Posts Tagged ‘Guillermo del Toro’

If you’re one of those people who takes their cinema seriously, sooner or later you develop a list of directors who you follow – you keep an eye out for a new film and do your best to get to see it. Sometimes, though, you find yourself having seen most of someone’s filmography without having consciously made an effort to. So it is with me and Guillermo del Toro – I always feel slightly smug about having gone along to del Toro’s debut, Cronos, at the art house in Hull. Didn’t see Mimic or The Devil’s Backbone, I admit, but after that I’ve pretty much seen the lot, with the exception of Crimson Peak. This is usually the point at which I mention my regret at the del Toro films I haven’t seen, because they haven’t been made – his take on the Hobbit trilogy, and his adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Having won Best Picture for his last film, The Shape of Water, you might have expected that the world would have been at del Toro’s feet and he would finally have managed to persuade a major studio to finance the Lovecraft movie. But no. (The latest word seems to be that the director is looking to do a version of the story with Netflix.) Considering that his past work has been nothing if not eclectic – it includes an idiosyncratic take on the vampire myth, one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations of the 2000s, a magic-realist fable about the Spanish Civil War and a big-budget homage to Japanese tokusatsu movies – it’s pushing it to describe any new project of his as an unexpected choice, but Nightmare Alley very nearly qualifies.

Nightmare Alley started life as a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham; the 1947 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power is not especially well-regarded or well-known – I had no awareness of it until the advertising for the new movie started to appear. Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, whom we first meet burying a body under the floors of a remote farmhouse, which he then proceeds to burn down. Clearly he is a man with a Past. He leaves all of this far behind and travels across the country, eventually finding himself drawn to the bright lights and questionable pleasures of a travelling carnival.

Carlisle persuades the proprietor of the carny, Clem (Willem Dafoe), to give him a job, and he makes friends amongst his new co-workers – fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner, alcoholic former mind-reader Pete (David Strathairn). He also finds himself very much drawn to the carnival’s ‘electric girl’, Molly (Rooney Mara). Carlisle’s quick wit and natural savvy leads him to quickly discover many of the dark secrets on which the functioning of a carnival is based, but one eludes him – Pete’s old code-book, the basis of a potentially brilliant and lucrative act. Pete refuses to share it, insisting it is dangerous – successful mentalists invariably start to believe they really have special gifts, which inevitably results in a sorry downfall. But that won’t happen to Carlisle – will it?

As I mentioned, virtually all of del Toro’s past projects have been tied to the horror and fantasy genres one way or another, so it is a little unusual to find him at the helm of a psychological thriller with a distinctly noirish edge to it (indeed, a special edition of Nightmare Alley in black and white played a few engagements just to emphasise the connection). However, this is a thriller with particularly grotesque and macabre elements to it – the story itself is a cautionary tale of hubris and nemesis, the dark side of human nature and the underbelly of the entertainment industry, but del Toro’s handling of it takes it right to the edge of being an actual horror story in earnest.

Certainly, in the carny-set portion of the story, which makes up the first half of the film, there are various subtle references to Tod Browning’s Freaks, almost as you might expect, but these take the form of half-glimpsed things in pits and cages and assorted bottled nasties, rather than the actual human deformities so prominent in the 1932 film. It feels very much like a gothic melodrama, populated by all the stock characters you might expect – though brought to life with great skill by script and performers.

Only in the second act of the story does it really begin to resemble a film noir in earnest – Carlisle finds himself moving in higher echelons of society, only to find that the possession of wealth and taste does not necessary make their owners any less flawed or morally compromised. Here we find Cate Blanchett, seemingly channeling Veronica Lake as she gives a magnificent performance as a crooked shrink, and a rather scary Richard Jenkins as a millionaire with a dark past. It seems like there’s little to connect the two parts of the story, but this is a smartly structured script – the first half is carefully setting up everything that will happen later. The result is a film which develops a powerful sense of its own inevitable momentum – you know that things are going to go wrong, and go wrong bloodily, and the canny viewer will likely also be able to figure out well in advance what the final pay-off of the film is.

Del Toro handles proceedings with his usual powerful visual sense and aptitude for atmosphere, and the film is well-played by its ensemble. In some ways it does resemble a traditional awards-season studio movie – a lavish period-set adaptation with an all-star cast, and nobody taking an extended nap or having sex with a car – but it also has the slightly askew feel to it of the director’s other work, as well as being a skillful genre pastiche. On paper it sounds like an oddity more than anything else, a coming together of various talents, ideas, and sources that don’t sounds especially cohesive. But the result is a film which is always striking to look at, and quickly becomes an enthralling, if dark, story. Del Toro’s great achievement with The Shape of Water was to dress up an obviously derivative fantasy-horror story in such arty trappings that the academy voters forgot they were giving the Best Picture Oscar to a genre movie. I could imagine something similar happening with this movie too.

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Someone has rescheduled the apocalypse! Although, of course, in this as everything else, getting the timing right is crucial. Take sequels, for instance: just what is the optimum time to release a follow-up to a movie? Conventional wisdom seems to be that a gap of two to three years is best. Much less than that, and you start to risk possible audience fatigue – it seems to me that the imminently forthcoming singleton stellar conflict movie is the subject of rather less febrile anticipation than one might expect, which may be because it’s been less than six months since the last one (although the mixed response to last year’s offering may also be an issue). Leave it too long, on the other hand, and you run the risk of audiences (or even the film-makers) forgetting the original movie entirely, which seems to me to be a very real issue that the four – yes, you read that right – planned Avatar sequels will have to deal with (we’re still well over two years away from the first of these coming out).

It’s nearly five years since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a film which was reasonably well-reviewed – partly, I suspect, because del Toro is the kind of well-liked director whom critics occasionally indulge – but which didn’t exactly make a humungous pile of dough at the time. Nevertheless, possibly because the first film was particularly successful in the important Asian market (hardly surprising, given the whole thing was a love-letter to certain aspects of Japanese pop culture), a sequel has finally clanked into view: Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

The film is set ten years after the original, and focuses mainly on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of the characters from first time round. As things get underway, Jake is a bit of a rascal, making a living as a wheeler-dealer in giant robot parts in the lawless areas left devastated by giant monster attacks (the giant robots are also known as jaegers, as I’m sure you recall). However, he and his young friend Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are eventually nabbed by the cops and his foster sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offers him a stark choice: come back to the giant robot defence programme to help train new pilots, or go to prison. Back to the giant robot defence programme it is, then.

There is inevitably some sparring between Jake and his co-pilot Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and tension between Amara and the other trainees, but then it looks like the current generation of machines will all be decommissioned soon anyway – a Chinese megacorporation is set to unveil a new series of remote-controlled jaegers, although there are still some doubts about this new idea. Soon everyone has bigger worries, however, as a defence council meeting is disrupted by a devastating attack from an unidentified rogue jaeger. But who is behind this new threat, and what is their ultimate objective?

Now, it has to be said that Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie which an uncharitable person might suggest comes with a couple of strikes against it before we even get to the story. Quite apart from the fact it’s taken its time arriving, there is that title, which is perhaps more redolent of a gastric complaint than an all-action sci-fi adventure (‘Darling, I hate to say this but I seem to be having a bit of an uprising in my pacific rim’ – ‘Oh dear, I knew there was something funny about that quinoa that came with our avocado toast’), and also the fact that this is one of those sequels where nearly all the key personnel from the first movie have moved on: Charlie Hunnam couldn’t participate, due to his being busy with that bonkers King Arthur movie, Rinko Kikuchi’s appearance is very brief, Idris Elba does not show up at all (although, to be fair, he was vaporised at the end of the first film), and del Toro limits himself to producing and being a ‘visual consultant’, presumably because he was busy with his fishy romance while this film was in production. Pretty much the only folk carrying on as before are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the comedy boffins.

In the place of the departed people, we get DeKnight, whose first movie this is as director, and Boyega and Eastwood, two actors really best known for playing sidekicks in other, more successful franchises. There are also a bunch of young actors playing jaeger-pilot cadets, whose presence really makes it clear that this film is aimed much more at a YA audience than the first one. So you could be excused for expecting the worst.

However, and I am rather surprised to find myself typing these words, Pacific Rim: Uprising is actually a huge heap of fun, and manages to be one of those rare movies which actually gets better as it goes on. Initially there is a lot of stuff with people talking about drones, and John Boyega cracking wise (I would venture to suggest that I do not think John Boyega is as cool or funny as John Boyega thinks he is, but then I’m not producing the movie), and some slightly sub-Ender’s Game stuff with the young cadets, but then the giant robots start bashing lumps out of each other in downtown Sydney and you suddenly remember what this movie is about.

You don’t come to Pacific Rim: Uprising for finely-observed characterisation, intense method acting, innovative plotting, or even a story which even makes total sense. You come to this movie for lengthy sequences of enormous robots, monsters, and robot-monster cyborgs repeatedly dinging each other about the head with huge chunks of the nearest skyscraper, and the new movie delivers this in spades. The various battle sequences are at least as good as the ones in the first film, and – rather gloriously – DeKnight breaks with prevailing western film-making dogma and stages most of them in daylight. As a result the whole film looks and feels much more like a traditional Japanese tokusatsu movie, which is surely the point. (The makers of the next couple of American Godzilla movies could learn a lot from this film.)

Set against this, the possible deficiencies in the acting and story department seem to matter a lot less than would otherwise be the case. Most of the acting in this movie consists of running on a treadmill in a plastic Buck Rogers suit while shouting things like ‘Activate plasma wrecking ball!’, anyway. Honourable exceptions go to Day and Gorman, who chew upon the scenery with gusto, and Eastwood, who has enough of his old man’s presence to make an impression in an underwritten part.

On the other hand, there were good things in the first film which just aren’t present here: the sense of a wider world, which has adapted in all kinds of odd ways to the reality of kaiju attacks, is largely missing, and that essential vein of weirdness running through everything del Toro creates is mostly gone as well – although there’s one scene concerned with a character’s personal life that makes The Shape of Water look like a relatively conventional romance, the only moment that really feels like one del Toro had a hand in.

Nevertheless, as pure popcorn blockbusters go, this does what it says on the tin, without feeling crassly formulaic or insulting the intelligence of the audience too much. It manages a decent plot twist at one point, and also manages to do that thing where there’s a major Chinese character (thus allowing them to sell the movie over there) without it seeming especially obvious. Does the plot completely hang together? Well, no, but I’m inclined to cut the film some slack, mainly because it is such pure, inoffensive fun. Many American films have dabbled with ideas and themes from Japanese fantasy films before, with varying degrees of success: Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most successful attempt yet at recreating the energy, colour and simple joy of tokusatsu movies and TV in a western movie, and I hope it meets with the success it deserves.

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It increasingly seems to me that the process by which major movie awards are decided resembles that by which the Catholic Church creates new saints: every aspect of a prospective candidate’s past and character is meticulously examined for doctrinal and moral purity and correctness. Old skeletons are wont to get dragged out of cupboards like nobody’s business. There was much grumbling last year when Casey Affleck eventually won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, given some controversies in his past; the same thing seems likely to impact Gary Oldman’s chances in the same category this year. It’s almost as though the gong is handed out not for the work in question, but their personal conduct throughout their lifetime.

This applies to whole films as much as individuals, although in this case the vetting process can get a bit more abstract: one of the key obstacles which can rise up in a movie’s way is that of plagiarism, however you dress it up. Drawing particular flak in this department at the moment is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. There have been allegations from the family of the writer responsible that this film draws unacceptably heavily from the plot of a TV play entitled Let Me Hear You Whisper. The acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has also weighed in, complaining that del Toro refuses to admit that the movie reuses elements of his own 1991 film Delicatessen.

This is really par for the course for many films these days. What I do find rather surprising is the fact that no-one is really saying much about the fact that The Shape of Water is essentially, if not a remake of Jack Arnold’s classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, then so heavily indebted to it as to have no significant independent identity of its own. Or perhaps it’s just the case that the homage is so very obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning: del Toro was in the frame to direct a remake of Black Lagoon at one point, and his new ideas for the plot were apparently where the idea of The Shape of Water originated. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply inconceivable for many people that an acclaimed critical darling with thirteen Oscar nominations could have been spawned by what’s still perceived as a trashy monster movie.

Del Toro’s movie is set, we are invited to infer, in the early 60s, and primarily concerns the doings of a lonely, mute woman named Elisa (she is played by Sally Hawkins). Her closest friends are the unfulfilled artist in the next apartment (Richard Jenkins) and her work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She seems very ordinary, and only her startling behaviour in the bathtub while waiting for her boiled egg suggests she is a woman of deep passions. (I have to say that even as the opening scenes of the film were sketching in the details of her life, my companion – who was unaware of the whole plagiarism kerfuffle – was saying, ‘Ooh, this is like Amelie‘ – a well-received film directed by, you guessed it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.)

Elisa is a cleaner at a government science facility, and one which shortly embarks on an unusual new research project: a new specimen arrives, captured in the Amazon by relentless intelligence officer Strickland (Michael Shannon) – an aquatic humanoid creature, basically a kind of gill-man (the creature is played by Doug Jones). The gill-man is brutally treated by Strickland and his team, who believe its unique properties can give the US an edge in the space race, but Elisa manages to make a more personal connection with him. When she learns that the gill-man’s life will shortly be put in danger by the demands of the project, Elisa finds she has to take steps to protect him…

Guillermo del Toro is one of those people whose career has shown sporadic flashes of utter brilliance ever since his first film, Cronos, appeared in the middle of the 1990s. Cronos was an iconoclastic vampire movie; he has gone on to make several brilliant superhero-horror movie fusions, the historical fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, and the aspiring Japanese-culture blockbuster Pacific Rim. Even the films he hasn’t made sound unusually enticing: for a long time he was slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy, while his efforts to realise a big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness were ultimately scuppered by the appearance of the similarly-themed Prometheus. Could this be the moment where it all comes together and he produces the classic fantasy movie he has long been threatening to, and receives the accolades he surely deserves?

Well, maybe. There are certainly elements of The Shape of Water that recall earlier films del Toro has worked on: Doug Jones played a broadly similar gill-man character in the two Hellboy films, for instance, while anyone familiar with the wider canon of Lovecraftian horror-fantasy may find certain elements of the new film’s plot are telegraphed just a little too obviously. And if anything other than the homage/plagiarism fuss impacts on The Shape of Water‘s chances of Oscar success, then it’s that this is still very recognisably a genre picture of sorts, unashamedly featuring tropes from horror, fantasy, and monster movies.

Nevertheless, this is still a breathtakingly accomplished film, beautiful to look at, involving in its storytelling, and uniformly superbly acted. Del Toro’s ability to blend different flavours is notable: the general thrust of the advertising for The Shape of Water suggests this is essentially a lushly imagined romantic fantasy, and it certainly functions as such. But on the other hand, I would be very careful about who I took to see this film – the nudity and explicit sexual content is somewhat stronger than you might expect, while the horror element has a much harder, gorier edge than any of the publicity suggests. There are some properly grisly, uncomfortable-to-watch moments as the story progresses.

This is partly a result of the film’s ambitions to be more than just an escapist fantasy film, of course. We are back in Unique Cultural Moment territory here, and it is notable that the film’s main villain is Shannon’s straight-arrow by-the-book career army man, who would probably be the hero of a 50s B-movie. Here, of course, the focus is on the way he insists on dominating anyone around him who is less of a WASP-ish alpha male, and his casual brutality is set in opposition to the general sensitivity and decency of the characters who end up opposing him. The role is written and performed with just enough subtlety for Strickland not to come across as an absolute one-dimensional cut-out, but it remains the case that for me The Shape of Water‘s disparaged-minorities-unite-to-stick-it-to-The-Man subtext is just a little too on the nose. (I’m not sure the musical number in the third act entirely works, either.)

Nevertheless, this is still a tremendously accomplished and highly distinctive film. To tell the truth, I suspect this film may just be a little too far out there, and not overtly political enough, to really succeed with awards jurors in the current atmosphere, but I think it will be very well remembered in years to come. And, given the terrible troubles that Universal have been having, trying to get their monster-based franchise started, I suspect that people there will be seriously regretting not giving del Toro more freedom when he was working on movie ideas for them: it’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone daring to attempt another remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon for many years to come, let alone being so successful.


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One of the less-commented-upon topics arising after the release of Prometheus last year was the fact that it finally killed off Guillermo del Toro’s projected, long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, simply because the two were apparently so similar in terms of narrative and tone. The Lovecraft movie had been in development hell for a while simply because the director and studio couldn’t agree on a budget and certification, but prior to this del Toro had been attached to direct the Hobbit movies, an undertaking he left following another lengthy production delay.

Really shockingly bad luck for a man who, when on his game, can be one of the best directors in the world. Am the only one who would rather have seen At the Mountains of Madness than Prometheus, and del Toro’s Hobbit than Peter Jackson’s? Hey ho. Now, however, he has finally got a movie made: his take on an effects-driven summer blockbuster, in the form of Pacific Rim.


Now, Pacific Rim is a bit of an oddity on a number of levels. First of all, it’s a big summer movie that isn’t a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation of a comic, computer game, or TV series. This is not to say that this isn’t a colossally derivative film, however, which brings us to our second point. Hollywood studios are currently going to great lengths to make their movies attractive to foreign viewers – hence World War Z being rewritten and reshot to avoid offending Russian and Chinese audiences, and Iron Man 3 having extra scenes added to its Chinese release. China is, as they say, where it’s at, and all the studios are trying to crack this new market. Except the makers of Pacific Rim, of course, who have opted to make a film more heavily steeped in the pop culture of Japan than any other release I can recall.

The bulk of the movie is set in the year 2025. For more than a decade the nations around the Pacific have been under attack by giant monsters emerging from a crack between dimensions at the bottom of the ocean. Conventional weapons have proven ineffective against these kaiju (as they have rather cutely been christened), with giant robotic fighting machines piloted by cybernetically-linked crews having been developed instead.

But an inexorable upsurge in the frequency and savagery of kaiju attacks means that even the giant robots are failing to stem the tide. The nations of the world have cut funding to the scheme and are instead placing their faith in the construction of a giant wall around the Pacific Ocean which should hopefully keep the monsters contained (I wouldn’t think too hard about this bit of the plot).

Anyway, the chief of the giant robot defence force (Idris Elba) is refusing to let his project be shut down without having one last go at solving the kaiju problem permanently. To this end he is assembling all the surviving robots and crews in Hong Kong, with a view to launching a counterattack against the monsters at their point of origin. Amongst his pilots is Charlie Hunnam (whose career started, as I recall, with a different sort of rim-related activity in Queer As Folk), a veteran maverick dragged out of retirement for this one last mission. The problem is that his last co-pilot is dead, and he needs a partner to help him drive his robot. Perhaps Elba’s youthful ward, played by the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi, has a few suggestions…

There is, perhaps, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraft about Pacific Rim‘s other-dimensional intruders (for giant monster read Great Old One), but it is very obvious what the inspiration for this movie was: Japanese comics, TV shows, and movies from the 1950s onwards, primarily the Godzilla and Gamera series and their legions of imitators (although the shade of Gerry Anderson may be looking benevolently down upon some aspects of the production). To say that the giant monster genre is somewhat lacking in critical respectability is probably a bit of an understatement, and even the involvement of a director like del Toro is unlikely to provoke much of a reappraisal. Nevertheless, there is surely a primal, innocent joy to be derived from prolonged battle sequences in which gargantuan monsters and robots repeatedly punch each other in the mouth, and the best moments of Pacific Rim deliver this in spades.

That said, it’s a bit disappointing that the first half of the movie is largely a monster-free zone, being much more concerned with the robots and their pilots and the back-stories of the various characters. There is nothing very cutting-edge going on here – as far as the plot and characterisations are concerned, Pacific Rim is painted in broad, crowd-pleasing strokes, featuring a bunch of people who are easy to understand and empathise with, and some straightforward problems and conflicts (solid performances from virtually the entire cast help). One might even say it’s straightforward to the point of being cartoony, particularly where the comic relief boffins are concerned – and there certainly seems to be a degree of national stereotyping going on with some of the characters (the Chinese are aloof and inscrutable, the Russians cold and imperious, and the Australians loud and brash).

That said, I detect something of an influence from Gareth Edwards’ Monsters in the presentation of the casual little details of a world in which attacks by giant monsters have become a fact of life. As you’d expect from del Toro, this is a story taking place in a fully-developed world, and one which I could happily have spent a little more time exploring the fringes of (Ron Perlman inevitably pops up in a juicy cameo as a black marketeer in monster remains).

But this is an adventure story, not a mood piece like Monsters (I’m dying to see what Edwards does with Godzilla himself this time next year), and soon enough there is robot-on-monster action aplenty filling the screen. Personally I found the various kaiju a little bit samey and lacking in personality compared to the likes of Anguillas, Gigan, Gyaos, and their other famous inspirations, but there are sound plot reasons for this and the action itself is spectacular.

Now, the issue of how to film giant monster battles for a modern audience is one with which various directors have grappled over the last couple of decades. The early-90s Godzilla movies stuck to the traditional style and just filmed the monsters full-length – this was, of course, back in the days of suitamation when properly integrating a monster into a scene with ‘real’ (i.e., non-miniature) elements was impossibly expensive. Even the 90s Gamera movies were slow to depart from this, their main innovation (other than the use of CGI) being to experiment with shooting the monsters from much closer and from a lower angle.

The 1998 American Godzilla is not a well-loved movie, with even Godzilla’s Japanese paymasters at Toho making some rather cruel swipes at it in their own films – but it does seem to have been rather influential in number of ways – firstly, of course, it has a fully-CGId monster, but it’s also largely shot from a human’s perspective rather than a monster’s (more low-angle filming) and it isn’t afraid to clutter and obscure the screen during an action sequence. All the classic Japanese monster movies seemed to happen on nice sunny days in relatively wide-open spaces where you could see what was going on – Roland Emmerich’s film largely occurs on dark and stormy nights, and frequently all you see is a giant foot or eye appearing from out of frame.

Del Toro appears to have been influenced by this, as all his major monster sequences take place at night, in the middle of storms, under water, and so on, and it is sometimes a little bit difficult to make out who is doing what to whom and how. There are tantalising glimpses of monster attacks on San Francisco and Sydney taking place in broad daylight, which look stunning, but they’re very brief. For the rest of the time the action occurs in a neon-lit semi-darkness, giving it something of the look of a video game.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking in detail about the history of staging monster battles and how Pacific Rim‘s set pieces compare – and this is, quite simply, because they are the sine qua non of the movie, just as they are that of the genre which inspired it. Does del Toro get them quite right? Well – sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes the action is just a little bit too murky and frenetic to really be as coherent and exciting as it could be. But set against that, the Hong Kong battle that concludes the second act of the film is stunning, and stands up against anything from Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy or the very best of the Godzilla films.

That said, this is still a film about enormous robots and giant monsters repeatedly punching each other in the mouth – a fun, vivid, smart and witty one, with the outstanding battle sequence mentioned above, but still not necessarily a film which will appeal to you if you’re not a monster movie fan to begin with. It is a homage as much as an original film, but it’s an intelligent one that’s taken some pains to have a coherent story and reasonable characterisations underpinning the non-stop special effects. It’s not deep, but neither is it completely vapid. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Pacific Rim is a decent stab at realising a brilliant concept for a movie, rather than a brilliant movie full stop, but I still liked it very much indeed; I hope it does well.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 9th 2004:

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 hyperbole 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. [I was taken to task over this, as it is apparently explained in the movie, albeit in a very casual and easy-to-overlook fashion. – A] 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.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 4th 2002: 

What promise to be a bumper couple of years for movies based on Marvel Comics kick off with Guillermo del Toro’s Blade 2, based on the character created by Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman for Tomb of Dracula back in the 1970s (okay, comic geek posing over). Now I wasn’t fantastically impressed by Stephen Norrington’s 1998 original, which was let down by flat, unatmospheric lighting, giving it the look of an unusually violent big-budget TV series pilot, but this is a different kind of film entirely.

Blade 2 picks up the story two years on and finds half-human vampire hunter Blade (Wesley Snipes – does he play anyone other than Blade these days?) in Prague, in hot pursuit of the bloodsuckers holding his mentor Whistler (post-modern wild man Kris Kristofferson) captive – yes, I thought he died in the first movie too, proof (as if any were needed) that Marvel long ago put a revolving door on the afterlife. Blade is still routinely carrying enough hardware to open his own ironmongers and insists on wearing sunglasses even down a sewer in the middle of the night (he’s kept his cheery disposition too).

Blade’s reunion with Whistler is shortlived as the pair of them, along with Blade’s teen sidekick Scud (Norman Reedus) are approached by vampire princess Nyssa (Leonor Varela) under a flag of truce. They’re taken to see her father, master vampire Damaskinos (Tcheky Karyo, unrecognisable from his appearances in Goldeneye and Kiss of the Dragon [Possibly because this is actually not Tcheky Karyo but Thomas Kretschmann, a different actor entirely. Sigh. – A]), who reveals that a species of mutant vampire is on the loose. These creatures, known as reapers, prey on both humans and the undead, and the vampires want Blade’s help in exterminating them. Realising the reapers will turn on humanity once vampirekind has been wiped out, Blade agrees to help, leading an elite group of vampire warriors known as the Blood Pack. But has he been told the whole story…?

Let’s not beat about the bush: Blade 2 is an arse-kicker of a movie. The action sequences are the equal of those in The Matrix or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, filled with a furious energy and style. More traditional suspense thrillers like Aliens seem to have been an influence too, particularly in the sequence where the Blood Pack stalk (and are stalked by) reapers in the sewers of Prague. Snipes is a commanding presence at the heart of the movie – it’s not the sort of thing the Academy tends to notice, consisting mainly of looking stern, grunting one-liners, running around and hitting people, but he’s very good at it.

This isn’t really a pure horror movie, but if your tastes run to the icky you’ll be well served here. The bloodletting, gore and general gruesomeness reach operatic levels. Decapitations, characters getting sliced in half, autopsies, bifurcated mandibles, Blade 2 has them all in abundance (especially the bifurcated mandibles). Fun for all the family.

But, I’m glad to say, it has a bit of depth to it too. David (JSA) Goyer’s script has a rich subplot concerning trust and loyalty – Blade is leading a team of assassins originally assembled to kill him. Should he really be collaborating with his sworn enemies? Doesn’t he have more in common with his enemy’s enemy, the reapers? And has Whistler’s allegiance been altered by his time as a captive of the vampires? Is there anyone Blade can trust?

Del Toro brings a lot of style and atmosphere to the movie, mostly lit in rich oranges and browns and piercing blues and greys. The European setting harks back to the original vampire legends and allows for homages to some of the earlier classics of the genre. It also explains the eclectic cast the director has assembled – including (okay, he’s American, but still) cult movie specialist Ron Perlman (Name of the Rose, Alien Resurrection, the Beauty and the Beast TV show and this Christmas’ Star Trek: Nemesis), Danny John Jules (his first appearance provoked a loud whisper of ‘Isn’t that the Cat from Red Dwarf?’ in the row behind me), and the bloke who played the gay handyman in This Life, all as Blood Pack members. A remarkable make-up job means you don’t realise the leader of the reapers is Luke Goss from late-80s pop aberration Bros until the closing credits are rolling.

As a piece of high-octane horror, Blade 2 does all you could wish of it, managing to eclipse the first movie in the process. If you liked the original, this one will blow your mind – and if you didn’t, well, there’s always ET The Extra Terrestrial showing again on the screen next door. Roll on Blade 3.

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