Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hellboy Two: Genius Directing Wasted on a Terrible Movie

Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Another another disappointing summer movie available now on DVD. This one gets an extra star than most lackluster disappointments. But like Hancock, it's still only half a movie.

Like Hancock, this one has a promising opening that the movie fails to live up to. Unlike Hancock, we realize it's not going to live up to the opening about fifteen minutes into the movie, when we get into the off-the-shelf formulaic horror-schlock of the Tooth Fairies and the Hellboy's domestic doldrums (not to mention the pure poison of the usually enjoyable Jeffrey Tambor, who brings the movie to a dead stop every time he appears). From the beautiful puppetry opening to bad Lucy and Dezi in fifteen minutes.

Then back again. I'm not sure I can even describe what this movie is about. More demons are let loose from the underworld and Hellboy has to assemble yet again a team of freaks to fend them off. I have to profess that I loved the vaporous character of Johann Krauss, the latest addition to the U.S.'s secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, and probably the most wholly original movie superhero we've seen. Director Guillermo del Toro's imagination is nothing but imaginatively feverish, even if he has no real script to work off of. Every time we turn the corner, we think this movie might now be saved with the introduction of some new squirmy, bumpy, toothy, or chloroformy paranormal baddie. What's odd about this movie is that it's simultaneously amazingly great while also being completely boring. Del Toro keeps coming up with one amazing visual set piece concept after another: whether it's doing battle against a giant city-stomping flower (with a baby in one arm), the mystical connections between vengeful Prince and pure-hearted Princess, or the bittersweet battle with the oddly teddy-bearish Wink, the director of the amazing Pan's Labyrinth explores the intersection of mythology and heroism with an imaginative ambivalence that's both endearing and fascinating.

At the same time, the story is such a boring mix of pop culture hoo-haa, I kept checking my watch, wanting it to move on to the end already. I was never too much a fan of Ghost Busters or Blade (okay, so del Toro's ripping off himself, here), so ripping off from them is one step below bubble-gum. Ripping off from Blade Runner, Total Recall or Lord of the Rings is always entertaining but pretty much cliche at this point, so while I liked the imaginative characters populating the Troll's market, I couldn't help but think, "Bar Scene in Star Wars" - which, to tell you the truth, was when, no matter how much I had been blown away by the power of what had come before, even as a seven year old boy, I had my first insight that some movies might be more interested in selling toys then entertaining their audience. Not that del Toro is as mechanizing happy as Lucas: his puppets are ten-time as's just that his sci-fi is a bland mash of yesteryear's warmed-overs.

And then it's back to the Lucy and Dezi show: the marriage banter between Hellboy and Liz Sherman is but one step above the groaning unevolving clunkiness between Indie and Marion in Indiana Jones and only marginally more believable than the insane drivel between Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening. Could all this fake movie couple banter just die, already? It's as if none of these screenwriters have actually been in a relationship but have read some interplanetary fax about what it's supposed to be like (argue a lot about ultimately insignificant things; express your true feelings to everyone but your partner) and have been told they have to put some of it in the movie or suffer the rack. Maybe the characters could just say something like, "please take five minutes to turn to your partner and insert your own meaningless couple's banter here," and we could just be done with it. At least it'd be more interesting. And if you were in the theater alone you'd get five minutes of personal silence, which would be far more rewarding.

So what do I think? I think if you turned this from a movie into a thirty-minute museum video installation piece, it would be pure genius: it would blow me away. The fairy-tale opening...maybe a little mirthful introduction of Johann Krauss...followed by the prince taking over the crown...followed by the battles of wink and the giant plant...followed by an abbreviated go at the Golden Army. A flow of forms and imaginings made of wood and vapor, plants and animals, metal and fire. If I could have seen that as an installation piece, I'd be raving about it for years. In those few scenes I've mentioned, del Toro fully realizes the fantasy world that's haunted him in movies like Mimic and Pan's Labyrinth, and extracted a yearning for the lost magic of that mythical world and its creatures. And there's a nice little theme here, a nice little story that's overshadowed by the schlockier Hellboy story: that the vengeance of the night-time fantasy world is intricately bound with its pure hearted salvation. That the forest offers both death and life, that in fact, this is the very breast of mother nature, which man strives to turn from - whose authority man strives to challenge - but which he must ultimately accept. When the life-and-death destructive battle with the plant ends with an explosion of ferns and flowers, it's rapturous: the bringer of death and harbinger of life is just what these fairy tales are about, yet rarely so beautifully enacted.

But since you have to slog through about fifty additional minutes of off-the-rack boredom to pick out that poppy, I have to say, if you're renting this one, put it on your big-screen, hi-def TV to enjoy the visuals. Meanwhile you can do your workout, go out and tuck the baby into bed, and let the dog out during the boring parts, and you won't be missing much.

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