Friday, July 5, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #6: Hellboy

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable. 

Max's Grade: 76/B+
Loren's Grade: B+ (he doesn't use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Loren Greenblatt: We’re back with…(dramatic voice) HELLBOY!

Max O’Connell: (slightly frightened)…y-yes.

LG: Del Toro cites this as one of his most personal films, along with Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster, but there is a genuine heartbeat and emotional core to the film that’s really distinctive and indelible.

MO: I know Del Toro was a fan of the comic books, and a lot of that has to do with how much it’s into outsiders and misfits, something Del Toro has always been into.

LG: And the Mike Mignola comics are extremely gothic, and they fit his sensibility so well that it’s natural that he’d direct it.

MO: Basic background for anyone unfamiliar with Hellboy since it was only modest hit- he’s from hell, brought over by Rasputin (Karel Roden), who’s somehow still alive during World War II.

LG: He’s joined one of those fiendish Nazi experiments that Indiana Jones usually prevents, but Jones is busy that day, so they have Professor Bloom (played in the present day segments by John Hurt) doing the best he can with a group of American soldiers. The experiment is run by Rasputin and Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), a Nazi surgical-addict/clockwork man. They open a portal to Hell, where the seven gods of chaos live.

MO: It’s very Lovecraftian. I referred to all of those monsters on the other side as “Not Cthulu” (Del Toro’s trying very hard to get a film of At the Mountains of Madness going).

LG: Bloom and the soldiers stop Rasputin and seemingly kill him, but the portal was open long enough for infant Hellboy to get through. The film then jumps forward sixty years, where Hellboy is an agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, and he’s a big celebrity among the Bigfoot/tinfoil hat crowd, appearing in blurred photographs and whatnot. The first Hellboy film is very X-Files-ish, where there’s a sense of paranoia where all the conspiracies are true.

MO: Hellboy is the sardonic version of Sasquatch. He’s beautifully played by Ron Perlman in what’s just about the best pairing of an actor with a superhero part outside of maybe Robert Downey, Jr. with Iron Man. It’s hard to see anyone else working in this role. Both Del Toro and Mignola wanted Perlman, which says something.

LG: The studio wanted Vin Diesel, which tells you something about studio mentality. We like Diesel fine, but no. Also in the idiot studio idea category- we have an unnecessary audience surrogate in this film, Agent Meyers, who’s there to babysit Hellboy and keep him from going out. He’s played adequately by Rupert Evans.

MO: Del Toro also considered Jeremy Renner and Jason Schwartzman, both of whom I like, but this is a pretty thankless role.

LG: He exist only to facilitate exposition and to give audiences a non-weirdo to latch onto, but it doesn't work. The character is Blandy McBlanderson, and it doesn’t help that the world around him is so bizarre and vivid.

MO: These films show Del Toro at his most Gilliam-esque.

LG: Meyers also doesn’t work because he’s not an outsider like the rest of the main characters. The film is very much about how one deals with being an outsider. We have Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones, voiced by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce), a fish-man with psychic powers. He’s the most blasé about the outsider thing. He lives in a tank, and he’s just fine with his lot. There’s Hellboy, who resists being an outsider and tries very hard to pretend to be normal. He’s very arrogant about it, and his attempts to look normal just end up making him more eccentric. Then there’s Liz (Selma Blair), who looks human but has the least amount of control over her outsider status- she has pyrokinetic powers, and she has trouble handling it. Because she looks normal, she’s been hurt the most because she knows the pain of being outed, and she tends to recede from the outside world. It’s a wonderful combo- these characters give the film an aching emotional core. Even without knowing anything about Del Toro, one could sense how personal it is. If you’re a nerd or an outsider in any way, you'll connect.

MO: I love Abe’s line that “all us freaks have to stay together”. There’s a nice surrogate family here with those three. It’s lovely. Meyers doesn’t fit, so it’s nice that he won’t be back in Hellboy 2. Something I’d like to point out about the film is how Del Toro handles the villains. We have three villain: Ilsa (Bridget Hodson), the ultimate evil Nazi woman, there’s Rasputin, and there’s Kroenen, the clockwork-man Nazi character. It’s a wonderful combination of Del Toro’s view of evil- the organic, Ilsa,, who we need more of. There’s Rasputin, the great supernatural villain. And then there’s Kroenen, the technological villain. He’s a wonderful villain who’s dedicated himself to removing his his humanity. He’s a literal clockwork man in that he has a clock on his body that he winds himself up with.

LG: He doesn’t even have blood- he has magic sand that keeps him alive. He has to wind himself up before he exerts himself too much.  He’s also a very theatrical character. He has these ornamental masks- a different one for every occasion, and he has this very dramatic, balletic way of moving. We also have some third-tier villains- the monsters. One of the more notable ones is Sammael, the Hound of Resurrection. He functions similarly to the giant bugs in Mimic, but as with the Reapers in Blade II, there’s more personality and a better sense of how they work. Sammael lives in the sewers and lays eggs. I love also that Sammael looks like a tentacle-lion with double-joints.

MO: And I love that he’s the Hound of Resurrection- some Catholic and religious tropes flipped upside their heads. Whenever Sammael dies, his spirit splits in two and goes into two eggs.

LG: Good time to mention the Catholic stuff- the magical objects are very religious. We get rosaries, crosses, pinky bones in reliquaries, references to the Vatican. It doesn’t use these as an endpoint, but it gives the religious stuff a great weight and reverence.

MO: It’s notable that Bloom is a Catholic and that he’s raised Hellboy as his son. Something Frank Capra once said about Christianity is that it’s about second chances, and to a large degree that’s what the film is about. Hellboy is born with the ultimate original sin- he’s the offspring of Satan, with red skin, horns, a tail, and so on. Bloom has taught him religious and human lessons to give him a choice to be what he wants. He has a chance to reject his Satanic destiny.

LG: Which plays into the films wonderful emotional climax.

MO: What else is nice is that the Catholic material isn’t too full of itself, and the film has a nice balanced sense of humor coming from Ron Perlman’s delivery of sardonic one-liners. Rather than just have him say something self-righteous, Boondock Saints-style, when Rasputin says he’ll never fulfill his destiny, Hellboy says, “Well, I guess I’ll have to deal with that”.

LG: It’s a wonderful performance that’s conflicted and vulnerable and funny all at the same time, which is something considering that he’s under heavy make-up. Hellboy isn’t Del Toro’s character, but he is his to mold, unlike Blade, so Del Toro is able to take more potshots at macho material. Hellboy’s cool, but he’s very arrogant and pigheaded. Abe Sapien mockingly says that he’s doing “the lone hero thing”. This is a guy who doesn’t go outside much, so he’s probably learned a lot from TV. He has a gigantic bank of televisions in his room, which looks great visually. But this front of machismo gets him in trouble- he wants to ignore the bureau’s rules and go out alone, he gets hurt more than he needs to, and he ignores good counsel. A big part of the film is him growing up and Bloom trying to help him grow up.

MO: Bloom refers to him as a child, and there is something childish to the macho thing. Del Toro does a very good job illustrating that. And yet there’s some sensitivity there- he likes cats, he likes pancakes (which he adorably pronounces pamcakes), and deep down he’s a big softie. He’s also very aware of the flaws in his character. Earlier on, a couple of agent friends of his are killed in the line of duty, and he’s somewhat responsible because of his recklessness. There’s a sense of Catholic guilt, which is amplified after (spoilers) Bloom is killed by Kroenen because Hellboy was out spying on Liz, his not-quite-girlfriend. (end spoilers) She too has a sense of guilt, since she can’t control herself and how she could hurt someone. There’s a lot of Del Toro in here, since he’s a guy whose super-religious grandmother tried to exorcise him repeatedly because she didn’t like the monsters he drew.

LG: We saw the director's cut. Overall it's a much better cut, but some of the additions are superfluous.

MO: Everything added with Meyers, specifically, as we get more of a blooming “this isn’t going to work out because she’s going to end up with Hellboy” romance.

LG: It’s padding- false conflict to make Hellboy jealous, and we get plenty of it in the theatrical cut. But there’s one subplot that makes the Director’s Cut vital - earlier in the film, we learn Bloom is dying of cancer. It’s a nice scene - after he gets an opinion from the doctors, he pulls out a tarot card, which is his second opinion. It really colors the Director’s Cut. It gives a great arc to Hellboy and Bloom’s relationship, especially with Bloom trying to get Hellboy to grow up a little bit before he dies. It also changes his death scene - we knew it was coming anyway, but it’s a touching moment of self-sacrifice. The inevitability of death is all over this cut. We also check in with the villains more in this cut. In the theatrical, the second half has the problem of the villains’ plan feeling a bit nebulous.

MO: In this cut, we learn that there’s a timetable for their plan, which helps make things a little clearer. The little bits we get learning that there’s an eclipse coming that’ll open the portal to hell is essential. The director’s cut just makes a better film.

LG: And there’s a bit before Bloom’s death in the Director’s Cut that establishes that Bloom is angry with Hellboy just before he dies. It’s a real stab at our hearts. Can I mention that the score is fantastic?

MO: It’s Marco Beltrami, the same composer Del Toro had on Blade II and Mimic, but the score is a lot better here. There’s some nice emotional moments, but there’s also a sense of playfulness, which goes with Del Toro’s own sense of playfulness. There are some bits where Del Toro is playing with blockbuster and monster movie history. The lightning when Rasputin opens up the portal in the beginning reminds me of Metropolis. Del Toro evokes a pose from Watchmen as he did in Blade II, when a Nazi flies into the portal and looks like Dr. Manhattan blowing up, but this time he does it with the Wilhelm Scream thrown in there. There are a couple of Raiders of the Lost Ark homages, like Rasputin’s melting eyes at the portal, or Hellboy pulling his tail from under a closing door like Indiana Jones with the whip. When Kroenen kills Bloom, “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn, most famous for it's use in Dr. Strangelove, and it’s a nice touch because we’ve also got a clockwork Nazi like in the earlier film and because this is an emotional apocalypse for Hellboy. When Abe takes Bloom for a look back in time to see how Rasputin got Sammael into a museum, it reconstructs time events in front of them. It’s almost exactly like what Cronenberg did with The Dead Zone, and it’s great.

LG: One of the other characters we love is the Bureau chief, Manning (Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development). Tambor plays him as a guy who hates Hellboy, but he loves going on TV to explain away the photos of him as if they were nothing. He’s the one there to stab at Hellboy’s Catholic guilt, but I love that they become a bit more buddy-buddy by the end, as they discover they’re both cigar aficionados (macho stuff again!).

MO: Yeah, the “light a cigar with a match, not a lighter” thing might be a pretentious cigar-aficionado thing rather than a real thing, but it’s a nice moment. We talked about Blade II and how it only needed the scientific approach to monsters, rather than the religious. This film, on the other hand, is amplified by the religious/occult/scientific mix. The bullets in Hellboy’s gun have Holy Water in them, for God’s sake. It’s wonderful.

LG: Often I get annoyed by Christian themes in occult films (other religions have intricate mythologies too, guys), but it fits this movie very well. Should we talk about the action in this film a bit?

MO: I think Del Toro has become much more assured as an action director. There’s a comic book feel to the action in Blade II, but it's too post-Matrix for me. With this, it’s wise that he uses longer takes, and the fights between Hellboy and Sammael really benefit from that. They also benefit from the fact that it’s shot as Perlman vs. a guy in a suit, with a bit of CGI doubling later. It gives it more weight.

LG: I think that kinetic stuff worked for Blade II, but I’m glad they don’t do it for this. Hellboy and Sammael are big, heavy guys. They need to have a more lumbering feel. This is a good time to mention the other guy in a suit, Doug Jones as Abe, who’s one of Del Toro’s go-to guys, and a man who specializes in complicated body work under heavy make-up.

MO: Jones doesn’t voice Abe here like he does in the second film, but Pierce was so impressed with Jones that he went uncredited in order to not take away from Jones’ work. The effects work here is great, too. Even some of the shakier ones are kind of charming. I like Ivan, the half-skeleton guy Hellboy brings back to life as a guide who insults Hellboy in Russian. 

LG: It feels like a living comic book. Everything feels brisk and cartoony and fun. And even though this is PG-13, Del Toro finds ways to have fun with the limitations. When Hellboy slams Sammael with a Payphone, rather than blood coming out, we see coins fly everywhere like in a videogame.

MO: Or how about inventiveness that’s moving. (Spoilers) Bloom’s death, it’s very cleverly framed as Kroenen steps behind him and stabs him. We don’t see it, but we hear it, and the impact is greater. (End Spoilers)

LG: It’s done so well that even if Del Toro could make this an R-rated film, he probably would have done it the same way.

MO: I love the fairytale-style narration we get at the beginning, as we learn where Hellboy came from and who he is. It fits right in with Del Toro’s sensibility.

LG: I remember when I first saw this film, my biggest gripe was that there was a lot to digest, and it was a little too top-heavy with exposition. I’ve grown a little softer on it, since it’s a big world we need to set up. He's learned his lesson from Mimic and focused  on the few characters that are important rather than trying to breathe life into an entire city. He’s also resisting the urge to drop in too many expository monologues.

MO: He sets it up so well that after the first twenty minutes we get to explore a lot of character bits rather than having more exposition. The relationship between Hellboy and Liz is one bit, and that’s one of the best superhero-girlfriend relationships in comic book movie history. There’s something very sweet about it. I think Del Toro can relate to being the big guy dating a woman he feels might be out of his league (not saying he’s an unattractive man). There’s a line Hellboy has when he’s courting Liz, “I can promise you, I’ll always look this good”. That’s something Del Toro really said to his wife when they met.

LG: It is a very earnest film. With another director without those experiences, it might feel false, but it works here, damn it!

MO: And that self-deprecation really fits in with everything else Hellboy says. Favorite Hellboy lines? Everyone loves his signature “Oh, crap”, but I also like the quick bits to Sammael, like “Hey…stinky…”

LG: “Didn’t I kill you already?”

MO: Or when Sammael plants an egg-sac in his arm, “He didn’t even buy me a drink”.

LG: “What’s a good, solid word for ‘need’?” “’Need’ is a good, solid word.” “Too needy.”

MO: “On a scale of one to ten, how confident are you about this?” “Two.”

LG: Or even one of Tambor’s lines, since he’s in the field for the first time in his life, after Kroenen attacks him- “Hey, what’s wrong with you?!”

MO: Probably one of our bigger complaints about the film is near the end, when Hellboy fights the big Not Cthulu monster that’s a hundred feet tall. Big build-up! How long is the fight?

LG: About a minute, minute and thirty seconds.

MO: The way he deals with the monster is nice, as he’s swallowed with a bunch of grenades (“this is gonna hurt”), but it is anticlimactic.

LG: It’s a boss fight that might not need to be there, or maybe it’s a problem with money, You got an expensive movie, you “gotta” have an expensive climax. But since the the action climax doesn’t match the emotional climax that came right before it and it feels perfunctory. But at least it has an emotional climax that actually means something. It works well enough especially compared to Blade II, but he still hasn't found a way to do both at once instead of in rapid succession. I used to think that Hellboy was just OK, but it’s grown on me over the years, and the Director’s Cut helps. And if anyone has the Director’s Cut DVD, for the love of God listen to the audio commentary. Some of it is about the film, but some of it becomes this TED-talk about 20th century pulp literature, showing that Del Toro really is the poet laureate of pulp horror. He’s a relentlessly fascinating man. The theatrical cut is a solid B, I’m giving this director's cut a high B+.

MO: I’m giving it the same.
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