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by Bill Gibron

7 Nov 2008

If you ask Guillermo Del Toro what his most personal films are, the answer seems obvious - at first. The Devil’s Backbone was a chance for the Mexican moviemaker to discuss the impact of Spanish Civil War on his ancestral homeland. It combined a Gothic ghost story with a strong political agenda. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth extended the meditation to the Franquist repression during the Franco regime. Again, we got a mixture of history, heritage, honor, and horror. The third choice, however, is the oddest overall. While no one expects Blade 2 or Mimic to join the others, both Cronos and the original Hellboy were close to his humble geek heart.

Yet, oddly enough, it’s the sequel to his 2004 comic book hero epic that sits closest to the man’s soul. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation (new from Universal) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, we hear Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.

You see, long ago, when the Earth was green, humanity and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could be let loose. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic demon with a decent heart named Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.

Clearly, the connection to Mike Mignola’s comic and character is now very loose, to say the least. In fact, Del Toro reveals as part of his discussion, that when he first heard the idea for a follow-up film, Hellboy’s daddy was distraught. He didn’t like or appreciate much about the follow-up. But leave it to the likable Latino with the mind of an ADD amplified arrested adolescent to bring him around. The Golden Army is indeed great. It is two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.

Del Toro has always been the biggest of genre mavens, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling over his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.

Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 

Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.

All of these underlying themes and subtle subtexts are further explored in the DVDs bonus features (by the way, the final disc is just a digital copy of the film). We learn how the Troll Market reflects Del Toro’s views on good and evil. We see deleted scenes meant to strength the bonds between the characters. As part of the Director’s Notebooks, Del Toro discusses how Pan’s Labyrinth and the difficulty of said shoot allowed him to escape into the world of The Golden Army. And all throughout the added content, form and design, shape and approach are dissected and described, Del Toro’s unique idea for the film fleshed out by artisan’s able to fully realize his aims.

That’s why this movie is one of 2008’s best. Del Toro describes it best when he says that it’s the kind of film that, if he had seen it when he was an eager 11 year old, he would have obsessed on it for months. That’s because, instead of pulling back, this director unleashes the full force of his creative power - and the results are ridiculously resplendent.  It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat.

So we really shouldn’t be surprised to see a gentle giant with Satan’s skin standing right alongside the real world characters caught between war and remembrance in Del Toro’s canon. To dismiss Hellboy II: The Golden Army as nothing more than a pleasant popcorn experience is to underestimate the power in this filmmaker’s soul. Of all the foreign voices finding a way in mainstream genre moviemaking, Guillermo Del Toro is truly one of the best. It will be interesting to see what he does when given the canvas crafted by Peter Jackson and the universe inhabited by the equally endemic characters of JRR Tolkien. If it’s anything like this amazing masterwork, the two-part Hobbit will be another item in Del Toro’s list of favorites. And what an impressive collection it is.

by Terry Sawyer

7 Nov 2008

I admit that most of the happiness I derive from this video is the visceral pleasure of watching Monae perform.  The Annie Lennox gender bending, the classic dance nods to Michael Jackson and James Brown, and the way she opens her arms in wide swim strokes like everybody should step back so her outsized persona can get through.; it’s completely mesmerizing.  She’s strikingly self-possessed. 

But that’s just the most obvious surface.  The song itself is bold for audaciously shedding anything like a standard pop format: sounding like a Curtis Mayfield opera written for the Uptown String Quartet. It’s riveting and full of tangential suites, where dream-sequence acapella breaks into a list-rap of denigrating terms that one presumes Monae has had directed at her.  The song is existentially searching without being pretentious.  When she challenges the listener with “So when you’re growing down/instead of growing up/tell me are you bold enough to reach for love”, it’s really a gorgeous plea asking people if they can manage to be the best of themselves under the worst circumstances.  My answer:  not so much.  But damn, it’s a great lyric.  The rest of the song explores themes rather than hewing to a chorus; it’s a galaxy of a song with a charismatic center.

by Jason Gross

7 Nov 2008

Following up on my last post about cultural questions for the next prez, who thankfully is Mr. Obama, the President-Elect now has a site up to talk about his transition process including a blog and an agenda of issues.  Though it comes under “additional issues,” he does address the arts:

“Our nation’s creativity has filled the world’s libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books – Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.”

Kind of brief and vague for now so let’s hope he puts more thought into it.  If you have your own ideas about it, he’s got a place for you to sound off too.  Needless to say, I’ll have a thing or two to suggest to him.

by Rob Horning

7 Nov 2008

In a post titled “Recession Trumping Brand Loyalty,” Yves Smith links to this WSJ article about consumers discovering generic products while shopping:

About 40% of primary household shoppers said they started buying store-brand paper products because “they are cheaper than national brands,” according to a September report by market-research company Mintel International, which interviewed 3,000 consumers. Nearly 25% of respondents reported that it is “really hard to tell the difference” between national brands and store brands of paper products. Store brands on average cost 46% less than name-brand versions, Mintel found.

That 25% figure seems a little low to me and suggests the tenacity of brand brainwashing.

But progress is being made on that front, if the several, almost comic anecdotes the article offers as evidence can be trusted:

When Summer Mills visited her local CVS drugstore recently, to save a few dollars she bought the store-brand facial scrub rather than the Olay version she normally uses.
“I thought I’d be able to tell the difference, but I couldn’t—I looked at the ingredients and they seemed almost the same,” says 30-year-old Ms. Mills, a stay-at-home mother of two in Ardmore, Okla. On her next shopping trip, “I’m going to buy the store-brand moisturizer and cleanser—it’s less money.”

You don’t say. (Smith’s acid aside on this: “Moisturizers are one of the many ripoffs foisted on the fairer sex to keep them broke and dependent on male support.”)

It seems silly that people would need to discover that there’s little qualitative difference between branded and unbranded goods. But perhaps what makes this discovery so salient for consumers is the reassurance it provides that their changing spending behavior won’t lead inevitably to a decreased standard of living. You can kept the same sort of stuff, only cheaper, when you go generic. People generally choose to fail to recognize this discovery in flush times because it impedes the chief appeal of brands, which is to serve as a vector for the consumer to experience the lifestyle marketing for various products vicariously—brands allows us to turn the soap we use into an expression of our inner truth, to make buying a new shirt our momentary entrée into a world of glamor, to make a richer identity for ourselves through the myriad associations brands can be made to bear.

The Economist’s Free Exchange blog, in this response to the WSJ article, blames the abandonment of brands on “recessionary thinking,” an inordinate crisis of confidence at the individual level that has irrationally driven up what economists call the demand for cash.

Only, it doesn’t make sense that everyone else is cutting back. Yes, many people have lost their jobs. Some other have founds themselves with enormous debt burdens they’re struggling to meet. But many households, maybe even most households, aren’t facing seriously different circumstances than they were six months ago. And yet their behaviour is changing, and those behavioural changes will themselves generate reductions in spending, investment, and ultimately employment. Good labour will find itself idled because folks like me are nervous, and for no other reason.

From this view, the stream of bad economic news alone was sufficient to alter consumer behavior and undermine consumerism, even though the chief consumers are not actually feeling the economic pain. If you want consumerism to be thwarted, is there reason for optimism in that? Or does that show how shallow shopping habits are and how susceptible they are to capture?

Update: Rob Walker points out that “unbranded” goods are merely branded by the retailers themselves, without the aid of expensive marketing campaigns. He suspects these branded store lines have better margins then the old generics because they get a brand premium—a better price for the name and look alone. I think those ad campaigns are what make brands feel like brands—something you are participating in as a consumer—and even though the store brands have gotten better at mimicking the packaging appeal of branded goods, they fall short, unless the store itself has become a powerful brand, a la Wegman’s.

by Bill Gibron

6 Nov 2008

Hollywood hates poking fun at itself. While it’s handled its fair share of good natured cinematic ribbing, once we get to the seething scalding takes like The Stunt Man or The Player, amiability turns instantly to animosity. Heck, even a comedy like Tropic Thunder seems overwhelmingly mean-spirited. Ex-members of the Tinsel Town elite are notorious for burning as many drug and debauchery induced bridges as possible, with examples like the late Julia Phillips’ tell-all tome You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again arguing both in favor of and totally against personal reserve. Now comes What Just Happened? , based on Art Linson’s memoir about his (mis)adventures as one of the industry’s leading producers. With Barry Levinson behind the lens and Robert DeNiro heading an all-star ensemble, what could go wrong? The answer - EVERYTHING!

Ben has big problems. The test screening of the film he produced starring Sean Penn was a disaster, and his latest movie won’t start shooting because its lead, Bruce Willis, has arrived on the set overweight, angry, and covered in a mountain man level of facial hair. While his boss, the no nonsense Lou Tarnow, wants these issues resolved pronto, Ben hasn’t the backbone to figure out how to fix them. Instead, he obsesses on his second wife, the beautiful if insecure Kelly, and worries about Zoe, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. In between, there are battles with hot tempered directors, egomaniacal actors, ineffectual agents like Dick Bell, and a friend/screenwriter who, when not pitching scripts to Ben, is possibly pitching woo to Kelly. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, or death. Ben, however, is barely driven to distraction.

What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. It takes what should be a potent insider skewering and turns it into a pseudo-sudser where the character’s melodramatic meandering substitutes for La-La Land insights. It proves that, where once he was a mighty maverick of individual filmography, Barry Levinson is now back in tattered Toys mode - self-indulgent, lazy, and utterly lacking in artistic, creative, or commercial merit. And this after the one two bombardier-ing of Envy and Man of the Year. But perhaps the greatest abomination created by this 104 minute affront is that it is never, ever funny. Not when DeNiro does his sheepish schlep routine. Not when Willis goes bug-butt over his beard. Not when a Tarantino like filmmaker argues for the aesthetic integrity of a scene where criminals kill a dog in a full blown head shot.

It goes without saying that What Just Happened? is stiflingly bad. It has one redeeming element, and she - Catherine Keener as a no bullshit studio executive - is on and off screen so rapidly she barely has time to register. The rest of the time we are left with characters we care little about, problems that have no basis in the real world, and plot contrivances that push the very boundaries of the “based on a true story” paradigm. Linson may indeed be taking liberties here, going far too fictional to protect the innocent (or the regularly litigious). In the book, Alec Baldwin was the prima donna celeb, and Fight Club was one of the incredibly troubled productions. On screen, such authentic intrigue would have been a welcome internal connection. Let’s face it - viewers love gossip. But when turned make believe, the already larger than life facets go rogue. As a result, they reinvent the narrative into something like a fetid Aesop’s Fable, sans moral.

The cast, of course, is no help. They see this as their chance to bite the fiscally beneficial hand that constantly overfeeds them, and when they’re not chewing up the scenery, they’re mentally checking the zeroes on the end of their paycheck. Willis is especially weird, ranting and cursing during his hackneyed hissy fits like he forgot the cameras were rolling. He’s constantly threatening to break out into a ‘wink at the audience’ smirk. Similarly, Tuturro milks his cowardly yutz agent for less than 10% of his narrative worth. This is perhaps the worst performance he’s ever given - and no, we aren’t forgetting Transformers. Only Keener and Robin Wright Penn (as the iconic Kelly) save face, and it’s no thanks to Levinson. Directing in a manner that uncovers no pacing or comic timing, What Just Happened? winds up looking like a badly dubbed foreign film.

And then there’s big Bob. DeNiro has never been an easy fit within the comedic genre. Unless he’s playing with his own tripwire type (Meet the Parents), he comes off as a Shakespearean snob doing dinner theater. Here, he’s actually not bad, affecting a neurotic nebbish persona that could best be described as Woody Allen via Hell’s Kitchen. There are times when he is just a Paul Rudd impression away from being a total cliché, but he imbues Ben with enough dimension that we don’t instantly dislike him. No, it takes nearly an hour and one bathroom pick-up later to find our lead to be loathsome. Once Ben goes overboard into stalker mode, everything about What Just Happened? fizzles and flops. The ending seems anticlimactic and unimportant, the resolution offering the standard middle finger salute to audience attentiveness and consideration.

Frankly, something like this works better on the page, the brain free to recreate the scene where studio execs literally dodge some of the directorial choices made by David Fincher in Fight Club. We can do a much better job of watching the prose Linson lumbered across the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations than watching a English dope fiend argue why a dog has to get shot in the noggin. One might argue that What Just Happened? is too inside to connect with everyone. Only those who truly understand the business called show will snicker at Levinson’s labored satire. Everyone else should steer clear. Movies about the movies and those who make them usually don’t deliver in the way a typical mainstream effort would. What Just Happened? proves this point over and over again.

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