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HELLBOY (2004)
HULK (2003)

The Creeping Flesh Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee Director: Freddie Francis. Writers: Peter Spenceley, Jonathan Rumbold
I remember seeing this one on television long, long ago, and the memory that remains most vividly is the giant hooded creature silhouetted against the rain at the film's climax. I was pretty well creeped out by that, and the memory of that image alone is enough to put this film into the “positive reaction” category.

That image still retains its power after all this time, but the rest of the movie is...okay. It's a good Friday night rental when you're not terribly choosy. The thing is, I would love to rate it higher than that, but I have to be honest.
The movie is very handsomely done, the photography and color scheme, the costumes and period detail are up to the level of a Hammer film. (It's not a Hammer film, though.) Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee both star, so that helps with the idea that mmmmaybe it's kind of a Hammer film. (It's not a Hammer film, note.) The secondary roles are all filled with actors from that great British pool of I-think-I've-seen-that-guy-in-something-What-the-hell-is-his-name-again? And it's all played with a lot of seriousness, which is something that can help the most dire project.

Well, this is far from dire. In fact, it's kind of enjoyable. Just, not THAT enjoyable. Not what I remembered. My memory is of some hovering dread over this film, every moment spent (as a callow youth) wondering, “Should I turn this off now, and get some sleep, or should I have nightmares for weeks?” And I have to apologize to you and the film-makers, for judging this film based on what I remember, and how I remember it affecting me, rather than what's here on the screen. But hey, sometimes you have to, um, get crappy service, because, um, you, uh, your check to me didn't clear the bank. You creep! I oughta--


Well, I'm back. Anyway, though this film doesn't live up to my pre-wired memories, there is a lot going on in its 90 minutes. Peter Cushing returns from New Guinea with a huge skeleton (eight feet tall at least) that he found in a very deep archeological dig. When water touches the bones, they start to grow flesh! This alarms Peter Cushing, and he cuts off the one finger upon which this reaction occurred...and he decides to culture some of the blood from this same finger. Next, we have Peter Cushing's wife, who died insane in the asylum. She gets a flashback showing how she was, er, basically a slut, and I guess went insane from some venerial disease. We also have Peter's daughter, she's been kept ignorant of her mother's fate (and lifestyle) to protect her. Christopher Lee is the guy who runs the asylum, he's Peter Cushing's half-brother, and he doesn't tell his (Peter's) daughter about her mother's death when that happens while Peter's away. Also added to the mix is an escaped lunatic from the aforementioned asylum, wreaking havoc and eluding the police. (A number of scenes of this. Also, did women ever have blouses this low-cut? And why don't they have them nowadays?) Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing's half-brother as mentioned, is on the brink of some research regarding insanity, which he hopes will win him this mentioned prize and, thus, some respect, because Peter's always gotten all the glory, etc (though at the start of the film, Peter's out of money). Apparently running an asylum is a good business, because Christopher funds Peter's trips, but maybe the money is not that good, as Christopher has decided to stop funding Peter's expeditions and continue with his own work. He (Christopher) has got a brain and a heart and an arm in separate tanks, they all twitch every now and then. Did I mention that Christopher runs the asylum where Peter's wife died, and where the escaped lunatic escaped from? Well, he did. Peter needs to find something really great to get his own funding. The skeleton seems to be such a find. Making some really remarkably wild leaps in speculation, he decides the giant skeleton is really some sort of demon of Pure Evil that the New Guineans would have defeated when their technology advanced to the level of Victorian England (--which they say is 3000 years away! Where the skeleton was unearthed in the fossil record, natural weathering would have brought it to the surface then. I hate to join the crowd, but man that is pretty racist).

Peter decides that if he can make an antidote to the skeleton's (the Skeleton of Pure Evil I might add) blood, he will have, in effect, a cure for evil. Mindful of his wife's, erm, evilness, which led to her death, he prematurely injects this antidote into his own daughter. (He did it with a monkey the night before and everything was fine when they called it quits for that day.) Peter's daughter kind of goes insane, hooks up with the escaped lunatic, and even he recognizes that's she's pretty damn evil and all, he's crazy but she's really bad. He goes to his death, mainly due to her evilness, she's put away in Christopher's asylum. So! Some movie, huh?

There was something else, what the hell was it? Um...

Oh yeah--that giant skeleton!

I mentioned that it re-grows its flesh when exposed to water. Periodically throughout the film, we cut to it, and we zoom into its teeth or its eye-socket, as if it's going to leap to screaming life and take some sort of generic revenge, but it never really does until Christopher Lee steals it (something about the skeleton helping his own chances to win that prize) and it ends up in a rain-storm. Rain-storm=lots of water, and water=regrown flesh, you can guess the rest. It was the scary part I mentioned a while ago, when this review began. And that bit, until its logical conclusion (Peter cut off the skeleton's regrown finger, and turnabout and all that---) is very effective (though the skeleton's flesh looks like glue with bits of blood in it).

Of course, with all this insane wife/sheltered daughter/rivalry between Christopher and Peter/escaped lunatic stuff to be trotted out and dealt with, the excellent and scary skeleton doesn't do a whole lot until those final few minutes. (I can kind of imagine it impatiently drumming its fingers as the director kept shooting these other scenes, asking for retakes, having to listen while actors asked their motivation, etc.) Also, if the skeleton is actually a Force of Pure Evil, then it honestly doesn't do much Evil during it's brief rampage. I don't think it even kills anyone.

Now, those final few minutes as mentioned are a good final few minutes (the creature has the manners to knock at the door, for example, but not much sense of how to treat a laboratory full of delicate equipment) but that's all there is, really. If you're looking for giant skeleton rampage action, well, I guess you should look elsewhere except I'm not sure there's an elsewhere to look.

Hellboy Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Jeffrey Tambor. Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro
I went into this wanting to like it, and I guess overall I was somewhat disappointed, though I'd still like to be positive about the film. Having said that, let me add that the characters were mostly fun and there were some nifty sequences. But there were also parts that served no purpose except to drag the pace down and add to the running time.

I've never read the comic book this movie is based on, so I don't know how many of the plot arcs or characters were canon, that could not be discarded or would anger or disappoint fans. All I can judge it what's on the screen, and my overall impression was that there were far too many things happening here, and very few of them were really dealt with as thoroughly as they should have been.

Take, for example, the aquatic guy, Abe Sapien. He's a very appealing character and I liked him a lot, but I wonder if he couldn't have been eliminated from the movie to its benefit. He doesn't seem to do a lot other than speak wisely. He has one action sequence which doesn't really advance the story at all, except to injure him and confine him to a tank for the rest of the movie. He provides some information, but not really enough that matters a lot.

Another character, Liz Sherman, is able to radiate fire and intense heat from her body. In the past, this resulted in some unnecessary deaths, so she's retired from the force (Hellboy and Abe work for some government anti-demon squad) and resides in a mental institution. There is a lot of story time expended on her, and how she feels bad, and how Hellboy misses her, and this other guy tries to persuade her to come back, and Hellboy thinks she's “interested” in this other guy, which makes him sad, then mad, and so on. Again, I think a lot of this could have been eliminated. Have her remain a member of the team at the start of the film. She can still do all the somber reminiscing she wants. (Admittedly, there is a good bit about cookies in the above mess, but I think I could have skipped it and remained happy.)

We are, after all, talking about a movie that lasts two hours. Let's use that time wisely.

Among the villains, there's a female who does so little she could have been eliminated easily. The main bad guy isn't actually the main bad guy, leading to a “second” ending that's dealt with far too quickly—when you have all these action sequences to go through, none of them can have much impact if they're all over in a couple of minutes. (The one exception is an early fight between Hellboy and a monster, which conversely goes on far too long for what it accomplishes). An action scene should be exciting, not wearying (too long) or unsatisfying (too short).

The last villain is the most interesting, a henchman wearing a metal mask who's an expert with a blade. Considering that he's on screen the most of the villains (except for the monsters) it's surprising how little he's allowed to do. And he's diminished by the characters at every turn. Me, had I made the movie, he would have been the main bad guy and escaped for the sequel, but I'm ahead of myself...

As for Hellboy himself, it's always fun to see Ron Perlman, and he does well with the character. The character itself is basically a big palooka, but he retains enough of an enigma that you're not surprised everyone's a little afraid of him. To his nature and abilities, we learn he's extremely strong, fireproof, and he can find dead people who can still talk. (And since this dead guy is Russian, I guess he can understand all languages or something.) He's given some odd traits like a love of cats, which doesn't really come into play except one time, when he actually endangers (while trying to save) a box of kittens.

I suspect that these elements are all present and very important in the comic books, and director Guillermo del Toro (being a huge fan of the series) wanted to be as faithful as possible. The problem is, it overstuffs the movie with elements and sequences that, as I've said, can't really be given their due during a mere two-hour movie.

Good models for comic book series are shown in the Spider-Man and X-Men series. In both cases, the first movie (in my opinion) was little more than a franchise-starter. The characters were introduced, the ground rules and recurring themes were laid down, and a somewhat mediocre storyline served to move the whole thing along.

And, in both cases, the sequels delivered what the first films only promised. One might think, well, let's cut to the sequel then! Give the fans what they want right out of the gate. But think for a moment: how would X-Men 2, or Spider-Man 2, been as movies if the first movies were combined with the second, shoehorned into two hours of running time? In both cases, you want to appeal not only to fans but to people (like me, in the case of Hellboy) who have only a vague idea of the property. So, you still have to introduce the characters, lay the groundwork, etc etc.

I think what you'd end up with, with those Marvel characters, would be a lot like Hellboy, a vast, sprawling mess containing far two many characters, far too many plot threads, and far too many action sequences, none of which were developed to the point where audiences (meaning me, I guess) could do anything other than say, “Nice special effects. Nice action. Nice design. Nice funny quip” or whatever, without investing anything emotionally into any of it. (As an aside, this movie reminded me a lot of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—which was another movie based on a comic book.)

The thing to do, in my opinion, would be to cut this movie in half. There's a plot about breeding monsters that seemed to have little to do with the main story arc, maybe that could have been eliminated? I dunno. Well, combine that with the Masked Knife Guy. He's the one raising the monsters, and he's doing it in order to bring about the resurrection of the head bad guy. At the end, place someone in peril so Hellboy has to save them rather than prevent the resurrection of head bad guy. So head bad guy is alive now, but Hellboy does something to minimize his threat. Buries him in a cave or something. So, the next movie would be head bad guy dealing with his Elder Gods freeing scheme.

By splitting this into two movies, I think the film at hand would be a lot more entertaining and involving than it was. But maybe that would have been the wrong thing to do for the character, as presented in the comic books. The comic books, after all, are what spawned this character and I can certainly understand why Mr. Del Toro would want to bring that spirit into the film. I just hope Mr. Del Toro can understand why it makes a rather exhausting film.

Still, as I said way up at the top of this, my feeling toward this film is positive. I enjoyed the characters, the designs were good (I didn't care for the monsters, much, they looked like Cthulhu crossed with a Predator) and there were some great sequences.

And besides, I see they've announced a sequel....

PS: If you find this review repetitious, with too many ideas, none of which are developed beyond a simple “Here, read this,” then I think I've captured the flavor of Hellboy for you. You're welcome.

The Hulk Starring: Eric Bana, Jennefer Connelly, Nick Nolte. Director: Ang Lee. Writers: James Schamus, John Turman, Michael France
Why would anyone want to see a movie about the Hulk? Note: I'm not asking why anyone would want to MAKE such a movie, the box office returns from the Spider-Man and X-Men (both Marvel properties, like the Hulk) films is all the answer that Hollywood needs. And I can see why the character and situations involved with the Hulk would interest writers and directors. It's a very complex saga, with a main character far more hated and feared than any other Marvel character (exclusing villains). And said character's “secret identity” is far more tortured and tormented than the worst nightmares of Spider-Man and Wolverine. And the effect of Bruce Banner's hulk-ness has been devastating not only to himself, but to his friends and loved ones as well. Naturally a Hollywood screenwriter would leap at the throat of such a property and wrestle it into a headlock.
But why would any audience want to see the resulting movie? There's a big difference between the Hulk and most other super-heroes.

The thing is, for most super-heroes I liked, I can't speak for anyone but me here, I wanted to BE that super-hero, tormented psyche or no. But I never wanted to be the Hulk. Strong as the Hulk, sure, but the Hulk himself? Good Heavens, no!

Let's be honest, here. Sorry, Hulk, but you're an idiot. A usually well-meaning and innocent idiot, who gets caught up in the machinations of others, and who usually gets blamed for a whole lot that isn't his fault, which adds to his innocent-in-babylon appeal...but an idiot none-the-less. His massive strength has always been like that of a force of nature, an earthquake or tornado, and it's pretty clear even he can't understand it or successfully control it.

I read the Hulk pretty regularly back in the 70's and always enjoyed the stories. The storylines and characters were always interesting and well-drawn (in both senses), with a lot of jostling back and forth between two camps, in the midst of which was the Hulk. And that's another thing about the Hulk: he frequently seemed like a supporting character in his own comic. Now, he usually brought about resolutions to the current conflict in his own inimitable way, but that was seldom a matter of weighing evidence and following clues. Usually, if we were lucky, the bad guys managed to make the Hulk mad, and the good guys didn't. In a number of cases, though, any sort of natural disaster could take the Hulk's place in the story. In some stories, I seem to recall (vaguely) that he could have been left out alogether (I'm thinking of one of a submarine full of Hulk-like types who spoke in Latin, if you must know).

My feeling is, if you want to do the Hulk as a movie, you have to deal with huge forces and titanic displays of power. Get rid of subtlety all together. It shouldn't be a superhero movie, or a comic book movie. It should be a disaster movie, albeit with a sympathetic disaster at the center. So, when director Ang Lee said, “I'm going to do this story as a Greek tragedy,” my first thought was, Uh oh.

Thus, I wasn't particularly surprised when the resultant film failed to overwhelm at the box office. Eric Bana is fine if a bit bland as Joseph Jaworsky, noted scientist, caught in the wheels of, no, I meant Bruce Banner. But honestly, who cares about Bruce Banner? When I was reading the comics and the Hulk would revert to Banner, it was always almost a surprise: Oh yeah, he's in this comic. I remember an issue of Defenders, when Hulk was a member of that team, when Banner showed up for a few panels and didn't even get a line. His only function was for his team-mates to get him angry, so they could use the Hulk's power to escape some villain's plot.

Banner was never as central to the Hulk as Peter Parker was to Spider-Man, or Bruce Wayne was to Batman.

So, alas and alack, a good, sympathetic Banner doesn't really earn a lot of bonus points with anyone other than Greek tragedy fans. Can you imagine hearing that someone was going to make a Superman movie, and he then said, “But I'm going to spend most of the screen time on Clark Kent—you know, show how Superman interferes with Clark having a normal life, and how tormented he is by his Superman persona.” You'd think that person had gone nuts.

Jennifer Connolly is always nice to look at, and as befits a post-Oscar performance, she gets a lot more screen time than is really necessary. Sam Elliot looks perfect as General Ross, but his acting is so stiff he might as well be an animatronic puppet. Then there are the villains, Josh Lucas as Glenn Talbot, who's a shady businessman type, and Nick Nolte as a total creep who experiments on his own son...both are icky without being anyone that a person could look at and NOT think, “Just smash them into pulp.” Nolte, in particular, isn't anyone that an audience could look at and say, “Yeah, I can see his point” like Magneto from the X-Men films. He's a creep, who has inexplicable access to the lab where he works as a janitor. He looks like Kris Kristopherson in the Blade movies. Late in the film he gets some good scenes with Connolly, but he acts them so low that they don't seem to make the impact they ought to. As a villain, he's simultaneously too icky and too small.

The Hulk needs an enemy who is equal to him in power...not necessarily strength, but ability. Someone like the Leader, an evil super-genius from the Hulk's early comic book appearances. Someone who comprehends the Hulk's physical power and can match it with his own abilities.

Nolte is just a creep. Late in the film, he becomes a combination of The Absorbing Man, The Vision, and (apparently, from a brief flash of his hand) The Abomination, but those words “late in the film” tell you all you need to know.

(Except they don't, really. This film is way, way too long. And while some long films can be absorbing so you don't notice the length—the first Harry Potter movie, for example—this one feels so much like a series of vignettes stitched together that practically everything interesting that happens feels as if it's either been tacked on to wake everyone up, or feels like it's just GOT to be happening near the end of some long, long road. But there are many long roads to travel.)

The much-vaunted split-screen effects, intended to make the film look and feel like a comic book, are for the most part annoying and distracting. They could easily have been removed to make the film a straight-forward narrative. I suspect they were thrown in so the comic book fans would say, “Hey, look, it has panels—like a comic book! I can actually RELATE to this!” Except people who are fans of one medium aren't (necessarily) stupid. They know that other media have different rules and methods of story-telling. The split screen effects really tell us nothing we couldn't have gotten from more straight-forward storytelling, and in less time, too. (Very late in the film, there's a nice bit with Connolly and Elliot where the split-screens do work, and so does Elliott's acting for some reason.)

Except, of course, it ain't straight-forward at all. We're thirty-minutes in before the gamma ray accident, and forty-one before the Hulk makes his appearance. Dunno about you, but I get the distinct impression the film-makers feel they are way, way above this material. “Man, no one wants to see the Hulk in the first ten minutes of the movie! Not when I've got all this human drama to present!”

As for the Hulk himself, I have to admit that facially the effects guys did great work. He looks expressive and realistic and he's done quite subtlely. Body wise he looks like clay, and his color is distractingly weird and non-natural. Action-wise, the effects people are still suffering from CGI Twitch-Syndrome. This is when someone points out that “He can twitch his elbows! He can roll his eyes! He can flutter his cheeks and wiggle his ears! We have control over every muscle—look!” and whoever is in charge says, “Great, let's have him do all those things all at once whenever he's on screen! It'll show people how great an effect he is!”

There's a scene near the hundred minute mark where the Hulk is leaping across the desert, and it's really well done...the Hulk has the sort of serene, peaceful expression he rarely (if ever) had in the comics. And he seems to take a sort of joy in his leaping from mountain to island to mountain. The best scene in the film. Kudos to the team for that.

Anyway, it's the sort of movie where Connolly exaggeratedly takes off her scarf in the middle of a conversation with Nolte, and the camera watches Nolte take this and hide it away, so we all know what's coming up later...making me wonder if the film-makers are contemptuous of comic books (which are not at all on the level of Greek tragedies) or of audiences (who wouldn't know a Greek tragedy if it played at the local high school). In which case we might as well be talking about Joseph Jaworsky, noted scientist, now killer, kill just to be killing. Flag on the moon—how did it get there?

It's probably not wise for me to mention the Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno TV series of some years back, because so far as I can recall, I never saw an episode. However, I was aware enough of it to know the basic thrust—it was The Fugitive, or any number of Guy-Unjustly-On-The-Run shows, with a powerful green guy who showed up to resolve that week's drama. In other words, it was really David [Bruce] Banner's story. If that's what you want, Hulk is a decent remake of that, with a bit more Ferringo action to top it off. With the strange additive that...Bruce Banner and the Hulk don't seem to be separate personalities. Hulk knows who Betty is and responds to her.

Late in the film (notice how often that phrase crops up) there is some very good Hulk-on-military action, just what we've been waiting for, but it's late and most of my goodwill has already been spent just keeping me watching this. There's been too much stop and start. Any sense of fun has been bled from the movie, and that's a terrible thing to realise.

I think the moral of the story is clear. If you're going to make a movie based on a comic book, don't pick someone who tells you, “I will make a Greek tragedy.” No disrespect to Mr. Lee, who (I think) didn't know the strengths of the property when he signed on.

Pick someone who says, “I'll make the best comic book movie ever made, it'll make kids throw away the comics because they aren't as good!” And if he yells “Excelsior!” sign them right then and there.

The Village Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt. Directed and Written by M. Night Shyamalan
I enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie a great deal. It's the first of his films that I've seen that doesn't take place, recognizably, in the modern world, and as usual with him the construction of the drama, the players, the elements and the hinted-at history is very rich in detail. Music, photography and editing are also first rate. This one is well worth seeing.

At first, the acting and dialogue seemed very odd to me—I don't think anyone in the village uses contractions, and as such the dialect seems a bit stilted and somewhat stagey, like in an old play. But I quickly got used to it and was immersed in this odd locale.

Shyamalan is an extremely gifted film-maker, and it's unfortunate that his reputation rests on his ability to deliver the “twist ending,” mainly since that was such an effective element of his first hit, The Sixth Sense. Yes, there is a twist here (several, in fact) but they are so well integrated into the drama that it seems a shame to call them “twists.” I mean, yeah, they are “twists” in the strict dramatic sense, but they're way better than the typical cinematic type.

Usually, when I think of “twist ending” in the movies, I think of awful cliches like “Yes, it was all a dream” or “It turns out the monster was a good guy, after all” and such like. In other words, something that cheapens the film and makes you wonder why you cared about what was happening at all. Has anyone ever seen a “Yes, it was all a dream” ending and not felt pretty damned cheated? Not counting The Wizard of Oz, probably the only time that one was done right.

Shyamalan's twists (and I know I'm misspelling his name, I'll correct it later) are integral parts of the drama which cast everything that has preceded them into a new light (most famously, again, in The Sixth Sense). As such, instead of negating what has gone before (“It was all a dream”) it enriches it, colors it in a different spectrum. You see the logic and structure of what happened before, it made sense then, now it makes a different kind of sense, a higher kind of sense if you will.

Now, in the case of The Village, even after the “twists,” some of what has happened before remains unexplained but that's fine with me, it gives me something to think about after the movie is over, and thus makes the movie even more multi-dimensional, more a slice of some other, real world rather than just a movie. What more can you ask from cinematic entertainment? I'm told movies are your best entertainment value, after all. That's what all those stickers on the video boxes say.

So, yes, go and see this film. If you're like me, you respect the value of a film-maker's vision, rather than his current standing among critics. I mean, I honestly give every film-maker the benefit of the doubt when I plop down in the theatre seat, or plop the DVD into the player, but there are only a few directors who are in my company of “this person is good, I'll pay to see his/her stuff in the theatre” and M. Night Shyamalan is definitely in that company. Highly recommended.

Note: I see that the film is getting a pretty rough ride from the critics. Honestly, I think that's to be expected. Film critics are funny critters, I think they really review each other more than they review the actual movie at hand. I imagine the thought process was something like, “Man, I've given this guy good reviews three times now...I don't want to seem like a shill! No matter what the movie is like, I'm going to pan it. I'll say the twist is too easy to guess. Yeah, that'll do it...don't want to seem like I actually watch movies for what they are--and Shyamalan is known for his twists...that's what I'll do. Now, what are some lame indie films I can over-rate?”

That's my world, anyway. If it's yours, too, welcome aboard to the world of honestly enjoying more movies. If it's not your world, well, enjoy being trendy.