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Love is hell: (l-r) Perlman and Blair in Hellboy.

The Satanic Virtue
By Laura Leon

Hellboy
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

So here it is, Holy Week, and I’m trying to steep my older sons in the lessons of Lent and the meaning of the Resurrection. And what movie do I take my eldest to see, but Hellboy. Not knowing much about the graphic novels (by Mike Mignola) on which the film is based, I inwardly chuckled at the seeming irreverence of it. But in the best tradition of X-Men and all, I not only was pleasantly surprised, but truly uplifted by the story’s subtle underlying connotations of redemption, God’s love and that ultimate gift to humanity, free will.

Before readers think I’ve gone all Tammy Faye on them, let me explain. Hellboy is the spawn of hell who, as a cute, scarlet-hued tyke is rescued from the scene of would-be Nazi evildoing by a kindly paranormal researcher, Dr. Broom. Fast forward 60 years: Dr. Broom (John Hurt) cannily searches for just the right guardian of now-grown Hellboy (Ron Perlman), somebody who will care for the behemoth and yet understand his adolescent mind-set. The quest is especially pressing considering the facts that Dr. Broom is dying of cancer and Evil is up to its old tricks again, in the unholy trinity of Rasputin (Karel Roden), the ageless, lovely storm trooper Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and a Germanic assassin, Ladislav Beran (Korenen), whose body is really sand encased in spandex and whose heart is actually a clocklike mechanism stuck in the cardiac cavity.

This matters greatly to Broom, Hellboy and others, because they work for a top-secret arm of U.S. intelligence, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Enter John Myers (Rupert Evans), a clean-faced agent whom Broom chooses for his purity of heart. He forms an uneasy alliance with the reluctant Hellboy, which is tested when Myers shows interest in Hellboy’s love, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), an agent tortured by her ability to telepathically start fires.

Good versus evil. Two guys in love with the same girl. The fate of the world hanging in the balance. Such is the stuff of good fiction, and Hellboy delivers in spades. Director Guillermo del Toro infuses the proceedings with more than just derring-do. There’s a good-natured feel to this movie, an appreciation of Hellboy as a character, which lends the red man’s longing for Liz a real sweetness and pathos. There are thrilling fight scenes in a subway system and in the underbelly of a city bathed in golden twilight, like our imagined memories of a 1940s Gotham. By the end of the movie, some viewers may be a little unclear on just what powers this or that baddie has, and just how our heroic triad are to thwart them, but it suffices to settle on issues of good versus evil.

Throughout, there’s an overtly religious theme: Broom, as the savior of baby Hellboy, sees the good in the child, but knows enough to teach Myers that while we like people for their attributes, we love them for their faults. When Hellboy engages in a titanic fight against a multitude of creepy characters, Myers tosses him Broom’s rosary, reminding him that his “father” gave him the ability to choose between the good he is fighting for and the evil from which he was spawned.

There are weak spots, of course. Myers is never fully developed, so that while Broom extols his purity of heart, we never get to observe this quality on our own. This makes the subsequent tension between Myers and Hellboy less palpable. The aforementioned confusion over motives and plot details—often a minus in sci-fi or supernatural flicks—can bog the viewer down, unless he or she makes a conscious decision not to think about them. That these can be overlooked is a measure of del Toro’s dazzle and wit, but also of Perlman’s deft ability to create a fully dimensional character out of latex and horror. Some viewers may well remember Perlman as Victor, the beast in TV’s Beauty and the Beast; he was a character who, despite his unlikely visage and all that, well, fur, set women’s hearts aflutter through the sheer force and beauty of his soul. He made the audience long to be loved like Linda Hamilton’s character was by Victor. With Hellboy, he shows us a fighting force, complete with a stone club for a right hand, who, underneath the sarcasm and “real guy” interests in weightlifting, beer drinking and cigars, longs for the companionship of others—particularly Liz.

There’s a lovely, funny-yet-warm scene in which Hellboy, trailing Myers and Liz while they go out for coffee, shares cookies, milk and advice for the lovelorn with a 9-year old boy on a rooftop. It helps that neither del Toro nor Perlman allows this priceless moment to drift into the sentimental, instead focusing on Hellboy’s insecurities and limited people skills. Such moments intersperse Hellboy, making it like a cinematic treasure hunt peppered with surprising trinkets amid a greater map of solid B-moviemaking.

A Mechanical Ballet

The Company
Directed by Robert Altman

Robert Altman has always had fascinating ways of depicting people at work, whether the combat medics of M.A.S.H., the performers in Nashville, or the servants of Gosford Park. He brings the same talent for telling detail and naturally occurring dialogue to The Company, a fictionalized look at the Joffrey Ballet. One early scene shows a principal dancer pushing herself to the limit in a performance; the close-ups of her flexing sinews and contorted limbs bring an intimacy to the sheer athleticism of dance that live audiences rarely get to experience. Altman also provides some intriguing peeks at life behind the bright lights, such as quarrels between choreographers and soloists, the high-wire balancing act between production costs and revenue, and most interestingly, the life cycle of a new dance from sketch book to curtain call.

Yet dance fans as well as general audiences may feel let down by The Company, whose too-fleeting glances build to a big (although wonderfully colorful) letdown. By using an impressionistic style that leaves plenty of space for dance sequences, Altman sells the story short. And at first, it seems as if the plot is little more than short story: Rising dancer Ry (Neve Campbell) meets handsome chef Josh (James Franco). They struggle to find time together, then as luck would have it, they do get time together.

But there’s a lot of promising material passed over along the way. Written by Barbara Turner (co-writer for Pollock) from a story by Campbell, a trained dancer, The Company is bursting at the seams with hothouse interpersonal relationships, especially those involving the autocratic reign of company director “Mr. A,” a benevolent dictator modeled on the Joffrey’s Gerald Alpino and perfectly cast with Malcolm McDowell. There’s Ry’s ambitious stage mother (a fabulous Marilyn Dodds Frank) who is more intoxicated by the glamour of Ry’s position than Ry is (Turner, by the way, is the mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh); the gently avant-garde guest choreographer (Robert Desrosiers, playing himself with aplomb); and the creative suffocation of the company’s brilliant star (Davis Robertson, whose solo warm-up dance is the best thing in the movie). But these elements are brushed off in favor of less-than-compelling cinema verité snapshots and lingering art-print views of Ry, about whom we learn nothing other than she moonlights as a cocktail waitress at a goth club. Although Altman would seem to be a natural at the docudrama format, The Company frustratingly lacks the drama part.

—Ann Morrow

Down to Their Last Moo

Home on the Range
Directed by Will Finn and John Sanford

In what probably is Disney’s last hand-drawn animated film, Roseanne Barr voices a prize cow named Maggie who endeavors to save the family farm, Patch of Heaven, by capturing the yodeling cattle rustler Alamada Slim (Randy Quaid). It seems like a bad joke, when you consider the films (like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio) that began Disney’s reign of the genre.

That said, Home isn’t a dud, but it’s largely devoid of things like character development. Think Finding Nemo minus the backstory about Nemo’s dad’s neuroses and fear of losing his only family. Maggie, um, butts horns with bovines Mrs. Calloway (Dame Judi Dench, mind you) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly), but of course, prevails upon them to help her in the round up of Slim, whose golden tonsils somehow hypnotize cattle into going his way. Audiences know that the trio will argue, briefly reconcile, argue again only to split up, then reconcile again at the crucial moment, finally to live happily ever after together. It’s animation by numbers, which doesn’t have to be bad; all of Grimm’s Fairy Tales have a distinct leitmotif, after all.

What’s trying about the movie is its forced snappiness, the way it endeavors to fit a riotous number of characters into just over an hour, again, leaving no room for character development. Ultimately helping the “girls” find Slim is the horse Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who joins forces with a bounty hunter named Rico (Charles Dennis) to bring the bad guys down. He evidences this by innumerable equine kung fu movements, which the sheriff’s animated dog has the good sense to close his eyes to. Gooding voices his part like a crackhead on nasal drops, or at best, like some very poor imitation of Eddie Murphy’s donkey in Shrek. Thrown in for some reason is a peg-legged rabbit (Charles Haid), who has potential but is seen all too briefly to really impart any significance.

As has too often become the custom with Disney films, the musical interludes are not used to further enhance or develop the plot or the characters, but to sell the soundtrack. That said, there are some lovely and some very funny songs, notably the theme by Alan Mencken, sort of a spoof on the Bonanza theme but about bovines, and two torch-and-twangers by k.d. lang. But they are sort of plopped down into the proceedings: It’s like, whoa, where did that there jukebox come from? Quaid has real fun with his part; in particular, moments when Slim has to deal with his beyond-stupid triplet nephews have some of the flair of the best Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck interchanges. Then again, there’s the strange musical interlude in which rustled cattle do psychedelic cakewalks, blatant riffs off Dumbo’s juice-induced pink elephants on parade. At best, Home on the Range packs a chuckle or two, along with some great color; at worst, it’s a slap in the face to the memory of Walt’s best vision.

—Laura Leon


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