Purgatory and Limbo
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. This week we look at two films by directors I've come to have a certain regard for - Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg.
I'm Horny - Horny, Horny, Horny
The seemingly implacable advance of the comic-book adaptation continues. Things have now got to the stage where it isn't just Marvel and DC who are invading the multiplexes, even smaller outfits like Dark Horse are muscling in on the act. To be fair to them, Dark Horse have some form when it comes to the big screen, but their track record is wildly variable - The Mask and Barb Wire were both based on their characters. (They also dreamt up the concept behind Alien Vs Predator.) The company is on much more solid ground with Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy.
The film opens in 1944 with an Allied taskforce discovering Nazi occultists up to no good off the Scottish coast. They intend to open a portal and awake the sleeping Chaos Gods, and thus trigger the apocalypse. But the plot is foiled and leading cultist Rasputin (Karel Rodan) is sucked up his own vortex. But something has already slipped through into our world - a baby demon, red of hue and mild of temperament, whom the Allies' occult advisor adopts and christens Hellboy...
Sixty years on and the now-grown Hellboy (a terrific performance by Ron Perlman) is a secret operative for the FBI, busting supernatural ass with the aid of his foster-father Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and psychic fish-man Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce). He also has a bit of a thing for troubled human bonfire Liz (Selma Blair). But more important matters are afoot as Rasputin has returned from the dimension he was banished to and he and his cronies are still terribly keen on bringing about the end of the world - a plan to which Hellboy is central...
If Stan Lee and HP Lovecraft went on a date to see the Indiana Jones trilogy and then got their dirty freak on and the unnatural union was somehow fertile, I'm sure the offspring would look very much like this movie. (This is supposed to be praise, by the way.) Even by the soaring standards of the modern comic adaptation Hellboy is great stuff. It's pacy, funny, visually striking and is stuffed with fine performances.
Chief amongst these is that of Ron Perlman, a familiar name to fans of SF and fantasy films. Not really a familiar face, however, as he seems to have spent roughly half of his entire life in prosthetic make-up in films and TV shows like Beauty and the Beast, Star Trek: Insurrection, and The Name of the Rose. Is it engaging in needless hyperboly to suggest that his entire career has been leading up to this point? Well, maybe, but it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing Hellboy better than he does here. He takes a fairly ridiculous character and gives him depth and charm and subtlety, while still looking the part in the gleefully destructive action sequences which pepper the movie. The fact that the Hellboy make-up manages to be true to the comic and yet still quite credible, even in broad daylight, is a big help to him. But Hurt is also on sparkling form and Blair is likeable, as is Rupert Evans as a rookie FBI agent assigned to the department.
What's also really impressive about this film is the way that del Toro chooses to take his time and concentrate on characterisation and relationships instead of just rattling the plot from one super-powered barney to the next. There's an urbanely off-the-wall sense of humour that permeates much of the film, manifesting as Hellboy's unexpected soft-spot for cats or habit of idly grinding down his horns with power-tools in order to be less conspicuous. But the feelings between the main characters are genuine and affecting. Del Toro's action sequences don't have quite the same level of breathless frenzy he brought to Blade 2, but are suitably protracted and over-the-top.
However, if I had to make a criticism of this movie, it's that the emphasis on character and humour means that the actual plot suffers somewhat. This really isn't a problem as the leads are so likeable you stick with the film regardless, but there are quite a few plot-threads left dangling or unexplained: why Rasputin's girlfriend doesn't age a day in sixty years, for example. And, like Spider-Man 2, it's a slight shame that a film that makes a virtue of not being just another empty-headed blockbuster has as its climax a fairly routine CGI set-piece.
This is quibbling, of course. Hellboy doesn't take itself remotely seriously and neither should you. But if you like the pulpiest of pulp fiction, unusual heroes, inventively horrible villains, jokes, ooze, and just a dash of romance, then this is the film for you. Great fun.
The Lighter Side of Institutionalised Asylum-Seeking
One of cinema's master entertainers returns with The Terminal, Steven Spielberg's theoretically-based-on-a-true-story statement on American national security issues and the nature of modern life. Or so he claims. This is the story of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a traveller from the obscure eastern European land of Krakhozia (if you're wondering, it shares a border with Latveria and Markovia) who arrives at New York's JFK airport on important personal business.
Unfortunately while he was on the way a coup has occurred in his homeland and the visa letting him into the USA has been withdrawn. On the other hand, the new government in Krakozhia has closed the borders and airports so he can't go back there either. This effectively means he is stranded in the airport departure lounge, a man without a country, until the situation resolves itself. The presence of this piece of human driftwood is inevitably anathema to the career-minded airport administrator Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who is quite prepared to let Viktor become someone else's problem if it means getting him out of the terminal.
But Viktor is a principled man who is not prepared to simply slope off out of the airport illegally the first chance he gets. Mainly through his own ingenuity he teaches himself English, gets a rather good job renovating the airport and establishes a circle of friends amongst the airport staff. He even has time to develop a bit of a thing for air stewardess Amelia (Catherine Zeta Jones, a Hollywood leading lady making history by playing a character older than herself). But what exactly has he come to America to do? And will they ever let him out of the terminal so he can actually get on with it?
Well, you could disapprove of The Terminal on principle for its ruthless hijacking and prettying up of the rather sad story of Merhan Nasseri, a mentally fragile Iranian refugee who's been living in a French airport for the last sixteen years, but you must have been living down a hole if you seriously expect a Spielberg movie to stick to reality rather than going for an artful sugar-rush of sentiment. To be fair, the film opens in surprisingly downbeat and naturalistic style - there's no big title sequence, no music in the early part of the movie, and it's shot in realistic colours. This opening segment is rather impressively low-key, even if the exact circumstances confining Hanks to the airport concourse seem a bit contrived. But as the film goes on it almost imperceptibly slopes off into the familiar feel-good la-la land, until John Williams is tootling and parping cheerfully away on the soundtrack, the cinematography is drenched in sunny warmth and the story's going all-out to make you laugh.
To be fair the movie does this rather well. Hanks gives a very impressively non-sentimental performance in a rather tricky part: he doesn't overdo the role in any of the ways lesser talents might, keeping the foreign accent and the innocent abroad aspects well under control. It's very accomplished turn, mixing pathos with broad comedy, and you actually believe that this is a man who would choose to sit in an airport for months on end simply because it's the correct way to behave. He's well supported by a ensemble cast of unfamiliar faces, and Tucci makes a villain both hissable and mildly empathetic. Zeta Jones' character is a bit one-dimensional though, and she seems a bit lost for things to do with it.
Spielberg himself seems a bit lost for things to do with this movie, other than go for gentle comedy. The appeal of making what's basically a high-concept formal exercise is obvious, and there's potential here for the film to say things about modern life and modern America, but (clearly realising he's potentially kicking a wasp's nest here) Spielberg invariably opts for the most general and vague approach. He neither endorses or condemns current American policy on immigration, or anything else. This is one of those films that raises issues but has nothing to say about them, with the result that it seems a bit shallow and tokenistic. Well, all right, it does subtly point out that the low-paid airport underclass that eventually adopts Hanks is almost entirely comprised of members of ethnic minorities, but Michael Moore this ain't.
But then again neither does it try (or, I suspect, want) to be. It's just a slick, witty, fairly warm piece of entertainment, powered along by Spielberg's unsurpassed technical mastery, Hanks' undoubted charisma, and a mostly-ingenious script that seems to have been written by someone hiding an impressive knowledge of cult TV. But in the end it seems just a bit too disposably superficial. Very enjoyable while it lasts, make no mistake about that, but nowhere near the best of Spielberg's work.