Home
SATURDAY SURREALS

    Spanish art, from El Greco to Goya to Dalí, has had an affinity for the grotesque, the disturbing, the surreal.    
    Spanish cinema, from Buñuel on, ditto.
    Mexican cinema, while of a different cultural cast, shares some of the Spanish artistic background, including, especially in the case of Guillermo del Toro, a fascination with monsters. And most especially, he has said, for insects, clockwork, dark places, and unborn things.
    Del Toro's best-known works may be the hallucinatory “Pan's Labyrinth” of 2006, and 2001's “The Devil's Backbone,” a (relatively) quiet ghost  story that has some bloodcurdling jolts. Both of these are set in the Spanish Civil War, and both have to do with the importance of fantasy to children who are relentlessly brutalized.
    Having seen both of those movies I was looking forward to “Hellboy 2, The Golden Army” because del Toro's strong suit, along with his sympathy for helpless victims, is his visual imagination.“Labyrinth” in particular was peopled with creatures owing as much to Hieronymus Bosch (the biggest collection of his paintings is in Madrid) as to Terry Gilliam.
    Monty Python's Gilliam, with his fondness for overblown fairy tale imagery, may well be another  influence on del Toro – think of David Warner as The Source of All Evil lurking in his fortress of Ultimate Darkness in “Time Bandits,” or cityscapes becoming nightmares in “Brazil.”
    New York is indeed nightmarish in “Hellboy 2,” with an elven prince doing naginata practice in a subway tunnel and the Troll Market bustling under the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. (“Trolls live under bridges, right?”)
    The Elf Prince in question, along with his twin sister, are the children of the King of Elfland, who agreed to a truce with humankind just prior to unleashing his Golden Army, which are 4,900 indestructible robots. Now, eons later, the prince wants to start the war up again because humans haven't honored their side, which was to keep to the cities and leave the woods to the supernatural critters. So, since he can't persuade his father, the prince goes all Sophoclean and kills his dad.
    Meanwhile, at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense over in New Jersey (which is one way you know it's based on a comic book) Hellboy (and I'm not going to go into his origins) is at the Honeymoon's End phase with his wife Liz, who literally flames at him and his cats. Fortunately the rebellion of the mythical world comes along to divert them, and soon they're in the Troll Market, looking not very out of place, while they piece together clues and get on the trail of the Prince, who is on the trail of a crown which...and that's all of the story you're getting out of me, except to say that it contains possibly the only tumor ever to get a laugh. In fact, while the dialogue is full of peppy zingers that raise a chuckle or two, the story line is unfortunately on a simplistic level, with plot points of the “Who'd have thought – just what we need!” variety.
    As for del Toro's visuals, my main reason for seeing the movie, I'm happy to say that he frequently delivers, and sad to say that he delivers too frequently.
    There's not much you can do with or to the main characters, who were established in Part One, and Ron Perlman looks great in his prostheses and red body paint. He's also as sympathetic as it's possible for a Son of Satan to be, albeit one who's on our side now.
    There are characters that are awe-inspiring (the Angel of Death, blind save for the eyes in his wings) and moments of poetic beauty (as he dies, the Elven-King turns to a statue of ivory) that recall the earlier movies, but we get much, much more than that.
    It's in the peripheral characters that we get to the point of overkill; from the invasion of tooth fairies (which are pretty funny, if deadly) to the final attack of the Golden Army (the least convincing robots since “Transformers”) there is just too darned much to look at, all tumbled in higgledy-piggledy to the point of producing that queasy, headachey feeling.
    The final confrontation with the robots seems like twenty minutes (it can't have been that long) of the same scene, over and over, until it obliterates any concern we have for Our Guys and made me wish for a flashback to a picnic on the beach.
    I fear that del Toro lost control of the proportions of his imagination when faced with a major Hollywood budget, and major Hollywood expectations of financial success, and couldn't resist throwing absolutely everything at the camera. The charm, if I may so put it, of “Pan's Labyrinth” was that the fantasy was at the service of a very human story:  we cared so much for a little girl who was fighting Franco's fascists that the creations of her mind became extensions of our own that we wanted to believe in as much as she did. This just can't happen when all of the characters are manufactured – not as Tolkien's are, out of folklore, but out of pulp.
    (Memo to composer Danny Elfman: Wagner put in quiet bits between the brass and tympani. He knew that only Mad King Ludwig could stand  more than ten minutes of the Ride of the Valkyries   without scurrying back to the bierkeller.)

ADDENDUM: A movie I am reviewing only slightly --
    I  was twelve years old when the first big Hollywood version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” hit the theaters, and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.
    Pat Boone was just enough of a doofus that I could see him following James Mason down an Icelandic volcano, and the special effects, for their time, were spectacular. All the characters were believable, and when one of the Bad Guys ate Gertrude the Duck, I felt bad for days.
    The special effects for the new “Journey” are mostly aimed at the new 3D process that you won't see here, so you'll be left with some dinosaurs out of “Jurassic Park” and a mine-cart ride from “Temple of Doom.”
    But that's okay, because, even without 3D it's a fun trip, with a minuscule cast (three people) all of whom (Brendan Fraser, Anita Briem and Josh Hutcherson) are completely amiable, and who almost make you long for the sequel, where they will, naturally, discover Atlantis.