Director Guillermo Del Toro injects a fair amount of personal style into the comic-book superhero genre in Hellboy. This is recognizably the work of the filmmaker who came up with the dank, art-house movie terrors of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, as well as the nasty B-level monsters in Mimic and Blade II. Hellboy finds the director on a bit of an elevated plane, budget-wise, and eventually he’s defeated by the conventions and mechanics of this type of movie, but he managed to hold my interest more than halfway through. The title character, created by Mike Mignola, is a big red spawn of Satan who’s been rehabilitated by a kindly paranormal professor (John Hurt); played with an appealing mix of tough-guy posing and vulnerability by Ron Perlman, Hellboy shaves his horns back in embarrassment, and pines for outwardly normal pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Mer-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, with voice supplied by David Hyde Pierce) completes the freakish band of supernatural crime fighters, relied on but kept secret by the demon-plagued U.S. government. With a resurrected Rasputin, not to mention the masked assassin Kroenen and indestructible monster Sammael, on the loose, they have their hands full.
Del Toro’s crew, led by DP Guillermo Navarro, production designer Stephen Scott, and costume designer Wendy Partridge is great at conjuring an atmosphere of subterranean, near-medieval gloom. Relics, walls covered in mysterious carvings, rooms full of giant mechanical wheels and pulleys, a massive stone pendulum, lots of black leather: this is probably the least futuristic seeming 21st-century science-fiction fantasy yet. As in Del Toro’s other films, the monsters, created by The Tippett Studio, are often like magnified scuttling insects. That said, the drooling, razor-toothed Sammael falls, like so many movie creatures of the last 20 years, into the long shadow of H. R. Giger’s Alien monster. I also found Rick Baker’s makeup design for Hellboy himself a bit too much on the cartoonish side. The last half-hour is a fairly monotonous series of confrontations between hero and creature, though there’s a great effect involving a re-animated decayed corpse who speaks in subtitled Russian.
The Italian film I’m Not Scared is a more subtly spooky drama, though there’s one “Boo!” moment that caused shrieks (OK, one was from me) at the screening I attended. Gabriele Salvatores’ very fine movie, set in a southern Italian village in the late 1970s, is told through the eyes of Michele, an inquisitive 10-year-old boy (Giuseppe Cristiano) who discovers a strange, blanket-shrouded wraith at the bottom of a hole. Eventually, it emerges that this figure is himself a boy who has been kidnapped for ransom, and that the perpetrators may include Michele’s parents. By scrupulously sticking to Michele’s circumscribed point of view, Salvatores is able to treat what could seem like familiar movie material—made up of suspense, complicity, dawning conscience—as newly unearthed. DP Italo Petriccione is the director’s invaluable co-conspirator, capturing the beauty of the Mediterranean summer while often keeping the camera at Michele’s level and remove.
Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms also means to give its audience the heebie-jeebies, and by fixing the camera for long passages on an alternately silent, bickering, and loudly copulating couple (Katia Golubeva and David Wissak), focusing on the weird moonscape of Joshua Tree National Park for equally extended periods, and climaxing his film with an explosion of inchoate violence and rape, followed by an act of even more startling violence, I imagine he succeeds. All in all, however, Twentynine Palms gives Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point a run for its money for the title of Most Pretentious Excursion into the American Desert by a European Director. Dumont’s belabored point is that humans are rutting, potentially murderous beasts whose aspirations to intellect and reason are doomed to failure by the force of animal instinct. He may have a point: sitting through Twentynine Palms certainly made me want to kill somebody, though the numerous scenes of yowling fornication are anything but arousing. Georges Lechaptois’s widescreen cinematography is very handsome, and the American desert once again survives the assault to its reputation.—John Calhoun
Seen on Broadway: Larry Gelbart’s fiscal farce Sly Fox , a hit in 1976, has gone lame, deaf, and toothless since the bicentennial. Back then, George C. Scott’s bear hug of a performance, as San Francisco swindler extraordinaire Foxwell J. Sly, all but picked up audiences and carried them through its weaker stretches (pretty much the entire second act, a wheezy burlesque of sex and rape jokes that are pure, or rather, impure, Seventies). The original director, Arthur Penn, plus one actor (bug-eyed Bob Dishy, a Tony nominee on the first go-round) and a portion of the design team, have returned for this revival, but a definite hardening of the arteries has occurred. Or maybe the production, which transplants Ben Jonson’s Volpone to gold-crazy Frisco in the late 1800s, wasn’t all that great to begin with, its flaws disguised by the huffing and puffing of its galvanizing lead. [After a tolerable first act I wondered why no one had ever made a film of the show, or thought to revive it earlier, but as the strained pall thickened over the evening I had my answer.]
As Sly, who feigns fatal illness to manipulate greedy gold-diggers looking to be cut in on his will, Richard Dreyfuss gives an adequate but largely pallid performance that eventually turns monotonous, particularly in his second act impersonation of a loco judge. His partner in larceny, Simon Able (Eric Stoltz), has designs of his own on Sly’s ill-gotten gains, but this dutiful actor’s greatest crime is that he’s humor-impaired. Save for the dully voiced and expressionless Elizabeth Berkley, as the object of Sly’s dubious affections, the rest of the cast is made up of muggers, wailing and twitching and gnashing their teeth at Sly’s scheming: Dishy, Rene Auberjonois, Bronson Pinchot, Peter Scolari, and 89-year-old Professor Irwin Corey, who gets a laugh simply for showing up to play his minor part (alas, he’s stuck repeating that same bit of business over and over again). Penn’s sure touch with actors, who flourished in his delightful Fortune’s Fool two seasons ago, is absent here.
Design-wise, veteran George Jenkins’ turntable sets, which pinwheel around Sly’s bedchamber on the Barrymore’s stage, get another spin, with the assistance of Broadway newcomer Jesse Poleshuck. [The jail cell that opens Act II is an effective counterpoint from their heightened garishness, but not even the demands of comedy can explain the curious courtroom setting.] Costume designer Albert Wolsky also returns, with colorful bustles and crinolines for the leading ladies to totter around in and comically exaggerated couture for the men, like Sly’s florid green velvet robe, and where would a period piece be without a few of Paul Huntley’s wigs? [Wolsky’s hats and caps are a consistently amusing element.] Phil Monat’s lighting gets the job done, and if sound designers T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella could have found a way to tone down the production’s shrillness during its more limply antic scenes they would have been worth their weight in gold to me.— Robert Cashill
Heard at Lightfair in Las Vegas: LD Ken Billington will be heading to Sin City to relight the classic Vegas spectacle, Jubilee at Bally's, while the Queen musical, We Will Rock You is moving into the Paris Las Vegas theatre that is also hosting Jay Leno for a week of live broadcasts; Fourth Phase Las Vegas/PRG is busy providing fixture packages and installations for a variety of venues including the MGM Grand where Cirque du Soleil will open its fourth permanent Vegas show later this year (anybody willing to take best on number five?) and the new Wynn Las Vegas resort where the LDs include Koert Vermeulen for the Franco Dragone-directed spectacular and Patrick Woodroffe for exterior and front feature lighting—keep an eye out for lots of LEDs. Jim Holladay is project manager for Fourth Phase; In other PRG news, Bill Groener is now heading up a new division, PRG Integrated Solutions, with lots of exciting projects on the drawing boards.—Ellen Lampert-Gréaux