Hellboy II, Journey to the Center of the Earth

Film Reviews for Sept. 4, 2008: Del Toro's monster-ific sequel, Brendan Fraser in a mild Verne update

Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
for Expats.cz

Director Guillermo del Toro´s 2004 Hellboy was a solid, respectable effort that nevertheless felt a bit flat, and underperformed at the box office; the film dealt mostly with the resurrected son-of-the-Devil´s attempts to adjust to the real world and fit in at the secretive Bureau of paranormal research. Fast-forward 4 years, and with the origin story taken care of, Hellboy II: The Golden Army compensates for what was missing in the first film and then some by throwing a bevy of monsters at us left and right: a kingdom of mythical creatures, men in rubber suits, a giant green plant thing, and oh yeah, that titular Golden Army, which is a lot more menacing than it sounds. While missing the emotional resonance of del Toro´s best work (The Devil´s Backbone, Pan´s Labyrinth), Hellboy II is a whole lotta fun.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Rating:
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, James Dodd, Jeffrey Tambor, John Alexander, Luke Goss, Anna Walton, Seth MacFarlane, John Hurt, Brian Steele. Written by del Toro, from the comic book by Mike Mignola.
Showtimes
IMDb link

An overlong prologue brings back Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), who narrates a story to a young Hellboy about the truce between human and fantasy worlds, and the mythical and all-powerful Golden Army that lies in a slumber and could doom mankind if awoken. Flash-forward to present(?)-day and what do you imagine might happen? While Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is investigating paranormal occurrences at the Bureau of Paranormal Research with his sidekicks Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), there´s a revolt in the mythical world as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) launches an attack on humanity. Hellboy and team investigate the mythical world – which includes the highlight of the film, an extended troll market sequence – and come to discover Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who wants to protect humanity from her brother.

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I was overjoyed with the special effects in the film, which include a prevalence of make-up effects, prosthetics, and men in rubber suits. Too often films are concerned with convincing us of things we know can´t be real, using computer effects that may never be capable of doing that. How well will a film like The Incredible Hulk hold up, with its main character created using CGI that may be passé in 10 years? Certainly, there´s no shortage of computer graphics in Hellboy II, but they´re used sparingly and effectively. I know that isn´t a real monster on the screen no matter what effects are used to create it, but I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that there´s a real presence behind it, when it has that real-world weight that CGI simply cannot create. This film delivers that satisfaction in spades.

I wish the story were a bit tighter. The film is never truly compelling, and there´s never that overwhelming sense of doom that should come with the potential end of the world. But maybe that´s too much to expect from a film like this. It´s unfortunate that Hellboy II has come out in the summer of The Dark Knight, a perfectly good comic book movie forced to stand up next to one that revolutionizes the genre.

Cast is well-suited to the material: Perlman is, again, perfectly cast (and one of the few actors who can remain recognizable under mounds of makeup), Jones is terrific as Abe Sapien, and Seth MacFarlane (TV´s Family Guy) is clearly having a lot of fun providing the over-the-top German-accented voice to Hellboy´s new supervisor, Johann Krauss. Blair is a little bland as Liz Sherman, but she has little to do here other than providing a love interest for the main character.

While the original Hellboy was shot in Prague, this one split time between London and Budapest.

***

Journey to the Center of the Earth
Rating:
Directed by Eric Brevig. Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jean Michel Paré, Jane Wheeler, Frank Fontaine, Giancarlo Caltabiano. Written by Michael D. Weiss and Jennifer Flackett &  Mark Levin, from the novel by Jules Verne.
Showtimes
IMDb link

Brendan Fraser travels to the center of the Earth in search of his lost brother in Journey to the Center of the Earth, from director Eric Brevig, the special effects whiz behind the FX in films like The Day After Tomorrow, Pearl Harbor, and Wild Wild West (well, the effects were good, right?). The film is, admittedly, one of the silliest experiences in recent memory, with little-to no logic and preposterous science, but everything is presented with such a big cheesy grin – and in such a friendly, non-offensive manner – that it just might win you over. There´s something about travelling to the center of the Earth that Hollywood just can´t get a grasp on; this is the most scientifically inaccurate film since 2003´s The Core.

Professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) heads his brother´s legacy, the Center of Volcanic Activity, at Unnamed University. Brother Max disappeared 10 years ago in Iceland searching for you-know-what; when Trevor notices the same levels of volcanic activity as that fateful day, he heads to Iceland with young nephew (Max´s son) Sean (Josh Hutcherson) in tow. Alongside mountain guide Hannah, whose father also happened to disappear 10 years ago, the three begin a journey to find their lost Verneans, who believed that the writings of Jules Verne were based on fact.

Soon yes, they do travel to the center of the Earth, and once there they´re only concerned with getting back. I missed most from the film a sense of wonderment in the Earth´s core and these character´s reactions to it. With no real danger – this is, in essence, a travelogue of events rather than an engaging Journey – and what I could charitably call a relaxed pace, things tend to move rather slowly, and this 90-minute feature feels considerably longer.

Almost every single event in the film manages to be illogical and scientifically questionable: mine carts that leap from one track to another; a freefall to the center of the earth that takes less than a minute; a safe ‘waterslide´ landing once they get there; magnesium that acts like gunpowder; rocks that manage to levitate in place, flat side up so you can leap from one to the other, in a magnetic field; a Tyrannosaurus Rex that is outrun by a thirteen year-old boy (well, maybe they got slower after years of devolution down there); and the list goes on and on.

While this review isn´t sounding too positive, I did have a good time with the movie. It´s a big, dumb, loving throwback to old B-pictures that manages to be even innocent than Henry Levin´s 1959 version (and that one starred Pat Boone). Cynics will have a field day with the film but general audiences should eat it up.

Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed in a new (and improved?) digital 3-D, and screened as such in cinemas equipped with the technology. Prague, of course, will only be getting a flatter 2-D print, and some audience members may be perplexed by the number of shots focusing on yo-yos, rocks, or water droplets attempting to leap out of the screen. If done well, I imagine the 3-D experience might have been enough to add another half star to this review; above rating applies to the 2-D version only.

***

Also opening: Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens (showtimes | IMDb), a documentary on the famed photographer directed by her sister Barbara Leibovitz. A curious choice for theatrical distribution in the Czech Republic, the 80-minute doc premiered on the long-running television program “American Masters” in the US. After 30 minutes of stock footage, home video, Leibovitz prepping press shots for 2006’s Marie Antoinette, and talking heads that completely failed to engage or explore the prolific subject or the effect of her work in modern society, I had to turn this vanity project off; proceed at your own discretion.

And: Fear(s) of the Dark (showtimes | IMDb), a French black-and-white animated horror omnibus with segments from six different directors/animators. Screening in French with Czech subtitles on Prague screens.

And: 12 (showtimes | IMDb), a Russian version of 12 Angry Men from reknowned director Nikita Michalkov. Screening in Russian with Czech subtitles in Prague.

And…: Slepé lásky (showtimes), a Slovak documentary about the blind from director Juraj Lehocký. Screening in Slovak.

Lastly: Poločas rozpadu (showtimes | IMDb), a Slovak ‘tragicomedy’ from director Vladimír Fischer. Screening in Slovak.


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