Friday, July 11, 2008

Hellboy II - The Golden Army

This is truly a comic book on the screen. Hellboy 2 is imaginative and fanciful and it makes no apologies for being so bizarre and fantastic. I appreciate that.

I have always despised the comic-book adaptations that strive to make characters more realistic because the viewing audience will have a hard time accepting the ludicrous nature of the material. Too often directors and producers back away from introducing too many magical details under the assumption that it is too much for the viewing public to process. These are comic books! They are myths and fairy tales! Of course they are magical and ludicrous! They appeal to the imagination and the setting as well as the characters sometimes features as part of the whole story.

This movie relies on the existence of a magical unseen realm. It is the entire point of the story. The spiritual themes are fairly overt. Do I have to spell it out? HELL-boy? Where did he come from? And if there's a hell then there's also a heaven, right? Well, as far as the movie goes, there is certainly an unseen magic to our world. And it's beautiful.

Hellboy could have been a movie that ended up as nothing more than stunts, muscle-flexing, car smashing, and destruction (i.e. Cloverfield). However, even ol' Red has sympathy for the villain. That's important because we all want our hero to be redeemed. We want him to do better than follow his nature (as in the "Son of the Fallen One"). We want him to be the good guy.
It's not easy for a guy like Hellboy to be the good guy when people judge him on his looks. He has to overcome the prejudice and prove himself. On top of that, he was spawned on the wrong side of the cosmic tracks and he could give in to his nature. (Shades of Romans 7?) Maybe with the love of his best gal by his side and his comrades, he'll turn out better than his natural disposition. There's hope there. And the good news, revealed at the end, is that he is encouraged to be like his "Father" - his adopted father that is, the man who loved him, taught him, and told him stories that shaped his character.

Monday, June 30, 2008


Why is Angelina Jolie so big on this poster? The movie isn't really about her. Her character isn't even that interesting. Ah, but she's the big star and there is a scene of her tattooed backside in the movie.

James McAvoy's character, Wesley Gibson, is the main character. His character is interesting and I was impressed with his performance.

Wesley is the meek who finds out that he is inheritor of the earth - or at least he's the heir of a huge fortune and the legacy of his father who was a master assassin. Wesley never knew his father, but according to Fox (Jolie) and Sloan (Morgan Freeman), Wesley's father was killed by the rogue assassin Cross. They offer Wesley the opportunity to develop his superpowers and take revenge on Cross.

The back story and premise of the league of assassins, the Fraternity, is a definite improvement on the comic-book back story which involves super-villains ruling the world. The villains are ridiculous, including one made out of poop. Okay, set the comic book aside, it's the movie we're interested in. The Fraternity is interesting because they take their orders from a higher power, Fate. Embedded in the random patterns of fabric from a loom is a code that gives the Fraternity the names of individuals who must be terminated for the greater good of society. Should one of the members of the Fraternity fail to carry out their mission, then individuals who would cause great harm are free to carry out evil. This happened to Fox and her family. An assassin got cold feet and did not follow Fate's orders. His intended target killed Fox's father and tortured her and her family.

This feature of the film introduces philosophical and moral questions. Is killing categorically wrong? If someone could eliminate Hitler before he had a chance to initiate the holocaust, would it be right? Can such atrocities be placed at the feet of one person? Fox, Wesley, and Sloan debate their allegiance to Fate. Are they supposed to follow Fate's orders blindly and literally or does Fate need some interpretation?

Sloan obviously believes that Fate should be interpreted. This is where the plot thickens and where I will spoil this plot if you read any further. SPOILER WARNING!

Okay, Cross is a rogue assassin because he discovered that Sloan was changing Fate's orders to set him and his associates up as manipulators of history. Cross was their best assassin and no one would be able to defeat him, except for Wesley. In a very "Darth Vader" moment, we learn that Wesley is of course Cross' son and Cross would never harm his son. Sloan and the others used Wesley to kill his own father.

It is a very disappointing and sorrowful turn for the movie. In one sense, the bad guys win. Sloan and the others lose a lot. Fox and the others are killed by their own hand or by Wesley's. Sloan escapes, but Wesley loses the father he never knew and Cross loses the chance to share time with the son he could only watch from afar. The final battle in which Wesley gets his revenge on the Fraternity is gratuitous. The pent-up anger of a 24-year-old male who has been kicked around by everyone in his life is unleashed in a hail of bullets and carnage.

More disturbing, although less gratuitous, is the final act of the movie. Wesley takes out Sloan with a decoy and a long-range bullet just as his father Cross had done with an assassin a the beginning of the movie. Wesley narrates the path of the bullet as it tracks backward past his friend, ex-girlfriend, his former boss, and others. Wesley says, "This is me taking control." He says that he is taking back control of his life from the Fraternity, his cheating ex-girlfriend, his lying friend, his oppressive boss and his dead end job. Once the bullet is back in the barrel, Wesley looks up and breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience directly, "What the #### have you done lately?" There's a dangerous message here that needs to be recognized: "This is me taking control" is equated with a angry young man and a gun firing on those who he believes have done him wrong. Even though it's dressed up with special effects, the scene evokes the spirit of the Columbine, Jonesboro, and Virginia Tech shootings.

At one point in the movie Sloan tells Wesley, "It's a choice, Wesley, that each of us must face. To remain ordinary, pathetic, beat-down, coasting through a miserable existence, like sheep herded by fate, or you can take control of your own destiny and join us, releasing the caged wolf you have inside." In the end, Wesley follows Sloan's advice - but don't forget, Sloan is the villain.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

One of my fondest movie-going memories was the time I went to see Star Trek II in the theatre (not the drive-in as my family often did) with my father and my grandfather. I recall my grandfather joking afterward that the next movie will have to be called "The Quest for Geritol." He was of course commenting on the advancing age of the actors from the 1960's TV series.

I kept replaying my grandfather's classic joke in my mind as I anticipated the fourth Indiana Jones film. I have been waiting for this film for 19 years! I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a much slimmer man engaged to be married in less than a month. I returned to the theatres for the next installment in the adventures of Indiana Jones weighing 50 lbs. more with a wife and two kids.

There's Indy on the screen. He's aged a little better than I have, still he's moving kind of slow; and the fight scenes and stunts seem to hurt a little more. Every time Indy got into a jam I kept thinking, "He's past 60! I hope I can move like that when I'm 60. Heck, I can't move like that now." Instead of cheering for Indy, I kept wanting to say, "Hey, don't do that. You'll get hurt and you know we don't heal up like we used to." Well, Indy did drink from the Holy Grail after all. Maybe that's the magic Geritol that grandpa was talking about.

The movie was fun and I am glad the whole family could enjoy it. It was nice to visit the Jones family again and catch up on old times. Glad to see Indy and Marian together again. And here's the boy ready to take up the family business; that's nice. Oh, and there's the Ark of the Covenant. Always wondered where that ended up.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Iron Man

The Tin Man needed a heart. So does the Iron Man. He finds it not from a wizard, but in moral responsibility and repentance.

Anyone remember the theme song from the 1966 Marvel Super-Heroes animated series?:

“Tony Stark makes you feel,
he’s a cool exec with a heart of steel.”
Bonus points to Favreau and company for inserting the tune into the movie (even as a ring tone for one character’s phone). The lyrics fit to some degree, but in this film Tony Stark actually does begin as a cool exec with a heart of steel.

Stark’s journey to become Iron Man is ironic. As his heart is damaged by his own weapons, he recovers his spiritual and moral heart. He is no longer content to be the “merchant of death” and instead vows to use his power and influence to improve the world. The second irony, which the film does not explain away, is that he builds the world’s greatest weapon (the Iron Man armor) in an attempt to redeem his part in mass producing weapons of mass destruction.

Stark knows that he is complicit is a system of imbalanced power and destruction. Other characters such as Obadiah Stane and James Rhodes are also a part of that system. No one is above critique. However, we can sympathize with Stark because he accepts his culpability and takes the bold actions to change it. He learns to administer justice rather than cater to the highest bidder, even though he may do so imperfectly. This is an accurate picture of redemption.
Iron Man was one of my favorite comics. I grew up with these characters, so this film was huge for me. I know that Shell-Head has always been Marvel’s most political character (perhaps even more so than Capitan America). In the 1960’s Iron Man’s enemies were communists. We were scared of the Red Menace and so Iron Man kept the world safe for capitalism.

Now his origin is updated for our times. Our threat is terror, so Stark's conversion takes place in the Middle East and his captors are some sort of terrorists. Even though the terrorist group in the film is identified as a multi-national group called “The Ten Rings” (which is a reference to The Mandarin, an old Iron Man foe from the comics), it is difficult not to feel that this group isn’t Al-Qaeda. In the opening scene I felt the rage, anger, and powerlessness generated by video executions conducted by extremist groups. Who wouldn’t want the protection and power of high-tech armor? Who wouldn’t want to protect the innocent and rescue the oppressed with the power of repulsor rays? Yet, how do we walk the line between revenge and redemption? It’s a question left open and I applaud this movie for opening the dialogue. I hope the media and the public will engage this dimension of the film as much as it engages the special effects and celebrity glitz.

P.S. We will definitely be hearing from Iron Man again. Be sure and stick around for the surprise scene that follows the credits. Every comic-book nerd around the globe must have cheered wildly over that scene. I did. Go see the movie and then come back and talk to me here if that last scene leaves you wondering.