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Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

by Steve Habrat

With 2004’s Hellboy turning out to be a modest success, Guillermo del Toro was allowed to let a myriad of head spinning monsters out of his imagination in 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a bigger, wilder, and groovier monster movie romp than his predecessor. Loaded with tons more ghouls to roam around, The Golden Army is shoulder to shoulder with some of the most exhaustive make-up effects put on film in the past several years. It helps that del Toro shifts from Revolution Studios to Universal Studios, home of the original monster movie, to really make the ultimate tribute to the classic Universal monsters of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. The Golden Army also finds more enthusiastic devotion from Ron Pearlman, who seems like he was chomping at the bit to get covered in red make-up and have two filed down horns slapped on his forehead. Tapping into the reckless ennui that he so wonderfully applied in Hellboy, The Golden Army finds our big red hero dealing with relationship problems, pent up longing to interact with the outside world, fatherhood (!) and that nagging problem of having to save the world. Again. It’s all in a day’s work for Hellboy, the beer sipping, cat loving man-child.

The Golden Army begins with Hellboy’s (Played by Pearlman) relationship with pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair) on the rocks. She exclaims that she can no longer stand living in Hellboy’s pigsty and that she needs some space. Hellboy confides in his best buddy Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), the geeky psychic amphibious humanoid who always acts as the voice of reason for Red. To make things worse, Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense Agent Tom Manning (Played by Jeffrey Tambor) is steaming mad at Hellboy for continuing to reveal himself to the public, despite the fact that the B.P.R.D is supposed to be kept a secret. After being called to investigate strange events at an auction house, Hellboy finds the perfect opportunity to reveal himself to the world and make it look like an accident. Hellboy isn’t welcomed into the world with open arms, many people taunting him for his striking appearance but that is the least of Hellboy’s problems. Agent Manning brings in a new authority figure by the name of Johann Krauss (Played by James Dodd and voice by Seth MacFarlane), a figure that wears a containment suit shaped like a human but that holds in pure ectoplasmic energy. Hellboy, Liz, and Abe begin rebelling against Johann but it is soon discovered that a mythical realm has declared war on the humans and that they plan to unleash the Golden Army, an invincible force that would destroy the human race.

Much like Hellboy, The Golden Army runs smoother when del Toro aims his camera at the sheltered trio of crime fighters who long for human interaction. It finds Hellboy staring down fatherhood, but it is hard to see the guy as a papa when he downs six packs of Tecate and stumbles around with Abe as they gripe about girls. The best moment of The Golden Army comes when Abe drunkenly spills his feelings about a girl that the trio is supposed by protecting. You’ll crack up when the duo begins slurring through love songs played at full blast. It is a delight to see the group bring their problems to work, all of them complaining on the job to each other but banding together when the bad monsters come out to play. The Golden Army also deals with the trio trying to fit in with the average citizens of New York City. They are teased on the street about their freakish appearances, something that really irks the testy Hellboy who responds with, “I know I’m ugly!” You’ll feel for the big red ape, especially when Hellboy saves a baby from a giant monstrosity and the mother rips the baby away from Hellboy in horror, something that really pierces the big guy’s heart.

The Golden Army would be nothing without Pearlman, Blair, and Jones, all who get their moment to really push their characters along. Pearlman is an absolute delight as Hellboy and I can honestly say I’d watch twenty Hellboy movies if he were in every one. Watching him try to mature and cater to Liz is hysterical, especially when he finds her toothbrush in a tin of cat food. Pearlman’s enjoyment with the roll is incredibly contagious and we find ourselves having just as much fun as he is. Blair perks up a bit here as Liz, but she is still the goth girl hero in combat boots that we came to adore the first time around. It is good to see her sulking about a troubled relationship and a secret she is desperately trying to hide from Red. Then there is Jones as Abe, who gets a tongue-tying crush of his own—one that he begins to realize will not end happily ever after. Then there is James Dodd and Seth MacFarlane’s Johann, a prickly voice of authority that successfully stands up to the boorish Hellboy. As far as the villains go, Hellboy finds himself battling against the fed up Prince Nuada (Played by Luke Goss) and his timid twin sister Princess Nuala (Played by Anna Walton). The elfish Nuada never really becomes an intimidating force to reckon with, the only catch being that if you harm Nuada, you can also harm Nuala. This puts the group at odds, especially when Abe develops feeling for the gentle Nuala. This is where The Golden Army flat lines, the lack of a truly compelling villain to really curl your toes. Luckily, that is why all those spine-tingling monsters are here!

Being a superhero movie, The Golden Army is filled out with plenty of action and adventure. A showdown in the streets between Hellboy and a giant forest god is beautiful and adrenaline pumping. Another battle between Hellboy and Nuada’s grotesque bodyguard Mr. Wink is also a standout. Del Toro ends his film in a grand, epic fashion by pitting the group against the marching Golden Army, the best fight scene of the entire film. While the film’s plotline may begin to creak and crack under the style that it is trying so desperately to hold up, the style practically superglues and staples your eyes to the screen. It makes you long for more movies from del Toro, ones where he can have all the artistic freedom he wants. Also, if Universal plans on remaking anymore of their classic monster movies, I think it would be wise to hand the project over to this guy. Still, I wish del Toro would have developed the underlying message of nature and man living in harmony a bit more than he does but this is a summer blockbuster and I’m sure there was a push for more eye candy and action. It just so happens that del Toro excels at eye candy as Hellboy II: The Golden Army has some of the tastiest eye candy around. Here’s to more monster movies in del Toro’s future!

Grade: A-

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Hellboy (2004)

by Steve Habrat

I wish that audiences paid more attention to visionary director Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 superhero film Hellboy, a funky and gothic monster mash that practically explodes with creativity. Based on Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book of the same name, Hellboy seems like an absurd premise but because del Toro gives his ragtag group of ghouls a human heart, the film becomes a real charmer. Credit should also go to Ron Pearlman’s performance as the big red crime fighter who loves a good cigar, has a hopeless crush on a colleague, weakens at the knees for a Baby Ruth, and just can’t resist a kitten. While many may not be able to wrap their heads around a demonic superhero, Hellboy rewards those who will give him a chance with tons of monster-on-monster brawls, nightmarish critters who prowl the subways of New York City, and plenty of quirky one liners to really allow Hellboy himself to come to life. Oh, and did I mention young love? While Hellboy hasn’t aged particularly well since its release, del Toro keeps things timeless by his use of tons of outstanding make-up and icky puppets that will simultaneously make your skin crawl and give you nightmares. Not bad for a comic book movie.

Hellboy begins during the final days World War II, taking us to a stormy island off the coast of Scotland where a handful of American soldiers and the young Professor Broom (Played by John Hurt) are spying on a small band of Nazi soldiers performing a strange occult ritual that would awaken “The Seven Gods of Chaos”, monstrous creatures that slumber in another dimension. This ritual is being led by Grigori Rasputin (Played by Karel Roden), his mistress, Ilsa (Played by Bridget Hodson), and monitored by the gas-masked Kroenen (Played by Ladislav Beran), Hitler’s top assassin. The American soldiers attack half way through the ritual and stop the Nazi’s before any dangerous creatures get through the portal that has been opened. Rasputin manages to get sucked through the portal and shrapnel kills Kroenen, or so the Americans think, but the world is saved from annihilation. As the soldiers and Professor Broom explore the site, they discover a strange little creature that is all red and has a massive stone hand. Professor Broom determines that the creature means no harm and begins looking after the little fella. The soldiers decide to name the creature “Hellboy” due to his bizarre and demonic appearance. Fast-forward to present day where adult Hellboy (Played by Ron Pearlman) works for a super secret organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.  With the help of the psychic amphibious humanoid Abe Sapien (Played by Doug Jones), beautiful pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Played by Selma Blair), rookie agent John Meyers (Played by Rupert Evans), and Professor Broom, Hellboy battles bizarre critters that mean to unleash destruction on Earth.

Hellboy wins the audience over instantly with Ron Pearlman’s devoted performance as Hellboy, a towering man-child who files his horns down to fit in with society, something that he never sees yet longs for. He ends up grounded by Professor Broom for sneaking out of the underground facility he calls his home and having a picture snapped of him, which inevitably ends up on the news. Debates rage over the existence of Hellboy on talk shows, all theories debunked by Tom Manning (Played by Jeffery Tambor), a grouchy FBI Director who loathes the big red beast. It is a blast when Hellboy sneaks out on Halloween to meet up with Liz, who has checked herself in to a mental institution after multiple accidents that involve her fiery ability. He steals a six-pack and begs Liz to have a good time but she is reluctant, which deflates the lovable oaf. It is in these little moments that we really find ourselves rooting for Hellboy, even more than we do when he is rumbling with a drooling demonic creature with tentacles slithering out of its head. In fact, his job almost looks like it gets on his nerves and is just a giant inconvenience. Things really get tough for Hellboy when Meyers begins moving in on Liz, a move that drives Hellboy bonkers. This sets a knee-slapping immature rivalry into motion that culminates in Hellboy, who has a chocolate chip cooking dangling from his mouth, tossing stones at Meyers, who is trying the old yawn and stretch trick to put his arm around Liz. Boys will be boys!

While Pearlman steals the show, his supporting players are not too shabby themselves. Blair was born to play the perpetually frowning Liz, who curls inside wool coats with a hat pulled over her jet-black bangs, wearing a withdrawn look on her pretty face. She becomes a gothic heroine to a million girls in black t-shirts and combat boots.  And then there is Doug Jones as the slinky Abe Sapien, a soft-spoken and thoughtful sidekick who tries to keep Hellboy in check. He is the cool head to the loose cannon (del Toro symbolically represents that in their skin color, cool blue on Abe and hot head red on Hellboy). Tamobor is hilarious as Tom Manning, who is consistently appalled by the belligerent behavior of his horned employee. John Hurt is marvelous as the gentle father figure who looks over these crazy kids, stepping in when they get a little too wild. Rupert Evans is appropriately fidgety as Hellboy’s rival and it is hysterical to watch Hellboy try to come to terms with this new hotshot member on his team. Then there is Roden’s Rasputin, a typical sunglasses-wearing baddie who is hell-bent on reducing the world to ashes. His evil plot is a bit yawn inducing considering it has been done several times before but his henchmen spice things up. When Hodson’s Ilsa isn’t making your hair stand on end with her glassy-eyed dedication, Beran’s acrobatic assassin Kroenen will. Beran is one of the coolest comic book baddies, sporting one hell of a gas mask and spinning around blades like he came out of the womb doing it.

While the elaborate monsters that del Toro’s FX shop spits out are remarkable works of art, the real draw is the actors who are bound and determined to make Hellboy a keeper. They succeed with flying colors as I preferred the moments where the characters were interacting with one another over the scenes where things are blowing up. Even though they have to ooze sentiment through heaping gobs of spirit gum, Jones and Pearlman manage to pull of the almost impossible and make their character heartwarming. There is plenty of exhilarating action sequences that are a marvel to drink in but Hellboy just misses greatness due to a routine finale that finds Rasputin threatening to unleash giant monsters on New York City. The film also trips over some dated computer effects, which are glaringly out of place when they are piled onto del Toro’s jaw-dropping puppets. The plot of Hellboy is also thinly spread over the course of its two-hour runtime but there is enough adolescent shenanigans and young romance to keep you smiling. Ah, if only fitting in and scoring a date with the girl was as easy as turning a demonic hellhound to ash.

Grade: B+

Hellboy is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Anti-Film School Recommends This Film…

DRIVE

Hey readers,

It has been a while since I posted one of these and I apologize for that. The newest film that I recommend you go out and pick up is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, an intense, existential, and unforgettable thrill ride of a film and a film that sits near the top of my best films of 2011. It is a must-see for the silent-but-extremely deadly performance from Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks as a sinister gangster who has it out for Gosling’s Driver. Boasting a pristine picture, a pulsing electronic score, and house-rattling action scenes, Drive is a film that you have to add to your Blu-ray collection. You’ll thank me later. If you wish to read my review of Drive, you can find the review here.

-Steve

Drive (2011)

by Steve Habrat

To anyone who is considering seeing Drive, the new action thriller starring Ryan Gosling, you should be warned about what you will be getting yourself into. I say this because this is a fierce film. There are moments that are downright repugnant and not for those who disconcert easily. I had to search long and hard for the picture I used above because I felt that the main picture had to convey what this film really turns out to be. This noir-inspired, 80’s influenced retro picture thrives on its breakneck action, dismal atmosphere, ethereal electronic score, head-stomping violence, and a performance from Gosling that should guarantee him a spot in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. It will no doubt leave you in a state of shock, as the beginning of the film is relatively patient and discreet. Much to the dismay of the audience, it displays moments of pure, pretentious splendor. However, once Drive kicks things into high gear and it revs it’s supped up engine, this baby means business. And so does Gosling’s Driver. It all adds up to one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

I’ll tell you straight, this is an art film dressed up in action threads. It prefers complex characters to walking clichés. Gosling’s Driver is a man of a few soft grunts and sparse words. He flashes the occasional preoccupied smile at his next-door neighbor Irene (Played by Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio and he mostly keeps to himself. He effortlessly shrouds himself in mystery. The Driver (we never learn his actual name) drives stunt cars for movies, works in an auto mechanic shop, and also acts as a getaway driver for criminals. He has a strict line of rules that he lays down for the thugs that get in and out of his wheels. They have five minutes once they are inside, he does not carry a gun, when they are out, he belongs to them, and he only works for them one time. When Irene’s husband Standard (Played by Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, some goons that are coming to claim protection money demand that he robs a pawn shop to get them their riches, or they will kill Irene and his son. The Driver offers his services, but during the heist, things go horribly wrong. It turns out that this is just a small piece of a larger crime puzzle that is being controlled by two mobsters, the Jewish Nino (Played by Ron Pearlman) and Bernie Rose (Played by Albert Brooks). The Driver gathers himself and sets out to protect Irene and her son from the mobsters who are slowly closing in on them and are hell bent on wiping everyone out who can link them to the heist.

Drive feels like a synthesis of David Lynch films (Lost Highway especially), Quentin Tarantino, a forgotten 80’s action flick, Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, and Miami Vice swagger. It helps that the synthy score conjures up nostalgia every time it thumps over the speakers. The hot pink credits help too. But it’s Gosling’s unvoiced antihero that feels like the real relic. He feels like a lost hero from the Regan era. He’s emotionally complex, but also tough no matter what happens. Nothing fazes him and we play by his rules. He even nibbles at a toothpick, reminiscent of Eastwood’s cigar chewing Man with No Name. The film takes a hokey turn at the end when the Driver just begins finding all the mobsters he has set out to kill with little effort. Who knew it would be that easy? One would think that the writer and director would have added more of a build up before the end confrontation. The climax is sadly rushed, showing prominent similarities to Super 8 and Green Lantern (I understand they are drastically different movies, but their endings are extraordinarily similar). It just ends tersely. For a film that packs this much suspense and brute force, it left me wanting much more.

This film’s atmosphere, which is menacing and downright intimidating, adds to its own spellbinding success. At times, all you can do is laugh to soften the blow of its dead serious tone. It almost becomes a coping mechanism while watching the brutality of this film play out before you. The Driver always seems to lurk in the shadows. He works as a Hollywood stunt driver so it’s easy to assume he would live glamorously. Here the film evokes images that would seem appropriate in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Mullholland Drive, or Blue Velvet. There is evil lurking below all that glitz. There is also an existential haze to the film. The Driver lives on the edge, in the thrill of the moment. Every day could be his last. Director Nicholas Winding Refn has called the film a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of cult experimental films El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, whose films usually have a character on a quest for the meaning of existence. The viciousness of Drive certainly takes a page from Jodorowsky, as the film has some extreme gore, most notable is the elevator sequence. Gosling stomps a hit man’s face in to the point where it’s reduced to just red goop. Somewhere, French director Gaspar Noe is howling with delight.  The audience I saw this with was howling in horror.

Drive consistently makes us ask the screen “Are you really going to go THERE?!” It always does, but it does have an unpredictable streak to it. You can never fully envisage it even if it is familiar. The film doesn’t rely on its violence and action (there is plenty, but not enough to satisfy some action fiends), but instead allows the chemistry between actors do the heavy lifting. Though the dialogue is limited between Mulligan’s Irene and the Driver, the moments they spend together are tender. When the Driver confronts gangster Bernie Rose, they fight with words rather than bullets or fists. “You will spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder,” Rose promises. It’s scenes like this that make every hair on your body stand up and churn your guts. Ron Pearlman’s Nino hams up the screen and he’s delightfully cartoonish. The film is the Gosling show, however, and with this role, I have to deem any project he is attached to in the future a must-see. He has become one of the most eccentric actors around.

Once you see Drive, you will never forget it. It’s like a parasite that worms its way in and posses you. I’ve found myself shaken up in the mere hours since I went to the theater to see it. The friends I went with were rattled and in a state of shock. You should know what you are getting yourself into when you see this. It’s not your conventional action film with clear-cut baddies and good guys. Everyone seems to have darkness in his or her hearts and cracked souls. Come year end, I will be singing its praises for all to hear. Drive is like a restored muscle car. It’s great to look at and when you see it, it pulls you in, but it’s what’s under the hood that counts. And Drive has a lot going on under the hood. Grade: A-