn't. He writes: “As hot as ‘Iron Man’ is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, ‘Spider Man 3,’ by about 25 percent in the same time.”
Well, of course. Spider-Man 3 set a box office record, grossing over $150 million in its opening weekend. But if you keep following the stats you’ll find that Spider-Man 3’s take the following weekend dropped by 61.5 percent while Iron Man’s dropped by only 48.1 percent. You’ll find that while no movie was faster than Spider-Man 3 to the $100 million mark, three movies were faster to the $200 million mark and five movies were faster to the $300 million mark. You’ll also find that of all the Spider-Man movies, the third grossed the least. Even with inflation.
Similarly, of the other two big sequels last summer — Shrek 3 and Pirates 3 — each grossed $100 million less than their previous sequel.
In other words, for all of their supposed success last summer, these films really weren’t that successful. It was summer, people went to see them, but... They didn’t keep returning. On IMDb.com, each film has the lowest user rating in its series. In the long run, they probably weren’t good for the business.
I know: “the long run.” Something Hollywood doesn’t pay much attention to. But why does the New York Times, the paper of record, have to share, even encourage, their myopia?
It's Sunday and I'm a little disappointed in Manohla Dargis
The questions Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott ask on page 3 of the New York Times Summer Movies section — respectively, “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the men in movies just overgrown boys?” — are answered on page 6 of the New York Times Summer Movies section. Michel Cieply writes, not very interestingly, about Hancock, a movie about a bum of a superhero, a guy with superpowers who drinks too much and crashes on park benches and goes to prison. The movie stars Will Smith and opens July 4th weekend and the studio is nervous because the subject matter is considered edgy. They feel like they’re breaking the box. That’s what writer-producer Akiva Goldsmith says in the article’s last line. “Everybody knows that you want to break the box. It’s just that the act of breaking the box is really frightening.”
So if a summer movie starring Will Smith as a superhero is considered “breaking the box,” what chances do movies about real women and men have?
To be honest, I was a little disappointed in Ms. Dargis. She’s sharp but this time she conflates two issues: “Where are the women?” and “Why are the few women here so unrepresentative?” The first issue is true and undisputed: the second isn’t limited by gender, as A.O. Scott’s article shows. Hell, the photo accompanying her article shows it, too. It’s the Incredible Hulk in low growl. Ms. Dargis complains that the new Anna Faris movie, The House Bunny, about a Playboy Bunny kicked out of the Playboy Mansion because, at 27, she’s too old, will be another Legally Blonde: “...one of those aspirational comedies in which women empower themselves by havng their hair and nails done.” I looked at that line, looked at the Hulk again, and wondered, “And how are boys empowering themselves? What is their fantasy?"
The issue of representation onscreen is a sticky one. Most of what we see onscreen is some combination of identification and wish-fulfillment. Action movies tend to be mostly wish-fulfillment, comedies mostly identification. Or are comedies anti-wish-fulfillment? You feel superior to the main characters: the 40-year-old virgin; the chubby slacker living with his loser stoner-friends; the chubby schlub who can’t stop crying. You see some possible version of yourself and think, “There but for the grace of God...” But there’s still wish-fulfillment, because these guys get girls they couldn’t possibly get: Katherine Heigl and Catherine Keener and Mila Kunis.
Men aren’t hard to figure out. We thrill at super versions of ourselves and laugh at lame versions of ourselves and in either version we get the girl.
As for women? Who is their identification and what is their wish-fulfillment?
Answer these questions and you’ll render Ms. Dargis’ first question moot.