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Posts Tagged ‘Ron Perlman’

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.

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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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One of the things about my lifestyle through most of the latter part of the 2000s was that I was away from English-speaking cinemas a lot of the time. I still did my best to keep up with the major releases, and if it was a film I particularly wanted to see I would even brave seeing it in a foreign language, intelligible or not. But, at the same time, minor releases slipped past me: I am still coming across films I would probably have seen, had I had the chance when they were new, but of which I am utterly ignorant.

A case in point is Howard McCain’s Outlander, the existence of which was unknown to me until Sophia Myles mentioned it in an interview in the current issue of DWM. A proverb featuring the word ignorance in conjunction with the word bliss powers its way to the forefront of my mind, but I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

Now, I know what you may be about to ask, and no, it’s not the Sean Connery space western based on High Noon – that’s Outland, a different dubious movie. Outland is an attempt at a genre mash-up that ends up being a bit self-important and dull, but Outlander is a… oh, hang on. No, they really are different movies.

Strictly speaking, Outlander looks like lots of different movies. It kicks off by restaging the opening sequence of the Carpenter Thing, as a stricken spacecraft plunges into the atmosphere of Earth, where it frightens the local wildlife (cue close-ups of nervous deer and traumatised fish). From here we’re into a re-enactment of the beginning of either of the first two Planet of the Apes movies as that intense charisma-vacuum Jim Caviezel emerges from the wreckage, buries a comrade, and tries to make sense of where he is.

It turns out he’s in 8th century Norway – Earth is described as an abandoned colony of his home civilisation, an intriguing detail that’s not really explored. Feeling the need to fit in, Caviezel uses a handy gadget to learn the local lingo in about ten seconds flat. I try to have an open mind about new technology but as this kind of app could potentially put me and many of my friends out of work it is obviously the handiwork of Satan. (On the other hand, after requesting to be taught ‘Old Norse’ the very first word Caviezel comes out with is a well-known Anglo-Saxon expletive, and later on he is required to deliver the immortal line ‘There is no gods’, so there are clearly still glitches with the system.)

Outlander‘s gambol through notable films of recent years continues as we, along with Caviezel, encounter a tribe of Vikings. There is a wrinkly old King (John Hurt), a feisty young warrior-princess (Myles) and a slightly nutty young warrior prince (Jack Huston), and the characterisations, costumes and set designs are so astoundingly similar to those of the Rohan characters in Lord of the Rings that it is frankly baffling: did no-one at any stage in the production notice this? Is it in fact supposed to be an intentional homage? (There’s even a major character called Boromir, too.)

Oh well. Anyway, it turns out the reason Caviezel’s spaceship crashed in the first place was that there was a nasty slavering alien monster on board, and the beast is on the loose amongst the fjords. Caviezel is horrified upon first sighting this menace. ‘MOORHEN!!!!!’ he cries in anguish. Well, actually, the monster’s not called a Moorhen but a Moorwen, but I think you will agree this is still not the most fear-inspiring name for a predatory alien.

Needless to say, Caviezel earns the respect of his new friends, especially when he starts going a bit native and turns up to a feast in semi-tribal dress. ‘Now you look like a real Viking!’ declares the King. Hmm. As his chosen outfit consists of very baggy trousers, an extremely well-fitted vest, a big fluffy waistcoat and a dodgy-looking leather harness, I would suggest that he looks less like a real Viking than a dentist making a nervous first visit to a rather specialist nightclub.

You probably know how the rest of it goes – trouble with the monster, bonding, incidental messing-about, dab of romance, more stuff with the monster, set-backs, etc, etc. By about twenty minutes in I had rumbled to the fact that I was in Bad Movie territory, and sticking around to the end of Outlander‘s not-exactly-concise running time was a bit of a challenge, as virtually nothing surprising or original happens at any point.

Even stuff which looks like a sure thing on paper somehow doesn’t quite work – Sophia Myles, usually a reliably beautiful woman, is saddled with a brunette hairdo which really does her no favours. The same cannot be said for Ron Perlman as a rival Viking chieftain, as he is as bald as the proverbial moorhen. Sorry, coot. Perlman shows signs of his usual awesomeness but just isn’t in the movie long enough to make much of a difference.

On the other hand – and I really am struggling to find nice things to say about such a pedestrian and derivative piece of work – it looks perfectly acceptable, although the CGI is nothing special. The script is quite well-paced, even if this does mean that both Caviezel’s backstory and the political situation with the Vikings are a little unclear to begin with. The development of the relationship between the spaceman and the Viking prince is genuinely well-written, as the two go from being hostile and distrustful of each other to sharing a genuine friendship in a convincing fashion.

But none of this really saves the film. It’s a story about a fight between a space monster and some Vikings, so it either needs doing with total conviction and considerable style, or as a piece of fluff with a sense of humour about itself. Director Howard McCain doesn’t have the chops or experience for the former, but seems to be attempting it anyway. Casting someone like Caviezel probably made this inevitable: he plays the entire film with an earnest, humourless intensity that really isn’t appropriate.

In the past I have occasionally said that there are no really bad films, only boring ones: and Outlander is the best example of this I’ve seen in a long time. Obscurity is sometimes well-deserved, and the kindest resting place for this kind of movie.

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Anyone up for a spot of treading the jewelled thrones of the Earth under their sandalled feet? Well, someone obviously thinks there’s some interest in that sort of thing, as they have knocked out a new movie based on Robert E Howard’s invincibly buff troublemaker, entitled – as you’d expect – Conan the Barbarian. Directing this time around is Marcus Nispel and playing the Cimmerian himself is Jason Momoa.

Is this a remake of the 1981 movie starring His Arnieship or a whole new take on Howard’s original stories? I don’t think it makes much difference. Set in a mythical way-back-when, it all kicks off with Conan being born on the battlefield where his mother has declined to take maternity leave (from somewhere she has managed to find chain-mail maternity wear – look, if you’re going to start asking awkward questions this early in the movie, I really wouldn’t bother at all), skips forward through his astoundingly violent young manhood, then on to the destruction of his village and death of his father (Ron Perlman, possibly cast due to his playing Conan in an unfinished animated movie, but a good choice anyway) at the hands of a passing megalomaniac Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). This gentleman is intent on collecting plot coupons which will allow him to resurrect his wife, open the gates of hell, give him overlordship of the world as we know it, etc, etc – plot coupons being worth a bit more in days gone by.

Well, years go by, Conan grows up into the strapping form of Momoa, but remains intent on taking revenge against Zym when not being a reaver, buccaneer, freebooter, and all the other things on his CV. Zym, on the other hand, is still looking for coupons, the last one being the final descendant of an ancient bloodline: she is played by Rachel Nichols, her name is Tamara, and she is a monk. No, really – she states her career choice on a couple of occasions. Why is she a monk and not a nun? My money is on this being the result of a really thick-headed script and/or a suspicion that the audience might not be quite on-side with the idea of Conan getting it on with a nun. Whether they’ll be happier with the idea of Conan getting it on with a monk I really doubt, but I’m absolutely certain this is a really thick-headed script.

So Conan ends up protecting Tamara from Zym and his nutty witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), with the aid of his old buddies Artus (Nonso Anozie) and Ela-Shan (Said Taghmoui) – hmm, my spellchecker has just gone off weeping. The names of characters and places just slide out of your head, anyway, but you always know what’s going on as it’s all straight out of the Big Book of Heroic Fantasy Cliches: Barbarian Warrior, Aristocratic Love-interest, Wisecracking Sidekick, Aspiring Despot, Insane Evil Girl Minion and so on. Swords get swung, body parts get chopped off, fake blood splashes in remarkable quantities, and, well, er, it’s all very mechanical and rather familiar.

In fact, this is very much the direct descendant of any number of ropey, generic fantasy movies that got made in the Eighties and Nineties. There’s nothing original about the characterisation or plot, and the world of the movie is drawn so vaguely that you really have nothing to engage with. Very occasionally the film has a moment of insanely over-the-top machismo – such as at the beginning, where Conan’s mum, mortally wounded, gives herself a quick C-section in order to make sure he’ll be okay – that elevates it to a level of camp absurdity that I found rather endearing, but all too often it continues to wallow in the realms of the predictable.

I’m not a great fan of heroic fantasy anyway, to be honest, especially in its American idiom – given the choice I’ll take Elric over Conan any day – but I do have a certain fondness for Robert E Howard’s original stories. Maybe Howard was a bit of a hack, but his stories have a robust honesty about them that I find rather appealing, and his setting is distinctive. I would say this movie is probably closer to Howard than the 1982 version, but only marginally so.

If nothing else, Jason Momoa looks the part as Conan (possibly – heresy ahoy! – even more than Schwarzenegger did), but all the performances here are forgettable (with the possible exception of McGowan, who’s just plain bad). The script, as I mentioned, is thick-headed, and the direction nothing special. And yet I find it hard to actually dislike this film. It’s not much cop, and yet it’s still very far from being the worst film in this genre, and even those based on Howard’s works. That’s an indictment of the low standard of epic fantasy movies in general, I suppose: with a very few, very obvious exceptions, no literary genre has been as poorly served on the big screen as fantasy. Something tells me we shouldn’t be surprised that Conan the Barbarian continues this trend – in any case, it certainly does.

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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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