Friday, August 8, 2008

Summer Pleasures

The following column is reprinted from the August issue of Providence Monthly

by Scott Duhamel

Hellboy II:The Golden Army

If you are looking for a primer on what the basic virtues of summer movies ought to be, you need to look no further than Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a fun movie that offers the plot up as a start-up for a series of imaginative flourishes, that allows silliness to churn into charm, and wades into the current stream of cinematic comic book adaptations waving its pulpy freak flag high.
Keeper-of-the-flame director Guillermo del Toro seems to derive great pleasure in flitting back and forth between his more highbrow, and critically praised offerings (Pan’s Labyrinth ‘06, The Devil’s Backbone’01) and his lowdown genre exercises (Blade II ’02, Hellboy ’04), although he continually displays a fervent penchant for acute production design and a true visual flair no matter what category his films happen to fall into. As a filmmaker, del Toro operates with a little boy’s heart and a full-out fantasist’s mind, tempering it all with an eye-winking overview, a near perfect combo for this comic book sequel, making it easily one of the summer’s most delectable movie pleasures.
For those unfamiliar with Hellboy (and this is not the type of sequel that demands viewing of the original), who is played with glazed ham gusto by Ron Perlman, is a demon raised by humans who works for an agency devoted to quelling paranormal activity. Hellboy is thoroughly reluctant so-called super-hero, filled to the brim with self-depreciation, and as able to toss out a tongue-in-cheek aside as throw a crushing left. The sawed-off horned, cigar-chomping, good/bad boy is aided and abetted by two great side characters, one being Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) a kinda fishy empath, and the other Liz (Selma Blair) who is both human torch and girlfriend.
The movie is an unabated creature feature, with a parade of patented del Toro creations, both sweetly nightmarish and comically ghastly, the film may even err with its overdose of phantasmagoric legions, almost too many for the eyes to digest. Yet despite the barrage of stage front and peripheral mutations, del Toro never allows us the CGI stuff or rubber costuming to demand attention, instead all of it is submerged under the burnished glow of his version of a modernized EC comic book of the frightening fifties.
(The coolest piece of imagination may the newly introduced Johann Krauss, a German ghost hunter who is basically a blast of gas held inside of a diving suit, and whose body movements are credited to two actors (John Alexander and James Dodd). He is voiced (get this) by Family Guy kingpin Seth MacFarlane, and the comic repartee between him and Perlman is truly humorous.)
Director del Toro knows how to stage and choreograph his assaultive pockets of violence, painting it all with baroque brushstrokes, directing it with fanboy passion and a storyteller’s talent. Hellboy II is exquisitely scraggy, low-heeled, and bursting with comic book vividness, a true summer movie treat both knowingly entertaining and solidly amusing.


The newest offering from the smarty-pants at Pixar aims a bit higher than the aforementioned feisty sights and sounds of Guillermo del Toro and his Hellboy II. In fact, right from the gitgo it’s obvious that director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has lofty goals with WALL-E, goals a bit beyond the usual Pixar mix of fully conceived storytelling and exquisitely textured computer animation. WALL-E, while masquerading as a prestige family film, is a well-realized cautionary tale and an eerily poignant love story told through the most tactile Pixar animation yet.
The movie begins on an earth that’s seemingly become one infinite trash heap. Amidst the skyscrapers of trash, the abandoned autos, the burned-out warehouse husks, are huge mega-billboards still blinking their messages into the void. Through the silence one hears the whirring click-clack of the last robot standing, a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth-class (WALL-E) for short, as it/he goes about his daily Sisyphean task, compacting the junky entrails of commercialism gone to seed.
The sustained tone of these opening sequences-which continue through a sudden intrusion of new robot life called EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegatation Evaluator), is some of the most neatly and deliciously pure elegiac cinema that I’ve seen in some time. The juxtaposition of garbage and found junk (a Rubik’s cube, a toaster, an old videotape of Hello, Dolly!), the stark contrast of a planet devoid of humanity inhabited by a machine sparking with touches of personality, and the sense of a small (mechanical) breath of hope peeking through a ravaged dystopian landscape is both a superb rendering of silent film magic and that rare type of animated film that actually makes you forget that what you are watching is not human flesh roving around an actual (or man-made) landscape.
Stanton (who also co-wrote A Bug’s Life, and both Toy Story movies), despite the fact that this is foremost a children’s film, is bold and smart enough to draw all of this slowly, almost languidly, an approach so alien to the contempo desire for crash-bang speed and aural aggression that it unfolds with a spellbinding wonder. When the movie (and plot) zoom into space and churns into a canny parody of consumerism run amuck Stanton picks up the pace yet it doesn’t zip his tale into the frenetic zone, nor does he allow the high-tech cautionary tale veer down the path of muddy sentimentality. Evoking one or two of the Disney classics, WALL-E is an animated feature simultaneously dense and effortlessly simple, one languorous yet invigorating, an intangibly resounding bit of computer generated cinema.

No comments: