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Selma Blair

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Hell is Crowded. So is Hellboy II.

Give the devil his due: I said of the underwhelming Hellboy in 2004 (which I watched again last week, and remained underwhelmed by) that hopefully, like Bryan Singer and the X-Men series, Guillermo del Toro would be able to work out the kinks in time for the sequel. Well, four years have passed, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army is now upon us. And the verdict? Well, HB-II: TGA is by almost every reckoning a brisker, more confident, and more satisfying movie than its predecessor. (I say “almost” because, with the transition from Nazis and Lovecraft to the World of Warcraft, Hellboy seems slightly out of his milieu this time.) That being said, I felt The Golden Army, while entertaining throughout, didn’t quite cohere for me as a film: It plays more like a sprawling collection of fun ideas, haphazardly strung together, than a movie of a piece. Now, originality goes a long way, and I’ll give del Toro bonus points for really letting his freak flag fly this time ’round. (If nothing else, HB-II occasionally seems like a test FX-reel for The Hobbit.) Still, while I was impressed by the breadth of del Toro’s imagination, I can’t say I ever felt absorbed by it. For whatever reason, and not for lack of trying, Hellboy II: The Golden Army left me reasonably amused and distracted for two hours, and not much else.

The films begins with a stop-motion fairy tale. As a (goofily-designed) preadolescent in 1955, Hellboy was told the tale of the Golden Army, an unstoppable goblin-forged force commanded by an elven king in his war against that teeming, grasping nuisance, humanity. But dismayed by the carnage wrought, said king ultimately decided to sign a truce with humankind — men get the cities, elves get the forests — much to the consternation of his son, Prince Nuada. Cut to the present day: The humans have, as WALL-E foreshadowed, plowed through the forests for their strip malls and parking lots, and thus Nuada (Luke Goss) has returned to fight the ancient war anew.

But, standing in his way, for better or worse, are the motley protectors of humankind, the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development). Among their number, the kindly, bookish fish-man Abraham Sapien (Doug Jones, not too far removed from Threepio), the powerful pyrokinetic Liz Sheridan (Selma Blair, all blue fire and bedroom eyes), and, of course, Big Red himself, the kitty-loving, cigar-chomping spawn of Lucifer, Hellboy (Ron Perlman, clearly having fun). But, one must ask, in a war between the freaks and the humans, why are Hellboy et al on the side of the latter, particularly when mankind seems to fear and despise their lot? Clearly, the BPRD gang have some considerations to make.

That’s arguably the main thread of Hellboy II, but there’s quite a bit else going on — too much, in fact. Y’see, Hellboy very much wants to take the team public, and he and Liz are having some space issues, and Liz has a secret of her own, and Abe may have met the (elvish) girl of his dreams, and, along with last film’s comic relief (Jeffrey Tambor), there’s a new freak in town, an ectoplasmic German martinet named Johann Krauss (Seth McFarlane, of Family Guy). Oh, and let’s not forget the Troll Market (a showy cantina-style setpiece in the middle going), a (IMHO, strained) Barry Manilow musical number, and even an encounter with the Angel of Death.

Now some might rightly argue that I’m looking the gift hellspawn in the maw here, and that one should just sit back and relish the cornucopia of imaginative riches on display. Fair enough — There are some memorable images throughout (I particularly liked the autumn of the elemental), and this is miles more interesting than, say, The Incredible Hulk. But I still think the movie would’ve been more captivating had it been less episodic. Despite the many innovative ideas on display, The Golden Army — much like Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — at times feels more like a notebook dump than a movie. (But as I said, if this what it takes for del Toro to clear the mental decks pre-Hobbit, I’m all for it.)

Nevertheless, if Hellboy was too little, and Hellboy II turned out to be too much, I’d still probably be up for a Hellboy 3, several years from now, on the other side of Middle Earth. Particularly if it goes back to plumbing the Cthulhian depths suggested in the original, the third film could end up being juussst riiight.

Kael’thas called. He wants his look back.

It’s the Burning Legion vs. the forces of Tempest Keep, with the U.S. of A. caught in the middle, in the full trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Looks like a healthy dollop of summer fun, if nothing else.

The Devil You Know.

“We have company.” Big Red, Selma, Pa Bluth, Abe Sapien, & co are back fighting Cthulhuian monstrosities (and what look to be Warcraft blood elves) in the new trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I said of the first one that del Toro deserves another chance to tell a crackling Hellboy story without being burdened with all the origin stuff. So, hopefully, this’ll be more fun from the word go.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

In the Company of Men.

Contrary to his admission in Ocean’s 12, I’m happy to report that Topher Grace did not in fact “phone in that Dennis Quaid movie.” In fact, he, Quaid, and much of the supporting cast make In Good Company a sometimes saccharine but ultimately worthwhile evening at the movies. Like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Todd Louiso, Grace is great at bringing to life characters that we all know in real life but rarely see onscreen, and his turn here as aspiring but well-meaning corporate shark Carter Duryea is no exception. And Quaid, who’s slowly taken on a rugged, masculine resonance in his middle-aged period — sorta like Harrison Ford 6-8 years ago — is equally good as displaced and disgruntled ad sales exec Dan Foreman (probably one of the most goofily symbolic character names since Tom Hanks’ “Chuck Noland” in Cast Away.)

In fact, that “Foreman” gimmick is probably the main problem with In Good Company. It’s painted in broad strokes, and at times, the scriptwriting wheels grind so loudly in this so-warmhearted-its-dopey flick that it took me right out of the film. Quaid’s Foreman doesn’t just love his job — he loves his job, with an intensity and naivete that’s, if not unbecoming, at least unrealistic in a guy his age. Similarly, Grace’s overcaffeinated, underexperienced Duryea seems to know instinctively he’s trodding the wrong path from the get-go, which kills what little uncertainty we had about where the story is going. The one real bad guy (Clark Gregg) is really bad, Duryea’s self-absorbed trophy wife (Selma Blair) is really self-absorbed (their foyer is a shrine to her image), and so on. (Scarlett Johansson, rounding out the top bill as Quaid’s daughter and Grace’s post-Blair love interest, is at turns girlish and womanly as the script necessitates…and I didn’t find her believable at all. Then again, I’ll admit, Lost in Translation notwithstanding, I’m starting to find Johansson as annoyingly mannered as Jeremy Davies on his bad days.)

To be fair to In Good Company, my taste in corporate satire runs closer to Brazil, Office Space, The Office, Glengarry Glen Ross, and In the Company of Men than it does to films like this one, which I think almost undoubtedly speaks worse of me than it does this movie. As he also showed in the surprisingly moving About a Boy, writer-director Paul Weitz is magnanimous to a fault with his characters — at times, he doesn’t seem to want to think badly of any of them. And, particularly with Grace, Quaid, and role players like David Paymer working their mojo, In Good Company‘s kindness is contagious — Annoyed by the sugary-sweetness of it all at first, I found myself slowly and inexorably won over by the movie in the middle hour. By the time Quaid speaks truth to power (in the form of Malcolm McDowell’s Murdoch-like Teddy K) in the final act, I knew the movie was selling me a seriously implausible view of just desserts and the corporate life. But, ultimately, I didn’t mind so much.
Just as the film condemns globalization and “synergy” while throwing in more gratuitous product placements per minute than I’ve seen in some time, In Good Company nevertheless eventually won me over with its generosity of spirit. As Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute, and by the end, I was another satisfied customer.

Hell Hath No Fury.

Well, I’ve only read a handful of issues of the comic over the years, but I could tell Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy looks and feels just about perfect. You can’t really ask for a better Big Red than Ron Perlman here, and John Hurt always brings class to the equation. The film’s got Rasputin, both post-dead Nazi ninjas and evil blonde Nazi temptresses (a.k.a Darth Maul and Indy 3‘s Ilsa Schneider respectively), and even heavy shades of the Cthulhu mythos. What more should a fanboy desire?

And yet, perhaps it was due to a post-orals energy slump, but I found the movie kinda slow and uninvolving. The curse of any first comic movie is the origin stuff (although in Spiderman at least, that turned out to be the best part of the film), and here I thought all of the backstory and character introductions took just a little too long. Then we have Hellboy beating up Sammael the Hellhound over and over again for an hour, followed by a rather cheesy and nonsensical third act in Russia (with heavy borrowing from the Temple of Doom this time, and particularly when Agent Myers has his rosary moment…soon Kali Ma will rule the world!) I probably enjoyed Hellboy most when it was pushing the unfathomable evils of Lovecraft angle, but tuned out slightly whenever it was time to punch out another hellhound, which, sadly, was most of the movie.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Hellboy. The acting was good all around, and, really, it’s undoubtedly going to be better than 4 out of 5 comic movies this year (Case in point: The Punisher.) Still, while I wasn’t expecting as lyrical as The Devil’s Backbone, I was expecting a popcorn film as fun as Blade II…and in that category, I thought Hellboy was somewhat wanting. Then again, it took a second go for Bryan Singer to get the X-Men popping, so perhaps Del Toro can cut to the chase in a Hellboy 2.

Trailers A-Plenty.

Emptying out the trailer bin today, we’ve got the new Prisoner of Azkaban teaser (not appreciably different than the last preview, but still looks better than the Chris Columbus movies), a second look at Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (Denzel + little girl + slo-mo explosions = ?), the new clip for The Punisher (Much better than the last one, but I still doubt I’ll see it), and a new TV spot for The Passion of the Hellboy (Nobody likes robot Nazis.)

Hell and Thunder.

In the trailer bin this morning, a quicktime version of Hellboy (still looks intriguing but possibly LXG-ish) and a first look at Thunderbirds. Farscape is my sci-fi puppet show of choice, so I can’t say this much appeals to me…but then again, the original is way before my time.

Hell hath no fury.

The trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy, one of the more eagerly awaited fanboy projects out there, is now online. I’m actually not all that familiar with the comic, so to my mind this could go either way. It’s hard to go wrong with John Hurt against souped-up Nazi evil, but some of the effects look mighty CGI. We’ll see.

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