Thursday, July 11, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #8: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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: 88/A-
Loren’s Grade: A (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Max O’Connell: We’re back, and we just finished Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a sequel only a select few were clamoring for, but those who were clamoring for it were correct.

Loren Greenblatt: Oh, it is delightful. The film came out in 2008 and was a little overshadowed by Iron Man and The Dark Knight, along with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. Now a lot of us, myself included, were immensely disappointed by Indy IV, but for me Hellboy II erased my disappointment completely. The film is in much the same vein and gave me the pulp adventure fix I didn't get from Spielberg. I know some people will find this controversial, but I'm gonna say it: I prefer this film to The Dark Knight (a film I really like).

MO:…I’m not going to get into this argument again (NOTE: we did, and we had to edit that out of the conversation’s transcript). Let’s talk about Hellboy II.

LG: They're both doing new and interesting things with the genre, but while the Nolan film is mostly a natural evolution of the trends of the time, Hellboy II is a 180. A  rebuke of all the dark cynicism of modern superhero and post-9/11 blockbusters. It has dark moments, but in the context of pure whimsy. It opens in 1955, and John Hurt’s Professor Bloom is raising a young Hellboy (who, adorably, thinks Howdy Doody is real). Bloom tells Hellboy a bedtime story about the Golden Army, which is a group of mechanical soldiers created by elves to battle humanity and his industrialist encroachment of nature. The whole exposition scene is done through CGI wooden puppets, and like to think this is Hellboy’s imagination of the story. It gets the exposition across (war happened, elves regretted it and broke the crown needed to control it, prince of elves wasn’t happy) but it’s delightful to watch. And yes, I noticed when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part I stole this idea.

MO: Yeah, that’s the best part of that particular film, but it’s not as good.

LG: And I love that Hellboy’s thing of mispronouncing words started as a kid: he pronounces “indestructible” as “industable”. Then we get these wonderful gear-credits before we meet the most sympathetic villain in all of Del Toro’s films.

MO: Prince Nuada, played by Luke Gross (Nomak from Blade II), is unhappy that the humans forgot about the elves and destroyed most of the forests, has decided to repair the crown, reclaim the Golden Army, and fight back. He’s not a bad man- he’s fighting for his dying culture- but he’s doing bad things. Humanity has not exactly respected his people.

LG: Humanities ability to reject anyone it sees as different is a huge theme here. Hellboy is still not happy being an outsider who has to hide, and he’s going to make his presence known. I love that he has to deal with the real world now. It’s man vs. nature again, but nature is fighting back. It's a very different film tonally, It’s lighter and zippier, but no less complicated and sincere.

MO: Since John Hurt died in the first film, Jeffrey Tambor is the new boss, and he still has a wonderfully contentious relationship with Hellboy.

LG: It’s played a little more for laughs here. Hurt was Hellboy's real father figure and now comes Tambor as a kind of step-dad whom Hellboy just has no respect for. The harder he tries to get Hellboy in line, the more he regresses emotionally. The first film dealt with how these monsters dealt with being outcasts, this one deals with how they fair in the spotlight when Hellboy decides to reveal himself to the public. This was probably inevitable. Hellboy's greatest aspiration has always been to be just an ordinary guy.

MO: And Abe (Doug Jones, voicing the part this time) is horrified, because he knows this isn’t going to work out, while Liz (Selma Blair) is horrified because she’s used to being stared at and hurt by normal people.

LG: And this puts a lot of tension on her relationship with Hellboy. It’s a bit cartoonish and exaggerated, but it’s fun and it fits the tone of the film very well. Liz needs Hellboy to grow up, and there’s more urgency to it because she learns early on that she’s pregnant.

MO: There’s also more push against Hellboy. As he fights for humanity, they don’t accept him. He saves a baby, and the mother screams at him and asks him what he’s done to the baby. He gets stuff thrown at him and people call him a freak.

LG: He’s a very conflicted guy. He’s a demon from Hell, sent ostensibly to bring the apocalypse, but because of his upbringing, he was brought up to love people. But there’s always that sheet of glass between them, and it really bothers him. His need to be loved becomes so obsessive that it’s self-destructive.

MO: Liz points out that they’re just not going to accept him, so she and Abe will have to be enough. There’s a sense that they’re more comfortable with each other at this point. In some of the arguments between Hellboy and Liz, she’s on fire (she’s pyrokinetic), and that’s just something that’s kind of accepted.

LG: Yeah, she’s more casual about her powers now. She’s learned how to control it, but when she gets angry, it still comes out. It’s a bit like if the Hulk went through anger management.

MO: There’s also a great scene with Abe and Tambor walking through the halls while casual monster stuff happens in the background of the Bureau, and they’re not paying attention to it at all. Abe’s explanation for something weird when Tambor does glance back at it: “Oh, it’s Friday.”

LG: That sequence does have a bit of a Men in Black/Ghostbusters feel.

MO: That’s astute, because like Men in Black, these are just people doing their jobs, and sometimes not doing it very well. Plus, Danny Elfman does the music this time, and there are tones similar to his stuff in Men in Black.

LG: And there are wonderful monsters. There’s a large sequence in what’s called a Troll Market. It’s like the Tattooine Cantina sequence turned up to 11. All of these creatures are well designed. There’s a fish guy who sells fish to eat…

MO: Which Abe is mortified by. There’s the troll that has a baby thing on his side that keeps making fun of him (it’s like a humorous Total Recall homage). And when Hellboy apologizes for scaring the baby, it says, “I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor”.

LG: There’s a creature who runs a map store, and his head is shaped like a cathedral. This thing is bursting at the seams with imagination.

MO: A lot of this is Del Toro getting the chance to run wild with delightful showmanship in monsters. It actually reminded me a bit of Evil Dead II. Nuada’s troll guardian Wink has a mechanical hand that crawls by itself at certain points. And the fight between Hellboy and Wink has moments of great slapstick humor that shows Raimi influences. Hellboy has a cigar that gets smashed: “That was Cuban! Now you pissed me off!”

LG: It’s kind of like a riff on the sunglasses action movie thing, where the bad guy breaks the hero’s sunglasses, and then we know shit just got real. It’s very funny.

MO: One of the big changes amidst all the weirdness- we got rid of that useless audience-surrogate character. I understand that the actor was unavailable because he was doing something on Broadway, but I can’t imagine Del Toro minded. Mr. Studio Note, as we remember him, didn’t really add much.

LG: There would have been no place for him in this narrative. Now, the Tooth Fairies in general are very much like a Raimi or Looney Toons thing, where the tooth fairies are constantly crawling up people’s legs and, when they’re smashed, they splatter on the camera in a really fun and inventively gooey way.

MO: Del Toro has said that his favorite movie of all time, though, is Bride of Frankenstein, and you can tell considering how much he sympathizes with these monsters. He actually plays a clip of it on one of Hellboy’s TVs after he gets rejected, where Karloff’s monster yells “We belong dead!”. These people don’t have a place to belong, except with each other. That feeling was present in the first film, but it’s amplified here.

LG: I’m really glad they changed up the tone. If it had the same gothic feel as the first, it’d feel repetitive. Del Toro’s at a different point in his life. The first film is more about finding yourself and trying to get into a relationship, and this one is more about maturity. It allows the characters to progress, unlike what happens in most superhero narratives where people are just sort of frozen in time.

MO: And there are moments of inventiveness that I really love that play into the story. Nuada has a twin sister name Nuala, and there’s a bit of a yin-yang thing. She’s very sweet, but she and Nuada have a thing where if one of them is injured, they both feel it. Nuala has a connection with Abe because they have telepathic powers, and Abe falls in love with her almost instantly.

LG: That would be annoying in another movie, but it’s justified here because of the way Abe works. He’s such a sweet, inexperienced and innocent guy that I’d believe him falling in love that quickly.

MO: And his awkwardness trying to court her is the best thing ever. He has giant contact lenses for his big eyes to get rid of the goggles he needs to see outside. And there’s a wonderful scene between him and Hellboy. Liz is angry at Hellboy, who feels really rejected, and Abe doesn’t know how to talk to women. Abe is playing a CD of classic love songs, and the two of them get drunk together. One of the songs on the tape is Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You”. Now, I hate Barry Manilow…

LG: Me too.

MO: …but this moment of them drunkenly singing out of tune to “Can’t Smile Without You” filled my heart with joy.

LG: It’s one of the most wonderful surprises in a film full of wonderful surprises. It’s borderline surrealistic to see this blue fish-man and a giant devil get drunk and sing Barry Manilow. It’s adorable.

MO: We also get another new character, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane), who’s interesting because he’s ectoplasmic energy within a mechanical suit (with mandibles, no less, because Del Toro loves bugs). And he’s German. Hellboy doesn’t like Germans. He makes a couple of cracks about Nazis that are in poor taste, but Hellboy can be kind of a dick sometimes, so it’s just the character’s actions that are in poor taste, not the film itself. He does not like Krauss’ sense of order.

LG: He’s another in Del Toro's line of clockwork men.

MO: But there's more to him. After (Spoilers) Hellboy is critically injured, Liz rebukes him for not being human anymore, but Krauss finds his inner humanity, and they’re able to save him. (End Spoilers) But to the same extent, there’s some part of Krauss that is right in his criticisms of Hellboy, because His macho thing is pretty over-the-top. When they’re in the roll market and Hellboy beats up on everyone, a lot of it is unjustified.

LG: Yeah, he’s going over-the-top. He loses his temper. Del Toro indulges a bit here, but he’s taking the piss out of macho stereotypes, as Hellboy’s methods too often aren’t effective. I also want to talk about some of the monsters, some of the most sympathetic ones Del Toro ever put on the screen. Wink is wonderful, he’s just a big nerdy misfit, like Hellboy, but he’s too introverted, and he compensates by being brash. We have this elemental plant creature borrowed from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and a precursor to the giant monster city destruction we’ll see in Pacific Rim. Hellboy has a moment where he has to kill the creature, and it’s kind of sad. Del Toro doesn’t see monsters as evil, but as animals. We learn that this is the last of its kind, and Hellboy understands, but he has to kill it to save people, and he’s really conflicted over his decision. The only crime this thing committed is existing in a world without a place for it, something Hellboy can certainly relate to.

MO: And as it’s killed, blood starts turning into moss, and it spouts flowers all over the place. There’s something beautiful about it, but it’s also very sad. This is also Del Toro’s best action yet.

LG: This is a guy who took to action very well, but he’s very good at not repeating himself. It was kung-fu in Blade II, it was wrestling Hellboy, and here it’s a very fluid mix. Hellboy is slower, Nuada is faster. And it’s very inventive. Hellboy flips around in chairs like Jackie Chan, he kills monsters while holding a baby like Chow Yun-Fat, and there’s also light comedy that recalls Chaplin and Keaton. It’s very fluid- Del Toro uses pans and dollies to keep everything in the frame, and he doesn’t cut a lot. The choreography is wonderful, too.

MO: The film has my two favorite fights in any of Del Toro’s films. One is with the Golden Army, which is this great Harryhausen-esque thing because even though it’s CGI, there’s something of a stop motion quality about their animations.

LG: I do like the design. They’re like eggs that open up into these robots with fire inside them. And I love that even though they’re mechanical they seem to feel pain, and they scream like train whistles.

MO: Hellboy and Krauss fighting against them is a lot of fun because they have to take them apart one-by-one, Hellboy with brawn, Krauss by possessing one of them. And then we learn that they can reconstruct, which leads to the next fight. In order to stop them, Hellboy has to challenge Nuada to a fight. It’s heavy-handed guy vs. a quick guy, and they’re fighting over a gigantic gear set. Del Toro uses it well to have Hellboy fall in the gears (Cough–Modern Times–cough) and hide and come back up on another one.

LG: There’s great levels to play with, and it’s very dynamic and fluid.

MO: Going back to thematic stuff- Abe’s justification for protecting Nuala is that she’s alone in the world, and he has to help her. She’s like him. And the fact that Liz and Hellboy are willing to go to the ends of the earth for each other is central. It may lead to something really terrible. In this film, it leads to the only truly great set-up for a sequel I’ve seen in any comic book movie ever, and it comes naturally in the story and not after the credits, so all the rest of you superhero movies can eat it.

(Spoilers from here on out)
LG: The first time Hellboy and Nuada fight, Hellboy is stabbed with a spear that breaks off in his chest, and we learn that it’s a magical fragment that slowly inches towards his heart, and any attempt to remove it brings it even closer. This gives a chance for a nice reversal, because in the first film, Liz turned into a damsel in distress by the end. Here, she has to be the hero, and she’s very internal, so it’s a great way to push her character to take charge. They go to Ireland to find Nuada, they go underground, and they meet the Angel of Death.

MO: Played very well by Doug Jones, in another first-rate performance.

LG: It's another great creature. Its eyes are in its wings. And the Angel of Death says that she’ll save him, but Liz needs to know that he’ll bring about the apocalypse, and that Liz will suffer more than anyone else because of it. But she doesn't care about the consequences, because she loves him. It sets up the sequel wonderfully. He is a demon sent from hell, and the idea that sets up where the hero will be either the villain or have to make the ultimate sacrifice. It’s an extremely bold choice, it’s unique problem for Hellboy, and bravo to Guillermo for finding a way to set this up that doesn't stop the momentum of the film or feel tacked on. In fact the knowledge that Hellboy will one day go through all this, I think, changes the way we look at the ending, particularly the last scene where they all quit.

MO: It’s not an in-joke, it’s not fan service. This is absolutely natural for who Hellboy is and how this has to end.

LG: But we’re not sure if it’s going to. These movies don’t cost a lot, blockbuster-wise, but they also don’t make an outrageous amount. I think Hellboy II could have made more, but it did come out in a very bad time.

MO: Two weeks after WALL-E, and a week before The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, it was only going to do so well. We are hopeful that Del Toro will get a chance to finish his, though he’s gotta hurry up, because Ron Perlman is 63.

LG: Luckily with Hellboy it’s easier to do things with stuntmen because of all the makeup, but he’s getting up there.

MO: Not that we’re afraid that he’s going to drop dead, but he is the only person who can play this part. Who else could deliver those lines? A great Bride of Frankenstein reference as Jeffrey Tambor promises him a cigar if he stays out of the spotlight: “Cuban good. Being seen bad.”

LG: And there’s something else of note at the end as Nuada dies, asking Hellboy if it’s going to be “them (humans) or us”, and Hellboy can’t answer him. I don’t think he has an answer.

MO: And this happens because Nuala, for the good of the world, kills herself. It’s a beautiful moment of self-sacrifice, and it’s a throwback to the emotional ending that didn’t quite work in Blade II.

LG: And I like that this gives more emphasis to fantasy than the religious themes of the first one. It gives it a different flavor. I have no idea what they’ll do for Hellboy III, but I can’t imagine they’d repeat the same thing again.

MO: It’s a pure, fun film, and it’s one of my favorite superhero movies.

LG: This is an A.

MO: A-.

LG: No, A!

MO: A-, but it’s a wonderful movie.

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