From the Archive — Hellboy II: The Golden Army

hellboy 2

As means of congratulating the highly deserving winner of this year’s Best Directing Academy Award, I will excavate one this review of an old Guillermo del Toro film, which I believe stands as the final such writerly relic that can be transferred over to this digital space.

It would be misguided and hypocritical of me to issue a blanket statement about the benefit of letting directors follow their creative instincts without reservations. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that I watched a full day of work from a director who is routinely allowed such unchecked leeway and the phrase “subjected myself to” is central to any description of that experience. So allow me to be more precise. Letting Guillermo del Toro fully loose on a film, his imagination untethered, his vision washing across the screen like spilled juices or flung blood…this is a good thing.

In between helming the first film depiction of Mike Mignola‘s cult favorite comic book character and this sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro ushered the splendid Pan’s Labyrinth into the world, and the dark artistry of that grim fairy tale informs this new work. Del Toro is still delivering a story that feels like it comes from a corner of the superhero-jammed film-verse that increasingly anchors national multiplexes. The difference is the readily apparent glee taken in filling the screen with wonderful warped monsters and all manner of tactile gruesomeness. There is still action, there are still set pieces that feel well-constructed enough to please those who insist summer movie fare quickens their pulse with rigid regularity. The flavor of them, however, is unmistakably shaped by del Toro’s bump-in-the-night sensibilities more thoroughly than any of his previous outings that involved hefty studio budgets and commensurate box office expectations. After the surprising (and gratifying) success of Labyrinth, there’s a welcome willingness to let del Toro take this franchise material wherever he pleases.

And why not? After all, this devil-hued do-gooder is enough of a known commodity by now that purchasing a ticket is tantamount to a unwavering commitment to suspending disbelief. If you can accept a big, thick, demonic crusader with forehead horns tamed and flattened by a belt sander and a conveniently misproportioned right hand made of punch-friendly stone, then a plant creature several stories tall or a battalion of Barbie doll sized nasty beasties with a taste for human bicuspids should be equally easy to swallow. It’s hard to fathom what would finally cause a Hellboy II attendee to lean back, cross their arms and say, “Oh, now, that’s too much.”

The plot feels extremely familiar, the characters are put through flatly delineated paces rather then given the chance to develop (to such a point that a move of personal defiance at the close of the film has only the most tangential connection to anything that’s come before), and the thudding wit tends towards the unnecessarily juvenile. But none of that prevents the film from being very fun. The director is clearly having the time of his life, finally able to play with every toy he con conjure up in his slightly skewed noggin, and that rumbling joy is mighty hard to resist. In many ways, del Toro has crafted a movie that properly captures what traditional comic books are supposed to be: audaciously inventive with a soaring, intoxicating disregard for the physical constraints that make our normal earthbound adventures look less colorful in comparison.

From The Archive — My Ballot, 2007

no country

In the corner of the multiverse where I preside over the Academy Awards like a benevolent despot, every one of the performers pictured above received an acting nomination for their roles in No Country for Old Men. Also, Seth MacFarlane never hosted the ceremony. So it’s a decent place, is what I’m typing. The other day, I shared my personal picks for the four acting categories handed out at the Oscars. Here’s evidence I’ve been engaging in this particular exercise online for quite some time (and yet longer — far longer — offline). Without the original explanations and observation included (but with a couple revised, updated hyperlinks), here are the performances I celebrated ten years ago. I stand by all of these selections, but do note with some amusement my mild dismissal of one of the nominated actresses from Joe Wright’s Atonement. My oh my, how times do change.


1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
2. Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
3. Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages
5. Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men

Let’s start with a relatively easy category, shall we? At least when it comes to picking out the name that goes next to the numeral one. Arguably the surest bet in tonight’s ceremony, the performance is starting to entrench itself the cultural vernacular to such a degree that it’s soon going to be easy to forget just how good it is. Day-Lewis may be the best by a solid margin, but that Tommy Lee Jones performance is terrific, a controlled, deeply felt portrait of sorrowful disillusionment.

1. Ellen Page, Juno
2. Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
3. Laura Linney, The Savages
4. Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
5. Julie Christie, Away From Her

Yup, I opt for the little Canadian miracle worker who manages to make Diablo Cody’s highly constructed dialogue sound natural and revealing. As much credit as many of the other Juno collaborators deserve, without Page and her mix of expert comic timing and grounded emotionalism, it’s hard to imagine the film recovering from its opening minutes which are almost uniformly viewed as problematic. That the film winds up so winning is a testament to the fully realized accomplishment of her performance. While I think she has an outside shot to be an upset winner in this category tonight, slipping past Marlee Matlin to become the youngest Best Actress winner ever, my wager remains firmly on Christie for her elegantly moving work (and because voters will see it as a sort of de facto career award), and I suspect Marion Cotillard’s unbearably hammy work as Edith Piaf is a tick ahead of Page in the horse race, too. Since I commit to being ruthlessly honest about filling this out, I’ll note that I consider Blanchett to be a lead for I’m Not There. I’ve got a different supporting actress in mind for that film.

1. Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
3. Tommy Lee Jones, No Country For Old Men
4. Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn
5. Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Hoffman and Jones certainly had good years. Hoffman’s continuing mastery of he craft of acting has almost become mundane, but it’s nice to see Jones giving committed performances after the odd digressions of recent years. Schneider had a less recognized good year (he’s also award-worthy in Lars and the Real Girl). I like Casey Affleck’s nominated turn in Jesse James, but I see that as a lead performance and I just can’t make room in that category. It’s a shame Steve Zahn didn’t get more end-of-the-year talk; his work in Werner Herzog’s film deserves to be career-shifting. Bardem will almost certainly win tonight, and, like Day-Lewis, it’s completely deserving. Those two performances are the two from this year that will be remembered for a long, long time.

1. Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl
2. Leslie Mann, Knocked Up
3. Michelle Williams, I’m Not There
4. Maria Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
5. Kelly Macdonald, No Country For Old Men

Not a single one in common with the Academy, although that has something to do with the fact that I think they (and, granted, everyone but me) have got Blanchett’s stellar turn as Jude Quinn misfiled. I’d say that Michelle Williams’ brief, riveting performance as model Coco Rivington is more suited to the supporting category, although I’ll quickly concede that the big jumble puzzle of Todd Haynes’ film is hard to fit into the simple Oscar category boxes. Mortimer is terrific in a tricky role in Lars, since her empathetic work in crucial to making believable the conceit of the entire town rallying around the lead character’s delusions. Mann is more than a considerable comic force in Knocked Up. She makes a character that could have easily been little more than a mean-spirited caricature in to someone sympathetic and interesting. I frankly don’t understand why Tomei and Macdonald aren’t actually in the running for the Oscar. As for tonight, this is the one category that you can see going to any of the actual nominees except the kid. Of course, the last time I said that any one of four different people had a real shot at winning in this category, it was the fifth that took the prize, so don’t count out Atonement‘s Briony yet. I think Tilda Swinton is going to win for Michael Clayton, largely by process of elimination (Blanchett just won three years ago, Ruby Dee’s role is apparently less than five minutes of screen time in a film that’s not hugely well regarded, Amy Ryan seems to have settled in to that place where Thomas Haden Church was a couple years ago, where the nomination is seen as adequate compensation for sweeping the critics’ awards). Besides, I think enough Oscar voters will want to check a box in close proximity to the words “Clayton” and “Michael,” and Swinton is the most likely beneficiary of that instinct.


From the Archive — Atonement


Since I recently lobbed a few ill words in the direction of Joe Wright’s latest Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures into the plot, I’ll look back to a far more admiring assessment of an earlier effort from the director. Atonement was also a Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures in the plot. How about that? And ten years ago, because of the same film, little Saoirse Ronan was also getting ready for her first trip to the Oscars. 

Atonement is a terrific book, so artfully taking advantage of the storytelling opportunities unique to the medium of the novel that the prospect of adapting it to any other form seems destined to disappoint. So much of the appeal of the first portion of the book derives from author Ian McEwan expertly switching perspectives among his character on a busy and, ultimately, momentous day at a British estate in 1935. Beyond providing a rich understand of each and every character that populates the novel, McEwan’s approach is especially apt given the devastating turn of events hinges on matters of perspective and perception. Then the closing passage of the book uses a simple but crafty technique to thoroughly upend the reader perception of the action that has come before it. Dragged into the more constrained realm of film, is there anyway that Atonement can actually maintain its resonant poignancy?

The answer is “not quite.” That doesn’t mean, it turns out, that the novel can’t be reformulated into something nicely rewarding. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright have seemingly approached the material with some degree of McEwan’s devotion to wringing every possibility out of the chosen medium. Throughout the new film version of Atonement there is a clear-eyed creativity in letting story elements emerge. The scene in which the son of the estate’s housekeeper types out a salacious note is presented in a way that is clean and crafty. Later when the film turns to a wartime setting, Wright shows that the payoff of all those fussy, pointless extended tracking shots in his prior film is that he can pull off a technical tour de force with a single shot stride through the busy beach at Dunkirk right before the British evacuation. Like the similar efforts in 2006’s Children of Men, the shot has real purpose: enhancing our understanding of the mayhem of that day by plunging us into at as free from the clarifying safety of an edit as the soldiers in the sand. When the camera finally rests, surveying the vast sea of humanity it has just navigated, the impact is formidable.

There is smart attention to key details throughout, such as the purposefulness of thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) stalking through her house, her forceful precociousness signaled before she has spoken a word by the hard pivots she uses to take corners, that physical detail revealing the precise efficiency of a dedicated mind. Dario Marianelli’s score merits special attention as well. The simple but riveting choice to incorporate the sound a typewriter hard at work into the music, essentially serving as the percussion to the score. It’s a very unique approach to the sonic landscape which has the added benefit of enriching the narrative payoff at the close of the film.

There are moments here and there that don’t quite work, mostly the result of the necessary compression from 370 pages to two hours which makes a few pieces of story either too truncated or robbed of their fascinating uncertainty. These are the exceptions, however. For the most part, Atonement represents a troupe of collaborative creators working at the top of their craft.

From the Archive — Letters from Iwo Jima


Last week, I dug out the old review for Clint Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers. It’s time for his follow-up. Since I initially took the occasion of revisiting these reviews of Eastwood films to call into question some of the more overt veneration of his skills as a director, I now feel obligated to add that this effort nabbed a reasonably secure place on my top ten list for the year it was released. 

Well it’s a damn sight better than Flags of Our Fathers, I’ll say that.

The companion to director Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about the battle of Iwo Jima shifts the perspective from the American soldiers who charged onto this little chunk of land in the Pacific to the Japanese fighting men who held their fingers on triggers as they sat in tunnels dug into the hillsides, poised for a battle that they knew was hopeless. Eastwood was trying to cover a lot of ground with Flags, drawing in the carnage of war, the impact of images, the calculated use of heroic veterans to bring in enough money to keep the wheels of war turning, the trauma of adapting to live on the homefront again, and the far-reaching legacy of World War II. In Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood largely concentrates on the battle itself, both the preparation on the part of the Japanese and what happens when the bullets and bombs start to fly. By doing less, he achieves more.

Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Eastwood in this instance is to note that Letters doesn’t feel like a movie made by an American director about a different culture. It has none of the condescension or leaden exposition that often drifts into the most well-meaning of features. Instead, Eastwood’s film truly seems immersed in the lives and ideologies of these men it depicts. For instance, the cultural norm that self-inflected death would be more honorable and preferable to facing defeat at the hand of the Americans is illustrated dramatically in several effective and harrowing moments, but Eastwood is clear-eyed about it. He passes no judgment on this men, and also offers no overt explanations for their actions. This is simply how it was, and he shows it to with the quiet assurance that he has conveyed their lives and their world effectively enough for it all to make sense.

That’s not to say that Eastwood implies a uniformity of belief or vision among these Japanese soldiers. A great strength of this film is that he commits to highlighting the individuality of these men, often in very subtle ways. Every man who pulls a pin on a grenade or aims his rifle has a different reaction to the situation he finds himself in. For every man who screams “Banzai!” with conviction, there is another who does it will heavy reluctance, and then a small fleet who stand at different points on the spectrum between those two reactions. These contrasts aren’t especially highlighted by Eastwood, simply captured by his camera. As always, he brings a great restraint to his film-making. Moments that other directors would inflate with bombastic music and technique, Eastwood lets play out with the flatness of real life. In letting a Japanese soldier read aloud the words of a dead American G.I.’s letter from home with no score accompaniment, for example, the film finds a fresh power in that moment. For a moment, it feels like it may not be a movie construction after all, but a legitimate piece of the wartime experience, the discovery that the enemy’s letters read a lot like your own.

As admirable as Eastwood’s approach may be, it has its downside, too. Like many of his films, the careful pacing occasionally becomes too languid. When you want the film to start moving more briskly to its conclusion, Eastwood keeps it at a gentle amble. That leaves time to further admire the performances of Ken Watanabe as the Japanese General overseeing the futile stand on the island or Kazunari Ninomiya as a soldier who values self-preservation over death-with-honor, but it also gives you time to check your watch and start thinking about what to have for dinner.

It’s hard to be too critical of that, however, as it really is a marker of Eastwood’s style. And when that style can yield unique accomplishments like Letters from Iwo Jima it seems a fair compromise.

From the Archive — Flags of Our Fathers


Clint Eastwood has a new film out. It is not being especially well-received. In general, I’ve long found the movie critic discourse around Eastwood’s directorial career to be a little perplexing. I’ve liked many of his films, including proud placement of a few on various lists of laudatory accomplishment. But to refer to Eastwood as one of the great filmmakers (I remember at least once critic, circa Mystic River, positing that Eastwood was the greatest American director then working) requires turning a blind eye to a lot of flawed material, even if one generously ignores the absolute worst efforts. I think many critics keep projecting layers of intriguing subtext that simply isn’t there. They believe Eastwood is making statements, though the man himself insists he just makes movies. Arguably, the strongest illustration of the gap between the myth of Eastwood’s artistry and the actual expression of it came in 2006, when in quick succession he delivered two different films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, each from an opposing perspective. One film worked, and one didn’t. This week and next, I’ll excavate my original reviews.

In adapting the the non-fiction bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood is arguably making the most conventional important and serious-minded film of his career. From Play Misty For Me on, Eastwood’s films as a director have always had a sort of pulpy feel. Even his two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, are immersed in the sort of from-the-gut storytelling one associates with the old school rough and tumble publications that employed the likes of Raymond Chandler and Louis L’Amour, guys who pushed away from the typewriter after rapping out story with dirt under their fingernails. This isn’t to suggest that Eastwood is out of his depth with this World War II drama because his lacks the artistic maturity or nuance to handle the material. Instead where he gets lost is in the script’s disjointed construction. There’s essentially two different films here and Eastwood simply can’t bring them together. The other characteristic of those old pulp stories is that the were unrelentingly straightforward. That’s the kind of filmmaker Eastwood is, but that’s not the kind of film Flags of Our Fathers is.

The book was written by the son of one of the men in the famous photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, one of the most iconic images in American history. His story kinda-sorta shows up in a framing sequence in the film. In the early portion of the film, Eastwood includes moments of him interviewing people about the image, the soldiers and the battle of Iwo Jima. Those brief exchanges are intercut with scenes set in the battle itself, the journey of the photograph through the American consciousness and the halls of government and the celebrations of the men captured on film. Throwing everything out there at the beginning and letting the rest of the film catch up to all the elements that have been introduced is not an especially rare technique, but it’s one that’s new to Eastwood filmmaking toolbox, and he has simply lacks the touch to pull it off. The film opens as a muddled mess, more baffling than compelling.

As noted before, it basically settles down into two different films: the Battle of Iwo Jima and the experiences of the three surviving soldiers from the photograph after they are pulled from their active duty to stump for war bonds because the funds to finish the war are not there. When Eastwood is training his camera on the bursting war itself, the film is surprisingly weak. It doesn’t help that the dusty, bleached cinematography inevitably recalls Steven Spielberg’s superior Saving Private Ryan, but even without the comparison, Eastwood rarely achieves any coherence with his storytelling in these moments. That clumsiness keeps the emotions of the battle itself at a distance. For the most part, if guns are cracking and explosions are bursting on the beach, Flags is floundering.

The film fares better when it turns it attention to men after they’ve returned home, perhaps because this is where Eastwood finally seems to be saying something fresh. As soon as the photo hit the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the military knew they had a public relations coup, the sort of simple patriotic image that would give them the needed boost of homefront morale to finish the job overseas. The soldiers were now enlisted in a different battle, moving between big city rallies and gala parties getting celebrated as heroes and raising desperately needed funds in the process. Just daring to note the last just war almost bankrupt the nation is a little bit of boldness from Eastwood, as is the depiction of the crass exploitation of the men, the way they were summarily discarded and forgotten once they’d served their purpose. Still, there’s generally a flatness to the characters themselves. Ryan Phillippe’s “Doc” Bradley is a quiet cipher, the eyes of the audience, a reduced to bland passivity. Jesse Bradford is stuck with exactly one trait to play as proudly glad-handled Rene Gagnon. Only Adam Beach gets a full-fledged, juicy role to play with Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier whose emotions are desperately close to the surface. Beach responds with a fiercely dedicated performance.

Eastwood’s most effective tribute emerges during the closing credits. He gives us the photos of the real men, simple snapshots of proud, worried soldiers staring directly into the camera, or wounded men being helped across the battlefield. At the end, it cuts to a shot of the memorial that currently stands on the island of Iwo Jima where the flag once flew and the camera drifts off to view the black sand beach from a distance, the carnage long gone, the machinery of the war absent. In that quiet moment, that gentle gesture, Eastwood does more for those men and that place than the rest of his muddled film can muster.

From the Archive — Groundhog Day


This old review should have really posted yesterday. Then again, Groundhog Day in repeat is somewhat fitting. This was written for The Pointer, the student newspaper at UW-Stevens Point. The minor reservation expressed in the last paragraph is baffling to me. By now, I’ve decided that Groundhog Day is a better movie than I first realized

The clock lazily clicks over to 6:00 a.m. and the radio blares to life, playing the silly Sonny and Cher classic rock hit “I Got You Babe.” Thus begins February 2nd the day Bill Murray us forced to constantly relive in the new film Groundhog Day.

Murray plays an obnoxious, egotistical weatherman who travels to the small town of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania to cover his least favorite news event: a big, furry rodent pops out of his hole and supposedly informs on the timing of winter’s end.

After a freak blizzard strands Murray in the tiny town, he awakes the next day to find that tomorrow has never come. He is once again living through Groundhog Day: meeting the same people, having the same conversations, and covering the the exact same inspired news non-event. No matter what happens to Murray during the course of the day, it is seemingly erased during the night, and he continually awakesn to face February 2nd.

This intriguing premise is bursting with comic opportunities, and co-writers Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin utilize every one of them.

Murray is initially thrilled by the prospect of being able to do whatever he wants without having to face the repercussions of his action.

Rather than settle for a wild joyride, though, the film also explores the frustration felt by Murray is being unable to escape the endless cycle of this single day and the heartbreak he feels when he falls in love with his producer (Andie MacDowell), but she forgets his affections as soon as the day starts over.

The comedy is inventive and very funny, as the filmmakers seem to be taking great delight in exploring the multitude of opportunities the storyline presents. The film succeeds with the big jokes and also with the small details, such as Murray’s sedate pleasure in using his intimate knowledge of the day’s episode of Jeopardy! to imprss a roomful of people (he can provide the proper response before the clue is even read).

The entire cast (which also include Late Night alumnus Chris Elliott) is terrific, filling their roles with wit and charm.

Even if the film occasionally begins to drift or meander a bit too much, the inspiration of all involved keeps you drawn to it. The movie is uncommonly funny and features Billy Murray at his most likable. Groundhog Day is a true treat.

From the Archive — Animaniacs


I’m dusting off this old pile of words in commemoration on the recent announcement that the Warner brothers — and the Warner sister, of course — are on their way back. This was originally posted in my former online home.

When I was a little kid, watching Saturday cartoons with the focused strategy of a battle-hardened general, I was certain that I’d never give up on the things I loved. Yes, I’d grow up, but I’d never outgrow the happy anarchy of these colorful adventures that I pumped into my brain as often as I could. I didn’t follow through on that conviction very well, but there have definitely been times when I’ve been drawn to material that doesn’t fit properly into my age bracket. One of those times was the fall after my college graduation, when I took advantage of new idle hours to become crazily devoted to the second product of the high-powered collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation.

They’d previously put their stamps of creative ownership on Tiny Toon Adventures, which reimagined fairly familiar characters from the Looney Tunes stable as spirited youths. For their second outing, the creators opted for something more original, but in the same spirit as the wildly inventive cartoons that were part of the enviable heritage of Warner Bros. animation. The result was Animaniacs, presented in syndication as a daily half-hour show collecting shorts featuring an array of new characters. The main drivers of the show were the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. They lived in the water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot and got into varied misadventures, at least when they weren’t relating the contents of a world atlas in ludicrously catchy fashion.

There were other segments, including fiercely cantankerous Slappy Squirrel, the splendid pairing of Rita and Runt and, speaking directly to my movie geek heart, the amazing sight of a Martin Scorsese masterpiece rendered in cartoon pigeon form. Undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the show was the ingenious creation Pinky and the Brain, a pair of lab mice bent on world domination. Besides their usual antics, the characters allowed room for brilliantly off-kilter bits, such as spoof of an obscure incident involving The Brain’s voicesake Orson Welles.

Since my crew of friends was especially adept at peppering movie, music and TV quotes into our daily conversations, there were all sorts of bits from Animaniacs that made their way into our shared vocabulary, including Mindy’s standard valediction or the Warner Brothers’ helpless shout when they spotted a gorgeous woman. To this day, I can’t hear Dana Delany’s name without immediately imagining Yakko Warner waggling his eyebrows lasciviously while dropping her name in one of the variations of their opening theme.

So maybe I didn’t keep watching cartoons relentless, but at least I watched the right ones.