Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ebertfest 2008 report #4: What It Takes to Change a Critic’s Mind

What does it take to change a critic’s mind? In this case, nothing more than a second screening. Well, that may be over-simplifying the case a bit.

The truth is I change my opinion on movies all the time. I’m constantly rehashing my thoughts on films. Did I really like it that much? Did I givie it too much credit? Not enough? Is there a reason I’m the only person who seems to like it? Or hate it? Was I too harsh? Did I just want to like it that much? Is everybody else out there crazy?

More often than not, I stick with my original thoughts on a film. Most adjustments in my opinion are fairly minor. I gave it a half-star too much, or some such thing. Rarely do I change my fundamental feeling on a movie. When I saw Roger Ebert’s opinion of “Superman Returns” was so much lower than mine, I checked the movie out again and confirmed that I did still very much love the “man as deity” parable it offers. Of course, just by admitting that I loved “Superman Returns” destroys any of my credibility with many readers.

My negative assesment of Ang Lee’s “Hulk” when it was intially released in 2003 was not questionable to me or in regards to popular opinion, but here was Ebert praising it with a three-star review. Well, three stars aren’t the highest of praise. But when he picked it for his family matinee feature for the 10th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, well obviously it had grown on him even more after five years. Perhaps, I had been hasty to join the masses.

“Hulk” was one screening I was looking forward to a great deal at Ebertfest this year, because I wanted the opportunity to reassess my opinion. Now that Ebert had apparently raised his opinion above his initial thoughts, I had to question my own. And Ang Lee would be present to talk about the film as well. A wonderful situation for a new look at the movie had presented itself.

When Lee walked onto the stage of the majestic Virginia Theater in Champaign, Ill. Saturday morning to introduce his film to a capacity crowd, much of the audience erupted like a rock star had walked out. This is because Lee is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Lee seemed humbled by his reception saying, “It’s great to be back here where I saw ‘Rambo II’.” Laughter from all in the theater. The stage was set for a screening with a receptive audience.

What I found upon my second thearical screening of Lee’s “Hulk” was at once the same movie I had seen before and also a totally new one. The first noticeable difference was the pristine print Universal had sent and the perfect projection by the Ebertfest crack team of projectionists James Bond and Steve Krauss. Presentation goes farther than most people would realize when it comes to enjoying a movie.

My intial rejection of “Hulk” was not quite for the same reasons as most people. I did not mind the fact that this comic book adaptation was so talky and introspective and less action oriented than the average superhero flick. I grew up reading comics and “talky and introspective” would describe most of the best of them. My problem was that most of the action in it seemed unmotivated by the script as if it were forced upon a movie that didn’t want it.

There is a section of the movie where Hulk is attacked by the military endlessly to no effect. Originally I thought this was gratuitous since after the first barage it was obvious that nothing they threw at him would hurt him. In fact, it only made him stronger. After six years of a war that has been messured and justified through non-victories, it seems as if Lee tapped into a key point about world military aggression.

During the panel discussion following the film, Lee revealed that the production had originally approached the U.S. Military for the use of their equipment for the filming. He said they we’re very excited about being involved. The only problem they had with the script was that they wanted the Army to win. What?! The Army can’t win in a battle with the Hulk. “Who’s going to want to see the movie if Hulk can’t beat the Army?” Lee said. Lee went on to say that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to have early screenings of the movie for the troops in Iraq. “I don’t think this movie will boost morale there,” Lee announced to more laughter.

No, the movie is certainly not uplifting. It is about the male need for aggression and the secondary emotion of anger that men tend to fall back upon rather than facing the issues which cause it. There is a great deal of repression used in the character of Bruce Banner in the storyline. He doesn’t even realize his father is alive until David Banner reveals himself to his son. The intermingling of memory repression and military aggression is something Lee said the world audience had picked up on, but American audiences did not. “There’s some repression right there,” he said.

But it is this father-son relationship that is the key to the movie’s themes and purpose. Along with the very disfunctional Banners, there is the eaqually disfunctional relationship between the Banner’s nemesis General Ross and his daughter and love interest of Bruce’s Betty Ross. Lee gave some insight into the inspiration of this father-son aggression when he described his relationship with his own father as a rough one. “Our father always wants us to be the Hulk instead of ourself,” he said.

But I didn’t need Lee’s insights into the film to form my new opinion of it. Even before the film was over I was thinking to myself, “Man, Ang Lee really has some issues.” Lee said the shoot was a relief to him in two ways. First, is that he had all the money he needed for the fist time in his directing career. He said that unlike many directors who complain about the studio involvement in a big budget picture, he found the financial situation quite freeing. Secondly, Lee confirmed to the audience that indeed ILM had used him for all the motion capture work for the Hulk. “I was the Hulk. That was my face. I got in the suit and jumped around. It was kind of theraputic.”

The panel host, co-President of Sony Pictures Classics, Michael Barker said that “Hulk” was one of the few comic book movies that he thought would withstand the test of time, and after a second viewing I’m inclined to agree. It isn’t a flawless movie. The Josh Lucas character is extraneous and only serves to add unecessary minutes to the film’s long running time and distracts from the powerful psychological themes of the story. But for the greater part my mind is changed. Thank you, Roger.


Alan Bacchus said...

I'm enjoying your commentary on Ebertfest. I too change my opinion and I often feel compelled to re-edit my original reviews. One of the joys of cinema is the ability for a film to change over time - as pop culture changes.
I'm in the same boat with you Andrew about HULK. I didn't like it the first time and though I appreciated it more the second time 'round, it's still a flawed film. And after the Ed Norton version comes out, who know?

BTW: I'm glad you saw the 70mm Hamlet. I wish I was there.

PS I too loved Superman Returns

Andrew D. Wells said...

I wanted to mention the new film "The Incredible Hulk" in my piece, but it really wasn't what Ebertfest was about. So I'll give my take now. Universal has promised a very different film, for good reason. They are not in business to lose money. Of course, they didn't actually lose moeny on the first film, as many people might lead you to believe, but that's a moot point with this new film. Edward Norton is a gifted filmmaker and wrote the script as a fan of the character. Ang Lee had his own story to tell in the first one and Norton has seemed more interested in telling Hulk's story in interviews. I think the new one will please comic book movie fans better. But you know, for all the action their boasting about the movie having, I don't really see a lot in the trailers. Nothing to the degree of the "Iron Man" trailers anyway. Well, there you go, some random thoughts on that.