Monday, July 14, 2008

Monday Morning Movie Review: Hancock & Hellboy

I have written in here before about how I am a bit challenged by home improvement projects and feel helpless/clueless about them.

[aside: re-porcelaining the tub turned out great! Seriously, the tub looks brand new. However, in reading through the cautionary material (only after I had started mind you) I became really freaked out about how toxic this material is, so I can't quite recommend anyone going out and doing it yourself.]

I am similarly challenged by issues of technology. Two weeks ago I was on the phone with my cable/internet provider and it was a comedy of errors because the tech person kept asking me to turn off my router and I, instead, kept unplugging my modem. Yes, I recognize that, in hindsight, I should have known the difference, but I kept referring to my "wifi hub" (I have one of those old Apple spaceships) and he kept saying "router" and hell, I just had no idea.

Why am I rambling about my inept tech dealings? Because I spent about half an hour trying to figure out how to enable the "Read More" function on Blogger and eventually just threw up my hands and decided that I would write this movie review anyway because I've been wanting to talk about the film Hancock ever since I saw it on July 4 and I just saw Hellboy II this weekend, but didn't want to announce any spoilers for those of you who haven't seen either film yet.

[second aside: If anyone who uses Blogger DOES know how to do this and thinks they can explain it to me in an email message, I'd love to hear from you. According to Blogger, I have to go in and change my template and then add all this code. But I couldn't even figure out where to insert the code and didn't really want to muck around in the template, you know?]

So if you haven't seen both films, please click here and it will deposit you to the post I just wrote on Sunday about being a 1930s housewife.

I'm going to start with Hancock and move on to Hellboy II--although the spoiler alert is more for Hancock than Hellboy II, but you have now been warned three times so STOP READING IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE DETAILS OF THE FILM HANCOCK.


OK, if you are reading this I assume you have (a) seen Hancock (b) don't plan to see Hancock and therefore don't care whether or not I talk about the film in detail.

The basic premise is that Hancock (played by Will Smith) is this asshole superhero. Pardon the language, but that epithet gets applied to him by everyone from small children to the PR guy he rescues who is trying to help him rehabilitate his image. Hancock is a superhero who ends up causing more damage than his rescuing seems to warrant. Yes, he saves lives. But he causes harm as he goes--he may not kill anyone, but he hurts people along the way and causes millions of dollars in damage. The PR guy, Ray, (played by Jason Bateman) takes Hancock on as a client/project and eventually is able to change his image with Los Angeles and America, but of course, there's a twist that happens along the way.

And the twist comes in the form of Ray's wife, Mary (played by Charlize Theron).

If you don't know what either Will Smith or Charlize Theron look like, you should do a google search now, because this is the thing that intrigued me once the big twist got worked out in the film: Hancock and Mary are the last of their kind--they are ancient creatures--gods, angels, or as Mary tells him now that they are in the 21st century, they are regarded as superheroes. It seems as if Mary and Hancock have a history--as brother and sister, as husband and wife (which, by the way, is completely in keeping with ancient mythology of many cultures--brothers and sisters could also be husband and wife and populate the earth).

Hancock doesn't remember any of this. Back in 1931 in Miami, Hancock woke up alone and without any knowledge of who he was and with no family or friends to claim him. Mary fills in the gaps during a hospital scene in which she traces the various scars on Hancock's body and explains that their relationship is the reason Hancock keeps getting hurt. At first, Mary lists various ancient grudges and battles, proving that she and Hancock have literally been there and done that throughout all of recorded time. And then she moves into the modern period and here's where it gets interesting. According to Mary, they are living somewhere in the U.S., perhaps somewhere South, and in the 1850s they are burned out of their home, with Hancock rescuing Mary from an angry mob who are after them. And the last escapade that they had together--walking home after seeing the film Frankenstein in Miami, has another angry mob chasing them in a dark alley and beating Hancock to a pulp. Mary leaves him alone and without any memories for both their sakes--because they can't seem to make it work. They've been together for centuries and they keep fighting and others want them apart.

Now, what I'm about to say is going to sound stupid because I know I went to see this action-fantasy film, but this is where I just couldn't believe the film anymore.

Because if you are an ancient being, one with superhero powers that will eventually fade away if you are spending time with the one you were destined to be paired with (that's the other hitch/twist--all these ancient beings were born in pairs--fated to want to be near their doppleganger. But when they do live their lives together, they turn mortal and die just like humans. Only by keeping apart can they keep their superpowers and immortality), and if you "look" the way Hancock and Mary do, why are you living as an interracial couple in the U.S. at a time in America's history when there is SO MUCH racial violence???!!!

And yes, it's the interracial angle that I've been wanting to talk with someone about. Because I can't quite figure out how I really feel about it. The entire film is almost premised on it. The film NEEDS to create a reason why Mary and Hancock can't be together and why forces seem to keep them apart. Mary and Hancock can't be together for a host of other worldly reasons, but the very *real* reasons that have caused both of them harm and violence in the last century and a half are human based racism and violence. Hancock loses his memory because he is attacked by an angry mob, and it is never voiced WHY they are attacked, but as movie goers, we recognize that seeing Charlize Theron hand in hand with Will Smith in the 1930s (and hell, for some people even in 2008) is reason enough to start chasing them down a dark alley and to beat Smith to death (or almost death--he is a celestial alien after all). If Hancock and Mary were of the same race, the filmmakers would have to spend more time explaining why they were always the target of so much violence. But using an interracial couple, specifically a black man and a white woman, gives audiences an easy shorthand. Oh, we say, yes, of course this couple CAN'T BE TOGETHER and of course others have a problem SEEING THEM AS A COUPLE.

And, of course, the racism of the past doesn't ever get articulated as such--it's just this misfortune that happened to Hancock and Mary. But I mean, as I said above: c'mon! You guys could live ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD--why would you choose the U.S. in the 19th century to exist as an interracial couple???!!! And the filmmakers--what, if anything, are you trying to say about interracial couples, particularly ones with the gendered/racial make-up of Hancock & Mary? That at the end of the day, it's just not sustainable, but they have a love that dare not speak its name or ever die???

Of course all of the past racism gets forgotten about and as I said above, it doesn't even have to be spoken because the visual image of white Theron and black Smith is enough for us to get why they are the targets of violence. And since the film is set in 21st century multiracial Los Angeles then we are supposed to understand that the racism that Hancock and Mary experienced is in the past and that nothing so socially taboo bars their relationship now (the opening chase scene features Vietnamese gangsters who correct Hancock when he says "Konichiwa" to them by reminding him that they aren't Japanese, to which Hancock makes the racist/stereotypical joke that they all look the same. OUCH! Not a great way for me to start a film--with a common racist stereotype. UGH). Except, of course, for the fact that Mary is married to the saintly good-guy, Ray, and that they have a son, Aaron (adopted in Mary's case--she rescues Ray and Aaron right after Ray's wife has died in childbirth).

Anyway, did I like the film? Hard to say. I was entertained, but I was also troubled/intrigued by its handling of race, especially interracial relationships. The film is designed so that we are intrigued by the sexual tension by Mary & Hancock but we also want to root for Mary & Ray because Ray is such a good guy. And I think we just haven't gotten to a place where we can accept an interracial couple that looks like Will Smith and Charlize Theron. I mean, in Hitch, Will gets the girl and the girl is Latina actress Eva Mendes. But black-brown interracial love has never been taboo in the way that black-white love has--especially when the African American partner is male and the Caucasian partner is female. Am I saying that the filmmakers did this deliberately? No, but I think there is a lot that is unexamined about race and racism in this film that the movie unwittingly both perpetuates and disrupts in odd ways--and I'd hazard to guess that perhaps part of the negative reviews that Hancock keeps getting has to do with how improbable people find the twist--not that Hancock and Mary are an ancient couple but that they are any kind of couple at all.


I've gone on and on about Hancock so all I'm going to say about Hellboy II is that I enjoyed it.

OK, maybe I'll say a bit more. I think it's interesting that within the span of two weeks we have fantasy-action films about superheroes who are not stereotypically heroic or who "look" like our idea of what a superhero should be. In Hellboy's case, he's red and demonic and read as demonic. He's also in an "interspecies" relationship with Liz, a seemingly "normal" female who is able to turn into a flaming ball of fire when she gets pissed off. One of the dramatic lines within the film is Liz's unexpected pregnancy and her silence in telling Hellboy about their impending bundle of joy until a crucial point in the film (OK, I don't really want to spoil everything, so I'll be vague about that point). Of course the film doesn't voice this, but audiences are left wondering: what will the child be? (isn't that always the lament of these films about interracial love???)

Both Hancock and Hellboy II do leave me wondering about the way Hollywood is playing off the idea of opposites and unlikely pairings. It used to be the screwball comedy and the sexual tension between Hepburn and Tracy or Grant and Hepburn or just in the 1980s the Moonlighting pair of Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. Now it seems as if the sexual tension comes not only from the difference in personalities but the racial (or in Hellboy's case, species) difference of the romantic pairs. Is this Hollywood's version of the final taboo frontier of romance? Heterosexual romance I should amend. Who knows, but I think it'll be interesting to see that as people of color enter Hollywood in growing numbers and with growing power (although limited--I mean, how many black actresses or any actresses for that matter can open a film in the way that Will Smith or Brad Pitt can?), will we see more and more interracial pairings? And what will they look like? Only time will tell. But I hope in the future they work out the details a bit better than in Hancock. I mean, I want a believable action-fantasy film--I can suspend belief, but only so much.

13 comments:

Dance said...

Huh. You know, while watching Hancock I thought "hmm, that's interesting that it's an interracial couple" but I didn't wind up anywhere near your analysis. In fact, post-movie dinner my friend (who also studies race) and I were wondering who the "They" was that Mary was saying kept finding them and coming after them. But we landed on some sort of mythical persecutors of the ages as a potential setup for a sequel. Although, I remember wondering if Hancock and Mary had always looked the same through the ages--I wasn't sure, so I wouldn't have run with it anyhow.

By the way, the "someone has just arrived from [MySmallTownWithAUniversityThatThisPersonMustBeAt]" is kinda freaking out my pseudonymity paranoia. Were I currently at a smaller university and not moving in the next two months, it would be enough to keep me from visiting the blog (which I would still read via RSS, just not comment).

Dance said...

Oh! And then we wondered if Red, who was a renegade psych professor from Stanford leading a criminal band of grad students, was one of the "They".

But I liked the movie. It's getting mixed reviews, but I couldn't really see why.

Jennifer said...

Hi Dance,
You know, I also wondered the same things that you and your friend did: was the "they" some kind of paranormal threat that followed them around century to century, decade by decade--trying to destroy them in whatever way "they" could, and did Mary & Hancock actually "look" the way that they did centuries ago?

But what I kept returning to was: could I imagine these characters in a different race. Would the story have been the same if they were both played by white actors? Or African American? Or any other racial combination (Benjamin Bratt as Hancock and Lucy Liu as Mary? Nia Long as Mary and Keanu Reeves as Hancock?). And I just thought it seemed intentional that Hancock and Mary (a) were two distinctly "different" races (b) that one of them was black and the other white--and that preferably the black entity was male and the female entity was white.

So if that is true--that interacial-ness (for lack of a better term) was a pivot within the film, well have we gotten to a point where it's OK to use past "racism" as a plot point for a multiracial present that seems devoid of racism?

So many questions, so few answers.

About the tracking where people are coming from, I hear you on being paranoid. I have a healthy amount of paranoia myself. And oddly enough, the reason I inserted the tracker was to shine a little light, for myself, on where people are coming from and who is reprinting and copying portions of this blog (often without permission, my disclaimer notwithstanding).

For instance, I spiked at almost 300 people visiting last week Thursday because someone in the blogosphere went back to the archives from over a year ago and found my post about the Duke Lacrosse case. Which explains one of the hate email comments I didn't publish. So for my own sake, I like to know where some of the weirder email messages/comments are coming from and how people found their way to my blog.

But I totally hear you on the wanting to be pseudononymous. At this point, short of starting up a whole new blog, I figure I'll try to keep things as vague as possible, but I know if people really wanted to find me they could (and have)--I just hope people respect my privacy.

It is odd--I know I do end up revealing some pretty personal details on this blog, but it doesn't actually mean I don't want my privacy respected, and my university affiliations and professional life kept separate from the comments I write on this blog. But perhaps it's naive, on my part, to think I can keep them separate? Probably a musing for a separate post.

Anyway, thanks, Dance, for reading and for writing--I enjoy your comments and the conversations we have here.

Jennifer said...

Dance--just saw your other comment about "Red"--I actually thought that they were trying to link this character to the professors at Stanford who did that whole Prison experiment where half the undergrads were prisoners and half were guards--but maybe I am mis-remembering that?

At any rate, it is interesting to think that the "they" after Mary & Hancock are some kind of recurring set of hatreds that plague them in various forms throughout the centuries.

And hey, for once University professors were being portrayed not as the nerdy/wordy geeks who talk over everyone's heads but as psychopathic killers manipulating others for their own agenda.

On second thought, maybe not the image that we want of university professors...although it'd make respect in the classroom easier to achieve!

CVT said...

This is too strange. Jennifer - again, you hit up a blog topic that I was going with. In fact - went with.

See - two days ago I saw "Hellboy II" and wrote a blog post on it. I didn't post it yet because I'm about to be out of town for a month, so I've been stock-piling posts to just throw up there, so I don't lose my readership while I'm gone.

So there's a lot I want to say about "Hellboy" regarding race relations, but I'll let you just sweat it out for my post (probably coming in a week).

SPOILER ALERT - DON'T READ THESE IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN HANCOCK:

As for Hancock - saw that, too (sounds like we have similar movie-tastes). It's funny, because I when I was walking out after the movie, my friend asked me what I thought, and I told her, "It kind of seemed like a Public Service Announcement against interracial relationships." The message? If these people come together, they get weak, beaten, and DIE!!!!

What's the "happy" ending? Will Smith has to go live thousands of miles away by himself while Charlize Theron lives her "perfect life" with the nice, successful white guy.

The friend I went with happens to be black, so we also discussed the "Mike Vick Syndrome" that the movie story line follows: powerful, heroic black man can't live in society without "screwing up" and ends up needing a white PR guy to help him "fix" himself and adjust his image (by going to jail). How many times have we seen that story play out in regards to black athletes in this country?

And who were the only other characters of color in the movie? The Korean thugs at the beginning (who all speak "Englee" - thanks, Will Smith). A number of black thug convicts in jail and out. An (Arab or Indian?) shopkeeper with an accent. Period. Doesn't really go a long way to help with racial stereotypes.

So - once again - I had to tear my racial self out of the picture to make it through the movie. But, in the end, I don't think this movie was meant to say anything positive about interracial relationships (probably a sub-conscious message, but that's the worst kind) or people of color, in general.

And to that? I'm sure plenty of people would tell me to "stop being so sensitive."

Jennifer said...

CVT,
I think that sometimes we seem like we are on some kind of mind meld! I look forward to reading your post about HELLBOY II--I could have written more but I felt like I had already gone on and on about HANCOCK and truth be told, I should be editing the introduction to my book manuscript (a sign of procrastination that I keep checking email every other page and then decide that I need to respond to email messages/blog comments--FOCUS, JENNIFER, FOCUS! MUST EDIT CHAPTER).

Sorry for that personal digression.

Anyway, I wish that things could have been shaken up a little more with the cast of HANCOCK in order to not have a subconscious (or not so subconscious) message of the film be: interracial relationships wreak heartache and havoc and are not sustainable.

What if Jason Bateman's character had been played by someone like Tony Shaloub? Or Andy Garcia (I mean, this is LA--don't you think a prominent Latino character is in order?) And then what if he was married to Jada Pinkettt-Smith (lets keep one of the Smiths in the picture) and Hancock was then played by George Clooney or Matt Damon (would be a nice contrast to all those Bourne super-human films). The basic story gets to stay the same--you even have some racial tension and you keep the idea of racism--but at least there is also this image of an interracial couple at the end that is functioning (depending, of course on how Shaloub or Garcia was rendered--are they "ethnic" or are they de-ethnicized? probably the latter, but in my fantasy re-imagining, Ray gets to be Ray Lopez or Ray Khan).

Of course in my fantasy version the racism is more pronounced--perhaps even a flashback to when Damon & Pinkett-Smith are being harassed and then there gets to be a discussion of violence against interrracial couples--maybe even the Stanford Prof, Red, can be accused of trying to revive Eugenicist research (although that'd be over the top, but this is a Hollywood film about superheroes and ancient gods).

Alright, enough procrastination. Must write...must write...

Enjoy your vacation CVT--and don't worry--I'll keep being one of your loyal blog readers!

Tina said...

I am so relieved to read your comment about Hancock! I had the same ideas but I felt so alone that I thought a moment I was delirious!
I specially appreciate your analysis of the only dates mentioned in the story. When I saw the film I immediatly thought about the untold background of segregation. The only moment when the interracial couple have a touch (the hands) is during this evocation of violence which reminds us racist crimes. Burning house : this is one of the wellknown symbols of KKK's exactions, isn't it?
You also underline the big problem of this film: it seems to be all based on a silence, the taboo of race. Then how much is it conscious? I confess I was angry and shocked when I left the cinema. I felt deceived because I had the unpleasant impression that the filmmaker tried to make me believe that he tells me a science-fiction colorblind story while the film murmured another more meaningful tale. Moreover, I thought that some scenes are really hallucinated, for example the one in which Hancock is bitten under the rain while Mary is suffering in the hospital. As dreams and bad dreams reveal inconscious desires, this scene seem to express the violence, until then repressed, against the black character and the white woman, guilty of their love. It is as if they have to pay for the treason they committed towards the powerless (yes!) white man. Well, at the end everything gets "in order", and you comment it also.
Frigthening. To my mind this movie reveals that the ghost of segregated America is not about to be quiet.
A young french woman (excuse my english) , Tina.

Jennifer said...

Tina,
Thanks so much for your comments. I know what you mean by feeling like sometimes you read/interpret a film/book a certain way and NO ONE ELSE (especially maintream film reviewers) seem to be catching on to the subtle (or not so subtle) issues around [fill in the blank].

And I think this is especially true for race. In a rush to provide, as you noted, a "colorblind" sci-fi fantasy or rather, in a rush to "read" the film as such, movie reviewers ignored what to me seemed an obvious historic reference to the taboo of inter-racial relationships--and quite frankly, the fact that such relationships are STILL taboo--as another commenter CVT already noted, the whole movie seems like a Public Service announcement against inter-racial relationships between black men and white women.

Anyway, I hope you return and leave other comments--and there is NO NEED to apologize for your English (which I found impeccable)--most Americans, myself included, would find it impossible to leave coherent let alone intelligent comments on a blog in a language other than English.

(I do feel a continued sense of regret over not being fluent in either Spanish or French, the two languages I have studied and enjoyed--of course there's nothing stopping me from pursuing my desire to attain fluency except my own laziness, which seems to be quite high in the few weeks of summer I have left).

Jessica said...

All I can say is AMEN. I am so glad to hear that someone else shares my critique and sentiments about this film! I asked myself the very same question during the part in the hospital when Charlize Theron's character was going over the incidents that kept them apart--"why the HELL are you living in a place where there is de facto and de jure racism?!". I thought I was overanalyzing this film, but now I don't feel so crazy anymore.
I too was frustrated that they did not elaborate about why Will Smith's character was beat. Of course a mainstream movie would never call out racism (ooh I said it!) as the reason. This movie left me really thinking. I was entertained, you can never go wrong for shallow extreme special effects, but intrigued by the racial issues NOT brought up but screaming loudly on the screen.

Jennifer said...

Jessica,
As you can see from the comments, you were definitely not alone in your thoughts about Hancock--I love the phrase you use, "intrigued by the racial issues NOT brought up but screaming loudly from the screen"--I think the producers wanted it both ways--to make clear racial tension and the hint of racism and yet not name it.

Which is also a frustration of mine--that we don't just NAME it as racism. But I also know as someone who teaches on issues of race and ethnicity, that calling something an instance of "racism" makes students/people *VERY* nervous--like talking about a fatal/deadly disease. People want to change the subject or convince you it's something else or justify it because other groups also oppress and marginalize.

(she steps off morning soapbox).

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

John said...

I'm glad to find someone talking about this! I spent the last quarter of the movie going, "Whaaa? So his superpowers are based on staying away from the white woman??" Superman was solar-powered, and the Green Lantern had his ring, and Hancock has... segregation? Yeah, okay. That's not tacky. Sure!

And fact that the movie portrays the black man and the white woman as these godlike mysterious figures, while the white man is well-intentioned but sort of soft and babyish... it show's the screenwriter's anxieties about his own weakness, his fear of irrelevance. (Is anyone else reminded of True Lies?) At the same time it feeds those anxieties; Bateman's character is kind of a bumbler, kind of a sitcom dad.

I was hoping for a more transgressive ending, where Theron and Smith take off together, but such a thing couldn't come from Hollywod, I guess.

Jennifer said...

Hi John--thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I think I need to re-see HANCOCK now that it's on DVD. There were parts of it I appreciated--an ass**** superhero for one. But the whole "twist" with Theron & Smith does seem to send a message, as you said, that racial segregation seems to be their kryptonite (sigh).

Is this a commentary on interracial romance? Is this a commentary on the state of our society? That, perhaps, eventually Mary & Hancock will be able to be together once our society is progressive enough to allow for a couple, such as them to be together without anyone blinking? Am I, perhaps, totally overthinking this film....

wondrin said...

Hancock looks like a separation of church and state. Mary is the church, Hancock is the state (look for all the eagles in the movie). They come in pairs-government/religion. The earliest date she mentions is when King Herod ordered all the males under two killed (to kill Jesus).
When the two get too cozy they lose their power. "They" are the godless ones, the power manipulators like the evil psych professor from Stanford. "They" try to kill religion through the government (Mary says they always try to go through you to kill me.) There are also a lot of slams about the U.S. government - like they way Hancock treats the french kid (remember boycotting french fries a few years ago) and the PR guy keeps telling the Hancock character to not destroy so much when he shows up to help, to say thanks, and to dress a bit better.