In the realm of lush phantasmagoria, Guillermo Del Toro reigns merrily. No scene is too brief for him to put a Star Wars sideshow-cantina in, the mere idea of visualizing a place called "The Troll Market" must make him weak in the knees. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Del Toro's sequel to his entertaining 2004 comic-book jamboree, gives him plenty of opportunities to swim in operatic, Christian-pagan imagery, yet I'm afraid a certain strain is now detectable. When a marauding plant-monster is pulverized and its verdant splatter paints a Brooklyn street corner, there's some of the heartfelt mourning that children used to feel when one of Ray Harryhausen's beasties bit the dust. It's a beautiful moment; unfortunately, Del Toro feels the need to grind the action to a halt and have characters stare at the spectacle to hammer the point home ("It's beautiful," somebody dreamily but unhelpfully coos). There's an insistence on forging "poetry" during even the most down and dirty action passages, a need to dig for gravitas -- a post-Pan's Labyrinth infection? It's up to the breakneck-paced narrative to keep the filmmaker's reflexes from hardening. Hellboy -- still pepper-scarlet and cranky, festooned with sawed-off horns, sideburns and Ron Perlman's loping swagger -- is the demon raised to be a badass warrior for the not-so-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense alongside fish-man Abe (Doug Jones) and firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), his fellow "freaks." A proud, chalky elf samurai (Luke Goss) and a battalion of invincible, clattering clockwork tin men get the team out of their underground government bunker and into Del Toro's beloved mystical realms.
While Hellboy squabbles with Liz over their future together, Abe is upgraded from an effete C3-PO with gills to a soulful aesthete when he falls for the villain's twin sister (Anna Walton); both fellas drown their heartache in beer and Barry Manilow, which, played after a bit of Vivaldi, attests to the movie's commendable willingness to look high and low in the cultural spectrum for pulp splendor. It's a nice puddle of calm between the film's kinetic tidal waves, which are staged with frantic extravagance and visual wit (early on, Abe spots a chained behemoth in the headquarters and waves it off: "Oh, it must be Friday"). Del Toro is one of the few directors who can toil extensively in CGI and keep it personal, and Hellboy II has some incandescent visions: The diving suit that houses the jovial Teutonic spirit, the Death figure with eyes in its archangel wings, the climactic duel atop mammoth rotating gears. Still, in the end it's an unfulfilling show. It's not just the coarsening of the protagonist's crabby wit (when in doubt, add another "Aw, crap!") that sours the thing, but also the way the saga's subversion sneakily gives way to a kind of exaltation of the patriarchal normalcy that it professes to question. The big crimson guy may be the gun-toting, cigar-chomping, Tecate-swilling spawn of Beelzebub, but here he's really a lug with a messy apartment who will need to grow up for his hot, pregnant girlfriend. Change the special effects to slob comedy, and you have Knocked Up -- who can prove that's not ubiquitous Seth Rogen under the red latex? At least the Shrek movies waited until the third one to throw in a baby.
"God, how I hate YouTube," fumes Jeffrey Tambor as Hellboy's superior. Having their exploits recorded (and uploaded) are the irritations of superheroes in the age of information, and Will Smith in Hancock endures his fair share of irritations. As the title character, Smith has superhuman force, can fly and stop gunfire, yet that whole "with great power comes great responsibility" thing is just a pain in the ass to someone who's introduced passed out in homeless rags on a bus stop bench. Although he stops criminals and averts disasters, the public jeers at his uncouth persona. Image-retooling time. "There's nothing wrong with being an asshole, but it is counterproductive," is the credo of the PR man who takes the super-boor into his home for a cleaning-up plan. (Jason Bateman plays the altruist agent full of heart-shaped logos -- what, was James Woods busy?). Hancock learns humility during a stay in jail and comes out clean-shaven, but love proves to be his kryptonite: When he tries to kiss Bateman's wife (Charlize Theron) and locates his other half in a soccer mom Wonder Woman, the movie kicks into tired oh-it-sucks-to-have-superpowers territory and opens up a can of racial issues it has no intention of investigating. Peter Berg, the director, has none of his mentor Michael Mann's scrutiny of macho pop, but, like Jon Favreau in Iron Man, he shows a healthy lack of reverence for comic-book pomp. Both films are superhero tales made by guys smart enough to see the celebrity parables in them but too afraid of the box-office to give the drunk-Superman razzing they deserve.
Back to the mortals: Tom Kalin's Savage Grace is a queer-eyed panoply of privileged tawdriness, period wardrobe monstrosities, bad parenting and worse French pronunciations. Somehow, it doesn't star Isabelle Huppert or Louis Garrel. Instead, Julianne Moore does a Mommie-Dearest pirouette that crams a whole lifetime of confrontational coldness in each and every thrust of her cigarette-holder, and Eddie Redmayne plays the socialite's son, who glides from taking baths with boys to having mother ride him cowgirl-style (cf. Bertolucci's Luna) to finally slaughtering the boozy Jocasta. "Everything that happened, happened because of love" -- true story. Kalin contemplated the Leopold-Loeb case with arch moodiness in his 1992 debut Swoon, and has not expanded his cinematic vocabulary in the 16 years since: The most shocking thing about Savage Grace is its flatness, the leadenness of its symbolism (stuffed animals, a dead dog's collar, little boys shooting empty bottles) and the squandering of Moore's dedicated search for vestiges of human flesh in her character's vampiristic skeleton. There's practically one of these a week on Lifetime, only without the arthouse ice shavings.
Reviewed July 17, 2008.