Hellboy 2: The Golden Director

I’ve liked Guillermo Del Toro since the dubious but strikingly visual Mimic. Directors who make more of the material than is actually there impress me, like Gore Verbinski. But where Verbinski seems to have gotten a little drunk with big budget pirate movies, del Toro takes on the comic book genre to produce one of the best and most original approaches to date. He even managed to bring back John Hurt in a flashback sequence to when Hellboy was about 10.

I like the young Hellboy, too.

Die his hair brown. He’ll totally look 30…40…wait, how old is he supposed to be?

In this installment, Hellboy–played by the inimitable Ron Perlman because Del Toro insisted–must fight to stop an elf prince from awakening the invincible Golden Army, built in some lost era when men and elves and goblins fought battles on the earth. The trio of Hellboy, Liz (Selma Blair), and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) is rounded out by an “ectoplasmic” German fellow, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), who walks around in a sort of space suit and is something of a stickler for protocol. Returning is Jeffrey Tambor (who must soon be cast in “The Dr. Phil Story”) as the agency’s front-man with a difficult relationship with Hellboy.

The investigations begin at an auction house invaded by evil “tooth fairies”, move to the “Troll Market” and ultimately wind up in Ireland. (Actually, I think the whole thing was filmed in Eastern Europe, to make it possible to accomplish with a “mere” $85 million.)I’m not sure what part of this comes from the comic books, but it looks completely Del Toro, stylistically. The “tooth fairies” remind me a lot of the fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Not sure what she'd make of the tooth fairies, tho'.

The Flower still hasn’t seen this film (2016). I think she’d like it.

Incidentally, Pan in Pan’s Labyrinth was also played by Doug Jones, who has two other roles in Hellboy, as the Angel of Death and the Chamberlain. He also played The Silver Surfer in the recent Fantastic 4 movie (but not the voice, which is Larry Fishburne) and all the imps in the Doom movie. I guess the mime training paid off. However, in the first movie, as was readily apparent to anyone who had ever watched even a single episode of “Frasier”, Abe Sapien was voiced by David Hyde-Pierce. For years, this has been driving me nuts, since it was so clearly his voice, yet–at Hyde-Pierce’s insistence–only Jones receives a credit. I only recently confirmed the truth. I do think however, Jones provides the voice for Hellboy 2.

Del Toro is quite masterful at moving between rather realistic modern settings to high fantasy, and at least one critic complained that there’s so much to see, that the movie’s main flaw is that it doesn’t give you a chance to stop and look at it. I can empathize, but it is a superhero movie after all.

This movie is fast, funny, touching and epic. It could have–and this is something you know I don’t say often or lightly–even been longer than the two hours it supposedly runs. (I imagine there’s about 20 minutes of credits, though.) And we saw the midnight show, and I was really tired.


Actors who spent five hours in makeup every day for 8 weeks don’t want to hear about how tired you were.

In short, this is a good summer movie. Take that Chris Nashatawy!

Update: Text reformatted and pictures added.

Strangers In A Familiar Land

Update for Ace of Spadesers: Thanks for clicking through and thanks to Ace for the link. You can click on the poorly maintained “reviews” keyword below to see some other bits of criticism I’ve written (mostly movies, some books, the occasional game). I do quite a bit of horror, so you might look at that and also post-apocalypse stuff is big. Still, some prefer the pointy breasts (start at the bottom of that link if you want to see how it all got started). Also, there’s a little slice-of-life series called Conversations from the Living Room. Thanks for stopping by!

I am adding
the following annotation to my will:

Should I die in mysterious and violent circumstances, please do not allow them to portray me as a jackass in the horror movie portrayal of my final hours.

We went to The Strangers today which was “inspired by true events”. Since the entire movie takes place virtually without any interaction with anyone with any insight into what could have happened, what we have is a broad imaginary reconstruction between two real bookends, as we’ve seen before, many, many times.

Actually, in this case, the story is entirely fictitious, except that some people, somewhere, at some time, have been terrorized during home invasions.

That said, this a pretty good entry in the home invasion genre.

Now, the home invasion picture is usually an unpleasant affair: A gang of thugs invades some poor middle class (usually; occasionally wealthy people are the target) and the next 60 minutes are spent torturing and humiliating the poor bastards. Sometimes, at the end of the movie, a woman is offered a chance at revenge.

Nasty business, where the only suspense comes from wondering what horrid thing will happen next. (The quintessential such movie is Wes Craven’s execrable Last House on the Left.)

In The Strangers, however, the villains break a lot of rules. While no actual home invasion would miss these rules, the action is the better for it. Instead of subduing them, the three psychos terrorize them for the bulk of the movie.

Some good starts, nice atmosphere, creepy moments, even if it all feels sort of familiar.

So, what about the stupid parts? Well, at one point, the victims have a fully operable shotgun with lots of shells. At that point, you know, it should’ve been game over. The characters’ behavior wasn’t unbelievable, but it was stupid.

The other dumb thing is that, after the bad guys have demonstrated an ability to show up inside the house and move through it silently–whenever they feel like!–the man goes off to do something and tells the woman to stay behind, and he takes the gun with him! This one is a little less believable.

Overall, a watchable flick. Though it did strike me while watching it that horror movies, in particular, are far more effective in the theater. The lead couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) do a good job, and the movie comes in at a brisk 80 minutes or so.

So good work to Brian Bertino. But don’t let them make a movie like this about me.

Oil Milkshakes

There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s latest Oscar-ticket item came to our local Laemmle this week.

If you’re not a Paul Anderson fan (Boogie Nights, Magnolia–not Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil), this movie probably isn’t going to be the one that wins you over. A lot of people (notably Kevin Smith) razz Anderson for his long films, but I personally wouldn’t categorize them as vanity pictures. Though epic in length, his two San Fernando Valley-based movies paid off by building to satisfying dramatic conclusions.

This movie lacks the drive of those films. It’s basically Daniel Plainview’s life at four different periods in time. His character goes slowly mad (and murderous) over that time period but there’s no coalescing of dramatic point in the end (say as compared to Magnolia’s lyrical embrace of coincidence or Boogie Night’s plucky Dirk Diggler’s optimistic return to porn stardom).

And, of course, since it’s Mr. Anderson, when a guy walks from point A to point B, you’re gonna see him walk from point A to point B, no matter how long it takes. Long, languorous tracking shots somewhat reminiscent of Kubrick are a mainstay, and it’s actually pretty refreshing compared to the constant jump-cutting that infests a lot of modern film. An interesting thing about this approach is that Anderson films characters approaching or going away from things–often the most challenging part of any encounter–where other directors just cut directly to people talking, then cut away when it’s over. It’s rather effective–but it’s obviously not for the impatient, and there’s a lot of it here.

Anderson doesn’t fill up his film with chatter, either. At times, the film was evocative of a silent movie, a sense that was underscored when one of the characters goes deaf. (The music played into this as well, but more on that in a moment.) Of course, Anderson picked good actors, and he gets great performances from everyone (like Kevin O’ Connor as Plainview’s brother and Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s son), but this is mostly The Daniel Day-Lewis Show.

And Day-Lewis delivers, as usual, and he’s probably more effective than your average superstar, as he doesn’t suffer from the sort of over-exposure most other successful film actors do. I saw Daniel Plainview, not Daniel Day-Lewis. And a lot of things that might’ve been hack–for instance, a leg injury in the first scene causes Plainview to limp through the rest of the movie–struck me as brilliant in Day-Lewis’ hands. Instead of dragging his foot or turning it out lamely, Lewis walks with a sort of limp that suggests his hips and back are almost fused. It becomes part of his character, like the deformities of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

No, one of the reasons Anderson could afford those long tracking shots of people walking is that Day-Lewis can walk and act at the same time. And probably chew gum. He certainly kicks ass. And spawned an internet meme: “I Drink Your Milkshake!”

Now, about the music. The music was very dissonant, very-silent-era-nobody’s-talking-so-we’ll-use-music-to-set-the-tone. I found it…overblown. In truth, the movie is about tough people, but the industry they’re engaged in is not particularly sinister. (Nor, despite the title, does the movie have anything in particular to do with Upton Sinclair’s Oil! or his socialist tendencies. Thank God.) But the very act of the initial digging is accompanied by music that might’ve fit in the opening to The Exorcist.

There’s a certain irony in that we actually get little insight into Plainview’s character. The music tells us something bad is going on, or lurking under the surface–something really, really bad–but Plainview actually seems to undergo a slow corrupting transformation, far subtler than the music. Then, curiously, in the final act, the music just plain stops.

Thing is, I thought about the music a lot, and that’s usually not a good sign. Incidental music’s effect is supposed to be more subliminal. At the same time, I’d be hard pressed to say I didn’t like the music, and even with my composer’s ears on, I’m not sure how I would’ve done it differently. But I think it might’ve been more effective to start with something sedate but traditionally harmonic and then build to the whole hell-bound thing.

At a whopping 2:38 running length, I was surprised that the boy liked it as well as he did, though the whole oil drilling stuff was quite interesting and–as mentioned–Day-Lewis can act. But then I’m probably more surprised that this film is sitting at #16 on the IMDB all-time list.

So, maybe I’m wrong: Maybe this is the Paul Thomas Anderson movie you’re going to like. (It is just one story instead of many inter-connecting stories, but did people really have trouble following Boogie Nights?) But I’d be surprised.

Speaking of Good Looking Old Folks….

I managed to catch Away From Her as it began it’s pre-awards rounds this week. (These things seem to go in curious streaks, don’t they? There was an ad for a documentary about a young guy who checks into an old folks home to see how they live.)

I had put off seeing this previously because I had been scarred by The Notebook a few years earlier. (I’ll probably do a review of that film later on, because it ranks as one of the three worst films I’ve seen in a decade, and a good example of how you can love everyone involved in the making of a movie and hate the movie itself. But I digress.)

The incredibly talented Sarah Polley wrote for the screen and directed this film. Polley, first known to me as the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, has emerged as an adult with a formidable acting–and now writing and directing–talent.

Grant Anderson (played by Gordon Pinsent of Saint Ralph and The Good Shepherd) is married to Fiona (played by the still radiant Julie Christie) who has Alzheimer’s. She forces him to put her in a home where, after an enforced 30-day absence, he returns to find she has fallen in love with another man, and regards him as a troubling confusion.

The movie reveals, in bits and pieces, their history together, the progression of her disease, the relaationship of her beau with his wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and ultimately the relationship that Grant forms with Marian. It succeeds in making us care, while not hesitating to show the warts of the various characters.

Ultimately, I found it to be upbeat, as there is honesty and love on display, with difficult choices being made.

Julie Christie–who at 66, is often pointed out as being “young” to have Alzheimer’s so severely–actually makes a particularly poignant victim. With a little acting judo, she turns her youthful looks into tragedy. I found her more appealing in this film than in Heaven Can Wait or any of the other flicks she did in the ‘60s and ’70s.

But she’s not shouldering the burden alone: Even Michael Murphy, who plays the non-verbal Aubrey, object of Fiona’s newfound affections does a smashing job conveying an age which (one can only presume) none of these remarkably well-preserved old folks actually feel. (At least not to the oppressive degrees their characters do.)

The music, as I noticed it, was an excellent mix of classical (I noticed Bach’s cantate no. 147) played in a jazz guitar style.

The whole thing was so good, and so polished, the director’s insertion of a political statement stands out like a sore thumb. It’s brief, fortunately, but it’s the archetype of how “messages” can ruin films, it’s so out of character with the rest of the movie.

After Dark 2007: Tooth & Nail

I love a good post-Apocalyptic thriller. It’s too bad one’s never been made. No, no, there are a few—very few—classics of the genre, but mostly they’re quite bad. And perhaps worse than just badness, they’re stupid. Take the Triple A title Children of Men: It posited all kinds of horrors that stemmed from women not being able to get pregnant, and missed the obvious ramifications of such a situation. (For example, if youth is exceedingly rare, it would also become exceedingly valuable; the idea that there would be youth running around unemployed seemed far-fetched.)

No, it’s really best if the whole reasons behind the apocalypse are ill-defined and not much discussed.

Tooth and Nail brings the stupid with its theory of apocalypse being “we run out of gas”. And the world collapses so quickly and thoroughly, there’s no time to adapt to coal, nuclear, natural gas, or whatever. Why? Because everyone floods south to warmer climates and wars ensue. As we all know from history lessons, prior to the refining of oil, everyone had to live in temperate zones.

Despite the apparent amnesia regarding “fire”—something that might have been handy with a bunch of people running around Philadelphia in light clothing—the heroes of our film seem to have acquired virtually no survival skills in their two or three years in the apocalypse.

I’m gonna keep ripping on this movie for a while longer, so you might be surprised to know that I did enjoy it quite a bit. But make no mistake, it’s dumb enough to have been a Michael Bay film.

And it really served no purpose to make this a post-apocalyptic thriller, except as a premise for locking up a bunch of college kids in a hospital so that a bunch of cannibals could come after them. Surely they could have thought of something else. Even the setting was dumb, though: Anyone who’s ever been in a large, modern hospital could tell you that six people could hide for weeks without being found by a dozen or so people searching for them.

In the dark.

So, the premise of the movie is that Ford (Rider Strong again!), Viper (Michael Kelly) and Dakota (Nicole DuPort) are out scavenging one day when they come across an injured girl, Neon (Rachel Miner). They bring her back to the hospital, where Professor Darwin (Robert Carradine) sets her to work fixing the water purifiers.

‘cause, you know, there’s a real shortage of water in Philly. Or maybe running out of gas ruined the water, even though everyone has moved south.

This causes stress because Viper (Michael Kelly) doesn’t trust Neon and wants to spend time fixing on the barriers instead of the damn water purifiers like the Professor wants. We never see “the barriers” by the way. When Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones, and their band of cannibalistic freaks invades the hospital, they walk in through one of the “dozen” entrances to the hospital.

Because, you know, despite civilization collapsing into violence, you wouldn’t worry about finding a defensible position to settle down in.

You also would be sure to let everyone follow their whims as far as relationships, even if it meant two of your young men were without women and therefore ties to your group. (Darwin is hooked up with Dakota, Torino is hooked up with Ford, and Viper and Yukon are celibate because Victoria is picky enough to make good on that “last man on earth” threat.)

You may have noticed that while our crew hasn’t picked up any worthwhile skills, nor done anything but sit around contemplating the future, they have found the time to rename themselves after automobiles.

Things go bad when Neon fesses up that she was fleeing a bunch of cannibals who will now be coming after Darwin’s gang. Needless to say, our crew acts like an apocalypse-hardened team who is used to defending themselves against any and all attacks.

Ha. Just kidding. They act like a bunch of pampered college kids who don’t know how to fight, strategize or set traps.

I should probably point out that if you love uber-nerd Robert Carradine and tough guy Michael Madsen like I do, you will want to keep in mind that, generally, the big name on a low-budget horror flick works for a couple of days. The star gets quick cash and the movie gets the name on the box. (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler.) Interestingly, Madsen is one of the producers of the film.

The movie actually gets increasingly preposterous. At one point, one of the characters suffers a compound fracture. No problem, right? These guys have been living in a hospital for 2-3 years, they’ve probably been studying first-aid, bandaging and splinting techniques, even minor surgery. They have all the supplies organized; that’s the smart part of using the hospital, right?

No, they never bother with any of that. This leads to a whole bunch of giggling in the audience whenever a medical matter comes up.

I could go on like this. Really. For days. As I said, nobody does post-apocalyptic stuff right. It takes too much thought. We’re all way too comfortable to think through what life would be like without society to take care of us.

The upshot, though, is that if you’re a master at suspending disbelief, this is a fun little movie. Carradine and Madsen’s brief performances are what you’d expect, and Vinne Jones (X-Men 3’s Juggernaut) is over the top. Rider Strong turns in a typically good performance, and I thought Alexandra Barreto and Michael Kelly were fairly believable characters in a context where little was believable.

One thing that makes the movie work is that it moves. Not to draw ridiculously high comparisons, but Road Warrior is not really less absurd than this film, but it also moves. That’s how you keep people from questioning the absurdities. (Where the hell do they get their tires from in that movie?)

The other thing that makes it work is the interplay between Rachel Miner and Nicole DuPort. Not unlike Emmanuelle Vaugier in Unearthed, neither actress looks particularly plausible as the strong-headed tough-minded leader in a crisis situation. Miner’s eyebrows are exquisitely sculpted and her skin flawless while Nicole DuPort’s hair looks salon styled whether she’s just set a bone or painted herself with half-camouflage/half-tiger face paint.

I guess you could say the film was thought-provoking, since I’ve been rambling about it for so long, but really, you shouldn’t watch this film with any sort of pretensions. There’s a review on IMDB talking about its Nietzsche-ian undertones, for example, and I think that’s probably setting the bar a little high.

But some folks would say that Children of Men was thought-provoking, where I would say a speculative fiction movie needs to make sense on its own terms before it can actually provoke thought about real life.

The Kings of Two Worlds

Two documentaries recently released demonstrate what I consider to be good movie-making while using two different and honest approaches to their subject matters. What’s interesting also, is that they’re at completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of, let’s call it “social relevance”.

Or not.


First up is The King of Kong, Seth Gordon’s look into a world most of us couldn’t care less about: World champion retro-gamers. I mean, seriously, I can sort of see the interest in modern games like Unreal Tournament, which have a sort of football-esque feel and head-to-head action. These have the potential to be really fascinating live. Well, maybe.

But 1980s-era quarter munchers? Pac-Man? Centipede? Donkey Kong? I just don’t see it. In fact, Donkey Kong pretty much put an end to my time in arcades. In order to get good at these old games, you had to memorize patterns. That strikes me as one of the biggest waste of time and energy imaginable: Memorizing an arbitrarily constructed and delicate pattern for the purpose of getting good at a video game. I mean, seriously, it’s harder than learning Latin, without the attendant utility and respect-mixed-with-fear you get from knowing Latin.

Carpe calossum!

I swear to Google: This is the first picture that comes up on a “Latin Scholar” search. A Latin tutor, apparently. Tell me that doesn’t make you fear and respect her!

The beauty of this documentary, though, is that you do end up caring. Though a fair number of statements by the competitors were laugh-out-loud funny, especially when applied with just the tiniest bit of perspective, you have to give these guys their props. They’re not really wasting any more time than the average TV watcher (or moviegoer, hey) and in that time they’ve become the best at what they’re doing.

And there are a lot of poseurs, as well. People who would pretend to the crown of video game mastery, and a lot of them–no matter how hard they work at it–will never touch the hem of our two heroes, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.

Doesn't exactly scream self-confidence, but look at the gleam in his eye.

The underdog challenger.

The movie takes the (always dramatically fruitful) angle of the underdog challenger (Wiebe) looking to dethrone longtime champ (Mitchell). The two are polar opposites as far as their social personalities. Mitchell is a smooth-talking high-powered businessman type who wears a pony tail (yes!) and could easily be selling real estate or doing the motivational lecture circuit, and who views himself as a winner.

Wiebe, by contrast, is a sort of lovable loser, a nearly great athlete (whose big shot was blown by his father), musician (he looks good playing the drums, but I couldn’t tell you if that was good drumming, and his piano playing–well, it reminds me of mine), artist, out-of-work aerospace engineer, whose life is full of near misses, but who uses his mastery of Donkey Kong to make a name for himself.

We’re treated to the cardboard table that is retro-game-score-record keeping, an organization that looks like it’s run on quarters and out of trailer parks and pre-fab homes, but which prides itself on its integrity. And we have the shunned would-be retro-gamer going by the name of “Mr Awesome” who claims they’ve shut him out.

Or pro wrestler.

Mitchel would also be a good candidate for “cult leader”.

Mitchell repeatedly gets favorable treatment from the record keepers, which tweaks our sense of fairness, and he ducks out in a chance to go head-to-head with Wiebe, who fails to beat the high score live, just a couple of blocks from Mitchell’s home and restaurant.

Of course, at the level of DK they’re playing, sheer randomity is as big a factor as anything as to who gets the higher score. While either of them can routinely break the long-standing 650K score, neither can guarantee what will happen after that, leading to a lot of taped scores. And Mitchell gets the chance to point out that he’s simply not prepared–out of training!–to go head-to-head with Wiebe at that point.

Nonetheless, reconciliations are made, and people mostly come across looking like real people, in all their flawed glory. Wiebe gets his place at the table for a while, then Mitchell comes back, and so on.

Wiebe’s personal story has a happy ending as well, as he finds his niche as a school science teacher, and brings his considerable focus to bear on making science interesting for kids.

Contrast with In The Shadow of the Moon.

No joke.

This picture from 2010 showing the struggle continued years after the events depicted in this film.

2016: Updated with formatting and pictures. At the time of this update, director Seth Gordon is slated to helm the Baywatch movie. No joke.