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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, March 24

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I ran a contest recently in which I asked those entering who wanted to see this movie early to write a short essay on why Guillermo del Toro qualifies as a demi-god. Of course, this was a silly question asked to provoke some of the wildest responses I've ever gotten. Del Toro is the perfect kind of filmmaking human: one who remembers his dreams and nightmares from childhood and manages to somehow transfer those memories into physical form in his movies. His works are not passive works of fantasy, but unforgiving, highly active endeavors that seem born out of every fear and wonderment we had as children and even as adults. Granted, the character of Hellboy is not a Del Toro creation (he and his world come from the mind of Mike Mignola), but the writer-director of Hellboy II: The Golden Army still manages to find ways in inject personal visions into this subversive, very funny and unbelievably imaginative film.

Look at Del Toro's version of "tooth fairies." You bet they'll take your teeth…and the rest of your bones and flesh. Even the sounds they make just moving around made the hair on my arm stand up. It's similar in look and sound to what Del Toro did with the fairies in Pan's Labyrinth, only these little critters have rows of big, sharp teeth. And the titular Golden Army is a bold and massive sight to behold. And when you see the Troll Market, you'll probably hold your breath and forget to blink for several minutes for fear of missing the sight of one grotesque creature after another paraded in front of you. The Troll Market might be Del Toro's masterpiece, if only because he doesn't call attention to it. He lets the creatures exit in the corners of the frame, and it's your job to find them. It's an absolutely astonishing sequence.

I suppose I should talk a bit about the story here. Ron Perlman returns as our favorite angst-ridden devil spawn. Selma Blair is back as his lady love, Liz, a fiery creature in every sense. And blessedly, not only is Doug Jones back as Abe Sapien (as well as two other characters), but he gets to use his own voice this time. One of my favorite plot elements is that Abe is all over this movie. I'd even go so far as to say that the film is as much about his development as it is about Hellboy, and that's about as cool as anything in this movie. The bond between Hellboy and Abe is finally made solid in this second outing; these guys are the best of friends. And there is a sequence involving many cans of beer and way too much Barry Manilow that will become a fan favorite.

Perhaps the single greatest aspect of Hellboy 2 is the introduction of Dr. Johann Strauss to the Paranormal Research and Defense team. Fans of the Spider-Man comic books will immediately notice the Mysterio likeness, but the staunchly German accent (perfectly provided by Seth MacFarlane of "Family Guy") and his by-the-book approach make him a fantastic addition. In the reviews of this film I've read already, everyone seems in agreement that MacFarlane is dead-on in this role. Unlike some of my colleagues, I'm a dedicated "Family Guy" fan who views MacFarlane's inclusion in this film as vindication that the guy is more than the sum of his non sequiturs. Regardless, this misty creature/efficiency expert is a fantastic creation and addition to the team.

I also liked the brother-sister combo of Luke Goss (as chief baddie Prince Nuada) and his well-intentioned sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), who gets into a romantic entanglement with Abe Sapien. Nuada wants to collect the pieces of an ancient crown that will allow him to awaken the long-sleeping Golden Army and destroy the human race. Nuala escapes with the last piece of the crown and runs to Hellboy and Co. to help her keep it from her twin brother.

I was also in love with some of the more subtle elements of the plot (there aren't many). I liked the subtext about Hellboy wanting so desperately to be liked by the public and accidentally stumbling into situations while on assignment that put him in the crosshairs of many cell phone cameras and amateur videographers. His need for approval is a bit pathetic, and it's a personality flaw that is explored to a degree in this film, but needs a bit more airing out should a third film come along. Speaking of sequels, this film sets up what could be some really catastrophic situations if future films come down the pike. Sacrifices will be made, death will surely occur, and wild destruction will certainly rain down. The prospects laid out here are downright chilling. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that Del Toro is one of the world's few visionary directors. And as freakishly eager as I am for a couple of Hobbit movies and his next Spanish-language film, Del Toro's work on the Hellboy movies will always stand as some of my favorite works by this modern master. Hellboy 2 is filled with loads of humor, action, and a nasty sense of the way the world works, at least according to the mind of a strange and wonderful man like Del Toro.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D

I'm deeply torn about this movie. It seems utterly bizarre that Brendan Fraser would release two films in the same summer (he has the third Mummy movie coming soon) that are so similar in tone and approach. But if they're both good, all the better for audiences. Now I haven't seen The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor yet, so I can't judge it properly, but if it's anything like the previous two in the franchise, the special effects will look cheap and the jokes will be bad. Welcome to Journey to the Center of the Earth, which casts Fraser as Trever Anderson, a college professor/scientist who takes his young nephew on a quest to find the boy's father(Trever's brother), who went missing months earlier. Turns out the missing scientist was part of a group of explorers who believed the books of Jules Verne were not science fiction, but an accurate account of adventures Verne went on in his lifetime and somehow survived. Right off the bat, I kind of liked the premise. What I didn't like is something that has always bothered me about Fraser's action works: the dude oversells everything, like he's acting to the back row. Every line is delivered at full volume and every gesture is overblown. It's a 3-D movie, buddy; the format does the work for you.

Anderson and his nephew follow clues that take them to Iceland, where they meet Hannah, the beautiful daughter (Anita Briem) of another scientist who worked with the missing father/brother and another disciple of Verne's work. As with the National Treasure films, the clues these adventurers follow are waiting for them in every book they open. These movies apparently don't believe in or don't have time for any kind of real research. Dan Brown has created a culture of lazy movie explorers. Eventually our heroes find their way to a hole in the ground where they fall to the molten core of the earth and die. Oh, no, wait. I'm sorry, that was just my fantasy brain kicking in. Actually, they do make it thousands of miles under the earth's surface to discover a lost world of strange creatures, weather phenomena and, of course, dinosaurs.

I will give first-time feature director Eric Brevig (a one-time visual effects supervisor) credit for knowing that he's got a lightweight story on his hands (courtesy of screenwriter Michael Weiss) and compensating by amping up the truly awesome 3-D elements. Nothing made me jump more than a tape measure extended right at my head. Of course, the POV shot from inside a bathroom sink as Fraser spits out a mouthful of foamy toothpaste, I could have lived without, but at least the filmmakers are trying to maximize the 3-D potential. That being said, the special effects don't just look bad; they look dated. The dinosaurs in the Discovery Channel's "Walking with Dinosaurs" look more believable. It's distracting how bad the creatures look, even the ones that are made up. The bigger problem for me is that I've never been a fan of action movies with kids in them. I kept having visions Short Round clinging to Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom. It didn't help that in Journey to the Center of the Earth there is also a mine car/roller coaster segment. Great for the 3-D lover in me, but bad for the story.

I'm guessing that if you were in a forgiving mood when you were enduring Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, you'll do alright watching Fraser going through similar motions. I'll admit that there are some interesting ideas floating around this film, but the entire production feels like an exercise in dumbing down the material for mass consumption. If you are still compelled to go see this movie, my only advice is to buy the biggest tub of popcorn and the largest surgery drink available, and turn the old brain off for 90 minutes. This is a classic case of me not being able to recommend the movie, but not absolutely despising it either. There are some films whose awfulness I will debate for days, but this isn't one of them. It's empty-headed, as many summer movies are, but it's just a little too much so for my tastes. I'm guessing kids are going to eat this shit up, and I think that's exactly the intention with Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The Wackness

During the SXSW Film Festival, Ain't It Cool hosted a super-secret special midnight screening of this movie, which allowed me to bask in the glory of a loopy period film (if you consider the mid-'90s a "period") about the sometimes troubled, often very amusing travails of a high school drug dealer, his intense stoner therapist and his beautiful daughter. It was only one week ago that I was finally able to see director Jonathan Levine's two-year-old All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which has yet to open anywhere yet, so I'd be damned if I'd miss The Wackness, which nearly everyone I know who saw it at Sundance said was strong stuff. Josh Peck plays Luke, a white kid completely immersed in hip-hop culture—from the clothes to the lingo to the constant string of classic rap tunes that comes from his countless mix tapes (that's how old school he is: no CDs). If I say nothing else about this film, the music selections are fantastic. Even though I'm sure it's not true, it feels like there is music playing non-stop throughout the film. I was pretty much bobbing my head for the duration. (Levine even had a killer mix tape playing before the film started; remember when Ice Cube was a rap artist?) Peck reminds me of a young David Krumholtz, with that same cocky confidence and sly way of staring at you. What's interesting about Luke is how much confidence he lacks when it comes to meeting and talking to women. He has a desperate crush on Stephanie (Juno's Olivia Thirlby), whose psychiatrist father (Ben Kingsley) just happens to be Luke's client and therapist (he trades weed for sessions).

There's a rich humor in The Wackness, especially coming from Kingsley, who is as unpredictable as I've ever seen him. Just the way he chooses to read a line seems so strange and wonderful that you just sit there in awe of his power as an actor. The good Dr. Squires is married to the desperately unhappy Kristin (Famke Janssen), who is only seen in a couple of scenes with Kingsley, but they are pure domestic anxiety personified. There is something so tragic about a beautiful woman in a shitty marriage, isn't there? Luke and Squires start to hang out and become friends, but each has ulterior motives. Luke wants to date the doctor's daughter without interference; the doctor wants to use Luke's youth as a babe magnet at seedy bars. Much has been discussed about Kingsley's make-out session and dry humping of a hippie chick played by Mary-Kate Olsen, and you know what? It's exceedingly sexy.

The conversations the two men have are part stoner philosophy, part genuinely thought-out genius. Either way you slice it, it's messed up and hilarious, but you have to put aside all forms of political correctness and shame to thoroughly appreciate this movie. The love story between Luke and Stephanie is at times awkward, but it does broach into the realm of being sincere and sweet. Still, the film's final act loses its direction a little with a bit of cinematic rambling when Luke gets his heart broken at the same time his home life utterly falls apart. This is a minor point and it certainly doesn't wreck the film, because the rest of The Wackness is so strong. Levine has captured a lifestyle and time in recent history so vividly that you almost want to give the guy a hug after you watch the film. He captures first love (followed quickly by soul-crushing heartbreak) so beautifully that it made my ice-cold heart stir just a bit. Above all else, The Wackness made me laugh until my brain hurt a little. I'll say it again, never underestimate Kingsley. He's as good an actor as anyone working today, and he takes more chances (not always with this level of success) than just about anyone. Levine throws a lot of elements into this effort, and nearly all of it sticks together effortlessly. Now somebody release the exceptional Mandy Lane so the rest of the world can get to know what a groovy and diverse filmmaker Levine is.

Gunnin' for that #1 Spot

What may seem like a slightly slicker version of Hoop Dreams, Gunnin' for that #1 Spot is, in fact, a fascinating documentary about the world of elite high school basketball. Specifically, the film focus on a seemingly average court in Harlem known as Rucker Park, a legendary location has been considered something of a mecca to ball players for decades with Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Irving returning to the court to build up or perhaps regain their mojo. In 2006, things got a little more organized around the location when it became the site of the Elite 24 all-star game, a event that gathered the top 24 high school players (a few of which have since been drafted right into the NBA) to show their stuff and find out what it's like to play against their true peers.

The first half of the film is devoted to getting to know eight of these incredible players, seeing which ones are humble and which are already showing signs of inflated egos and groupie love. What becomes clear in this section of the film is that the pressures put on these kids goes far beyond not wanting to let their coach and teammates down. They have large extended families and even whole communities watching and judging them on a daily basis. Some of these kids are only 15 years old, so it's inconceivable what that level of worship and scrutiny does to these somewhat immature minds. Pile on to that the college coaches, sports agents and corporate sponsors (many of whom shouldn't legally be allowed to contact these kids in the first place) coming after the players, and you've got a much different game than was being played 20 years ago.

Now might be a good time to mention who the director of this film is: Adam Yauch, better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys, who has directed many of his group's music videos as well as the exceptional concert film Awesome, I Fuckin' Shot That. The final third of the film is devoted strictly to the big game, and Yauch goes to town shooting it, using every trick in his massive arsenal. Cut to one of the best hip-hop soundtracks in recent memory (excluding The Wackness), Yauch cuts his game footage to the music and makes great use of slow motion, fisheye lenses and one trick I particularly like: rewinding the footage to show us an especially great shot or a great piece of defense. This part of the film is like one long highlights real, but Yauch manages to build a great deal of suspense around the incredibly close game. The play is unlike anything you're likely to see on a televised game, especially with the non-stop play-by-play provided by the legendary Bobbito Garcia, who assigns nicknames to each player based on their level of play. I really enjoyed listening to him needle the players for making a mistake or even wearing the wrong color shoe.

Gunnin' for that #1 Spot is exhilarating stuff, and you will be powerless not to stand up and cheer (should make for an interesting time at the movies). I do wish Yauch had dug a little deeper into the corruptive elements at work around these kids, but in the end, I think he was less interested in creating an exposé and more intent on showing us these kids before they lost their humble ways to become tainted by money, fame, and business sense. On that level, the film works beautifully. This one is a winner. It opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley theater.

To read my exclusive interview with Gunnin' for that #1 Spot director Adam Yauch, go to Ain't It Cool.

Encounters at the End of the World

The always irreverent and entertaining director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; Grizzly Man; Rescue Dawn) in recent years has become as famous for his documentary filmmaking and narration as he has for his earlier feature works of the 1970s and '80s. Inspired to take a trip to the Antarctic after being shown footage of some of the stunning undersea life at the South Pole, Herzog made a journey to the McMurdo Station outpost, primarily a scientific community but also inhabited by some 1,100 people during the slightly more bearable months from October to February. Herzog makes it clear from the outset that his will not be any fucking March of the Penguins, and on that promise, he delivers.

Rather than simply point the camera at the nature above or below the ice, Herzog spends much of his time getting to know scientists and citizens alike. He interviews truck drivers and plumbers as well as biologists and geologists to discover what goes in to make this strange, isolated society function. As with much of Herzog's work, the question of human nature works its way into the mix, but he also travails into talk of animal nature. Can a penguin go insane? It seems like a funny question on the surface, but when he captures one penguin walking inland, away from his food source and toward certain death, you have to wonder what would throw off the little guy's instincts. Herzog broaches the subject of global warming without lingering. He's clearly not impressed with McMurdo, which resembles an ugly mining town, but he never grows tired of the people he meets. Well, maybe a few of the more hippie-ish characters that dwell there got on his nerves. (It was refreshing to hear Herzog's slightly irritated narration call a long hair on his flaky world view and spiritual mumbo jumbo.)

But even the often cynical Herzog is humbled and silenced when he shows us some of the undersea footage that brought him to Antarctica in the first place. The creatures and natural beauty of the place are simply awe inspiring. With his documentaries, Herzog is rarely trying to tell a narrative story as much as he's attempting to seek out wonderful storytellers. He greets each new face as a potential source of endless entertainment. If you let him down, he'll say as much. But if you capture his heart, he'll glorify you with all due respect. Encounters at the End of the World is one of Herzog's greatest docs and one of his best narrations on top of that. He's like that grumpy uncle who passes judgement on everyone at family dinners, but always manages to give you a wink because he knows you and he can smell everyone else's bullshit from a mile away. To be on the same wavelength as Herzog would be a profound honor. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my interview with Encounters at the End of the World Werner Herzog, go to Ain't It Cool.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to

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