A Few Trips to the Multiplex
By Fernando F. Croce

Here are some reports from a few recent trips to the multiplex. Mostly popcorn stuff of meretricious interest at best, but they gave me a chance to relax and recharge my batteries before my second bout with Dogville back at the art-house.

First, the worst -- Jersey Girl. Kevin Smith, the writer-director, is, along with digital video and CGI, one of my current bêtes noires in modern cinema. A hipster with a penchant for locker room raunchiness, barroom philosophy and absolutely zero flair for film, he's gotten underserved indie cred and cultish adulation despite the fact that his films vary from the mediocre (Clerks, Chasing Amy) to the downright horrible (Dogma). He's always been criticized (rightly) for arrested artistic development, so Jersey Girl is his stab at "growing up," based on his own experiences and dedicated to his late father.

That's a really sweet inspiration, and I wish Smith the best as a dad, but the movie is simply insufferable. Ben Affleck is a hotshot music publicist (named Ollie, jeez) whose slick lifestyle tailspins after his glamorous wife (Jennifer Lopez) dies during childbirth and he is stuck raising their little daughter (played as a seven-year-old by overcoached, cavity- inducing Raquel Castro). The arc of the plot is Affleck's thawing from workaholic jerk to sensitive father, with plenty of room for George Carlin's mugging as his tetchy dad and Liv Tyler as a sexy grad student working in a video store conveniently adorned with posters of releases from Miramax. As an attempt to reach beyond Smith's limitations, Jersey Girl is, if anything, a setback rather than an advancement -- the director's earlier work, slapdash and infantile as it is, was at the very least distinctive as his own. By hacking away at his type of personal eccentricities in favor of "mature insight," Smith forces me to focus on his bland outlook of life and visual drabness. (His cinematographer is the redoubtable Vilmos Zsigmond, who has in the past achieved iridescent effects for Altman, Spielberg and De Palma but here just gives out Brand-X butter.)

Walking Tall. Another remake, this one packaging former wrestling champ The Rock (nee Dwayne Johnson) as successor of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the whup-ass, muscled-up action throne. He plays a returning Army officer who, arriving at his Southern burg and finding it corrupted by drugs and greed, proceeds to bash lawlessness out of it with a cannon-sized cider beam. Neal McDonough is the Aryan casino owner who has "Bad Guy" tattooed on his forehead, and Johnny (Jackass) Knoxville outdoes David Arquette in the Annoying Sidekick scale. The plot of the 1973 original was just as trashy, but director Phil Karlson and star Joe Don Baker lent it a sense of rabble-rousing moral outrage that, in the end, worked up genuine power. The new movie, directed by Kevin Bray, is too mindless to even realize the mob-rule intimations of the plot, much less address them. Despite oafishly staged action sequences and an almost obscenely mild sex scene, The Rock doesn't come off bad -- he has the ease and the assuredness that the camera loves in a performer, and a surprising gentleness, particularly in his scenes with an old girlfriend (tawny Ashley Scott). Compared to most headbusters in this type of film, he manages to suggest a human being rather than an animated barrel of testosterone.

Finally, Hellboy. Easily the best of the bunch, it's an adaptation of a comic book (or graphic novel, if you will), not one of my favorite combinations (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, anyone?). The title character makes his first appearance as a cute lil' demon following a busy prologue with Nazis, infernal gates and a resurrected Rasputin. Years later, Hellboy (played by Ron Perlman) is a muscle-bound behemoth with pepper-red skin, huge mutton chops sideburns and filed horns -- adopted by a kindly scientist (John Hurt), he's part of a secret government agency that specializes in battling the forces of evil, which he goes about with the comic surliness of an overworked cabbie. With the help of other benevolent misfits, including a young firestarter (Selma Blair) and a bookish gillman (voiced in effete C3-PO fashion by David Hyde Pierce), the big red guy goes about his daily routine of saving the world from hordes of tentacled monsters.

Sort of like The Rock, the Hellboy fella is, despite his looming size, blessed with a sense of humorous ease, a big man's grace and a grouchiness studded with flashes of wit. Under layers of latex pancake, Perlman (Beast from the '80s TV series Beauty and the Beast) delivers some lively cigar-gnawing and, in his scenes with Blair, the touching longing of a Caliban calmed and tamed by his own Miranda. The director is Guillermo del Toro, a gifted stylist whose forays into horror (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone) are among the more personal of the past few years. The comic-book imagery of the story gives him plenty of opportunity to display his love of lighting, textures and décor, and he doesn't put aside his obsessive motifs (fathers and sons, Catholicism, the supernatural springing out of the ordinary). Synthetic but far from a jaded hack job, the film has enough visual dynamicism and thematic resonance to shame Bryan Singer's X-Men series. I had a good time. Nowadays I'm used to settling for less.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on April 9, 2004.

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