Let's start with Thriller! A Cruel Picture. This film is cheap and exploitative but it's just not as good or enjoyable as I want from my cheap exploitation. I saw the "rated" cut without the notorious penetrative sex scenes but I don't think they would've added anything to the film but some titillation. It's a fairly standard issue revenge picture, with the trauma our heroine endures quite extreme - rape at a young age rendering her mute, then she's kidnapped, forcibly addicted to drugs, forced into prostitution, and ties with her family are severed without her knowledge. And if any cinematic heft were given to the proceedings I might have thought more of the film, might have cared one way or the other about whether she killed off her tormentors. But over and over the implausibility of the film, the concern for making sure you get to see gunfire, cars racing, and Scandinavian kung fu action without bothering with things like character development all get in the way of simply letting the plot progress. And sordid penetration scenes would only have hindered the telling, if you ask me. Anyway, it never builds a head of steam. "One Eye"'s muteness - not just her inability to speak, but her downright refusal to communicate in any form whatsoever with either characters or audience - puts a barrier between the viewer and the character in a way that the similarly brutal and nasty I Spit On your Grave, for example, does not. A shame, because as exploitative fare, this has all the earmarks of a winner.
Next up is Series 7: The Contenders, a film that let me down in a similar way. It's smarter filmmaking by far than Thriller! but no more successful at putting across something more than just what you see on screen. The film opens by giving us a recap of a program we're about to watch in which six contestants have to kill each other on the show. Last one alive wins. No prize is mentioned, except the occasional reference to "The prize? Your life!"; no rationale is mentioned as to why anyone except the suicidal central male character would want to participate. Are the contestants forced to play as punishment? Do they win anything except a return to the show? Some explanation is necessary, but none is forthcoming from the actual text of the film - you're left to make up your own mind about the reasons and the consequences of things. The predominant idea in readings of the film seems to be that this is a critique of society's love affair with reality TV. But there's not any contextualization of the show that might lend itself to that. There's no narration explaining how the show came about, who might be on it, anything like that that might give a clue as to why we're watching it - even commercial breaks would've given a welcome context (think Robocop here and how those commercials helped set the tone of the world they existed in). Instead we just watch the show, without even the benefit of having seen previous series to let us root for Dawn. Director Minahan has the look and feel down, but not the point. If he's really trying to offer a critique, an ironic look at these shows, he'd do better to understand what some people get out of them or why people choose to appear on them. Any season of Survivor offers more intereting human interactions than this film. It's a shame, because he does give the viewer enough to suggest that he could've gone into interesting areas: about mass media, about the right-to-die, about homophobia, even about abortion, all of which are brought up (or at least insinuated) within the film and then dropped cold. This film let me down in a way that Thriller! didn't because I expected nothing of the sort from that film. This one hints that it might be saying something but doesn't take it to a point where you actually get to see what it might be saying. Instead you're left watching a reality show, and not a terribly interesting one at that.
Which brings us to Ang Lee's Hulk, by far the best of the films A-Train asked me to peruse. Is it Lee's finest film? No, not by a long shot, but it's still another exploration of some of the themes that interest him. He's drawn over and over to the tragic love story and this one's no exception. Think of how often he sets up a relationship based on unrequited passion that can never be fully embraced: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution - it's even a sideline in The Ice Storm with the swinging couples that aren't happy in their own marriages but won't leave them for the other partners they're interested in. Here Eric Bana's Bruce Banner buries his passions deep for fear that they might turn him into the Hulk. Even before he's actually become the Hulk the fear is there preventing him from any passionate display, and this is the fact that Ang Lee keys in on and explores throughout the film. It's almost like he's showing the flipside of what the surrealists called l'amour fou - where they wanted to explore their unbound desires and passions through their art, Lee has made a career of exploring what happens (always tragic) when you refuse to let that passion out. Coupled with this is the generational conflict (or rather, generational disconnect) that's also common to his films. Father and son clash here (quite literally at the end), with Nick Nolte's nice turn as the father claiming to do what he feels is best for his child at the expense of the child's own thoughts, feelings, and development, a claim shown up as purely selfish from early on in the film. Meanwhile there's the parallel story with Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott drawing out a similar parent-child relationship fraught with mistrust and anger rooted in the past, though it's given a possibly heathly outcome. Lee has explored these idea more fruitfully in other films, but I still enjoy Hulk quite a bit. He uses comic book styled transitions masterfully, he's worked from a palette of appropriately comic-booky colors and design (mise-en-scene if you prefer), taken characters with recognizable issues and conflicts and put them into the larger-than life world of the comic book, the same way he planted similarly believable characters into the fantastic world of flying kung-fu or the romantic melodrama of a pair of cowboys. The only real problem with Hulk, I think, is that where Lee can be sublime, this one's louder, brigher, more in-your-face (though hardly as bombastic as it easily could've been, or as some fans might have wanted it to be). The effect might be off-putting to some, but to me it's just another facet of the continuing saga of Lee's tragic romances.