Friday, April 9, 2004

Thursday is movies day, when the weekly entertainment publication Currents -- that's one of the things I edit -- comes out. I do a movie reviews column for it that I started about 2 years ago, thinking it would last a few months but it turns out there are a lot of movies in the world, and I'm enjoying playing with the movie review form. So anyway, this week's reviews included Hellboy, which I found a lot of goofy fun even though it's one of the few comic book movies I haven't actually read the comics for, and Shattered Glass which was just a superb little journalistic thriller:

We’ve seen men of steel, men dressed as bats and spiders, and even big green hulks, all working to save the world in comic book-inspired movie action.
So why not a demon superhero?
The colorful, lighthearted and fun “Hellboy,” based on the cult comic by former Portland resident Mike Mignola, opens in 1945, with an evil plot by the Nazis involving sorcery, science and an attempt to bring demons from another realm to Earth. But the experiment goes awry, and American G.I.s capture the thing that does pop through the Nazi portal — a tiny, red baby demon.
Skip to the present day, and this demon has grown up and is working for the U.S. government’s paranormal studies division of the F.B.I. The “Hellboy” (Ron Perlman) is nearly seven feet tall, almost indestructible and has a passion for smoking cigars and eating nachos. Despite his dark heritage, he’s a pretty good guy.
Hellboy spends his time fighting monsters for the government, but he’s kept a secret from the American public, forced to live in a secret federal installation.
Sixty years after his “birth,” the Nazis that brought Hellboy to Earth come back, led by none other than the famous Russian “mad monk” Rasputin (Karel Roden). There’s a plot to destroy the world by summoning unbeatable creatures, a herd of angry immortal Nazis and somewhere in between, Hellboy wants to win the girl (Selma Blair) he’s in love with.
It’s like a cross between “X-Men” and “X-Files,” with a dash of “Men In Black” thrown in the mix.
You can’t go wrong with cyborg Nazis, killer demons and big sci-fi guns. “Hellboy” is a fanboy geek’s dream of a movie, overloaded with bizarre characters and grotesque bad guys. While it’s not quite a perfect movie, it’s a solid entertainment.
Director and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro fills the movie with quirky, colorful details. He actually gave up the chance to direct the next “Harry Potter” movie to do “Hellboy,” and infuses it with a fan’s love while keeping the movie accessible to all.
Hellboy’s definitely at the obscure end of comic characters, somewhere between Silver Surfer and Shanna the She-Devil. “Hellboy” does a pretty good job of setting up the twisted, shadowy world these characters live in for the novices.
Perlman — best known for his turn on TV’s “Beauty and the Beast” in the 1980s and as assorted surly freaks in the “Aliens” and “Blade” series— is an inspired and utterly perfect choice as Hellboy. He actually acts under the latex and gives a refreshingly relaxed performance, wisecracking his way through danger and making Hellboy seem as normal as a red guy with a tail who shaves back his horns daily can be.
Hellboy is a enjoyable working-class hero. Unlike Superman or Batman, you can picture kicking back with a beer to hear Hellboy’s tales of wrestling beasts from the pit. You’ve got to love a hero whose catchphrase is a low-frills, “Aw, crap.”
The movie that surrounds him isn’t quite as lean as it could be, though. The plot itself is a fairly preposterous pastiche of H.L. Lovecraft-style apocalyptic witchcraft and demon-summonings that starts to run out of steam eventually. The movie falls prey to the cursed “multiple climaxes” syndrome.
I also would’ve liked to see a little more of the supporting characters, who, except for a colorless novice FBI agent (Rupert Evans), are all scene-stealers. I particularly liked Abe Sapien, a fish-man psychic, voiced by “Frasier’s” David Hyde Pierce, and the reliably smarmy Jeffrey Tambor as a blowhard FBI chief.
What lingers the most in “Hellboy” aren’t the slimy tentacled nasties, which do all blend together after a while, but the little character moments — a scene where Hellboy and a local kid share a plate of cookies, or the sight of Hellboy’s cluttered dormitory lair, filled with stray cats and candy bar wrappers.
These moments give “Hellboy” the same kind of emotional depth as “Spider-Man” or “X-Men,” so it’s not just empty spectacle. But it also has fun with the idea, and avoids the solemn pomposity that sank last year’s “Daredevil” or “Hulk” flicks.
We’re in the middle of a comic-book movie wave these days, and I couldn’t be happier as long as more of these flicks have the heart and humor of “Hellboy.”

Shattered Glass
Are all journalists liars?
If that’s what you believe, then “Shattered Glass” won’t change your illusions. But if you’re interested in a look behind the bylines and pressures that drive young journalists and the tale of one who went horribly astray, then this movie will fascinate you.
It’s the true tale of writer Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old writer and editor for The New Republic magazine and several other publications who set off a scandal in 1998 when it was revealed that many of his stories consisted of glaring fabrications. He was Jayson Blair before we knew about Jayson Blair, in other words.
First-time director and writer Billy Ray does an impressive job turning Glass’s specific situation into a metaphor for a culture obsessed with entertaining itself at any cost.
“Glass” is basically structured as a detective story. We meet Glass (Hayden Christensen), who’s a fascinating mix of bold storytelling skills, boy genius luck and insecurity galore (his favorite line when confronted is, “Are you mad at me?”). He’s a rising wonder boy under The New Republic’s editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), able to find fantastic stories about great subjects.
When the well-liked Kelly leaves, the less showy, principled Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) becomes the magazine’s new editor, and starts to have suspicions about Glass’s amazing bylines. What follows is a fascinating, twisted journey into the rat’s nest of denial Glass has forged around the truth.
Christensen atones for his wooden “Star Wars” acting in an excellent performance as a character we’ll all recognize, the butt-kissing rogue who wins people over despite their reservations about him. We never really understand Glass, but that’s kind of the point. He’s a void. But Sarsgaard is equally strong as Lane, a character who is nearly invisible at first but gradually becomes a tower of quiet strength and the story’s moral compass.
“Shattered Glass” makes what on the surface isn’t a thrilling subject into a compelling, well-acted and insightful suspense film. It’s one of the best journalism movies I’ve ever seen, the flip side of “All The President’s Men.”
I admit to some bias of my own in enjoying it so much, but I like to think it could be that way even for non-media buffs. It shows the bad and the good of journalism culture, and manages to make the dry business of hunting down sources and writing stories into high suspense.

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