July 18, 2008

Two Movies That Actually Have Something To Do With Each Other: Hellboy 2 / The Dark Knight.

Almost five hours of movies (Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight) and four hours of sleep later, I find that I can barely string together a coherent review. (This is also a break from my usual Two Movies That Have Nothing To Do With Each Other series, because they're pretty similar.) I'll leave the real reviews up to Barb, who (we're such nerds) just posted hers within minutes of my posting this [WARNING: SPOILERS in her entry!] and Oscar, so here are some random notes instead. I tried keeping this under 1000 words, but no dice:

1. As great as Hellboy 2 was, The Dark Knight blows the 2008 summer movie lineup out of the water. Easily one of the best films I've seen this year. I missed seeing Iron Man and Hancock, and sure, that X-Files movie won't be out for another week or so, but The Dark Knight was simply fantastic. Leave work early, find babysitters, cancel unnecessary meetings, even promise to see Mamma Mia or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 as a trade -- just go.

2. The guy at Jack London Square Cinemas told me last night that 600 people were coming to the midnight show. People were lined up before 10 pm, so strategize!

3. Selma Selma Selma, lovely as ever. (My friend Jane once said, "Selma Blair?? Ugh! She looks like some Comp Lit major from Radcliffe!", or words to that effect, to which I answered, "Exactly.")

4. What The Dark Knight "lacks" in terms of visual variety -- it's practically a uniform palette of washed-out blue and gunmetal -- Hellboy 2 delivers in spades. The surreality of Pan's Labyrinth (a film I didn't care for very much, actually) runs gloriously riot in Hellboy 2: carnivorous tooth fairies spilling out of the woodwork, caverns with enormous cog wheels, a truly frightening Angel of Death, and an entire bestiary seen only in bad dreams. (Thank goodness they're del Toro's and Mike Mignola's dreams, not mine.)

5. And three reasons to go early: previews for Quantum of Solace, Terminator: Survival (Christian Bale as John Connor!), and a third, shiver-inducing preview, which you may have heard about already, but here's a hint about what that movie is: "This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face."

6. The Dark Knight wins the prize for best casting, a prize made sweeter by the fact that the infinitely cooler Maggie Gyllenhaal has replaced Mrs. Tom Cruise this time around. And it's great to see Eric Roberts, Keith Szarabajka, and Anthony Michael Hall on the big screen.

7. What left me somewhat cold in del Toro's film was that the stakes didn't seem terribly high -- not cinematically, but in terms of the film's narrative. Perhaps the most stunning sequence has to do with an Elemental, a cross between Alec Holland and Cthulhu (and at the conclusion of the scene, more reminiscent of those forest giants in Princess Mononoke) -- and then it's unexpectedly dropped. Mignola and del Toro hint at an epic backstory, in an opening storytelling scene right out of Pan's Labyrinth, but what happens between then and 2008 is tossed aside.

8. The Dark Knight is surprisingly violent (I was shocked to discover that it was only PG-13), and references film noir more directly than any of the previous Batman movies. In fact, it's probably best seen not as a "comic book film" -- del Toro's movie is closer in spirit to the comics -- but as an urban policier, complete with a whole series of crosses and double-crosses, of unmaskings and deceptions, and a suffocating sense of an irresoluble moral impasse.

9. And lots of explosions. God, the things they blow up in these two movies.

10. Heath Ledger's Joker isn't just some buffoonish criminal mastermind like Jack Nicholson's Joker; his Joker feels genuinely psychotic and unhinged, and he's not the sort of sadistic villain that easily inspires any identification from the audience. As Barb will probably point out, Heath Ledger doesn't exactly deliver an Oscar-worthy performance. It's too one-note, on the level of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, but it hints, sadly, at an untapped talent cut short. As Oscar will probably point out, the heavy lifting is performed here by Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent: unctuous, ambitious, charming, and blinded by rage in the course of the film.

11. I now have no doubt that The Hobbit will be fucking awesome.

12. Hellboy 2 was genuinely heartwarming, even if these feelings were mostly earned by an unexpectedly sweet use of a Barry Manilow song. (And yes, it's a love story too, though as written above, the choices made in Hellboy 2 are nowhere near as consequential as the decisions in The Dark Knight.) It also has more of the humor of Mignola's books, though it's a little more forced here.

13. There's no similar exhilaration in The Dark Knight as you walk out of the theater, simply because it's almost relentlessly bleak; you're sitting at the edge of your seat almost the entire time, for starters, and the cumulative effect of two hours and forty minutes of this leaves you feeling bruised.

14. Though there's a nighttime scene of Batman flying over Hong Kong which is just marvelous.

15. Finally: two new movies, set in Manhattan, set in two major American cities, that no longer reference 9/11. (EDIT: Thanks, Eleanor from Urbana-Champaign, for the Gotham/Chicago correction.)

16. As with many good superhero movies, the protagonist struggles with the duality of her or his concealments, the split between public and private, the thin line between criminality and order, the meaning of heroism and the divided life, whether you're a lumbering, cigar-chomping spawn of the devil with a liking for six-packs of Tecate (and Ron Perlman is excellent here, his best role since I saw him last in Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter) or an asshole billionaire with a big R&D budget (and Christian Bale is also very good).

17. But in Hellboy 2 this struggle comes too late and undeveloped. The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is sworn to protect humanity from rogue supernatural elements, but the B.P.R.D. is composed of "freaks" themselves. (In fact, the word "freak" gets mentioned a lot in both films.) And thus, Hellboy's dilemma: he's there to eradicate one of his own, but he entertains this doubt for maybe a full minute.

18. In contrast, the struggle is front and center in The Dark Knight. I don't think I've seen a genre movie in a while -- maybe Ben Affleck's very fine Gone Baby Gone? -- that has explicitly foregrounded these questions regarding morality, and the consequences of one's actions, as this one.

Posted by the wily filipino at July 18, 2008 12:54 PM