PICKS OF THE WEEK
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (B+)
U.S.; Guillermo del Toro, 2008, Universal
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is one of my so-far favorites of this year's flood of big, splashy action-fantasy movies. In many ways, it's more fun, more magical, more delightfully characterized, more splendiferously imagined and more stunningly visualized than the others. Director-co-writer Guillermo del Toro is obviously a genius at this kind of unbuttoned fairytale horror story, as he showed already in the first Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone. Here, he's been granted seeming carte blanche to indulge, his wildest visual whims and most incandescent fancies.
But there's also a human factor here, as there was in his previous fantasies. Based again on Mike Mignola's comic book, this crackling sequel relies again on the actor and character who makes the movie work best on personality terms. Ron Perlman is the wisecracking cynical, rough-hewn Hellboy, a working man's hero born unsettlingly of an unholy alliance of evil and fascism, shorn of his horns, fighting for justice and looking as red, mean and muscular as a devil popped from the bowels of Fritz Lang's Metropolis or Del Toro's Labyrinth. What gave Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull their edge was the fact that one had an interesting, likeable hero (Robert Downey Jr.), and the other had Indy, in whom we were already emotionally invested.
Hellboy has something just as valuable: a hero who makes us laugh -- and who's also willing to mix it up with hordes of villains, Bruce Lee-style, in this case an entire Golden Army, sprung from an ancient pact, and run by the evil (if not too impressive) Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), whose twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) becomes the major crush of Hellboy's C-3PO-ish buddy Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). Aiding the Hellster, besides Abe, are his flaming (honest-to-God) inamorata, Liz (Selma Blair) and a new Teutonic cyber-guy, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane). Messing things up is their unctuous boss, Tom Manning (a skewering of the typical corporate jerk by Jeffrey Tambor). And all of these characters move, in Oz-style, from one magical underworld to another.
Several critics have commented that Hellboy 2 is visually overloaded -- and that's true; so are most of the other summer action-fantasy mega-movies. But the crucial difference among them lies in the amount of character and personality they add to the brew, to their heroes (as in Iron Man) or villains (as in Dark Knight), and Hellboy, one tepid villain aside, supplies the most.
Anyway, if you spend $100 million-plus on a movie, it probably should be overloaded, even if some of us would rather see the overpacking on the War and Peace side rather than for another comic book splurge.
We should be glad that del Toro is operating at his peak right now, getting all the money and latitude he needs to weave his spells -- because, as history definitely shows and overshows, the good days pass and the money may not always flow so freely. Or in the right direction.
The General (A)
U.S.; Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman, 1927, Kino
From comedian-filmmaker supreme Buster Keaton -- he of the porkpie hat, unsmiling puss and staggering comic athleticism -- comes one of the great silent movie comedies and also one of the great Civil War pictures. Shot in beautiful images that are almost eerie replicas of the look of the famous Matthew Brady Civil War battlefield photographs, The General finds Buster, as lovelorn railman Johnny Gray, trying to woo his beloved but soldier-loving Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and then trying to rescue, from Union Army marauders, his equally beloved locomotive "The General," moving like a sad-faced but furiously alive ghost dancer.
Buster's masterpiece is based on a real-life train raid episode, also filmed later in Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase. But here Keaton manages to surpass both the reality and cinema of warfare to create an exhilarating, violent but bloodless ballet of comic pursuit and battle. Comedies don't get any better than this. Comedians don't get funnier than Buster. And The General -- here mastered from an 35mm archive print struck from the original negative for this "2-Disc Ultimate Edition" -- has never looked better, or richer, or more epic, or more beautifully sepia and black-and-white in our less poetic modern era.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! The General lives. And we'll all feel swell when Buster comes marching home.... (Extras: Three separate scores composed, conducted or performed by Carl Davis, Robert Israel and Lee Erwin; video tours, behind-the-scenes home movies, introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson; montage of Keaton train gags. Silent, with subtitles.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Collector's Choice: Budd Boetticher (A)
U.S.; Budd Boetticher, 1957-60, Sony
Budd Boetticher was not only a master filmmaker, horseman, bullfighter and king of the B's. He was also something of a Western magician.
In just five years, working with paltry budgets on minuscule shooting schedules, he made five Western masterpieces or near-masterpieces, all with stoic cowboy star Randolph Scott, and most with producer Harry Joe Brown. All movies are known, not completely accurately, as the Ranown Cycle. And, as if that weren't enough, Mr. B. had time during the same span to make another two top Scott oaters, one of them another masterpiece (the 1956 Seven Men From Now), and the other the least characteristic and weakest of the seven (1959's Westbound) -- as well as one of the great gangster film noirs, 1960's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.
Budd was quite a guy. Born Oscar Boetticher Jr., the adopted son of Chicago money, he led a young athlete's roughhouse life in his early years until he wound up in Mexico, where he became a rare gringo matador, and later used his bullfighting skills as a wedge into the Golden Age Hollywood studios and a moviemaking career. (He started as the torero adviser on Rouben Mamoulian's Blood and Sand.) Budd made dozens of good, not always too well-written but solidly crafted B's, including one bullfighting classic based on his own experiences, 1951's The Bullfighter and the Lady, with his buddy Robert Stack and the cantankerous Gilbert Roland.
Then came the Ranowns; seven movies that, all by themselves, make Budd Boetticher a movie immortal. Most of them were written (credited or not) by Burt Kennedy. Two were written by Charles Lang. Meanwhile, Charles Lawton Jr., Burnett (Bonnie and Clyde) Gaffe and Budd's friend, the great Lucien (The Wild Bunch) Ballard, handled the incredible photography.
They have similar plots: Randy rides alone. He has a dark story in his past. He meets a woman (Karen Steele, Gail Russell and others). He also meets a bad man, a smiling desperado of sometimes unusual charm, played by a brilliant co-star (Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Lee Van Cleef, Claude Akins). They undergo a quest or a duel, with death at the end. The two Charles Lang-written films, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone are town-taming-shootout westerns, and the latter is one of the classic western dark comedies.
The best Ranown westerns of Budd Boetticher -- and four of them are listed below in a new five-disc box set -- are just about goddamn perfect. They should have been Budd's ticket to the big leagues. They weren't. Budd was no bootlicker. And life ain't fucking fair. But these movies will outlive all his enemies and all his friends, and they will outlive all of ours and our grandchildren's as well.
Includes: The Tall T (1957, A), with Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O'Sullivan and Arthur Hunnicutt; Decision at Sundown (1957, B), with John Carroll and Noah Beery Jr.; Buchanan Rides Alone (1958, A), with Craig Stevens and L. Q. Jones; Ride Lonesome (1959, A), with Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn and Lee Van Cleef; and Comanche Station (1960, A), with Claude Akins, Nancy Gates and Skip Homeier. (Extras: Documentary on Boetticher, "A Man Could Do That," executive-produced by Clint Eastwood and written by Dave Kehr; commentaries by Taylor Hackford, Jeanine Basinger and others; intros by Eastwood, Hackford, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese; trailers.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT DVD RELEASES
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (C+)
U.S.; Dave Filoni, 2008, CGCG
This movie is better than it might seem. Of course, it doesn't seem like much: the first episodes of George Lucas' new animated Star Wars TV series, strung together into a big teaser that throws Annakin Skywalker and Obi-won Kenobi (here voiced by Matt Lanter and James Arnold Taylor) into a star battle against the perfidious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), the pulchritudinous, wicked Asaji Ventress (Nika Futterman), and the persnickety Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton), the evil relative of Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson) and a blob of a guy who looks and talks like Truman Capote squashed into a mud pie.
The events here, which take place between the latter two Star Wars prequels, involve a complex plot to kidnap Jabba's repulsive little tot, the aptly named Rotta the Huttlet (David Acord), who is the kind of infant that, like Eraserhead, might discourage procreation altogether.
The action ranges all around the usual Star Wars post-Searchers deserts and post-Metropolis cities, and it includes a stellar job for Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), as Anakin's feisty padawan. Some other veterans of the movie besides Lee pop up as voices, including Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu, and the eternal Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. And what can you say? The good guys win. Unless you want to stare into Annakin's dark, Darth future.
After a shaky start, I sort of liked this. Basically, it's a movie for 12-year-olds, or guys who want to remain 12-year-olds. But it's less mammoth and elephantine than the other recent movies, and it really rips along. There are worse galaxies to spend a few sandy hours in.
Mister Foe (B)
U.K.; David McKenzie, 2007, Magnolia
Here's a good, dark British romantic drama about hotels, voyeurism, family secrets and life on the rooftops, starring Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles and Ciaran Hinds. Based on the novel by Peter Jinks; written and directed by Dvaid Mackenzie, who made the fine Young Adam.
JFK Director's Cut (A)
U.S.; Oliver Stone, 1991, Warner
Oliver Stone's enormously exciting real-life conspiracy thriller JFK, based on New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison's (Kevin Costner) controversial investigation and prosecution of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for the murder of John Kennedy, is a movie that can excite and provoke with equal intensity. This 3-disc "director's cut" set is a deluxe mounting for one of Stone's most compelling movies -- on what remains (Posner to the contrary) one of the great American murder mysteries. With Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, and many others, including Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald. (Extras: Stone commentary, documentary "Beyond Conspiracy"; essays; trailer.)
The Hanoi Hilton (C-)
U.S.; Lionel Chetwynd, 1987, Warner
Very right-wing, but factually painstaking, this is a portrayal of one of the most notorious of the Vietnamese POW prisons. Preachy, but sometimes powerful. With Michael Moriarity, Paul LeMat and Jeffrey Jones.
The Boys in the Band (B+)
U.S.; William Friedkin, 1970, Paramount
Mart Crowley's witty, sad, blistering comedy-drama about an all-gay birthday party in '60s New York City, takes the Long Day's Journey into Night-Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? approach: We see a night of emotional reckoning and revelation fueled by dark humor, despair, rage and booze.
It's still a powerful play, and Friedkin (who also adapted Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party) does a bang-up job -- as does the cast of the original stage version, including Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman and Laurence Luckinbill.