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A New Look at "Hellboy"
There's a new trailer out for the sequel to Guillermo del Toro's 2004 "Hellboy," which made me remember the original. I saw it in the theaters back when it was released, and frankly, didn't like it very much. Seeing the new trailer, and given del Toro's new found fame and recognition from the success of "Pan's Labyrinth," I felt compelled to give "Hellboy" another try.
My main complaint with "Hellboy" is more theological and philosophical than stylistic. Spiritually speaking, I don't proscribe to the traditional Catholic belief that we are born into sin. I believe that people are fundamentally good, and become evil through their choices. So the idea of a hero who comes from hell, who is fundamentally bad, who then chooses to be good doesn't really jive with my sense of the human experience. Consequently, I didn't walk away from the film, having one of those profound spiritual experiences like I've had from movies like "The Matrix" or "2001: A Space Odyssey."
But on this latest viewing I tried to set aside this more philosophical complaint and examine the film on a more entertainment level. Technically speaking, I enjoyed the film a lot this time around. Stylistically, it's near perfect film-making.
Del Toro, as shown in "Pan's Labyrinth," has a real gift for creating unique creatures and monsters. Every villain, monster, and character in "Hellboy" is fascinating. There's an almost abstractness to their design that makes them feel like they're out of a very strange dream- like/fairy tale.
The special effects are top notch. Special effects shouldn't draw too much attention to themselves. Sometimes filmmakers can overreach and the effects look cheesy. This movie blends both old and new methods, creating a film that draws you in rather than reminding you that you're watching something fake. I appreciate that Hellboy is acted by a real actor, wearing prosthetics, which always looks better than even the best CGI.
I really enjoyed the Hellboy character this time around as well. He's sarcastic, insecure, funny, sensitive, and tough. I really got a kick out of his little scene where he's trying to write a love letter to Liz and he asks, "What's a good word for need?" His staggering love- sickness over Liz is one of the most human and endearing aspects to his character. I also like his common muttering of, "Crap!" in the face of very large and scary monsters.
The "Hellboy" script has great pacing as well. It's not too short, not too long. It just clips along like a good action flick should, always understandable, always inventive, always fun. This is a good old-fashioned B-movie.
If "Hellboy" resonated on a spiritual level, it would be a great film. Without viable spiritual depth, it remains good entertainment. Not a bad accomplishment nonetheless.
The Kingdom (2007)
Two Movies Don't Quite Succeed
"The Kingdom" opens with the most stylish, concise, yet somewhat shorthanded history of the Middle East I've ever seen on film. It should be called, "Middle Eastern Politics for Dummies."
There are two movies here. One is trying to be an intelligence expose on a political situation, like Stephen Gaghan's vastly superior "Traffic" or "Syriana." The other is trying to be a Tom Clancy action flick. Both succeed halfway.
The problem really lies in the beginningwell, pretty much the first three fourths of the film. The story requires that a team of FBI specialists get sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate a horrible terrorist attack on American citizens. When they get there, they are stonewalled by a system that hasn't really invited them to participate. So they pretty much sit there, waiting for the Saudi's to let them do something. Writer, Matthew Michael Carnahan, isn't quite sure what to do with the story during this period. How do you make inaction interesting?
The story starts to juice up though when Jamie Fox's character sweet talks the Saudi prince into letting them participate in the investigation. This is at about the hour mark. We get to see the forensic expertise of this cracker-jack team go into work, and then we have something interesting to watch.
And with about a half an hour left in the movie, things really get going. There's an ambush on their motorcade of Suburbans, which happens to be traveling at 150 miles an hour down the Saudi freeway. After an enormous crash of flames one of their team is kidnapped by the terrorists, I'll leave you to guess which onethey had to take the pretty white boy with the smart mouth and the rock t-shirt on. The team then shifts into hot pursuit to recapture their comrade. What follows is one of the most intense gun battle sequences I've seen on film. It pretty much makes the first hour and fifteen minutes worth it.
The movie ends with a nice commentary on hate and revenge, and how that may play into the current conflict that the United States faces with the Middle East. It isn't really a well- earned point, which is sad because if it had been earned it could have made this a solid film experience, beyond one great action sequence.
Waking Life (2001)
A New Type of Art Form
It's hard to imagine that a movie this deep and with this much substance could be overshadowed, not by its depth, but by it's simple visceral quality. If Linklater had decided to film "Waking Life" straight, he would have had a darn good art film that poses all the big questions of the universe. But he decided to go one step further.
He employed a team of animators, using a computer program, who animate in rotoscopic fashion on top of each frame. The effect is different than animation and different than film. He shot the initial footage with a hand held video camera. The result is a frame that is constantly shaking a little. This, along with the animation, creates a sensation that things are constantly shifting and changing and pulsing with life.
Because the film process used real actors to inspire the animation, you get the subtle expressions and moments of life that can't be faked by animatorsthe movement of a cheek, the swatting of a fly, the double take. This technique has been used since then with "Lord of the Rings" and is becoming a standard technique as seen in "Beowulf." But at the time, in 2001, this was groundbreaking.
Another fun attribute of the animation is the license to experiment that the animators are given. They add little embellishments, like animating in the air the objects that are being discussed. At one point, while discussing clouds, the characters turn into clouds. Additionally, the animators constantly change animation styles to fit the moods and subjects of the scene. This creates an experience that is always viscerally interesting and surprising at each new turn.
On a substance level, the movie starts out completely random, to the point where you don't really think there's an actual story going on. But at a certain point, you realize that there is a plotthe main character is caught in a series of dreams and he's trying to wake up. This creates a narrative hook that pushes us through the end.
All said and done, no movie is as artificial and as alive as "Waking Life." This is, of course, a metaphoric illustration of the movie's point. Watching "Waking Life" for the first time was like experiencing a new and very powerful type of art form that had never existed before. Because of this, I can't just mildly suggest this film. It isn't just a great movie or even a unique movie. It's an experience that is unlike anything I've ever had. This is a film one absolutely, without excuse, must see. It's an artistic masterpiece that goes even beyond the great occurrences of motion picture.
Anderson Succeeds In Spite of Critical Hammering
This movie got really hit hard by the critics, being immediately dubbed as a huge disappointment. This is due primarily to the fact that the joy and brilliance of any Anderson film can't be truly appreciated in one viewing. I remember seeing Bill Murray on a talk show say that he had just seen the movie for the third time and had just realized that Anderson had nailed the film.
The problem and joy of Wes Anderson movies is that they must be seen more than once to even begin to be understood, and in many cases, to be enjoyed. They typically amuse me the first time around but I rarely get them. They become increasingly funnier, however, the more times that I see them. Anderson gets a lot of his humor out of going against the conventions, avoiding the big and easy comic payoff's, and being funny by doing what one wouldn't expect to be funny. And I also begin to enjoy the films more when I start to get my brain around the themes that he's exploring. They're usually so delicately suggested that it takes a while to really understand what he is indeed saying.
Anderson totally delivers on everything one could hope from this movie. In fact, this may be one my favorite of his films. It has really grown on me. I can watch it over and over again, and it is always entertaining.
My fond feelings toward it are due primarily to the fact that this is Anderson's version of an action/adventure movie, a genre I've enjoyed since childhood. I didn't realize that this was in fact an action movie, however, until Steve Zissou takes back his ship from the pirates in an Iggy and the Stooges sound-tracked blaze of gunfire and explosions. The excitement escalates as they set sail on a mission to rescue the bond company stooge. This genre reflects the theme of the film, that life is an adventure. Consequently, it becomes a movie that is emotionally charged by child-like desires of film, while satisfying my intellectual adulthood through its unconventionality and intelligent ideas.
I can relate to this film in many ways. For me, success was easy when I was young, but as an early adult, I was dismayed by the challenges and disappointments that can easily occur. Failure became a real possibility. I no longer looked at the world with wide-eyed optimism and I lost my enjoyment in it. It wasn't until I accepted the bad with the good and kept persevering that I was able to be happy and successful again.
I think this is a universal experience, whether it happens to a child, teenager, young adult, or middle-aged adult. Disillusionment can take all of the fun out of the adventure of life. When truly thrown into the challenges of life, when success doesn't come easily, when happiness must be fought fordepression, sadness, and lethargy can result. It isn't until one accepts the good and bad of adventure that one is able to get back into the swing of life and find success again, and in essence, find adventure.
At the end of the "The Life Aquatic," Zissou accepts both the happiness and sadness of adventure, and in so doing finds a sense of satisfaction, purpose, rebirth, and success. And we as an audience are both enlightened and entertained from witnessing it.
The Shining (1980)
Why The Shining is the Best Horror Film Ever
I've never been a big horror fan, but I think I'm converting. Knowing the legendary status of "The Shining" I chose to watch it on Halloween. I was not disappointed. It's become one of my all time favorite films. I think I enjoyed it as much as I did because it wasn't a simple horror/slasher film. What blew me away was Kubrick's mastery of genre and his ability to incorporate so many different genre conventions into one story.
Here are some reasons why I think "The Shining" is the Best Horror Film Ever (Contains spoilers):
It creates iconic surrealistic images. I will never forget Jack Nicholson hitting the door with the ax, or chasing his son through the maze, or Danny riding his big wheel through the halls.
It is also an adventure with a sort of happy ending. The driving momentum of the story is the hope the audience has that Danny and Wendy Torrance will somehow escape the madness. Danny in particular becomes the protagonist that we are rooting for, caught in a crazy adventure that may be a nightmare for him to experience, but is thrilling for us to witness. He must use both his special power and ultimately his wits to save himself and his mother. He saves them with his power by calling the chef who brings them the snow cat. And he saves them by his wits by outrunning Nicholson in the maze. When all is said and done, it's a satisfying adventure.
It is also a sci-fi fantasy where the hero has a secret power that gives him some sort of edge in this creepy struggle. Credit for this must go to Steven King, a master of sci-fi horror. By giving the boy supernatural powers it gives him a fighting chance against the horror.
It's the best ghost story I can think of. Ghosts in the movie look like real people, making them that much more creepy. Seeing a ghost all translucent and obviously a ghost would hardly be scary because we'd know that they are a ghost. It's the fact that they look real but we know logically that they aren't real that makes them scary. I loved the friendly and cordial British caretaker who slowly reveals his evil madness and gradually influences Jack.
It has a slow measured pace, but always stays interesting and entertaining. It's a consistent slow burn. I really don't know how Kubrick does it. He creates a movie that is relatively slow by today's standards, yet the movie doesn't feel like an old film with a plodding pace. It's constantly interesting and continuously revealing tidbits of info, and so compelling in the performances, that we are sitting on the edge of our seat the entire time, wanting to know what's going to happen next.
It's more scary than gory. Kubrick relies more on mood, odd/surrealistic images, and brilliant cinematography than gore to make the movie creepy. The parts that are gory are quick and intense flash cuts, given by supernatural revelation. And they aren't typically gross but unusually gross. For example, the only thing grosser than a rotting woman is an old ugly naked rotting woman.
It's a unique take on the "Haunted Mansion" genre. Rather than choosing a stereotypically scary hotel, like "Psycho" or "The Haunting" it creates a big luxurious ski lodge, where the horror is lingering somewhere in the big vast spaces and corridors. In other words, Kubrick creates fear out of an environment we've likely experienced, where there's nothing overtly scary, but covertly, our imaginations due us in. We've all been to hotels and motels, and there's something intrinsically creepy about being in a place with so much unknown history. The imagined horrors are far scarier than anything that could be depicted.
It has a certain logic that gets more and more hazy as the film descends into madness. Kubrick gives a lot of exposition in the beginning of the movie, laying the ground rules for everything that is to come. We understand that the child has a supernatural gift for seeing things and hearing things. We know the chef shares that power. We know that the hotel has some bad things that are lingering and haunting the place, namely the vicious murder of a caretaker's family. We know that there's a history of mild domestic violence in the Torrance family. Everything plays out through its set-up, while creating more questions than it answers. Like, what is really making Nicholson go mad? What is the blood rushing out of the elevators? Who's the rotting woman in the room? Why exactly is Jack going mad? And eventually, we wonder why Jack's image is seen in a picture from the 20's. The logic keeps the adventure and suspense grounded and the audience involved, while the mystery keeps the horror alive.
The movie doesn't rely on conventional camera tricks to scare us. Most of what we think is scary in horror films is really surprise. You know the feeling. You're sitting in the theater and suddenly something comes out of nowhere and the entire audience jumps, screams, and then laughs. But there's nothing to laugh about in "The Shining." Kubrick is so confidant that his story is genuinely scary, he doesn't have to trick us into thinking we're scared.
In the end, what is horror? Horror is facing the illogical nature of madness and being trapped in it. Our dreams are the most illogical experiences that we encounter on a regular basis, so it makes sense that he would tap into that collective experience for this film. I can't think of a film that better expresses what it feels like to be in a nightmare than this film.
Garden State (2004)
25 Reasons People Love "Garden State"
Perhaps the quintessential example of the new "hipster indie flick" genre is Zach Braff's "Garden State." This movie, like many others in the genre, got good but not stellar reviews. But because it ended up defining a generation of emo-angst-ridden youth, it will likely be remembered in years to come as a classic worth comparing to "The Graduate."
Zach Braff plays the male protagonist who must stop using mood-altering medication prescribed by his caring but overly controlling psychiatrist father, played by Ian Holm. His journey of self discovery is precipitated by the untimely death of his mother, which sends him back to his home state, allowing him the opportunity to meet every man's fantasy of a quirky but harmless romantic partner (Natalie Portman). This journey leads him to the discovery that it's better to be awake and facing life, while simultaneously experiencing pain and happiness.
Zach Braff's screenplay feels like a film school scriptIt's a random assortment of vignettes, clearly composed out of wild stories overheard at frat parties. Yet he manages to pull the disparate anecdotes together with creativity and skill. As a director, Braff also shows a knack for creating simple dioramic shots that tell jokes in their compositionBraff standing in a room wallpapered in paisley, while wearing a shirt made from the same material.
His other, perhaps inadvertent contribution to the pantheons of pop culture is his production of a soundtrack, taken casually off of his iPod (just the songs he was digging at the time), creating a big selling album and a new genre of music that I like to call Garden State Sountracky.
I recently did a viewing of the film and jotted down some observations of the film's successes, which I like to call the 25 reasons why people love "Garden State":
1. It starts with the protagonist going down in a plane, but he's so drugged up he turns on the air. Flash to real life, in a sterile room and bed. Great beginning. Very "The Graduate." 2. There's all these weird scenes like the gas nozzle and the paisley room and the faucets that keep turning on that seem unearthly, but they fit into the logic of the story. 3. There's something funny about the way that he treats the serious. 4. People say harsh things in subtle and normal way. 5. The soundtrack is one of the best soundtracks ever. 6. It almost has an odyssey sort of feel, like they're on a quest for philosophical truth, but don't know where the journey is going to take them. 7. It captures what it's like to grow up and what we hope growing up is like. 8. It's a cavalcade of eccentric characters. 9. It deals with the self-medication of America, a theme that so many people can relate to. 10. Surreal little jokes like "Balls" 11. The whole knight sequence really resonates on the American dream of adventure and achievement, marketed as fast food. 12. The whole meet-cute scene is so well written in that does what a meet-cute should do without being too cheesy. 13. It's filled with cuteness like Natalie Portman's laugh. 14. Portman's character is flawed as a compulsive liar but perfectly sweet and good, harmless, and safe in a magically endearing waymaking her the perfect girl that every guy and girl is going to fall in love with. 15. Interesting use of music with "The Shins," the way it casually introduces a great band that no one knew about at the time. There's something cool about being introduced to an unknown band. 16. Little visual jokes like the doctor's certificate on the sealing. 17. Portman's family does a great job of creating that crazy, cluttered, hectic, irreverent, yet perfectly homey family that everyone wishes they had. 18. The dialog moves in a random but natural way so it feels very real, but also heightened because the dialog is so interesting and insightful and strong. 19. The whole movie manages to be both "emo" to the kids that are emo because of the strong and real emotions involved, and not emo in the way that it doesn't seem to be over the top by earning it's laughs and tears. 20. It spends plenty of time on the characters talking so we really get a strong sense of who they are and why they are. 21. Braff chooses great little shots where nothing needs to be said, and the idea has been communicated visually, like when everyone is staring at him in the pool. 22. They do a really great job revealing the deep dark sad stories of their lives, without it feeling like these people are constantly talking about deep and personal things. 23. It creates new iconic images-the three main characters on the motorcycle. 24. We really take it seriously with someone like Ian Holm in a strong supporting role. It gives the film credibility to movie critics and buffs. His character is well written and extremely well played. 25. It has an ending that is traditional in that it's optimistic and romantic, while also being understated and not too gooeyaccentuated by the perfect music.