I was at the perfect age when Batman came out, 12, which was not so young that the movie was over my head and not quite old enough to start being jaded about adaptations. More personally, I was also a year into collecting comics pretty heavily so I felt like I was at the forefront of the entire comic industry boom that literally blew up overnight after the release of this flick. This film also marked another turning point in my life as it was what was bouncing around my head right before my family left Florida (where I’d spent most of my life at the time) for first New England, and then Georgia (where I’ve planted my roots ever since.) With every move Batman was always there for me as both something comforting to watch, or an ice breaker when meeting new people, at least when looking for comic book minded people. To top all of this off, Batman also marked the point when my parents caved in and finally bought our first VCR, something that on the surface doesn’t seem all that important, but to me it changed the way I watched movies from that point on.
With our new VCR I found myself starting to build my own little movie library, first by taping flicks off of TV (mostly HBO and on Saturday afternoon UHF matinées), and eventually by saving up and buying the flicks that I loved. Of all my collections over the years, my film library has been the the only one that I’ve consistently worked on or grew. Before I made the plunge to DVD I had amassed over 300 VHS cassettes, which doesn’t sound all the impressive until you realize that it took two full bookshelves to hold. Now I’m not playing "mine is bigger than yours", I’m just stating a fact that no one I knew seemed crazy enough to have that many movies on hand, I mean you rented VHS tapes, you didn’t buy them. Now I have a collection of over 600 movies and 130 odd TV shows on DVD, which if you asked my 1989 self if I’d ever have a collection like that I/he’d be likely to laugh you out of the building.
Like I said above, since I was only 12 when the flick hit theaters and I wasn’t quite old enough to be jaded, I fully accepted the Tim Burton version of batman as the way Batman should be, all latex muscle suits and super long phallic bat-mobiles. Before Batman hit I was sort of into the Super Friends cartoon and honestly I pictured Batman to be more like the Adam West TV show. Burton managed to completely change this for me and was a window into a more serious interpretation, something that suited my new found interest in characters like Wolverine and the rest of the X-Men.
Though I only saw the movie in the theater once, I bugged my parents for every possible scrap of Batman merchandising, all of which I squirreled away in a comic box for years. I had boxes of Batman cereal, plastic piggy banks, ping pong ball guns, stickers, coloring books, action figures, die-cast cars, micro-machines, souvenir magazines, picture books, movie novelizations, candy dispensers, and trading cards, you name it, I had it. Well, I had everything but the actual comic books. I was so into the Burton Batman that the regular comic series didn’t hold much interest for me at the time. In fact the only Batman comic that I could get into surprisingly was the Dark Knight Returns. Being 12, the book was way over my head, but I loved it anyway.
Pretty much this flick has held up for me consistently, though in more recent years I’ve begun to see how it’s sort of changing from what I once thought was the perfect example of a realistic live action comic book adaptation into a singularly stylized interpretation, the kind of film that sort of needs to stand on its own instead of being the basis for any sort of continuity (a mistake that I believe lead to the downfall of the movie franchise much more so than hiring Joel Schumacher, George Clooney, or Arnold Schwarzenegger ever did.) Tim Burton’s Batman is much like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight work, it’s a very passionate work that is best served as a diversion from the concept, a great companion piece. Stick with it too long and it’ll only end up becoming a parody. Honestly, I think this can pretty much be applied to most iconic comic work, in particular the super hero genre. Why are we as comic and movie fans so hung up on continuity?
Well, to get back into the swing of things here I thought I’d take a second and go through a my DVD collection by director for awhile, starting with one of my favorites, Tim Burton. When I was younger I don’t think I realized that there was even such a thing as a director, and honestly I’m still not exactly sure exactly what a director is responsible for, but it’s hard to deny that some stand out more than others. Well the first director that I recognized by name was probably Tim Burton, probably because of Batman, though Beetlejuice was also high up on my list of favorite movies at the time.
I figured it’d be fun to get some of my least favorite DVDs out of the way first, so today I’m going to talk a little bit about Mars Attacks!, one of only two movies that I can think of which are based on trading card sets (the other being Garbage Pail Kids the Movie.) I first saw Mars Attacks in the theater with my friend Jeremy a little bit after we graduated from high school, which was a heavy theater-going time for me. I think I was averaging about 1 flick every two weeks or so during that time because I finally had a car and could go by myself, not to mention that I worked the night shift and there wasn’t much else to do during the day when I couldn’t sleep.
By this time I was a pretty big fan of Burton’s, having basically come of age watching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman and Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. I also loved Ed Wood, which I saw after picking up Plan 9 From Outer Space on clearance at my local Media Play based on the tag line that it was the worst movie ever and loving it. When Mars Attacks came out I thought Burton could do no wrong and I fully expected to fall in love with the flick. Sadly I didn’t. Actually I hated it the first time I saw it. I’ve never been a big fan of CGI and the flick is loaded to the gills with it, which surprised me since one of the reasons I dug Burton so much was his amazing work with practical effects and set design. It didn’t help that I wasn’t all that familiar with the card set and I was kind of getting sick of the trend where actors would play multiple parts in films (ala Eddie Murphy.)
There was one scene in the flick that I loved though, enough so that years later when I was browsing through the $5 DVD section in Target I couldn’t help but pick the flick up. The scene in question involves Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan. They both have their heads removed and there’s this crazy moment when their severed heads are rolling around and then they come together with a kiss. While I was re-watching it recently it occurred to me that this is the key to this film. Sure it’s got a silly plot and it’s mostly about inane visuals, which typically makes me tune out while watching a film, but in this films case it’s truly it’s strength. See the flick is based on a trading card set, and at the end of the day that’s all this film really is, a collection of crazy scenes that are very loosely connected into a story. Any one of these scenes would make an awesome trading card, and the inane plot which drives it would perfectly fit in a small caption, either on the front or as a summary on the back. The fact that Burton and Jonathon Gems (the screenwriter) would try and focus on this aspect of the source material astounds me. In fact it sounds more like a film school experiment than a big budget Hollywood film, which I think took a lot of guts and is also probably to blame for it’s lack of acceptance.
This is what I would consider to be one of the perfect discount DVDs, one that I would have a hard time paying much more than the cost of a good lunch for. I do have to admit though that I probably wouldn’t have as much admiration for it if another director had done it, but then again, I can’t imagine too many other people out there who would have (well maybe the Chiodo brothers who brought us the classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space.)
Being that I’m on a sort of super hero kick lately, and since I’ve found a few extra pockets of time to watch some DVDs that have been sitting on the shelf for months, I thought I take a moment to share one of my favorite super hero movies of all time. Now after I’d been into comics for a while, (always a "Make Mine Marvel" kind of kid) and after I’ve fallen into a group of similar minded friends, we would sit around and talk SH movies all of the time, arguing over which was better. Though the original Star Wars trilogy was our bible, super hero films were the next ring of interest and speculation. Of the four of us that hung out together, each of us had our preferable set of Marvel characters: I was into the Punisher and the X-Men, though Wolverine in particular was my favorite, Jeremy was into Spiderman and Namor, though Cyclops was his favorite character, Darrel was an expert on the more fringe characters in the Marvel universe (Cloak and Dagger, The New Mutants, Star Jammers) as well as some indie comics like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though he had a pretty strong affinity for Gambit, Kitty Pryde and Night Crawler, and Stephen was the resident underdog lover, covering everything that the rest of us weren’t into like Iron-Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers, though like the rest of us he was partial to an X-Men character, Colossus.
Anyway, while we were comparing and contrasting flicks like Tim Burton’s Batman, TMNT: The Movie, The 1989 version of the Punisher, Superman the Movie, the Flash TV Pilot, Swamp Thing, the 70s-80s Spiderman TV movies, and the 80s unreleased Captain America movie, all of us always neglected to bring up the original pilot movie for the Incredible Hulk TV series. Sure, all of us were familiar with the later TV movies that introduced characters like Daredevil and Thor to the big screen, but I never saw the pilot movie in repeats until the late 90s. In fact I’m not sure if it was ever released on video, and it sure wasn’t released on DVD until the merchandising and publicity started to ramp up for the Ang Lee version in 2003. Universal put out four DVD sets that year, the pilot movie, a really expensive Best Of, and a couple of TV movie collections with the Return of, Trial of, and finally Death of the Incredible Hulk.
Well considering the mass amount of super hero flicks that have been released since ’95, I thought it would be fun to see how this 1977 TV movie held up in comparison.
First off, the pilot movie DVD, which might still be available individually (it comes with the awesome 1st season set which also includes commentary on the flick) on DVD, is pretty good for the price. I’ve only ever seen it in $5.50 bins in the various chain stores, so it’s cheap, and in addition to the pilot it also includes the bonus fan-favorite episode Married. The DVD also contains some fluff special features like a sneak peek at the Ang Lee feature film and a decent introduction from Lou Ferrigno (who if you don’t know was the Hulk to Bill Bixby’s David Banner.)
Ferrigno doesn’t get all that much time to reminisce, but he manages to get a few interesting nuggets out about getting the gig, the annoying time in the make-up chair, etc. He’s also very aware of the fan base for the show and he even hits the convention circuit every year taking time to talk with the fans and stuff (unlike a lot of the other "celebrities" who frequent the circuit and are amazingly rude.)
The pilot movie was basically the pitch for the regular series, which was produced, written and directed by Kenneth Johnson the mastermind behind another 80s TV sensation that I was obsessed with as a kid, V. The flick opens up very quietly with a very 70s hazy out-of-focus feel to the text, an effect that makes the flick seem like a bad soap opera more than anything else. It opens with Bill Bixby’s name over the title, and eventually it scrolls to Lou Ferrigno who was more or less an unknown to viewing audiences, but would soon rocket to stardom.
After the credits, the is a quick quote which in a very unsubtle way (completely fitting into the Marvel tradition) lets us know that we are about to see a flick about hidden fury. What’s kind of funny, and what ultimately makes this silly quote work for me is the barrage of imagery that follows. There are approximately six million mini scenes that educate the audience about just how much David Banner and his wife love each other.
I mean this couple does every stereotypical thing imaginable from walking in flower-strewn fields, to cavorting in the rain, hilariously goofing off while fishing, loving kittens, comforting each other when receiving a sad telegram…
…perfecting their tom foolery while baking, having snowball fights, eating breakfast in bed, lovingly autographing a cast (remember those times of trouble), tailoring each other’s pants (no, seriously, that’s how much he loves her)…
…laying in bed at night (did I mention they love spending time together), and walking through more fields of flowers. It was about this point when I seriously considered shutting off the film (actually it was during the un-pictured "we-love-each-other-so-much-we-went-disco-dancing" scene.) I mean, hit me over the head why don’t ya. Jeez, where was the playful swimming at the beach scene, or the post coitus afterglow-hugging scene, huh? Anyway, the movie takes a very ironic turn for the better when the couple climbs into their car and some very foreboding piano music starts playing in the background. As much as I hate to see people in pain and suffering, this movie needed to get off the Hallmark "I love you ever so much" train and back on track to being a super hero flick.
It’s at this turn where the movie really starts becoming interesting, and it sets a tone for the rest of the film that I think works amazingly well and is something absent in most super hero origin movies from that point on. In this last opening sequence the audience witness the tragic car accident that leads to the death of David Banner’s wife as well as his pent up aggression and rage that will propel him in becoming the Hulk.
Real quick I’d like to make it clear that I am going to spoil the hell out of the story and sequences of this film, so if you haven’t seen it and want to be surprised, you might want to ditch this trip down nostalgia road.
Anyway, during the accident, when the car is flipping out of control, David Banner is flung from the vehicle. The car bursts into flame and as he struggles to try and get the door open and his wife out, but it’s impossible no matter how hard he kicks or pulls. It’s a very disturbing scene and does a very good job of putting the audience in the character’s place, frustrated with the flame spreading everywhere. Just as the character reaches his breaking point he wakes up from what we now know is a reoccurring dream he’s been having since the incident. This is where the casting of Bill Bixby really pays off in this film. Bixby was an amazing dramatic actor and he completely owns the role of Banner. One thing I was super glad about from a technical standpoint was when Banner awakens from the dream the whole hazy, out-of-focus, Vaseline on the lens effect stops, which is very dated and annoying. This type of overbearing visual cue really gets on my nerves, as it doesn’t trust me to make the connection that it was a dream. I mean, having Banner wake up is quite enough; you don’t need to do any more work than that.
Another thing to note is that right from the start, Johnson has made major changes to the mythos of the Hulk universe, yet most of the changes are perfectly natural and help to ground the character in a reality that the comics don’t need. The character from the comics, though he has some repressed issues with his father, didn’t really have a tragic incident like this to put him in the mood of the piece. As we see in the next set of scenes, Johnson also chose to change the character’s name from Bruce to David, as well as switching him from being a nuclear scientist to a doctor studying the untapped resources of the human body. I’ll be honest, it’s changes like this that typically get my fanboy fur to stand on end, but in this film most of the changes help bring the character to life in a much more natural and less coincidental way. Whereas in the comic Banner is pelted by a mass amount of gamma rays in a weapons testing accident, in this film it’s worked into the story and becomes more of a deliberate act. The one change that I can take or leave is the name change. I believe Johnson decided to switch it to David because he didn’t care for alliterative names (which are Marvel and DC specialties), but he also reportedly made the change because he felt that Bruce was too "gay" of a name (which I think is a rumor that Stan Lee started on that interview DVD he did with Kevin Smith.)
Anyway, the story continues by introducing Dr. Elaina Marks, Banner’s research partner, who together are searching for the untapped source of strength that some people seem to hit upon during times of high stress or tension. They interview a series of people including a mother who saved his son from a car accident that mirrored Banner’s accident to a T. The duo keep hitting a wall though as they can’t seem to find any common links between the subject outside of the fact that they all had a traumatic experience.
It’s at this point that we’re introduced to a very (now) common super hero movie trait, which is looking to very realistic scientific explanation for super heroic powers. In most cases, this film included (and it may be the first film to explore this), this means getting deep down into the DNA, up to including a sweeping shot where the audience is taken on a ride into a person all the way down to one individual DNA strand. You see this in two of the the Spiderman movies, the X-Men flick, the Ang Lee Hulk film, and some of the super hero TV series as well I think. It’s just a very common visual effect, and one that’s very effective as we live in a world that is so DNA-centric what with the various crime scene investigation shows, flicks like Jurassic Park, paternity tests, and the possibility of cloning and designer babies right around the corner, DNA is pretty much the most iconic representation of body science imaginable.
Well, in a breakthrough, the couple figures out that in all of the cases they’re investigating, all of the subjects have an odd DNA signature that is abnormally high in adenine and thiamine. This leads them to testing Banner’s DNA, which in true super hero form is not only abnormally high in these same elements, but much more so than the rest of the subjects, which only adds to the frustration that Banner is having with losing his wife. Why couldn’t he tap into this power and save his wife? Though Elaina packs it in for the night, David can’t let it go and continues to search for something that would point to why this abnormality might produce excessive strength. He stumbles upon an idea as he’s talking to a fellow scientist about gamma radiation activity from sunspots, and matches up the time line on the subject’s increased strength to sunspot activity and high levels of gamma radiation.
This is where the film’s slow build begins to pay off for me. In the comic, and in most comic stories and movies, there is one quick incident, usually an accident that requires a jump in logic to buy the fact that a character has gained monumental new powers. Be it Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider, Matt Murdock having toxic waste flung into his eyes, or Bruce Banner running out to save a friend during a gamma bomb test (man, I see Johnson’s point on the alliterative names), there usually seems to be a coincidental accident that results in powers that are unbelievable (though in a good way.) When Banner realizes that the key the hidden strength lies in exposure to gamma radiation it’s a much more natural conclusion when he decides to test this theory out on himself.
Something else I really love about this film and its realism is probably the side effect of being filmed on a TV budget. It looks like a real laboratory was used in these scenes, or at least some real equipment, and it’s completely non-flashy. When Banner doses himself with the gamma rays it’s silent and invisible, much like getting an x-ray. For all of it’s non-flashiness, it’s still a very effective an haunting scene filled with much of the iconic imagery that would eventually make up the opening credit sequence of the TV show, from sitting the in the contraption to the x-ray of David’s skull.
It’s in this sequence that the camera travels deep into David, so deep that it gets down to his DNA in a very effective sequence, which makes it out to look like tiny glass beads and bubbles, a much more detailed sequence than the movie lead me to believe it would get. It’s also here where the accidentally over dosage that Banner gives himself is revealed (which was foreshadowed in a previous scene in which Elaina mentions that most of the research equipment had been upgraded, which is why new tape marks have been added to consoles, effectively showing that the makings can go up to 11.)
For me this is when the movie shines as in the next few scenes we see the build-up of anger that David is suffering from. After the gamma dosage, Banner is unable to lift anything heavier than normal and again he is frustrated as he hits another wall in the research. On the way home he gets stuck in the rain, has troubles starting his car, and then blows a tire after running over some road debris. There’s a slow burn as he gets out to take care of the flat, hurting himself getting the spare out of the trunk, fumbling with the jack in the rain, and then hurting his hand as it slips off the tire iron. This all just builds and builds in a very natural and understanding way (we’ve all had days like this.) This finally hits a crescendo that pays off in David’s first transformation into the Hulk, an effect that could make or break the movie. The effect is pretty astounding, beginning with the tinny high-pitched hum where David flicks open his eyelids to reveal that his irises have turned a light greenish-white, and is then followed by a barrage of quick edits showing his features changing, his muscles bulging out and ripping his sleeves, his shirt ripping up the back and eventually his unnaturally green skin. This first transformation is done flawlessly and is really beautiful, even when compared to the advanced effects work today and is the perfect illustration of how you don’t need a ton of CGI to do really effective and believable effects work.
There’s a great moment as the camera pulls back and shows the Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk for the first time in the pouring rain and then is highlighted and illuminated by a lightning strike which is helped along by the great orchestrated score. When then get to see David let out all of the tension that’s been building (through the slow first half of the film) on his car as he pounds on the hood with both fists clenched.
This whole sequence where he thrashes his car, smashing the windows, ripping off his flat tire and flinging it into a nearby ditch is all very exciting and fun and culminates in the Hulk picking up and flipping the car into the ditch where it explodes very unrealistically, but at this point realism doesn’t matter as much as the audience has bought into the concept. That’s the first major strength of this film, that the first half is gruelingly realistic, it totally sets up the transformation scene. The second strength of the film is that there is no set up for a villain that the Hulk will fight. By this point in any other super hero movie there’s usually a very obvious and awkward villain built up and in place for the final showdown sequence. It’s a cliche that I really don’t care for, and something that I think should be left for a sequel. This flick completely sidesteps the villain angle.
It’s at this point where Johnson starts playing with the character. He’s basically set up with the back-story straight out of one of the Universal monster movies, so Johnson playfully homages the little girl and the lake sequence from Frankenstein. The Hulk confused and dazed wanders through the woods until he stumbles upon a little girl fishing at the edge of a lake and just like Frankenstein he scares the living piss out of her. Unlike Frankenstein the Hulk doesn’t hurt the girl, instead she gets herself into trouble paddling out into the water in her canoe and then falling overboard. As the Hulk tries to save her, her father comes back from hunting and ends up shooting Banner in the arm. This is when Johnson decides to hammer home the point that his version of the Hulk will not kill or really even hurt innocent people (or villains for that matter) and instead of "Hulk smashing" the dude, he takes the gun, breaks it, and then throws the dude into the lake with his daughter.
There’s another really strong scene here where Johnson films the Hulk from over the shoulder as the Hulk stoops by the lake and sees his reflection for the first time. In this moment of calm Banner slowly changes back to himself in a series of edits that are cut between the character reaching out to touch his reflection in the water, a very nicely executed and creative effect.
It’s at this point that the film goes full force into only exploring the Hulk’s origin as Banner flees to his friend and colleague Dr. Marks, and together they try to understand this crazy situation. They retreat to a deserted portion of the research facility they work at which houses a pressure chamber that Banner hopes will hold the Hulk if he ends up changing again. The movie reverts back to its plodding pace, but honestly it’s a very welcome deviation to the over-produced frantic pace that most super hero films follow today. The two try to recreate the transformation inside the chamber, going so far as to artificially make it rain and lightning, but try as they might they can’t do it. Then hours later, Banner decides to rest, and during another episode of his reoccurring nightmare where he once again powerlessly has to relive his wife’s death, he unconsciously begins the transformation into the Hulk. Even though the chamber is constructed with thick metal lining and six inch thick glass, the Hulk still manages to smash and break his way out where he confronts Elaina, but once again we see as the Hulk isn’t just violence incarnate, but human bound by his alter ego’s morals.
Again, Johnson makes homage (though a little more heavy handed) to another monster, one a little more close to home, Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde. Unlike Hyde the Hulk isn’t evil or a beast derived from all of the hidden carnal instincts of man, but merely a physical manifestation of anger, frustration and rage. He won’t hurt Elaina, in fact he even obeys her much like a dog. She also has enough of a calming effect on the creature that he slows down enough to revert back into Banner.
This time, unfortunately, the effects work doesn’t shine and is very dated with a cut-out segment of film that flashes between various versions of Ferrigno and Bixby, overlaid with a very odd green light that just services to make the transformation all the more awkward. Buried within this though is a very awesome bit of subtlety where Bixby has the white contacts in, he closes his eyes, and in an imperceptible cut, opens his eyes and the contacts are gone. It’s funny how you can have all ranges of quality in the effects work within one shot like that.
Another thing that this movie does very well is to introduce story threads that are left in the background until later, which makes the story seem more over arching that it might really be. At the beginning of the film we are quickly introduced to Jack McGee a reporter for a crappy tabloid that’s trying to score an interview with Banner or Mark about the work they’re doing on hidden strength. Well, he pops up again towards the end, though this time he’s more interested in the sightings of the Hulk and it’s connections to Banner who he was already pursuing. Here again Johnson makes allusions to monsters, this time to Bigfoot, and places McGee in the role of the monster hunter.
Johnson uses McGee as a catalyst that will set up the continuing TV series later on in a move that it a little bit of a groaner, but not so bad now that most of the movie is dedicated to discovering the understanding the Hulk. There is an accident after McGee breaks into the lab where Banner last turned into the Hulk; he’s hiding in a closet listening to Banner and Mark when he’s discovered and then knocks over a jug of a highly reactive chemical. As Banner escorts McGee out of the building the chemical reacts with another substance causing a drastic explosion with Dr. Mark trapped inside.
Banner, reacting to the incident, turns into the Hulk and rushes into the building to save Elaina. He manages to get her outside and into the nearby woods (where McGee sees the Hulk carrying her) but she’s badly hurt and ends up succumbing to her wounds. Before she passes she tells Banner as the Hulk that she loves him, which is heart breaking as Banner doesn’t remember much that happens during the hulking out episodes. This is another story thread that is carried throughout the show as Banner is never sure whether or not he killed her, and always carries this guilt around with him.
The film ends with a funeral for both Banner (who was thought to have perished in the facility fire) and Elaina. There’s a fun nod to the character’s original name (Bruce is now David’s middle name, which is actually the same as in the comics, the character is Robert Bruce Banner) on his headstone. As the mourners slowly drift away Banner emerges and pays his last tribute to Elaina, illustrating his remorse and guilt (also mentioning that he loved her and thinks she did too), and then he turns and walks away with his backpack slung over one shoulder, and to the tune of Super Heroes (from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) in a scene that would be repeated at the end of every episode of the show.
After I was done watching this I was surprised how much I really ended up loving this movie. I wish that other super hero movies would take the time to tell a well-crafted story like this and do it at a pace that is right for the story and not what the audience expects. Hell after watching this, I wish Bryan Singer had, had the guts/clout to go ahead and completely nix the Lex Luthor plot line from Superman Returns, instead focusing on the characters and the love story. I’m sure it would have pissed off a bunch of people (I mean the ones that the film didn’t already piss off) but it would have been bold and satisfying (at least for me.) I guess I’m sick of every single super hero film having to be an action film first and then a good story second. I know it’s a convention of comics and all, but there are other stories to tell. Astro City is a great example of a comic that tried to defy these conventions, at least partially and tell other types of super hero stories, from other perspectives (like a regular Joe watching this craziness from the street.) The Incredible Hulk does this really well for me. It might be boring for others, but oh well.
As a P.S., there was one change that Johnson wanted to make from the comics that I’m glad didn’t happen. He wanted the Hulk to be red to mirror the anger that the character was suffering from. Man, though would have totally negated everything I said above and would probably have been a fanboy nitpick that completely took me out of this film (much like the absence of the Punisher skull was for the 1989 version, which up until just recently made me hate that film.)
Boxing Helena for me is the perfect example of potential-wasting, gutless filmmaking. Warning, spoilers follow. Philippe Caland and Jennifer Lynch presented a genuinely interesting and bold plot, that of a masochistic, mother-obsessed doctor (Nick) who desperately latches onto Helena, a beautiful temptress who wants nothing to do with him. Nick, after having inherited his mother’s palatial estate and running into Helena in a bar, decides to throw an impromptu house warming party as cover for inviting Helena into his home where she yet again rebuffs his advances. Nick then lures her back to his house where she is accidentally hit by a car and has her legs horrible crushed. Being a brilliant surgeon, Nick manages to save her life though he amputates both of her legs, and it’s at this point that the film becomes both remarkable and lackluster at the same time.
Jennifer Lynch, daughter of filmmaker David Lynch, seems as if she’s taking a page out of her father’s surreal dream-logic filmmaking book as Nick keeps Helena prisoner and begins to slowly and literally deconstruct Helena limb by limb until she’s truly an object of his desire. Helena, on the other hand, spends her time digging into Nick’s psyche, taunting his manhood and in a very demented twist falling in love with him, I believe based purely on his desire for her, which transcends physical beauty (something she is used to men fawning over.) Unfortunately this second act is severely hampered by pointless complexity (in terms of the number of characters in the film) and some very forced and unconvincing performances (namely by Bill Paxton who’s trying his best to invoke his character Sevren from Near Dark and Sherilyn Fenn who stoicism is almost laughable.)
Though the acting is generally bad and the directing generic the plot would save this otherwise mundane film, but this to is thrashed by a very trite and gutless third act that ends with an ambiguous twist ending, which implies that the entire second act was either a hallucination or a dream. When I rented this film I had very high hopes based on the loose connection to David Lynch and the story in general. I mean who sits down to write a movie about a man so obsessed with a woman that he makes her into a living Venus Di Milo, and then pussies out at the end and implies that it’s either a dream that Helena has had after the accident, or a hallucination that Nick is having in the hospital after he brings her in (instead of keeping her in a psuedo-box on his dining room table.)
I thought I’d talk a bit about the Ewoks DVD today. I don’t hate this cartoon, but I do hate the way Lucasfilm has handled the property. Basically what this release is, is 8 episodes from the first season of the show cobbled together to form two very unbalanced animated films with new adult Wicket voice-overs.
What we don’t get is the opening theme song, original end credits, and I have a feeling original music (though I guess I’ll never know since this will probably be the only release in this format.) At least the “chapters” are labeled with the original episode titles. I know this sounds nit-picky and in the vein of the “complainers” of the ill done reissues of the Original Star Wars trilogy on DVD, but come on. What is the purpose of releasing an old saturday morning cartoon, almost certainly because the fans demanded it for nostalgia purposes, and then heavily editing it so that it has almost no feel of how it originally aired?
I don’t particularly want this in my collection, but I do want episodes of the show, so I bit the bullet and bought it. I outright refuse to buy Droids though as I didn’t care as much for that cartoon and can wait for a better version (though it will probably never come…)
So in the wake of my burgeoning interest in car flicks, post Death Proof, I finally got around to catching Vanishing Point, the 1971 road film that, like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, is one long car chase. This flick above all else, is the film most mentioned in Death Proof, both by the characters and with the use of the white 1970 Dodge Challenger that the girls are test driving at the end of the flick. Like all the other car flicks I’ve seen lately, I tried to go into this with unspoiled and with an open mind.
Like Two-Lane Blacktop, this flick begins with a slow burn that builds up to become much more than the sum of its parts. The inter-cutting of scenes with the main character Kowalski (played by Barry Newman) with those of DJ Super Soul (played by Cleavon Little) are first unexplained and odd, but soon become weirdly telepathic, where one character becomes the body and the other the voice of a being that is past it’s time on this earth. The films existential leaning, though, isn’t as up front as Two-Lane Blacktop, as the director (Richard C. Sarafian) and the writers (Malcolm Hart & G. Cabrera Infante) very creatively insert some telling flashback sequences that throughout the film bring the audience up to speed with Kowalski and suggest some reasoning behind his long last stand on the road.
Though the film is structured a little more commercially viable than Two-Lane, it’s not quite as much so as Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and not nearly as mundane as most of Gone in 60 seconds, so it’s kind of cool to see a progression of existentialist road movies throughout the 70′s. It’s kind of interesting to note that in TLB speed alienates, in DMCL and VP speed kills, and in GI60S speed titillates because by that point people were becoming so enamored by the action that they were probably looking past the meaning. This is an downward spiral that action movies take throughout the 80s (with films like the Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and even to a point Top Gun) and which ends ultimately with films like Days of Thunder or Speed and its utterly pointless sequel, Speed 2: Speedier on a Boat No Less (or what ever the hell it was called.) Car movies are all flash and hardly any substance anymore. Stuff like the Fast and the Furious or the Transporter (though both fun and exciting) are simply eye candy. Honestly, Death Proof isn’t much better, but at least it turns its head back in the direction of the 70s flicks that it pays homage to.
I’m curious is this is one of the first times the where the whole DJ as a confidant/copilot concept makes it’s way onto film. It seems like a very stereotypical idea now, but I’m not sure where it came from. I also really dig its telepathic inference, which reverberates nicely in later cinema like in the scenes between the Forest Whitaker titular character and Raymond (played by Isaach De Bankole) in Ghostdog: Way of the Samurai, where even though neither character can understand each others language, they still hold up their ends of a conversation through some sort of unexplained telepathy.
I also think that this is a pretty tight example of counter culture cinema, in the vein of Easy Rider, so it’s sort of funny to see that there was a made for TV remake in ’97 starring Viggo Mortensen that completely ditches Kowalski’s drug fueled existential ride to the end with a plot about having to get home for the birth of his baby. That just sounds so silly.
Sin City isn’t a perfect film; in fact it isn’t even close. It’s hard to say inclusively that it’s bad or good, because there are a lot of different aspects to the flick. I can say that I loved it, even for its issues.
As far as translation from book to screen, the movie is near flawless. Rodriguez and Miller have managed to recreate Miller’s heavily stylized comics on the big screen without losing an iota of the heavy black or stark white. They also manage to keep the dialogue and internal monologue intact, which are both a merit and a major problem with the film. Most people who’ve read Miller’s Sin City work don’t make the connection to Mickey Spillane and Sam Spade, to Humphrey Bogart and the lingo of the Hard Boiled detective pulp novels. So when they hear the dialogue in the movie delivered in such a manner it’ll probably come off as comic or exaggerated. People today just don’t remember or care for the older genres that so many of today’s writers and directors fell in love with as children. People expect an update not a faithful homage. Yet they complain when they feel a book to film translation isn’t faithful. Simply put, people don’t know what they want.
That being said, I think the theatrical cut of the film also suffers a little in it’s editing. Being so faithful to its graphic novel roots, I feel that Rodriguez failed to treat the three novels as individual stories. The three chapters blur into one another in a slightly uncomfortable manner with only a change in narrator to tip the viewer that we are switching gears. I think the film would benefit from titled chapters (ala Kill Bill) or better yet, a title card utilizing the original Miller artwork for each chapter, which would be in keeping with the source material. Thankfully, in this box set we also get the opportunity to view these stories separately which significantly adds to the experience.
The film is also heavily CG’d, but I think that helps to define baSin city as its own world just outside of our reality. It also makes it easier to swallow the use of bright highlights of color and the exaggerated cartoon violence, though I know that there are a lot of older film fans that think the movie is actually a CG cartoon, so maybe it’s not for everyone.
I also feel the film was superbly cast with Mickey Rourke as a standout and Elijah Wood as a surprisingly creepy Kevin. Though at the end of the day I pretty much enjoy all of the performances, I was a little bummed by both Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba’s Nancy. Willis just didn’t nail the exasperated, at-the-end-of-his-rope Hartigan for me. As for Alba, honestly, if you’ve got a problem with on screen nudity, don’t audition for the role of a stripper. I’m surprised that Miller and Rodriguez decided to leave Nancy dressed through the film seeing that they accurately portrayed the over the top violence and gore. I mean, the silhouette of a half naked Nancy, back lit with lasso in the air is a trademark image of the Sin City books.
All in all I think a lot of people are going to have a problem with aspects of the film that are actually quite faithful to Miller’s graphic novels. The "corny" dialogue, over the top unrealistic violence and action, the slightly cartoonish or simple characterization, all of these are in the Sin City books, and I think a lot of fans forgive this in the comics but won’t in the film. To me this points to unrealistic expectations of the adaptation to the silver screen, or more commonly, be careful for what you wish for, you might just get it.
For the special edition DVD I think that Rodriguez and company outdid themselves. There are two insightful commentaries, tons of making of featurettes including a fast forward view of a large chunk of the film sans CGI overlay, and a second and very fun installment of the 10 Minute Cooking School series, this time focusing on two types of breakfast tacos (including easy-to-make fresh flour tortillas.) Not only is the DVD portion of this box set loaded and awesome, but you also get a complete copy of the first Sin City graphic novel packaged in as well. For around $25, this is a huge bargain and should illustrate the gold standard for special edition box sets. I mean, sure, statues and book ends are nice, but at the end nowhere near as cool as source material. Why aren’t more special editions packaged with a print edition of a film’s script or something, now that would be great.
What can I say about the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds that probably hasn’t been said before. The flick is insanity personified. I basically came to this flick after I saw Death Proof in the theater a couple weeks ago. Since Tarantino also made a reference to this in Kill Bill (the scene where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw comes driving up to the wedding chapel massacre and the P.O.V. is from the driver so you see the dashboard and out the window; there is a row of sunglasses, each with different color lenses, this come directly from GISS), I figured it was time to finally sit down and watch it.
This is certainly one of the greatest examples of American cult cinema as it was independently written, produced and directed by H. B. Halicki a self-made businessman/gear-head. Halicki also starred in the film as well as doing all of his own stunt driving, which even includes a unplanned crash into a telephone pole that resulted in halting production as Halicki was badly injured in the wreck. Not only did Halicki write, produce, direct, act in, and do the stunt driving in the film, but he also owned or paid for almost all of the vehicles seen in the movie including the police cars and a garbage truck that he bought at auction for around $200 apiece. To say this guy was 100% behind his film would be a vast understatement.
What kills me though, is that for all of this love, most of it doesn’t shine through unto the screen. The first 50 minutes of the film are horrible, badly acted (mostly because Halicki cast friends and family in most of the roles to keep the production costs down), badly paced, and for the most part badly written, if only because the viewer has no idea what’s going on through most of the film. Much of the initial dialogue is delivered via voice over because 75% of the footage is in long shots, so you really don’t know who is talking half of the time. Even when the plot gets a little clearer later on there are still plenty of plot holes that aren’t explained (like who hired Maindrian in the first place.) It also doesn’t help that all of the car thieves have the same disguise (which I have a sneaking suspicion was a big influence on Spike Jonze for his concept in the video for Sabotage by the Beastie Boys), so the viewer isn’t even sure which character is on screen some of the time. The worst part though, is a 5-10 minute scene where Halicki inter cuts a plodding scene of his character walking through a warehouse looking at all of the cars his crew has stolen with a weird shot of Marion Busia (who plays his associate’s wife) as the camera just slowly arcs around her sad face while she sits in the crew’s office. The scene feels like it’s ten years long and is utterly pointless.
All of this, though, is paid off in the last forty minutes when the film turns into one long car chase that has plenty of interesting gimmicks and gags. Throughout the film Maindrian keeps having problems getting his hands on or keeping "Eleanor" a yellow 1973 Ford Mach 1 Mustang. The film takes a drastic turn after Mandrian steals his back-up Eleanor and is double crossed resulting in a pretty daring police chase. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 cars are wrecked in the ensuing chase including Eleanor, though she’s still able to drive pretty well (thanks to Halicki reinforcing her body for the stunt-work.)
At the end of the day though, this all makes for a pretty mundane film, especially when compared to similar flicks like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, though it’s staunch independence makes it one heck of a unique viewing experience that will probably never be duplicated. The perfect 3 star flick.
For some odd reason lately I’ve sort of fell into watching a bunch of car and road movies. It started when a friend at work lent me his copy of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and came to a head when I saw Grindhouse in the theater a couple weeks ago. I completely flipped for Death Proof, and in total Kill Bill fashion, I’ve been tracking down the references and homages to get a feel for where he was coming from. Death Proof is really a nod to three styles of film, the slasher flick (which I’m pretty comfortable with so I don’t really need to dig into that stuff), the car/road movie (which I’m getting into now), and chick revenge flicks (which I’m sure will be my next obsession.)
DP mentions a few flicks by name, DMCL, Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds (the original 1974 flick, not the remake), and when I started doing a little digging I realized that I couldn’t just do these three as there were a few more that sort of fit the bill as well, Bullit, Deathrace 2000, and Two-Lane Blacktop. Well the first thing I realized when I started looking up all the car/road movie references is that a couple of those are out of print. I was lucky enough to have kismittically been introduced to Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, which was out of print, but so was Two-Lane Blacktop, also released by Anchor Bay and also now OOP (**Update** there is now a nice version of the film available through Criterion, just click the picture above.) I did some price comparisons and was bummed by my initial discovery that most sites like Amazon and stuff list it used, but for like $100 or more. No movie is worth that, it’s just stupid extortion. So I hit eBay hoping for bootlegs. Some of the boots were pretty high priced, like in the $40 range, but luckily there was a dude in Australia selling some for $15 a pop. I picked up a copy not expecting it to arrive until like next year since the international postage he was asking for was only $3.85 (very unlikely, but I went with it.)
I was surprised this past week to find it in the mailbox. I chucked it in the player hoping it was a decent bootleg and sighed in relief when I realized it was a perfect port of the Anchor Bay release which meant it was nice quality and widescreen. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the flick as I refused to read the blurb and wanted to go in completely unspoiled. The flick stars a young James Taylor (yeah, that James Taylor, the Fire and Rain, ex-hippie soft rock king), Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Laurie Bird, and Warren Oates (who I only really knew as Sgt. Hulka from Stripes.) Basically it’s sort of an existentialist gear-head flick that follows two friends, a hitchhiker, and a compulsive liar as they race across the country.
The first thing that surprised me was how much I loved both James Taylor (as The Driver) and Dennis Wilson (as The Mechanic); both perfectly nail that disassociated quietness that comes from truly cool obsessive hobbyists (you know the type, that dude that’s uber knowledgeable and has pretty much seen or experienced every aspect of something and just kind of hangs out mildly interested in the scene (think Chevy Chase in Caddyshack or Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.) When they’re checking out potential cars to race against, and they’re rattling off engine types and model years it’s with a total stoicism that’s way more realistic and convincing than a more manic method approach (like Nic Cage in the Gone in 60 Seconds remake.) Very early on you get used to the two as a unit, almost inseparable, so later in the film with the introduction of Laurie Bird’s hitchhiker, even though it’s played out very subdued, you can really feel the distance growing between the Driver and the Mechanic. It’s kind of painful to watch (in a good way.)
Overall the film is very slow, plodding along just fast enough with almost no plot that you might actually fall asleep if it weren’t for the occasional engine revving or race. Warren Oates’ character, an older guy with a much nicer looking car (a yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O.) than the duo (in their dark gray primer colored ’55 Chevy) ends up adding a lot of unnerving humor and a lightness to the overly brooding film. He’s constantly picking up hitchhikers and coming up with a new spiel about how he ended up with his G.T.O., none of which you can believe by the time he hooks up with the duo. There’s actually a great cameo by Harry Dean Stanton as a gay hitchhiker that manages to be both funny and very disturbing at the same time.
This movie plays out much in the same way that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road feels. What probably helped this along was that the director Monte Hellman only dished out a day’s worth of the script at a time which seemed frustrating to the actors, but which helped to insure very organic performances. He also tried his best to deprive the actors of sleep so that they would be in the same head-space as the characters which were on a non-stop trip.
The flick also has a very abrupt (though interesting), pre-third act resolution, ending which I think says a lot more about the film than I realized when I watched it through the first time. The basic plot is that the duo, after picking up Laurie Bird, are confronted by Warren Oates’ character at a gas station (though they’ve sort of had a couple run-ins with him before where he tries his best to initiate a race and both times they blow him off) and you can tell he’s dying to get these three on the road with him, the two guys in a race, and the girl in his car. After a bit of macho posturing, Taylor and Wilson challenge Oates to a race across the country to D.C. with the two car’s pinks as the trophy. They put their pink slips together and mail them to D.C. care of general delivery and head out.
During the film all three guys make passes at Laurie Bird, who is more than willing, though only Wilson makes contact, however pointless and fleeting it is. At the same time Bird is sort of wary of the guys as it seems that she’s looking for a bit of stability and all she can see in them is their need to race above all else, or in Oates’ case, a little bit on insanity. Eventually she splits from the group and hitches a ride with some dude on his motorcycle, exiting the film and setting the tone for the rest of the picture which is when everyone sort of realizes that nothing is going to change and they all just sort of abandon the race, getting back to where they started the film leaving the bare plot resolution as a mere loose end. The race is really just a MacGuffin.
I never caught Due South when it aired in its regular nighttime slot, but I overdosed on the show when it was playing in reruns on TNT here in the states. There was just something amazing about this show that I have a hard time putting my finger on. It’s the same something that makes shows like Moonlighting and Northern Exposure so great as well. Anyway, I so wanted to be Benton Fraser in high school, but no dice, I wasn’t tall enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or nearly as Mountie enough though I did pick up his "Thank you kindly" affectation for awhile.
When DVDs first started trickling onto the market, this was one of the shows I was dying to have at the time because it was the one most fresh in my mind, not to mention sadly canceled and making it’s way out of syndication at the same time. I didn’t remember seeing the first season until around 2001 or 2002, and even then it was a Canadian only release of the show, which was alright because they’re in the same region coding, but also not so alright because it’s MSRP was around $120. This of course was back before the huge TV on DVD boom that we’re currently living through, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise, but it was disheartening. Between the high price and shipping from Canada, I was thinking I’d never own the show, though I managed to find a much cheaper copy on eBay which made me happy.
When I got the set I was sort of bummed because it both didn’t include the 2 hour pilot movie and was also one of the first times I came across a DVD set that was jam packed into a much smaller case than it needed. It was the first time I’d seen overlapping DVDs, not to mention the fact that they were also double sided, so a six disc series was crammed on three discs and packaged in a double disc case. Not my idea of a set that was asking $120. Add to this the fact that the case was crushed in shipping, and I was just really bummed about the whole thing.
A few years later though, the company that released the series in Canada, Alliance Atlantis, made an agreement with an American company, Platinum Discs, to distribute it here in the states. Once again I was very happy, first because they like 10 times cheaper, then because the first set would include the pilot movie and last because they looked like they would be available in slipcases with one sided discs. Then I bought it and I wanted to cry. These were hands down the worst quality DVDs I’ve ever purchased. Sure, for the price it’s not that big of a deal, but considering the alternative of picking up the remainder of the Canadian releases for something like $240 it just didn’t balance out.
Platinum Discs ended up released the entire series in three very cheap sets (like $15 each) and every possible problem I could have I did. When I picked up the second season the 3rd disc in the set was actually a disc from the first season. Then when I returned it to Best Buy, which luckily had one to replace it, the replacement copy had broken spindles so the discs don’t lock into place. On both sets the slipcases are made of the cheapest, thinnest paper board, that it might as well be made out of lined paper. The video quality is horrible, and every disc had problems with pixilation and grain issues. Then after season three came out (there were four seasons in Canada) I was pissed because there was no word whatsoever on season 4. Little did I know that it was actually included on season 3 while the whole time I was thinking that I was missing a season that I never got a chance to see in syndication.
I ended up chucking the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th discs of the 1st season American release, replacing them with the Canadian versions, so now I have a moderately nice set with both the pilot movie and better quality versions of the shows from the first season. I guess this series of DVD sets wins my prize for worst releases ever, well not quite. That prize would go to the $20 2-episode per release Star Trek the original series DVDs, but they’ve since been replaced with nicer, cheaper (though not all that much) versions.