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This Week in Film: Capsule Reviews – 7.11.08

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic


This week, we take a look at a funny and touching hero story, a character study on the perils of making it in Hollywood, and a painfully pedestrian journey.

 

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

ImageA day after seeing the new Hellboy, the one thing I can't get out of my head is a song…and that song is Barry Manilow's “Can't Smile Without You.” This is a good sign, if any was needed, that this is a very different kind of action movie. I’m not even sure if Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army can be described as an “action” film anyway. It’s more of a comedy disguised as a super hero flick. It’s also hopelessly romantic in a very bizarre and surreal kind of way, such as when Hellboy, or “Red” as his friends call him and his buddy Abe Sapien listen to Manilow’s famous tune while downing beers and ruminating over the women they are in love with. This wouldn’t be so bizarre if not for the fact that Hellboy and Abe are mutants that work for the U.S. government.

 

These mutants all have special abilities that help them fight crime, especially when it comes to paranormal situations like the one at the center of this film, where an evil mutant is threatening to take over the world. Hellboy, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is a hulking red dude with a ridiculously ripped body and hands of steel. He loves big guns, but often he just uses his fists as his weapon of choice, which his likes to call “Five-fingered Mary.” Under all of that red makeup and fake muscle is Ron Perlman, a classically trained actor who, much like his director, is kind of slumming it in this movie. While they may digress, it doesn’t mean that they can’t have fun while doing it, and Hellboy II is nothing if not fun and totally, and unequivocally irreverent.

The plot is almost an afterthought, as del Toro puts his characters ahead of anything else and it shows. There is a mutant with a grudge that wants to take back the world from the humans and unleash the “Golden Army”, hundreds of stone and metal creatures that live below the earth and have been dormant for centuries. It’s up to Hellboy and his colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s about it for the overall storyline in Hellboy II, but as I said, del Toro is much more interested in his mutant characters; he understands that he’s not directing Pan’s Labyrinth here and so he plays the hand that he’s dealt. As in that film, del Toro is fascinated with strange, fairy tale like creatures that inhabit an underworld that humans aren’t aware of, and he is able to create this world with a visionary set design and brilliant cinematography. His creatures are remarkably original even though we have seen variations of them in previous del Toro films. They are also the product of sheer filmmaking ingenuity, from the make-up to the costumes; these creations are more than just fancy computer effects. Hellboy’s sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), also his romantic interest, have their own unique characteristics that make them one of a kind creations in their own right. However it’s Hellboy that steals the show with his devil may care attitude and bad boy ways; he’s part stand up comic, part superhero and more human than most of the “regular folk” in the film. Perlman seems to be enjoying his role so much that we can’t help but enjoy it along with him. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame adds to the film’s humorous nature with his brilliant and hilarious voiceover of the character Johann Kraus, a robot like mutant with a thick German accent, who is put in charge of the current mission.

Hellboy II is very much a Guillermo del Toro film, and his signature is all over it. His characters might be mutants, but they are emotionally whole. They fall in love and can act irrationally because of it; they are superhuman on the surface but all too human beneath it. As in all of his films there is a good share of mechanically inventive devices, the kind of things that like to interlock and unlock, and often when they do it’s to release something evil. As I watched Hellboy II, I couldn’t help but think that for a guy so obsessed with the mechanical, it’s amazing how un-mechanical and deeply emotional his characters and films really are.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

I was informed before the screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth that the film was being shown in “Real D” not just merely “3D.” I’m not sure what the difference is but this “Real D’ is pretty cool. Even the glasses are neat, they sort of resemble a pair of glasses from the 60s, yet the three-dimensional effect is far advanced from those early days. The images not only jump right at you, but every scene has a true three dimensional depth to it. Unlike many 3-D goggles, these glasses didn’t give me a headache either. I’d say that this new “Real D” could be around for a while.

Talking about how effective the 3-D is almost makes me forget how pedestrian the rest of the film is. While it’s obvious we’ve come a long way technically speaking in so many regards, there’s still no substitution for a good screenplay. Journey, which contains a phoned in performance by the always likable Brendan Fraser, has a by-the-numbers feel not only with its mundane adventure plot, but also with action sequences that seem like an advertisement for the newest Great Adventure theme park. With its dazzling display of three-dimensional wizardry, it’s too bad that the film itself is so darn two-dimensional.

Garden Party

Garden Party is about making it in Hollywood ,or at least doing whatever you have to in order to make it. “Making it” can be construed in many different ways. It seems to know much about this subject and it makes me wonder what director Jason Freeland had to do in order to get this far. I do not say this in a bad way at all, just as a matter of fact. One of the reasons why this is one of the better films film to delve into this subject is because it presents its characters and their sometimes lofty ambitions in a very matter of fact way. There’s the fresh faced musician Sammy (Erik Smith) who comes to Los Angeles to be a singer in a band, the sleazy erotic photographer Anthony (Patrick Fischler, who I could’ve sworn was actually Ben Chaplin, and according to IMDB I’m not the only one), the 15 year old April (Willa Holland) who would like to find a real job, and the country boy Nathan (Alexander Cendese) who works for the man eating real estate agent Sally St. Clair (Vinessa Shaw).

All of these characters use each other for their own gain, but Garden Party doesn’t present them as negative stereotypes. Instead, they are people who are where they are because of the endless possibilities that L.A has to offer, and like the filmmakers they understand what comes along with the territory. Writer/director Freeland portrays these characters and the entire “L.A. dream” in a realistic and balanced light, and that’s incredibly refreshing to say the least.

 

Author: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

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