I’ve been on a John C. Reilly kick lately, and this past week I sat down and watched the flick The Promotion (written and directed by Steve Conrad.) I wasn’t expecting to really connect with the film at all as it’s sort of set up with a pretty standard comedy plot and stars Seann William Scott (he of Stiffler fame from the American Pie movies) who I’m not all that enamored with. Honestly, I was expecting to enjoy Reilly’s performance, a few jokes here and there and that’s about it.
Part my initial disinterest was that the flick seemed to be drawing from the same cultural ennui of flicks like Waiting, Office Space and more importantly Clerks. I experienced Clerks at the perfect age, 19, right smack dab in the middle of my initial career as a grocery store stock clerk and budding film buff, and connected with it in a very visceral way. For my money Kevin Smith totally captured what life was life like for a 20-something pop culture nerd working in retail, whittling away the hours with humor as the world (customers, supervisors, family, etc.) slowly sucked away at your soul. Well, with a lot of genres (sub-genres, sub-categories, what-have-you) it seems like there are one or two films that do a great job of addressing the particular subject matter, and thereafter other flicks just seem to be watered down imitations or parodies. For me, in the minimum wage lackey category of comedy films, Clerks stands head and shoulders above the rest (with a nice honorable mention to Office Space, even though it deals more with corporate misery), and after watching flicks like Waiting or Kill the Man I was getting kind of tired of the genre. When I saw the trailer for the Promotion, I was expecting just more of the same.
Actually, I think part of my disinterest lies simply with the fact that I’ve moved on from that time and place in my life. I’m over ten years older, working a slightly more rewarding office job (I still emotionally connect to Office Space just fine thank you), and I’m less interested in wallowing in sarcastic hopelessness, preferring a bit more upbeat fare (in general, not as a rule.) Again, watching the trailer for the Promotion, which revolves around two grocery store assistant managers vying for the coveted store manager position at a new location, I was expecting to be less than engaged by the plot.
For the first half of the film everything was going exactly as I figured. I was really enjoying John C. Reilly’s Richard Wehlner, there were a couple of really funny jokes (in particular a handful about an annoying banjo teacher/gay dominatrix type), and a few surprising cameos (in particular by Jason Bateman and Bobby Cannavale.) I was actually a little surprised that Seann William Scott didn’t bug me all that much (something I also noticed in the flick Southland Tales), though there wasn’t anything particularly engaging about him either. Then, as the rivalry between Reilly and Scott started to heat up a bit I found myself wanting the film to side-step the clichéd plot (where one of the two would take on the role of the villain and you’d start rooting for the other by proxy) and veer into more uncharted territory. The weird thing is that it did.
I as mentioned before, the film stars Scott as Doug Stauber, who is an assistant manager at a grocery store chain located in Chicago, and along with his wife (played by Jenna Fischer) is just trying to make a go of life in middle class America. Figuring on being the shoo-in for the Store Manager position at a new location under construction, the couple decides to take a chance on buying their first house. At the same time, Canadian transplant Richard Wehlner (Reilly) (and his family, including his Scottish wife played by Lili Taylor), also an assistant manager (though for a chain of Canadian sister stores), and a recovering drug addict, transfers to Chicago putting Stauber’s "shoo-in" status in jeopardy. As the bigwigs descend on the store to check up on Doug and Richard, each end up dealing with their own demons, be it a gang making life on parking lot duty hell, the possibility of slipping back into depression, alcohol and drugs, or their need to get ‘promoted’ in order to grab a hold on their life.
Though the film is mainly a comedy, it manages to avoid some of the more obvious or gratuitous plot machinations, and pretty much plays the jokes in a subtle manner (even the more outrageous humor isn’t in your face.) The flick manages to balance the gags with plenty of introspection and does a surprisingly amazing job at illustrating a more real-life struggle for success. This is what kills me about most movies where the characters are always shooting for the stars, where success is defined only by achieving what in the long run only a very few people can. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for striving for greatness, but I’m also content in not shooting myself into the cosmos. Becoming an amazing success is wonderful, unless the trip there and beyond is horrible. Anyway, about halfway into the film I started hoping for a particular outcome, and was surprised when it occurred. Where Clerks deals with the grind of working a Middle
American job with sarcasm, apathy and slack, The Promotion deals in hope, duty, and a positive work ethic. It’s the other side of the coin, and sort of the next logical step after a film like Clerks (which is sort of where Smith was going with Clerks II, just without the goofy dance sequences, inexcusably ignorant fanboys, and donkey sex.)
There are a ton of reasons why I’m a nerd/dork/geek/what-the-fuck-ever, but if I had to pick one that exemplified this blog, it would probably have to be the word document file that I’ve been working on for the past four years that I call "the list." What is on this list you probably aren’t asking? Well I’ll tell you. It’s a list of every film I’ve ever seen. Not so dorky you say? Well it’s also annotated.
Over the course of the past four years I’ve spent a good bit of my spare time reading over IMDB lists, complete video and DVD release guides, and any other list of films I could find to compile a list of everything I’ve ever seen, film-wise. I was pretty proud of myself at first because this sprang out of boredom at work as I tried to think of some project that would take a long time, and when I decided to draw up the list, I figured that I’d never finish it. I have seen quite a few movies, but the thing that I felt was going to be the biggest stumbling block was finding thorough lists of flicks. See most of the lists and guides I was reading were either yearly best-of’s, or limited to what has been released either on video or DVD, and even then these weren’t exhaustive as they leaned toward more popular fare. So between these, 6 million Google searches, and my collection of movie ticket stubs that I started collecting about 20 years ago I managed to put together a pretty exhaustive list.
Is anyone still reading this? God bless your inexhaustive patience and limit for boredom if you are. So were there any stipulations to what could and couldn’t find a home on the list? There sure were. First off, I had to feel like I remembered a decent amount of the plot in order for the flick to make it on the list. If I remembered the title but couldn’t remember the plot, I nixed it. Second, and this is the super stupid anal part of this list considering I’m the only person who will ever see it besides what ever estate lawyer lackey is forced to read through it upon my death, I had to feel like I watched the flick from beginning to end. So anything that I’ve seen edited on TV didn’t make the list either.
So what are these annotations you probably aren’t asking about? Well, once I finished the general list it didn’t seem quite as cool as I had hoped. I did mention that I was a dork right? So in order to make the list cooler than G. Gordon Liddy the night before the Watergate scandal broke, I decided to run through the list and mark each movie with some code. First, each flick was marked to show who (out of my circle of friends and family) that I saw the flick with. Then I marked it as to whether or not I saw it in the theater. Then whether or not I owned it. Then I figured I’d try and mark the approximate number of times I could remember watching it. This list was really starting to take shape now. I had to make a key for the various notations. As a coupe de grace, I decided to highlight all the flicks that I wanted to own on DVD, and then whether or not they were available on DVD, so now the list was all colorful as well.
Outside of feeling like the biggest anal-list-retentive geek on the planet, I felt like all the time and effort I put into the this was well worth the, well, effort, if for nothing else, than for giving me fodder for other boredom relieving activities like "count the seconds". Have you ever found yourself on the toilet with a calculator so bored that you decided to mathematically deduce the total number of seconds you’ve been alive, or the approximate number of breaths you’ve taken, or the possible number of times you’ve pooped in your life? Liar, I saw you doing it. Wil Wheaton has done it. Well, he wasn’t on the toilet, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, this list has a ton of statistics fodder for crap like this, from the approximate proportion of my life I’ve spent watching movies, to the ratio of films seen with each of my friends, and who I am more likely to see a flick with. Last warning, I mentioned I was a dork, okay, so stop screaming at me.
One thing I’d like to do it to be able to compare this list to someone else’s like another movie buff that’s seen a ton of movies. I mean, even though the list took four years to finish and refine, at the end of the day there are only 1950 films on it. Is that a lot? Dunno. Doesn’t look like a lot, but then it felt like a lot when I set out to make it. I think I might need therapy…
Wow, when the heck did the middle of November jump in our laps?!? Mentally, I’m still back in late August trying to figure out how to not go stark raving mad because of all the changes at work. Sheesh. I’m totally neglecting the internet right now (actually it feels like I’ve been out of the game so to speak since the start of the year.) But I’m not writing to complain about my silly life woes, no I’m back to get into a fun head-space, and what better way to do this than by cracking open a bootleg copy of one of my favorite all time movies, the 1986 BMX cult classic RAD.
Growing up in the 80s I had a chance to catch the insane home video boom right from the beginning, what with all of the mom & pop rental shops opening and the initial flood of movie titles on VHS and Beta. My family was a late adopter in terms of getting our own VCR, so instead we’d rent one every other weekend from a little store tucked in a corner of a Gooding’s shopping center down the street from us. As a kid I was a creature of habit when it came to renting movies, not only because I loved watching the same flicks over and over, but also because there were only a handful of titles that I was interested in packed into that tiny rental store. I remember that the store was divided pretty evenly between Beta and VHS, and the little old couple that owned it only ordered the flicks in one format or the other. For some reason my parents only ever really wanted to rent a VHS player, so I was severely restricted in terms of titles to rent. Usually it was a choice between three or four movies, Red Dawn, War Games, SpaceCamp, and RAD, and for some reason the flick that I was always choosing was RAD. It was also around this time that I realized just how much VHS tapes used to cost back in the day. I think on my sixth or seventh rental I got up the courage to ask my mom for a copy of the movie for Christmas, so we asked the rental store owners how much a copy cost. ;’When they told us that a new copy of the movie would run about $110, both my and my mother’s jaws hit the floor. Owning VHS was apparently only for the very, very rich in 1986 (well actually it was aimed at store owners for rentals as the industry really hadn’t caught a whiff of just how much people wanted to own copies of films.)
So I never got a copy of RAD on VHS, and later on when I starting building my own library of films, I was cheated again as RAD has never been officially released on DVD. I had to resort to picking up a bootleg copy on ebay, which was just a crappy port of an old VHS rental ripped and burned to disc. My copy did come with a nice bonus disc though, which included the majority of the RAD soundtrack songs.
The flick begins with the very iconic Tri-Star opening (with the Pegasus running kitty corner into the screen and then leaping over the logo), something that I associate with plenty of Saturday afternoons spent glued to the TV during movie marathons.
Anyway, I thought I’d sort of go through the movie chronologically and talk about the stuff I find interesting. RAD is part of an unofficial trilogy of flicks in the 80s that touch on the 3 main popular extreme (for lack of a better term) sports of the decade (skate boarding, which was covered by the movie Thrasin’, surfing covered in the seriously underrated flick North Shore, and BMX.) Though there were a couple other BMX movies in the 80s (namely the Aussie flick BMX Bandits, which was more about escaping murderous thieves than BMX), none were as cool to me as RAD. The opening features a plethora of professional BMXers free-styling over the credits, set to the rocking Jon Farnham tune, Break the Ice (which deserves to be held up with other 80s triumphant movie rock ballads like Rock Until You Drop from Monster Squad, and You’re the Best from Karate Kid.)
The flick was produced by Jack Schwartzman, the husband of one of the film’s stars, Talia Shire (and father of Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman.) It was directed by Hal Needham, the guy responsible for many of the goofy Burt Reynolds car-centric comedies of the late 70s and early 80s (like Smokey and the Bandit and the Cannonball Run series), so you know that he can handle the fast paced action of RAD.
I think it was during this credit sequence that I got the most jazzed while watching the flick. The pro BMX riders doing all sorts of stunts (which I can only hazard a guess to what the names are by using the internets) would always get me in the mood to go outside and try them myself. Trouble was that I’m horribly uncoordinated when it comes to most physical activities, not to mention that I’m deathly afraid of pain and looking too much like an ass (a trait I’ve since grown out of), so I’d get pumped, go outside to ride my bike (a sweet powder blue and white GT Performer covered in pink GT stickers), fall off once while trying to do a simple trick and then pedal back home in a huff. Pretty sad I know. Guess I would have been the definition of a poser.
Anyway, the flick’s main star is Bill Allen who at the time was a 24 year-old guy who looked a hell of a lot like a young Powers Booth. Playing opposite of Allen was a young Lori Loughlin, who would later on play Uncle Jessie’s girlfriend/wife on Full House for six or seven seasons. Rounding out the cast (in terms of the more known established actors) are Ray Walston of Fast Times at Ridgemont High fame, Jack Weston (who I remember mostly from Dirty Dancing, Ishtar and Short Circuit 2, but who also had turns in flicks like the Cincinnati Kid and the original Thomas Crown Affair), and H.B. Haggerty (who was a familiar wrestler and starred in another underrated flick from the 80s, Million Dollar Mystery.)
In the above screen caps you can take a gander at two of my favorite 80s BMX memories, the first being a fabled full pipe and the second my favorite freestyle move though I have no idea what it’s called. Basically it’s when someone does an endo, starts pogoing on the front tire and whips the frame of the bike around in circles, stepping over it as it flips around.
The opening credits sequence is one of those (for me) breathtakingly awesome bits of 80s nostalgia and excitement that I revel in like a drug. Between the sickly sweet fist pumping heartfelt ice breaking and right making anthem playing over the free-styling action, and the non stop montage of professional BMX riders doing all your basic tricks and such, it’s just 80s perfection. Every time I hopped on my GT Performer heading out for school in the morning, this is the kind of thing I had in my mind’s eye. Sure, I couldn’t do much besides popping a wheelie or coming to a side-sliding stop, but I always imagined I was just as talented and, well, cool. Never meant to be though.
Anyway, back to the film. The action opens on Cru Jones and his two friends Becky and Luke, splitting up to do their morning paper routes…
What follows is a montage (of which this film has in spades) of the three playing out every possible BMX cliché and fantasy, at least in terms of riding around a local neighborhood goes. There’s riding through construction sites (which was always a favorite of mine growing up within a series of newly built subdivisions…)
…followed by the perfectly timed (or not so much so) jump off of one structure onto a car (and the hilarious wipe out that ensues, complete with straightening of hair and uttering the word “gnarly”.)
To illustrate just how ensconced Cru and his compatriots are in their small town, the local fire department is shown getting their delivery mid-street at the appointed time, as well as a friendly garbage man who obviously gives Cru a ‘lift’ on a regular basis…
Of course, everything isn’t wine and roses. The filmmakers had to make sure and keep an edge to the characters, which is where the ornery residents of the ‘hood come in. You’ve got the guy who doesn’t appreciate his paper thrown into his flower bed, and the most typecast curmudgeon of all time, Ray Walston, who gets a walkway full of spilled coffee and newspaper, courtesy of our hero Mr. Jones.
The sequence ends with Cru in the middle of town staring down an iconic clock tower pumped at another shot at his own best time. Again, though this sequence is pretty cliché, it does address a lot of what it felt like to cut through my own neighborhood, using my regular shortcuts through golf courses, and light woods to get to school or my friend’s houses.
There’s even a nicely executed bit with Cru riding though a specifically rigged section of fencing (again, another childhood fantasy of secret passageways hidden throughout the subdivision), which he then turns to face revealing the plot of the film in an advertisement for Helltrack, a 7-Eleven sponsored BMX event coming to the small town.
Again, the plot is pretty straight forward with the corrupt owner of a BMX company (an actual company Mongoose, who I’m sure didn’t realize how their company was going to be painted when they agreed to be featured in the film) putting on Helltrack to promote one of his star riders, Bart Taylor (played by real life Olympian Bart Conner), and securing a million dollar T-Shirt licensing deal. The catch, and the entry of our hero into the story, comes with a local town hall meeting where the residents want to know if local talent can enter into the race. After some thought, Mongoose owner Duke Best (played with plenty of sleeze by Jack Weston) decides that there will be a qualifying race, the top contenders of which will be featured in the final Helltrack race.
If you’ve ever seen a kids flick in your life you can probably figure out the rest of the film from here. But this is beside the point as the cult status of this film isn’t in its intricate plot shenanigans, but in the 80s laced cheese, and fun BMX sequences. One of my favorite of which takes place in a lumberyard where our heroes have a clubhouse (again, another staple of my childhood fantasies realized on film.) Again, like with the morning paper route antics, this group of BMX nerds is apparently frequently confronted by a local motorcycle cop (played by the iconic H. B. Hagerty) who chases them for sport. In this bit, it involves riding around huge stacks of freshly cut & stacked wood, as well as a mountain of logs that Cru ends up very unconvincingly riding up to evade the policeman (you can see the planks through the logs the stunt rider used to scale the heap.) It’s crazy and over the top set to a goofy fun rock song called Get Strange by the act Hubert Kah.
Of course, there’s also the angle of the Cru’s home life with precocious sister Wesley (place in pitch perfect Peppermint Patty tomboy by Laura Jacoby), and his hardworking depressed mother played by Talia Shire (who brings way more gravitas to the role than the film probably calls for, but is plenty welcome.) Basically, the old push and pull of Cru’s hopes and dreams of becoming an ace BMXer, and his obligation to get good grades and go to college (the money for which his mother works hard to earn.) It’s not enough that there’s a super evil greedy BMX company owner to contend with.
Completing the template set up by films like the Karate Kid, Cru also has to master that perfect race winning BMX trick, the awe inspiring 360 degree mid jump back flip. It’s surely the crane kick of this film, though is eventually more or less useless in the grand scheme of things.
The film really picks up steam with the introduction of the main villains of the piece, Bart Taylor and his twin toadies, Rod & Rex Reynolds (played by the dreamy real life twins Carey and Chad Hayes respectively.) They’re introduced in the weirdest fashion, a parade through the center of town. Granted, the whole Helltrack business would probably be a big deal, but parade worthy? I don’t know. Of course, blowing into town along side Bart, Rod, and Rex is the lovely Christian Hollings (played by the one and only Lori Loughlin, who looks about ten years older than the character she was cast to play.)
One of the weird themes in this flick involves our hero Cru not always portrayed in the best of lights. As I mentioned in the beginning of the film he’s not the best paperboy, annoying shop keeps by riding through their stores, and knocking coffee out of senior citizen’s hands willy nilly. There’s also a short bit with Cru jumping a fence into the school parking lot right into the middle of a group of yuppie teens, who granted probably deserved it, though it’s still unprovoked and not the nicest. During the parade, there is a weird sequence where Cru and his friends stop the parade to let a lady in a car on a side street through the traffic, but then to the angry sneers of the evil BMXers and being chased by the local fuzz, Cru beats a hasty getaway by jumping his bike onto a car and riding over it. Maybe it’s just the crotchety old curmudgeon in me, but this would have pissed me off and I’m sure dented the hood and roof to hell and back. Maybe I’m just getting to old to appreciate these teen action flicks.
By far, my favorite sequence in the entire film revolves around a school dance that Bart, Rod and Rex are forced to attend while in town. The scenes feature two of the zaniest, most ridiculous dance sequences ever put to film (including both Rodney Dangerfield performances in Caddyshack and Back to School.) The first is the stupendously retarded evil line dancing bit, set to the song Music That You Can Dance To by Sparks. Bart Taylor is decked out in his supremely “cool” suit jacket over a plain yellow T-shirt looking like a reject Billy Zabka clone and is dancing with a hussy all gussied up to look like Debbie Harry. They’re both so stiff and trying way too hard to exude sexiness that they come off laughable, particularly in their Macarena-like dance moves (don’t you dig the crossed arms grasping the shoulders dance move?) The look of evil intensity on their faces is offset by the absurd faux break dancing styles of the Reynolds twins dancing around a zebra-striped, skintight-lycra-wearing shell of a woman. Hands down, the evil dancing craziness reaches a nice crescendo when the twins drop to the floor doing the god awful push-ups move, followed by a double dose of the worm that has to bee seen to be believed.
As all this is going on inside, Cru (who has come to the dance Dutch after being rebuffed earlier in the film), is doing a bunch of freestyle BMX tricks outside the school gym. A crowd begins to gather, when all of a sudden Lori Loughlin arrives and a very tenuous, yet lasting connection is formed between the two star-crossed lovers…
…which leads to the single most insane dance sequence ever!
Set to Real Life’s Send Me an Angel, Cru and Christian proceed to rip up the floor BMX style, dancing on their bikes. The above screen captures just don’t do this sequence justice. In fact I don’t have the words to adequately describe just how over the top, hilarious, and amazing this sequence is (check out youtube for the proof and judge for yourselves…)
This craziness is followed by a lightening fast procession of falling in love montage scenes set to With You by John Farnham. Again, it’s predictably hokey, but lovable just the same and ends with the oddly named Ass Sliding scene. Why is there a nice concrete slide in the middle of the woods leading down into a nearby lake? Don’t know, but it makes for some zaney love scenes…
Again, adding to the idea that Cru isn’t the best person in the world, he ends up sort of cheating during the Helltrack qualifying races by riding outside of the boundaries to avoid entangling with the other racers, and skipping over obstacles. It’s a weird message to send to kids, and it sort of ends up muddying the film a bit. Ces’t la vie though. The sequence is scored by the rocking Thunder in Your Heart by John Farnham, which is equally as high five inducing as the opening song Break the Ice. It’s rare that a movie like this get two fist pumping anthems…
Of course, by taking part in the qualifiers, Cru has to pass up on taking his SATs, and really pisses his mother off.
To complete the clichéd plot, Cru is wooed by both Duke Best and the evil BMX hussies to come ride for them, and just as soon as he turns them down, our hero finds more obstacles in the way of riding at Helltrack…
Enter the last bit of cult styling to the movie with the introduction of the Rad Racing team, as Cru and his friends find that they have to have a liquid corporate sponsor in order to ride at Helltrack. The group decides to print up their own T-Shirts with their newly formed team logo and sell them to raise the money they need to race.
Of course in all the ruckus there is some strife for the blossoming relationship between Cru and Christian. If this film holds the record for the most insane dance sequence, then it also holds the record for the corniest make-up love scene involving a god awful poster featuring pandas and ice cream, reenacted by the two doe-eyed lovers.
As a quick aside, take a look at that monster comic book rack in that ice cream/convenience store!
Again, falling back on the Karate Kid template, the film features a ‘sweep the leg’ moment as Duke Best informs Bart, Rod and Rex that they need to wipeout Cru no matter what it takes (punctuated by Weston knocking back some whiskey.)
The film builds to the crazy BMX track called Helltrack, and boy does it live up to its name. Featuring an almost two story vertical drop and some craze jumps (for standard BMX bikes at least), not to mention a giant cereal bowl (of Kix no less), Helltrack was a very convincing set piece.
Again, another strength of this movie was that it featured a bevy of real BMX superstars…
A). Team Hutch – Jeff Ingram. B). Team Robinson – Richard Fleming. C). Factory DK – Robert Rupe. D). Powerlite – Danny Millwee. E). Redline Team – Scott Clark. F). Norco – Kirk Bihun. G). GT – Mike Napareho. H). Binghams Schwinn – Glen Adams. I). Peddle Power Rider – Chris Phoenix. J). Team Robinson – Travis Chipres. K). GT – Eddie Fiola (who also did most of the stunt riding for Cru in the Film as well as being the Technical Advisor on the stunts.) L). GT – Kevin Hull. M). Skyway – Richie Anderson. N). Vans – Beatle Rosecrans. O). Hutch – “Hollywood” Mike Miranda.
All in all, this is one of my favorite cheesy films from the 80s, one that I can watch a hundred times in a row and never get tired of. I’m sure true BMX fanatics can’t stand the flick, but as a kid I loved it to pieces. Hopefully one day it’ll get a true DVD release, but in the meantime I hear that Bill Allen is signing copies of the bootlegs (as well as selling headshots.) Also, don’t forget to check his site for some more Rad trivia, straight from Cru’s mouth…
Did you ever wonder how some people can find the time to have multiple blogs? Well I did, and then for some insane reason decided to start up a second about a year or so ago called Buried in DVDs where I waxed deconstructive on my favorite movies and my DVD collection. I felt awesomely productive for a few months, and then I was all of a sudden asking myself where in the hell did I think I’d find the time for a second site and promptly stopped updating it. I think I initially wanted to keep this content separate from Branded as I was going to get into a lot of non-eighties flicks and TV shows, but honestly, I don’t really think it’s necessary to paint myself into such a tight 80s corner. So I’ve decide to integrate the archives of Buried in DVDs into Branded (a process that is one hell of a time sucker. )
Anyway, for anyone curious, there are a handful of Buried posts, well, buried in this site now (you can access them through the banner on the sidebar.) Hopefully this will free me up to posting about movies and TV shows again as I at least feel it’s all working toward the same goal (and site) now…
Beetlejuice is one of those flicks that I think I’ve seen at least 50 times over the years and I never get tired of it. This is one of those film projects where practically every aspect of film making just came together to produce something that for my money is just about as close to perfect as you can get. It’s funny and light while also being fairly dark and morbid. It has a wonderful mix of special effects, from practical and optical to animation (mostly stop motion), most of which haven’t dated at all, and still look better than 98% of the CGI out there. It’s perfectly cast, featuring some of my favorite performances from actors like Alec Baldwin, Gena Davis, and Catherine O’Hara, not to mention Michael Keaton’s turn as the titular character (who has enough amazing scenes that he steals the film while only being in it about 20% of it.) Most of all it’s one of Tim Burton’s most solid efforts that captures both his vision and style without seeming like a "Burton" film (like say how the Corpse Bride, Sleepy Hollow, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all seem to be a Burton film first and foremost.) Everything in the film feels like it’s part of the Beetlejuice universe more than the Burton universe.
Because it’s been on TV so much in the almost 20 years since it was released it was never a film that I felt a need to own, but as soon as I began focusing my DVD collection to be comprised of only the films that I want to watch if I gave up TV, it became one of those films that shot to the top of the wish list. Unfortunately, because I’d seen it so much I also didn’t feel like spending all that much on it and it wasn’t until recently that I ended up buying the film when I found it for super cheap. I think a lot of my must own movies have fell into this category, flicks like Beverly Hills Cop, Caddyshack, One Crazy Summer, Die Hard, Red Dawn, Young Guns, the Goonies, these are all flicks that I waited to buy until I could find them for like $5. It’s hard to drop $15-$20 on something that you know so well you’ve practically memorized it.
Batman Returns is such a weird movie. It sort of holds the opposite distinction than the first Batman for me because whereas I was the perfect age for the first film, when this came out in theaters I was 15, sort of jaded and ended up pretty disappointed in the movie. In fact this is one of the first flicks that I should have loved but didn’t which has only gotten worse and worse as I’ve gotten older. Tim Burton has provided a lot of firsts for me I guess.
What I remember most about seeing this film in the theater was that a local comic shop, not my favorite but one I was trying to support anyways, had booked all the seats for the 8:00pm Friday night screening on it’s opening weekend. This comic shop was sort of out of the way, but it was a weekend, the weekend before the movie opened, and my dad had agreed to drive me out to the shop, though I could tell he really didn’t want to. When we got there I saw their flier for the screening and decided right then and there that I had to attend. I ditched buying comics for that week and picked up a ticket to the screening which was a little pricier than the normal ticket rate, but he was going to raffle off prizes before the movie so I thought it was worth it. Well on the trip home I all of a sudden remembered that my friend Stephen would probably like to go, but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t have enough money for another ticket, so I begged my Dad to drive all the way over to his house so that I could ask him (I had it in my mind that this had to be done right away as the screening was going to sell out.) Obviously this was before cell phones become so common, but my dad was a trooper and took me over. Stephen did want a ticket, but he didn’t have a ride, so in came the next round of ride begging from my dad, who begrudgingly, very begrudgingly took us both back to the shop to get Stephen a ticket. I think my dad must have driven us at least a hundred miles back and forth all day just to get these two tickets, and in the end I didn’t even really like the film. Upon reflection I think it’s kind of weird the lengths I went to , to see the film in that particular screening, I mean it’s not like we couldn’t have just gone to the movie at a different theater or showing. I didn’t even like the comic shop owner and pretty much didn’t know any of the other patrons of the shop, so it seems kind of weird that I was so hell bent on seeing the movie with a room full of comic fans. I guess I thought that it would make the experience cooler, but then I guess years of going to comic conventions since then has soured me on that notion.
Over the years Batman Returns has grown on my quite a bit. I love the lengths that Tim Burton went to in order to keep some semblance of creative freedom, even going so far as making Batman a minor character in a film full of villains just to keep his interest up. At the time I hated it, but now I just think it was an amazingly brave move. Hell, done right the villains usually provide the more interesting fodder for stories any way, so it stands to reason that they could conceivably carry a movie. I’ve always thought that Danny Devito was the only choice to play the Penguin, in particular in the somewhat gory, dark, twisted Burton style. High Society, Top Hat-Wearing, crime lords just seem goofy, but put ‘em in dirty pajamas, with actual penguin-like deformities, surround them with sideshow flunkies, and I’m on board.
If the first film felt like Tim Burton invading Batman’s world, than this film feels more like Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin invading Burton’s. It’s unfortunate though that the series didn’t end here because this film introduced a lot of aspects that, though they worked here, would go on to help ruin the further sequels. Having the Batmobile be able to jettison two thirds of it’s mass to fit down a narrow alley was kind of silly and it lead to doing all kinds of weird crap with the car later on, not limited to driving up the side of a building. It was in this film where the villain to super hero ratio was upped as well. For all intents and purposes there were three villains in the film (between Devito, Pheiffer, and Walken), which would be surpassed in Batman forever by mixing Two-Face, his gang, his girls, the Riddler, and a weird gang of neon, glow-in-the-dark paint wearing freaks, and then again in Batman and Robin (Bane, Poison Ivy, that weird doctor guy, Mr. Freeze and his crazy henchmen) though at least by then there was a Robin and Batgirl to help make it a silly character filled madcap romp that, 2 hours of my life that I’ll never get back.
For the longest time I had the basic no frills cardboard snapcase editions of these first two Batman flicks, but I traded them in for the nice special editions that came out about a year ago, which were really long over due. There aren’t many movies that I’ve traded up for on DVD, but these were just too important to me to pass up.
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.)