Personal Pantheon: The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001

“I’ve always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know…it doesn’t mean what it used to though, does it?”

In the opening moments of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the third film from writer/director Wes Anderson, there are four familiar elements that immediately jump out. First, there is the warm, gravelly tone of Alec Baldwin’s voice, providing novelistic narration. The second element is the New York skyline in the background. The third element is Mark Mothersbaugh’s score re-appropriating the unforgettable, wistful chords of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The final element of familiarity comes when Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) tells his three children that he and their mother Etheline (Anjelica Houston) are getting a divorce. That’s a kind of pain that far too many people (myself excluded) know too well.

That song choice, as many musical cues are in Wes Anderson films, is crucial. Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” as a consolation for John Lennon’s son Julian, during his father’s ugly divorce. McCartney told “Jude” to take a sad song and make it better, and for a few years at least Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and adopted sister Margo Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) turn their sad song into almost absurd levels of precociousness. Chas becomes a real estate whiz, Margo tosses off plays faster than she chain-smokes, and Richie becomes a tennis wunderkind.

But that sadness doesn’t stay away forever. Adulthood, and the specific brand of melancholy, brings these brilliant siblings back down to Earth, down to the level of their rapscallion of a father, who has a plan to return to his family’s good graces. It’s the tribulations of this odd, troubled but ultimately endearing family that gives “Royal Tenenbaums” its funny, deeply profound kick.

And what a family. Etheline is an archaeologist who in turn transforms raising children into a science, writing a book about the Tenenbaum siblings. It’s not a surprise that she and Royal separated (they never officially ended their marriage). Royal, a former lawyer, is a freeloader, a conniver trying to give what’s left of his life some autumnal luster by reinstating himself as patriarch, and putting the kibosh on his wife’s impending second marriage to accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) by telling everyone that he’s dying of stomach cancer. His children are all in various states of melancholy. Chas’ wife died a year earlier, and he’s become obsessed with keeping his sons Ari and Uzi safe from various acts of God via insanely elaborate fire drills. Margo loses both a finger and inspiration for writing theater. She’s married to Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), a mild-mannered, bearded intellectual who doesn’t even begin to understand Margo’s inner workings. Richie has exiled himself aboard a yacht, having retired from tennis following a breakdown stemming from the unrequited love he has for his adopted sister Margo.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essays on Anderson’s oeuvre and especially this film explain beautifully everything that is going on in this film, not just in the story but in Anderson’s instantly recognizable directorial vision. Anderson is an acquired taste, no doubt about it, but there is so much to explore in the movies he creates. “Tenenbaums,” with its chapter headings and narration, is designed to feel like a novel, and it is just as rich and detailed as a great piece of American literature. Anderson is a truly extraordinary storyteller, and this film is his “Born to Run,” his “Rubber Soul” or “Highway 61 Revisited”; an example of a young artist swinging for the fences and succeeding in pushing his formidable skills to dizzying new heights.

Ever the control freak, every aspect of this film feels tailor made by its creators. The clothes the Tenenbaums wear that seem to have come out of a 1970s thrift store, the music choices which sample everything from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to the Velvet Underground and The Ramones, and the outsider’s view of New York City itself, with made up addresses (like the 375th Street Y) and hilarious avoidance of famous landmarks. This isn’t Scorsese’s New York; Anderson approaches the city as an idea more than a real place, filled with Salinger-esque intellectuals. But what I love about all of Anderson’s films is that he captures something that is so hard to put on-screen: the idea that this world existed before the movie chronicling it. What I mean is that the film conveys a shared, lived-in experience among its characters and environment.

For example, take the Tenenbaum house, that three story estate on the corner of the fictional Archer Avenue. Every room in the house, especially the bedrooms, is burnished with the personality of the Tenenbaums. Decor is Anderson’s version of prose; what we take in from Robert Yeoman’s camera gliding west-to-east across the screen gives us  the same sort of information that a passage in a book does. Re-reading a book is like re-watching a film; we pick up on subtext, lines of dialogue, etc. that deepen the work over time.

“Royal Tenenbaums” is filled with that information. There’s Richie, still wearing his Bjorn Borg tennis headband, as a marker of what he lost when Margo broke his heart by marrying someone else. In Paltrow’s performance Margo is obsessed with being an enigma. She keeps her smoking a secret even though she doesn’t have to, she has lived multiple lives all over the world, looking for something. Inspiration, happiness, Rolling Stones bootlegs, who knows.There’s something otherworldly about her; she’s also having an affair with Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the script), a childhood friend who writes terrible revisionist Western novels and is addicted to drugs, which supplants an even older addiction to the Tenenbaum family.  perhaps that’s why Richie is so obsessed with her. Chas, despite being a financial expert,who quickly turns his bedroom into a satellite office, is consumed by grief over the death of his wife, as well as bitterness toward his father; manifested in a BB lodged underneath one of his knuckles. This BB was fired amid a loss of trust, trust that Chas never rekindled.

Royal himself is the center of this eccentric universe of longing. He is a conniver, a philanderer. He’s a bastard, but not a heartless one. The thing that makes him, and Hackman’s brilliantly nuanced portrayal, so interesting is that he truly does love his family. He’s a lovable scoundrel, trying to manufacture his own narrative. He’s like “Rushmore”‘s Max Fischer in that fashion.

There is a lot going on in this film. It’s a low-key epic that jams in everything Anderson ever wanted to do as a filmmaker. This film is frequently hilarious, but this film has a core of darkness; all that sadness spills over, in Richie’s case it spills over into the bathroom sink (this scene is set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which adds immeasurable poignancy given Smith’s own fate). Anderson writes in deadpan bursts, but his gift for casting allows him to find actors that know how to fill these brief exchanges with depths of feeling. The entire ensemble is extraordinary, even more so is the director himself. The gorgeous cinematography, the impeccable use of slow motion and tracking shots. I have a hard time deciding which Wes Anderson film is my favorite; there’s the inside-out coming-of-age fable in “Rushmore,” the gleefully absurd oceanic dive into the grieving process that is “Life Aquatic.” Even the stop-motion animated caper about familial responsibility that is “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Sic Transit Gloria, “Glory Fades,”  is a Latin phrase in “Rushmore,” but it could be the slogan for all of these films, or even be printed on the Tenenbaum family crest. There are those who find Anderson’s films artificial, stiff and insufferably “twee” or precious. The guy’s got his own rhythm, but there is one scene where I knew I was permanently dialed into his frequency.

Richie is back from sea, waiting at the airport. The Green Line bus pulls in and Margo, his obsession, they even ran away to an art museum as kids, steps off. The world slows down. The distorted picking of Jackson Browne’s guitar starts up, and the deep German-accented voice of Nico comes in singing “These Days.” Margo approaches the screen, bathed in sunlight, a rare, slight smile across her face, in slow motion. Richie is transfixed, a close-up of his face fills the screen.  We can see the longing in his eyes, even behind the oversized sunglasses. Even beyond the technical brilliance, there is a level of understanding of these characters that reverberates off the screen. This is one of my favorite scenes ever because it is a reminder of what makes movies great, especially this one. It doesn’t matter if characters, don’t look like we do, talk like we do, act like we do. After everything else, the Tenenbaums  feel like we do.


Catching Up With: Iron Man 3 – 2013

Marvel isn’t just playing with house money with the stratospheric success of their recent shared-universe collection of movies, they’re playing with a house GDP that could probably stabilize Eastern Europe and Africa for the next decade. Even though the movies themselves have been hit-or-miss, I do appreciate that they’re willing to futz with the formula from time to time, bringing in people like Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh to give these shiny, robust superhero stories a bit of outside flavor. “The Avengers” soared because Whedon turned a group of superheroes into the “Scooby Gang” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on steroids, the comradery and smart dialogue leaving a deeper imprint than the requisite CGI explosions.

Enter Shane Black, who’s like Whedon’s cynical, slightly burnt-out older brother, and “Iron Man 3,” which reunites Black with Iron Man himself Robert Downey Jr. eight years after the ingenious, underrated “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” reignited the careers of both men. What makes “Iron Man 3” such an incredible surprise isn’t just because Downey as Tony Stark and the director/co-writer Black work in perfect concert with each other, and reignite the series after the disappointing clusterfuck/crime against cinema that was “Iron Man 2.” Black doesn’t just put a smidge of his personality into this film. He’s practically a sleeper cell in how he gleefully subverts the tired formulas that Marvel and modern blockbusters traffic in far too often. This is a hilarious, wildly entertaining 130-minute middle finger to the shackles of mainstream Hollywood and the insane expectations of comic book fans themselves.

Taking place around Christmas (as Black joints tend to do for some reason), the film finds Tony Stark in a bad way. He’s still reeling from his brush with death at the end of “The Avengers,” and the onset of panic attacks has deflated his patented narcissism quite a bit. As a result, his obsession with Iron Man further consumes him, with his collection of armor suits now up to 42 different designs. The televised threats and terrorist acts committed by the mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who is brilliant in ways I won’t reveal here).  Tony’s distressing behavior doesn’t sit well with his girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, once again, given some surprising new things to do this time), who also has to deal with a fellow technology entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (the always welcome Guy Pearce) who has created a substance called the Extremis, which can regenerate limbs with the unfortunate side-effect of turning the soldiers who use it into walking bombs.

Those are the familiar globs of ridiculous plot that define all of these Marvel films, but “Iron Man 3” becomes decidedly unfamiliar when the Mandarin launches a personal attack at Tony, which leaves him alone in Tennessee with a busted suit and a precocious kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins, a total natural on-screen) to keep him company. This is when the film really takes off, thanks to the witty, razor sharp script by Drew Pearce and the director Black, one of the finest crafters of dialogue we have, going all the way back to the first “Lethal Weapon.” The middle section with Stark trapped in this small town might be the best stretch of any Marvel film. Downey is brilliant; he’s a natural for Black’s dialogue, especially in the scenes with Simpkins, which swerve away from any child-sidekick cliches, allowing the film to probe into Tony Stark as a broken, vulnerable man for the first time in the series. The last movie drowned Downey in hollow sarcasm, the snark destroying any semblance of tension. This film works because it does have some semblance of thematic resonance, with a voiceover from Downey explaining how “we all make our own demons.” This explains the motivations for Killian’s insane plan, the reasons why the scientist who created the evil technology (an underused Rebecca Hall) would give up on doing good in the world and the final, ingenious and hysterical final twist regarding the origins of the Mandarin himself.

That right there is the bedrock for what makes “Iron Man 3” such a surprise; watching Shane Black give the genre’s old cliches the gleeful shellacking they deserve. Tony makes fun of Harley for not having a dad; Pepper gets to be the hero herself for a while, giving a female character something meaningful to do. The twist involving the Mandarin has pissed off a substantial portion of the Internet, but reverence to source material has held many comic book movies back, a mistake this movie doesn’t make.

Black and Pearce’s dialogue is infinitely more combustible and exhiliarating than the onslaught of explosions we get at the end of the film. But Black has a confident touch with the action scenes, his personality still intact within them, particularly in an airborne rescue mission following the explosion of Air Force One. The film does faulter toward the end when it tries to serve two masters, with the director’s barely-concealed contempt for the superhero mythology and Marvel’s insistent urge to blow up everything in yet another fireworks display of good versus evil. But Downey, particularly working with Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes who gets decked out as the red white and blue Iron Patriot, is so much fun to watch, his cruel charisma the perfect test subject for the film’s more deconstructive passages.

“Iron Man 3” is such a blast because for a while it shows Marvel is willing to let some subversion creep into their cinematic assembly line. This is a money-making machine first and foremost, but there’s an exhilarating kick to watching Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. fuck wit h the wiring.

Grade: A-

Catching Up With: All About Eve – 1950

Since it is a medium and world dominated by larger-than-life people, situations and obviously egos, it makes sense that the backstage shenanigans of great theater would make…great theater. “All About Eve,” Joseph Mankiewicz’s spectacular, acid-soaked love letter/brutal deconstruction of the high society of New York theater in the ’50’s is perhaps the most iconic, well-known movie about this world, and deservedly so. The allure of fame, and how it is dispersed like a warped form of currency, is covered so extensively that it might as well be tracked by the New York Stock Exchange. The story of a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ingenue from Wisconsin who becomes the usurper of the career of middle-aged Broadway legend Margo Channing (Bette Davis, a legend in real life) is eternally wicked stuff, especially in world built by Mankiewicz and this incomparable stable of actors.

This allegedly wholesome climber is the title character, Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), who treats the grand stage of Broadway like a second home. She idolizes Margo, watching every performance of the middlebrow play written by Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) she’s trapped in even though she’s way too old to play a young, murderess wife. Eve makes her way back stage, thanks to Richards’ sweet-natured, worldly wife Karen (a wonderful Celeste Holm). Eve’s chronicle of idolatry and slaving away in a brewery in Milwaukee, along with her constant digressions about the overpowering awesomeness of Ms. Channing, captivates Margo, and she hires Eve as her assistant, But Eve has plans that go beyond picking up Margo’s cigarette butts and scheduling appointments. She wants the spotlight that seems to follow Margo everywhere she goes.

We don’t get any scenes of Margo acting in her play, but we don’t need it. This film is about the performances these people give in the world around the stage, in their secretive inner lives. Writer/director Mankiewicz apparently knew very little about the world of stage acting, but as a Hollywood lifer he did know how the powerful and egotistical bounced off each other, so the minor details about stage craft didn’t matter. What does matter? The film’s screenplay, and how we should all bow down to it. Good dialogue can liven up a conventional narrative; great dialogue can be a special kind of music. We get just as much of a charge from listening to it as the actors must get when they deliver it. Witty, brutal, satirizing Hollywood at every opportunity, every line just crackles, bringing every aspect of this world to life. There’s Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders who was literally the voice of caustic wit, as the cynical theater critic whose daily newspaper column can shoot a career into the stratosphere and bring it crashing back to Earth by the evening edition, who has a taste for vapid, dull ingenues (Marilyn Monroe in her film debut). There’s Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), the ambitious stiff of a director with aspirations toward Hollywood, who is Margo’s lover and plaything in equal measure. The Richards’ are the voices of reason, but even they can’t bend to the will of the massive self-regard that exudes from everyone around them.

At the center of this self-obsessed storm of sarcasm and duplicity? Eve and Margo. Bette Davis treats the Mankiewicz dialogue like the feast it is, and tears through it with reckless abandon. Margo Channing isn’t that far off from Davis’ off-screen persona. Chain-smoking, drowning herself in martinis, running on bitterness as deep as the crow’s feet around her enormous, iconic saucer-like eyes, Davis rips through any pre-conceived notions that stars are eternal and idols of romanticism. It’s a deconstruction of what happens to actresses of a certain age. 1950 was also the year of “Sunset Boulevard,” where Gloria Swanson portrayed a silent film star who blew way past irrelevance into full-on madness. Margo isn’t crazy. She’s demanding, paranoid, intimidating for sure. But these two performances were a shock to Hollywood’s hollow, cruel system. Margo isn’t in the “pictures,” but the hurt that 40-year-old actresses feel in this world is still an inconvenient truth in contemporary pop culture as well. It’s a performance that is also an autopsy.

But the film is “All About Eve,” as DeWitt tells us in the film’s prologue, where the blood drawn from Eve’s carnivorous vocational escalation is writ on the faces of everyone at the awards banquet honoring her meteoric rise as an actress. Ann Baxter’s performance is hard to grasp at first. She seems mannered, calculated, not as much at ease with Mankiewicz’s peerless dialogue as everyone else. But that may be deliberate. We are just as puzzled and intrigued by her as Margo and co. are. She’s constantly underestimating herself, even though she goes from being Margo’s assistant, to her understudy, to being, well, basically Margo herself through Machiavellian machinations. Baxter’s performance grows in power as her ambition escalates. It’s hard to compete with a performance as ferocious and magnetic as Davis’ but Eve is the reason why Margo is so fascinating. Eve Harrington is a product of fandom turned virile, but also of the contrast that dominates the peformance industry; young taking over old, fresh replacing the stale.

“All About Eve” came at a time when Hollywood films started to examine what the cogs of the entertainment industry do to those who built it. There are plenty of Margo Channings in the world, but even more Eve Harringtons. For everyone involved, at a certain point that red curtain starts to resemble a guillotine.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Lawrence of Arabia – 1962

Ever since the formative years and peak glories of the Ottoman Empire all the way up to the current quagmire surrounding Syria, the Middle East has been a troubled, confounding, cloudy and altogether fascinating section of Earth, and humanity in general. Centuries of infighting, war and the sometimes dubious and damaging involvement of Western nations and their interests have created vast tumult and uncertainty, as endless and unforgiving as the ever-present sun and deserts.  T.E. Lawrence, the legendary British officer in World War 1 who played an enormous role in Arabia’s revolution against Turkey, is a part of that history and the subject of David Lean’s Oscar-hoarding 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing this movie. This is one of the most beloved films ever made, so part of me was expecting a predictable slice of old-school Hollywood epicness, a chronicle of how Lawrence (as played by Peter O’Toole in his first film role) became a hero to the Arabian nations for helping to destroy the thousand-year might of the Turks and their empire. But “Lawrence of Arabia,” to its enormous benefit, avoids the endless quicksand of cliches at every opportunity. Lean’s film is truly awe-inspiring, but it’s also a clear-eyed portrait of the Middle East quagmire, a portrait of a man destroyed by good intentions and his own insurmountable flaws and ambition. There is little heroism to be found in the expanse of the Arabian desert and the 227-minute running time. We do get the eccentricities and failings of a British officer blown up to gargantuan size.

We meet T.E. Lawrence at the British Army’s outpost in Cairo. Flamboyant, thoughtful, a devious twinkle behind his ocean-blue eyes, amused by the absurd rigidity of British process, we can tell already that he’s an outlier among the others dedicated to queen and country. His superiors send him to Arabia to seek out Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness, transcending the obvious racial difference with an expert showcase in sly pragmatism) and observe his modest but deeply impassioned rebellion. Lawrence is basically from another universe. A white, eccentric Brit among bleeding-heart Arabian rebels, he’s intrigued by this mission but he still doesn’t fully understand it, until he meets the black-robed, no-nonsense all-around badass Sherif Ali (a ferocious Omar Sharif) and the oppurtunistic, fiery Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), and becomes more fully invested in the cause and becomes a larger-than-life figure who of course becomes a hero, the great white hope who gave these Middle Eastern rebels the wisdom and intelligence necessary to achieve their freedom, and is fondly remembered by his peers after he dies in the motorcycle accident that opens the film.

Oh wait, that’s not what happens at all (not completely, anyway). Lawrence remains an enigma upon his death, and this film refuses to ignore the major, troubling flaws that defined one T.E. Lawrence. This guy is both righteous and problematic, and the director Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson make him, and the Western nations who continue to get into conflicts they don’t fully understand eat it for 225 minutes of epic, 65mm film glory.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the most beloved films ever made, a spot near the top of enough film lists to rival the numbers of the rebel army that Lawrence eventually leads. But this doesn’t feel like any of the bloated, stilted, self-serious to the point of absurdity studio epics that dominated film at the time. This film blows the likes of “Ben-Hur,” “The Ten Commandments” and the like out of the water because it’s a big, enormous film (perhaps the greatest showcase for the wonders of the widescreen format) but it doesn’t feel like one. It doesn’t have a God-like hero; it has a brave, foolish, deeply flawed man, whose damaged qualities escalate as we move deeper into the endless desert at the deliberate four-hour pace Lean and co. march by. It’s not romantic sweep or grand proclamations that drive “Lawrence of Arabia,” it’s about the weakness of people and the politics they can be shackled by.

Of course, Peter O’Toole is the blue-eyed center of this morally ambiguous sandstorm. His performance as the strange, elliptical and constantly evolving T.E. Lawrence is truly something to behold. Smart-ass, sadist, hero, snake, broken shell who looks upon what this Arabic revolt has done to him, for better or worse; this character looms large over film history because of how captivating the anti-hero still is. Don Draper on “Mad Men,” Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” even a little Malcolm Reynolds from “Firefly” are all contemporary manifestations of the troubling charisma that defines O’Toole’s interpretation of Lawrence. There’s one key scene that teases an explanation for Lawrence’s actions comes when Sherif asks him why he has a different last name than his father; Lawrence explains that he is a bastard, unable to become a lord or hold any title of esteem in his own country.

This rebuttal to the notions of simplistic heroism gives the film its eternal kick; the expansive panoramic vision and beautifully filmed battle scenes are just an added bonus. David Lean’s other wartime masterpiece “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was also about stubborn, doomed British men who thought they were doing the right thing but were really losing their souls. “Lawrence of Arabia” is the same thing, but it is more imprecise as to whether it’s hero really is that. Lawrence’s role becomes an obsession; his blinding white robes become dirtier over time, as do his motivations. Compassion becomes an obsession, he is a microcosm for the cruelty of imperialism. “Lawrence of Arabia” is all-encompassing, but its aims are smaller. It’s a massive character study, an allegory for political meddling, a story of what happens when a man who can’t lead himself tries to lead an army to freedom. In a modern film age when movie heroes are uncomplicated, “likable” and saddled with pointless romances and great speeches about a responsibility, this film is thorny, uncertain, relentless, triumphant and deeply tragic. That’s why it still feels, for lack of a better word, damn revolutionary.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Hellboy II: The Golden Army – 2008

The biggest problem with Guillermo Del Toro’s first “Hellboy” movie, which chronicles the world-saving adventures of a blood-red, de-horned demon behemoth played by Ron Perlman who protects the world he is destined to destroy, was that for all of the craziness surrounding the character and the director’s imagination, there was too much convention, typified by Rupert Evans’ dull FBI agent and the lifeless love triangle involving the human flamethrower Liz (Selma Blair).

Thankfully “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” the sequel that came four years later, jettisons anything resembling conventional or rudimentary. In fact, this film makes it’s already lively predecessor look like “My Dinner with Andre.” This sequel is bigger in scope, funnier, weirder and just more audacious in its execution when compared to other comic book movies. More often than not this feels less like a movie and more like a 120-minute excursion into Guillermo Del Toro’s extraordinarily vivid imagination.

“The Golden Army” finds the FBI-commissioned team dedicated to fighting the paranormal, still consisting of Hellboy, the intelligent fish-man psychic Abe Sapien (once again played by Doug Jones, who also replaces David Hyde Pierce on vocal duties) and the fire-wielding, emotionally troubled Liz (Selma Blair, more comfortable but still an uneven performance), finding it more difficult to keep their identities a secret. This problem comes to a head after an attack on a New York museum that results in mass destruction and the reveal of Hellboy and company to the world. But the compromise of their team’s identity is nothing compared to the plans of one Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) the elvish Albino offspring of Marilyn Manson, who is looking for the missing pieces that make up a crown that will summon the Golden Army, mechanical beasts that will take back the world for mystical creatures, who aren’t pleased about being banished to forests. Oh, and the also have to contend with their new handler, Johann Krauss, who suffers from the unfortunate afflictions of being turned into vapor and being voiced by Seth MacFarlane.

Although Nuada is a more interesting villain than Rasputin was in the first movie, his plan is mere structure for Del Toro, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and his design team to unleash every insane visual idea they’ve ever had. We get more of a look at the beasts that invade our world, and they are a wonder to behold. There is no CGI here, practical costumes and effects bring these sometimes funny sometimes horrifying but always fascinating monsters to life. The scene in an underground “troll market” is packed to the breaking point with these beasts. In fact, the entire movie is packed to the breaking point with everything that Del Toro, who wrote the script with Mike Mignola (who created the original comic book) wanted to throw into the original but was sidetracked by the utterly pointless John Meyers subplot (he was sent to Antarctica in this one, thank God for small favors). This film is definitely lighter in tone, but it’s the greater piece of cinematic execution. The characters are given more to do (Perlman is still a natural as the titular character), we learn more about the world they do battle with, and we get more set pieces, which are executed with almost balletic precision. The epic final confrontation between Hellboy’s team and the Golden Army is truly spectacular, with swords, robots, and gunfire all thrown into a phantasmagorical maelstrom; that same energy that powered the first movie feels like its been pumped with steroids.

This movie feels more like a fusion of Mignola’s original and Del Toro’s obsessions than the first movie, diving into the deep end with a set-piece involving a massive tree-demon thing that chases Hellboy through New York City while he carries a baby, and a hilarious scene where Abe and Hellboy drown their sorrows in booze and Barry Manilow, and then must do battle with Nuada in their own home.

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” doesn’t have the emotional or allegorical heft of his greatest works like “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but in a way this film is his “Goodfellas”: an ecstatic showpiece for all of his skills and obsessions; it’s the rare sequel that isn’t designed for inflated box office grosses: it was created to inflate the idiosyncrasies of its creators and its hero.

Grade: B+

Catching Up With: Hellboy – 2004

It seems that among the current glut of superhero movies that have dominated American cinema over the last decade, the ones that stand out are the ones with the most personality and were guided from behind the camera by directors with a specific vision and/or an intimate understanding of what these universes/characters bring to the table. You can look at Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies and obviously Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are at the top of the heap, but another movie that stands out among the now predictable odes to empowered people who blow things up real good to stop the crazier super-powered people is “Hellboy,” directed by the crazed genius of macabre Guillermo Del Toro, with his regular personification of the strange and darkly comic Ron Perlman playing the cigar-chomping, kitten-loving, blood red demon who fights to protect a world he will never be fully part of.

According to a prologue that proves the Nazis learned nothing from the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they along with Rasputin (Karel Roden) tried to open a portal to a dimension to unleash horrible beasts to bring chaos to our realm. Their plan is foiled by their own arrogance, but a baby demon with horns, a tail and a right hand made of stone sneaked through, winding up in the care of paranormal scientist Trever Broom (John Hurt), who would groom this demon into “Hellboy,”  protector of the world from all things supernatural.

Hellboy is part of a team commissioned by the FBI (represented by Jeffrey Tambor), which also consists of Abe Sapien (played in costume by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce), an intellectual half-man/half-fish, and we find “Red” pining over Liz (Selma Blair), a troubled soul who has the unfortunate tendency to create uncontrollable fires with her mind. And then there is Hellboy himself. He files down his horns to “fit in” but it might be to remove any reminders of his insidious origins. He consumes vats of chili and mountains of pancakes everyday, and he’s frustrated that Broom keeps him cut off from the world he’s supposed to be protecting. Perlman, the great character actor with a mug that looks like the unfinished fifth face of Mount Rushmore, was born for this role. He nails the dry humor, the graceful yet imposing physical presence, the sinister undertones that come with being, you know, hellspawn.

This character, taken from the comic book series by Mike Mignola, fits Del Toro’s auteur sensibilities perfectly. He has blast orchestrating these battles with otherworldly monsters (in this case, ones that look like the spawn of Cerberus and Predator who can resurrect themselves) with twisted glee. It’s funny but tinged with the director’s trademark macabre tendencies. When “Hellboy” is allowed to be strange, and the character is allowed to do this thing and interact with his equally freakish comrades (Rick Baker’s reliably amazing make-up work needs to be mentioned), the movie is a welcome outlier amid the more predictable fare this genre usually traffics in.

Unfortunately, “Hellboy” stumbles when it toes the water of conventionality, which comes in the form of John Meyers (Rupert Evans), the rookie FBI agent who for reasons that are never explained has come to observe Hellboy and the team. This guy is a harbinger of bland, given scene after scene of him gaping in awe at Hellboy’s behavior. Part of the mystique of Hellboy’s character is that even though he’s a demon he acts like a regular human being a lot of the time. Having Evans, who sets a land-speed record in being uninteresting, remark on everything this character does is counterproductive to what makes him interesting. This movie thrives on its own fervent imagination, so having Meyers play such a substantial role feels unnecessary, and it stalls the narrative momentum whenever he is on-screen. It doesn’t help that a love triangle forms with him, Hellboy and Liz (Blair is a blank slate as well) that doesn’t work at all, shuffling even more cliches into this film’s stacked deck (Evans is so wooden that a relationship with a woman who can create fire would put a dent in his life expectancy). Also, the villains are straight out of Eastern European central casting, not giving nearly enough menace to justify their threat in this movie.

But these shortcomings don’t sink “Hellboy.” Perlman is so compelling as this character and Del Toro adds more than enough style and verve to compensate. His cinematographer Guillermo Navarro creates some amazing imagery, using Hellboy’s bright red skin as a contrast to snowy Russian fortresses, flame-consumed landscapes, etc. “Hellboy” the movie works in the same way it’s protagonist does: on its own terms, unshackled by the rules, letting its demon flag fly.

Grade: B+

Catching Up With: The Devil’s Backbone – 2001

War has a profound affect on people’s emotions and thought processes, as the parameters of what we are willing to believe in are stretched in times of great turmoil and upheaval. Renowned Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has a keen interest in the supernatural, especially when these old horror tropes brush up against the real horrors of war. He examined this contrast brilliantly in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (one of the best films of the 21st century, imho), but he first the literal and figurative demons of war and suffering in 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone,” a mournful ghost story about, among other things, how other tragedies don’t stop occurring even in times of war.

The conflict being the Spanish Civil War, when Spain was nearly split in half between the fascist Nationalists and the Republicans. As a result, many children whose parents were fighting or were already killed in the effort were sent to orphanages, among them being Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who gets sent to one after the death of his father. But this orphanage, which is located in the Spanish desert, far from civilization but not from the war, has secrets of its own. The headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), already burdened by an artificial leg also has a safe filled with gold belonging to the defeated Republicans, which is of great interest to the nefarious handyman Jacinto (a chilling Eduardo Noriega). There is also the upstanding and decent Dr. Cesares (Frederico Luppi, who also appeared in Del Toro’s “Cronos”), who still has a strange fascination with deformed fetuses, particularly those born with the “devil’s backbone,” a horrific deformation that results in children being born with their spinal cords on the outside. Along with the unexploded warhead in the courtyard and the constant bullying by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), Carlos is also haunted by the ghost of Jaime’s dead brother Santi (Junio Valverde) whose death may be more mysterious than anyone realizes. The adults who run the school have enough secrets and tragedy in their lives to fill the home’s spacious halls.

Del Toro’s films have a unique energy to them; he likes tossing different genres into the air with old-fashioned horror and mystery tropes, and “Devil’s Backbone” is all the more richer and substantive as a result. It’s a ghost story, a coming-of-age adventure, a murder mystery and a bleak document of war-time life in the 1940’s, and as a result this movie is quite spirited, despite the apparent bleakness of its story. That’s thanks, in part, to the elegant, precise camerawork, the gorgeous cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, the diverse score by Javier Navarrete, and the balanced script by Del Toro, Antonio Trashhorras and David Muñoz.

That balance is crucial because the film is built on all the different responses to war and its root; human cruelty, among the living and the dead. Literally manifesting itself as the defused missile in their midst and the ghosts that haunt the place, it is inescapable. Cesares (given warmth and strength by Luppi in a great performance) justifies everything with science in logic, such as using the rum he keeps his dead fetuses as an elixir and monetary source. Carmen has already lost someone, and she deals with her guilt,  emotional and physical pain by running to the arms of Jacinto, who’s soul is consumed by greed and violence. Carlos (Tielve is also excellent) is pursued by the restless spirit of Santi, but everyone in this movie is haunted by something.

As we learn more about Santi’s death and the motivations of all these characters as enemies much closer to home than any army close in, “The Devil’s Backbone” grows in power. While it does not have the shattering emotional gut-punch that “Labyrinth” did, this film is a powerful statement on wartime conflict in its own way. While the world burns, other evils don’t stop for anything. The other ghosts are just as restless. Del Toro is a master at crafting suspense and letting his visual imagination run wild, but he’s a consummate storyteller first and foremost. This is a grim fable, but it’s never dour; it just doesn’t forget that there are just as many trouble souls among the living.

Grade: A-