Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Power Of Hellboy Compels Me (To Praise Him)

I come not to bury Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but to praise it, and it comes as an enormous surprise. Don't get me wrong, I like Guillermo Del Toro's movies a lot, and think he is a stand-up tip-top A-1 kinda chap, with the nerdery and the vision and the amusing personality. I would like to have a beer with him and shoot the shit about pressing nerd issues. However, and this is a piddling thing to be bringing up but it has to be said, as much as I've liked his movies in the past, I've never loved one. Not even my personal favourite Del Toro movie Blade II, even though it featured Dr. Wesley T. Snipes hanging out with Donnie Muthafukken Yen and fighting a superpowered and evil version of that chap from Bros.

Of course, I appreciate his imagination and attention to detail, and love his committal to fantastical cinema, but especially with his English language films, I've always been unable to fully embrace them. I've agonised over it, as everyone fell over themselves to praise Pan's Labyrinth, which I thought was very good but not great (on the other hand, Canyon loved it to pieces). My suspicion is that his pacing, which can be bordering on lethargic, is the key to my resistance. Slow pacing is fine, but it still has to have a proper ebb and flow, and his movies often stop when they should start, and bolt forward when the audience is ready for a rest. It's not a total dealbreaker, but it does bug me.

With the world in his pocket following Pan's success, it was a pleasant surprise to see he was willing to use that cache to resurrect his Hellboy sequel project, that had languished for so long that I figured it was pointless to wait for it. Mind you, it would have been an even more pleasant surprise had Del Toro used that clout to get his At The Mountains Of Madness project up and running. Though there are some interesting film adaptations of Lovecraft's work (especially the wondrous From Beyond), right now the best visualisation of squirming Lovecraftian gods is in Hellboy itself, hinting that Del Toro has a better grasp on what constitutes a squamous, undying monstrosity from beyond space and time than the makers of The Dunwich Horror, a filmic nightmare I endured recently that reduced the sickening and vast terror of the multitude of unholy Old Gods to a bunch of rubber snakes filmed in negative and waved at the actors. I guess Del Toro is more attached to working on Mike Mignola's creations than those of a despicable sexist, racist Luddite fucking prick asshole of a person (who wrote a bunch of entertaining and influential novels, but still).

(Quick note: it seems The Dunwich Horror, featuring a hatstand performance from Dean Stockwell aiming the full force of his Aleister-Crowley-esque lechery at Sandra Dee, was co-written by Curtis Hanson. I am aware that this might only be interesting to me, especially as who on earth has seen The Dunwich Horror? And who else would own up to it? Wicked Les Baxter soundtrack, though.)

It's been said many a time that Hellboy represents Del Toro's most personal movies, which I always thought to be a bit rich seeing as how Mike Mignola created the character, but his passion for the character (of which the effort to bring the sequel to the screen is proof enough) certainly seems genuine. That still meant that I was not excited about The Golden Army. The first movie was busy but lifeless, filled with pleasing moments that amounted to not that much. It was a movie I wanted to love but just couldn't, though I did like the casting of Ron Perlman as the titular character, and some of the imagery was stunning. At the time, prior to my realisation that Del Toro's movies didn't affect me as much as they seemed to affect others, I figured it was just that I wasn't a fan of the comic, and had trouble warming to the character, whom I just could not picture as a living thing in my head. Is he humourless? Is he tough? Compassionate? Though Mignola's art is rightly lauded, the stories lay dead on the page in front of me. (I know, heresy, right?)

Perlman's incarnation of Hellboy as a cocky and insecure teenager in a large demon body was good enough for me to finally understand where Mignola was coming from, meaning I now read the comics with Perlman's voice in my head in much the same way as I read Batman comics with Kevin Conroy's voice in mind. Nevertheless, the appeal of the character eludes me. He's big and strong, sappy and impulsive, and will probably destroy the world one day. That's all fine, but though numerous other characters with those traits entertain me, Hellboy still strikes me as the germ of a good idea that has not yet been fully fleshed out.

To make things worse, the first movie was saddled with the distracting casting of David Hyde-Pierce as the voice of Abe Sapien ("Why does that fishman sound like Niles Crane?"), Rupert Evans as the deeply unlikeable Myers, and Selma Blair as Liz Sherman (her monotone grates on my ears). Even Jeffrey Tambor's inclusion as the officious Manning and a lovably sincere performance by John Hurt wasn't enough to make the difference. Just like the comics, the movie refused to come alive. I've seen it a number of times, and I never have the good time I am hoping for.

It was a slew of good reviews, and an early preview screening cleverly scheduled by Universal to generate word of mouth, that prompted me to try the sequel out, though I will say that even if I'm not as crazy about Del Toro's movies, I don't think there will ever be a time when I decide against seeing them at some point. As usual, though, I had reservations. Uninspiring jokes fall flat throughout, dialogue sounds like first-draft fill-ins instead of polished lines, the pace is stop-start (and, disastrously, grinds to an almost total halt one scene away from the big reveal of the Golden Army), too many events are packed in, and the transparent first act set-up of the final showdown doesn't mitigate the fact that the heroes "triumph" because of a deus ex machina-like get-out clause that is desperately overused in fantasy and sci-fi cinema. The best that can be said of that is that, as Hellboy II is about the death of myth by modernity, hewing so closely to a tried-and-true folk tale plot is understandable, but that didn't stop a groan from escaping my lips as it was introduced.

What's worse, there are some horribly difficult choices made by the characters in the final act, and the last scene, with the BPRD coming to a decision about their future, may be intended as a response to the aftermath of their choices, but it's not enough to balance out the consequences of their actions. Considering how overstuffed and stretched-out the movie is, it's ironic that the final scene, which really needed time to breathe, is suddenly over almost as quickly as it started, crashing into one of the ugliest end-credit crawls I've seen in a long time. It was like being woken up with a bucket of hot water in the face. Plus, the amount of editing wipes used was only exceeded by the amount of times Luke Goss, as Prince Nuada, swishes his big extendy-spear around like a big show-off. Yes yes, he's very good with his big stick thingy, but we don't need to see him flashing it about in ever scene. He can't even pull it out of his belt without adding some flourish or other. Stupid cocky elf-prince thing.

And yet, and yet... This might be the first Del Toro movie I love. I'm not sure yet. I need to see it again, partly to test out the hypothesis, and partly to see what the movie is like without one of the worst audiences ever assembled. If the crowd I saw The Dark Knight with was one of the best ever, this was the polar opposite, with noisy assholes, eardrum-splitting amounts of snack bag rustling, the presence of a woman wearing all the bangles in the free world walking in and out (thus generating a sound like the concept of jewellery having a fight with itself), and, best of all, the thoughtless slimecreep sitting in front of me whose phone rang four separate times about an hour into the movie and who offered to knock my face off when I poked him and told him to just, please, pretty please, just shut the fuck up goddamnit!!! Luckily he left before the end of the film, so I didn't have to have a bigass ruck. I may not be the streetfighting kung fu panda/human hybrid I imagine myself to be at times, but I can kick balls like a motherfucker.

Why did I love it even though it frustrated me continually? It's pretty simple. The slapstick tone of the movie, though not actually backed up by many functioning jokes, is endearing, and with Doug Jones doing an excellent job voicing Abe, Selma Blair offscreen for the majority of the movie, and Myers exiled to Antarctica (hah!), the good-natured chemistry between the non-human freaks wins out. Even better, though I am no fan of Family Guy, Seth McFarlane's work as ectoplasmic tight-ass Johann Krauss charmed my socks off. His inclusion provides many of the film's highpoints. Sadly Jeffrey Tambor doesn't get much to do, and what little he does is not that amusing, but it's enough just to have him around. Whenever the movie relaxes its grip on you, or a joke falls flat, the enthusiasm of the cast and the jovial air will win you back. At least, until things get more serious.

It's been noted that the tone shifts a lot, and that can't be denied, but the darkening of the film, at the end of a huge setpiece next to the Brooklyn Bridge, doesn't overwhelm the rest of the movie, serving instead to depress Hellboy enough to make him reckless enough to battle Prince Nuada without realising he is outmatched, setting in motion the final act. That crisis of conscience also sets up a terrific scene between Hellboy and Abe, drunkenly singing along to Can't Smile Without You. Sure, having tough hero characters crooning a Manilow song is nothing new (see also: Angel and his love of Mandy), but it still works beautifully. With this movie, you're never far away from a light moment that will leave a smile on your face, even if it never makes you laugh all that much. And yes, I'm aware that is the most faint-praise comment either, but I mean it sincerely. If you see the movie, you might see where I'm coming from.

The thing that definitively tipped me over into affection for the film, however, was what the astonishing design, from the costumes and sets to the menagerie of incredible creatures. Yes, this is what Del Toro does best, but what Hellboy II represents is Del Toro doing what he does best about 500 times more than he usually does. I cannot believe how much there is going on in the movie, with almost every scene filled with jaw-dropping detail, all of it rendered with such love and care that it is impossible not to be drawn in. Even better, the use of physical effects and practical make-up means the world is much more appealing than the thin 2D CGI worlds we usually see. Now, I love CGI and am excited to see it used properly, but the physical effects on display here (enhanced by some elegant CGI, of course) are utterly magnificent. You can tell those scenes have been crafted with pure love from everyone involved. I especially liked the faux-stop motion sequence in the opening fairy tale, which must have been CGI but looked hand-made. It's an aesthetically perfect sequence.

The rightly lauded Troll Market sequence is where I stopped being annoyed and began to fall in love with the movie. The cascade of fantastical imagery is overwhelming. When I buy the DVD (yes, it's a certainty), I'm hoping there will be a five hour documentary about the making of that scene. There are so many astonishing creature designs, flashing past the camera faster than the eye can comprehend, that I need to spend time picking out every detail. There is so much going on, much of it on set (as far as I can tell), that I cannot begin to figure out how the crew could have made it work, and that's before we get onto the subject of the $85m budget. How did Del Toro manage this wealth of imagery on that (relatively low) budget? Every other film I've seen this year, many of which are far more expensive, look pitiful next to this. Only The Fall (directed by... TARSEM!!!) stands a chance of being more ravishing, but I will have to wait until 3rd October to catch that (yes, it finally has a UK release date). I'm hoping that, next year, Hellboy II sweeps the technical Oscars. I certainly think it has Visual Effects, Make-Up, and Production Design sewn up.

Speaking of CGI, the best scene in the film comes right after the Troll Market sequence, with Hellboy battling a huge and beautifully realised forest god under the Brooklyn Bridge. I had spent the majority of the Troll Market scene trying to figure out how it would be possible for me to adequately express how breathtakingly beautiful and surprising the film had suddenly become, knowing that words could never hope to sum it up. It was just as Hellboy and his team leave the market that a shorthand way to describe it came to me; it's like a live-action Miyazaki movie. Seems I'm not the first person to make that leap; A. O. Scott said much the same thing here. The bizarre fairytale logic of Del Toro and Mignola's world was reminiscent of the unique but seemingly familiar rules that govern the worlds of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, though sadly Hellboy II's rather formulaic plot seems all the more disappointing considering the peculiar turns Miyazaki's movies take (at least to this Western mind).

That was okay, though. The forest god design evoked the forest spirit Daidarabocchi from Mononoke (just as the Tooth Fairies reminded me of a hostile version of Miyazaki's design for the Kodami tree spirits), and the battle between this enormous ethereal yet deadly green monster and Hellboy is already entertaining before the misguided and murderous Prince Nuada pricks our hero's conscience, playing off his fear of rejection by humanity, and his seemingly unstoppable loneliness. For the first time in the movie, Hellboy's actions have real weight. It's at that point that the movie becomes about his growing understanding of his untenable situation, torn between two worlds that don't welcome him. It's only fitting that he spends the next few scenes trying to get drunk, not realising that he is soon to find out that not fitting in is the least of his problems, if the beautifully realised Angel of Death is to be believed.

Hellboy II's wondrousness is so great that I'm strongly considering reappraising the comic and maybe even getting the second animated Hellboy DVD (even though the first was merely okay). It has made me hesitantly excited about The Hobbit, which I thought would be a flawed prequel to one of my favourite movie trilogies ever. As I said earlier, Del Toro's scripts are never as good as his visual flights of fancy, and so I'm hoping the two movies will be scripted by the killer team of Jackson, Walsh and Boyens, which would increase its chances of being super-awesome. In the meantime, if you're in the US, you should have seen this by now. If you're outside the US, the movie is being released internationally at a snail's pace. As soon as it lands on your shores, go see it immediately. Even if the narrative leaves you cold, and that exasperating pace jolts you back and forth like a bus with a faulty engine, those stunning visuals will make your eyes vibrate with joy. Hopefully the international box office is sufficient to get a third movie greenlit. I never thought I would want another Hellboy movie, but this flawed yet thrilling installment has changed my mind on that. When it is released properly, I look forward to watching it again, hopefully this time without the threat of violence from phone-wielding assholes.


the Albino Bowler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the Albino Bowler said...

Hey. I noticed you visited the rodeo and even found time to pipe in. Fantastic. For this experiment I definitely need that kind of interaction with insightful writers. I hope and expect to hear from you soon. Keep it up here with your mighty blog. I can't wait to see Robert Redford play Bryson. I just finished Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country."