Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

The morning after a preview screening of Hellboy II: The Golden Army at the BFI Southbank I'm still trying to work out why I felt so let down by Guillermo del Toro's latest film. 'Disappointing' doesn't even begin to cover it.

Admittedly my humour wasn't helped by the fact that the ticket advertised by the BFI as being a preview that included a 'Q & A with the director' had no such thing (and of course no staff around to complain to - I'm guessing that since more than half the audience stayed to the end of the ridiculously long credits, I'm not the only one who got conned). What we DID get for the extra expense and trip to Southbank instead of our local fleapit was a self-congratulatory 30 second 'live' video introduction from the director who told us, rather presumptuously, that the film we were about to see was 'triple fucking A'.

Of course my expectations may have been too high, and my disenchantment with del Toro specifically may have set in with recent interviews and the way the fawning media are all over him as yet another 'flavour of the month saviour of cinema' director that the jibbering fan boys at Empire and the like suddenly seem to have fallen head-over-heels in love with (Tarantino didn't last long, did he?!).

The man who entertained with endless self-deprecating comments at Comic-Con several years ago, and indeed again at the NFT last year at the preview screening of Pan's Labyrinth seems to have turned into a sort of egomaniacal monster after all the oscar nomination hype, telling the world at every given opportunity how The Hobbit will be HIS fantastic vision and not Peter Jackson's - which may well be hilarious to watch from the sidelines (Jackson's real persona, by all accounts, is far more Machiavellian and controlling than the cuddly persona put on public view) but hardly augers well for the collaborative 'best of both worlds' originally promised.

The credit-claiming antics over The Orphanage didn't impress me either, although that may be the lazy media's fault rather than the rampant case of del Toro egotism it seems to be. Suffice to say that if I'd put my life blood and tears into directing such an excellent horror film, I'd be extremely pissed off at the number of column inches dedicated to praising del Toro (who was merely a producer on the film) as if it was all his work!

Those initial misgivings aside, I've loved del Toro's film work (although I thought Chronos rather over-rated) and although I don't think Hellboy is one of del Toro's best films (certainly not in the same league as Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone which are real masterpieces) it was a SUPERIOR popcorn flick for all that.

Alas, 15 minutes in to the sequel, which most critics are touting as being a better film than its under-performing predecessor, I couldn't fool myself any longer, and found myself thinking 'This is an incoherent mess. Why didn't they go back and do re-shoots or edit the damned thing properly'. When you need title cards every few minutes to explain the time and place as you keep jumping around all over the place something is seriously wrong with the structure of your film. And unfortunately rushed editing was just the start of the problems I had with Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Mabye I should get the good stuff out the way first as I know a lot of folks have high expectations for this new film. Let me say straight off that Hellboy II isn't a bad film: it's not as bad as any of the Star Wars prequels or The Matrix sequels or even anything in the Pirates of the Carribean franchise. It has more than a few enjoyable moments.

But it's just not a film that needs to be seen on a big screen, at least if last night's NFT screening was typical. The print used at the NFT was muddy, murky and over-processed and the aspect ratio hardly cinematic. These were criticisms I had of the same venue's preview of Pan's Labyrinth (which then turned out to be absolutely stunning when released on DVD) so hopefully the shiny disc will rectify these problems.

The new film is more true to the comics than the first one was - in that it's less mainstream, more quirky, and has a LOT more going on. I gather the budget wasn't high, but by God every penny they had must be up there on screen. Del Toro's imagination has run wild and there are endless wonderfully inventive creations and creatures in almost every frame of the picture.

But the whole thing is like a ridiculously over-egged pudding with its CGI puppets, endless effects and prosthetics in a story that has little depth or originality (the first 10 minutes come across as 'Lord of the Rings redux' - but instead of rings being split between races to stop a war we get bits of a crown) and just involves moving as quickly as possible from one showcase battle sequence to the next. The humour, so much a hallmark of the comic book, seems stagey and contrived and... rather weak. You can see each quip coming a mile away and too often the one or two good 'wise-crack' lines seem like they've been added with no thought as to where the characters are at the time and the situations they're in, but just shoved in anyway to get a quick laugh.

Most critics have pointed out the film's single real 'character development' moment - Hellboy and Abe bonding over a late night drinking session - as a highlight, but for me it stuck out like a sore thumb as being so different (and out of place) from the never-ending eye candy 'haven't we seen all this before, and wasn't it called Farscape the last time we saw it' aliens and effects sequences that it jarred - like a clip from a completely different film had suddenly been just slammed into the middle of proceedings.

The biggest sin of all though was Danny Elfman's totally generic, bombasic film score that seems to invade every single frame of the film. Like a bad episode of Doctor Who it's there all the time, drowning out dialogue, deafening you with its cliche's, leaving no room for subtlety or any kind of light and shade that might be required to mark this as 'a film rather than a fair ground ride'.

Maybe when I get a chance to re-appraise the film on DVD in a few months time I'll think better of it, and discover the charm that so many critics seem to be convinced is there. But for now it all feels like a case of 'Emporer's New Clothes' - a film let down by not just poor writing and a lack of coherence, but a woeful implementation by a director who's formerly delivered films to such a high standard. Too often there are glimpses of what the film MIGHT have been if a bit more care and attention (and time?) had been lavished on it, but in its current form it smacks of being a 'rush job'. And whilst 'rush job' might be acceptable to the mindset that liked the recent Pirates and Indiana Jones movies, del Toro's past efforts have meant I expected so much more than what's been delivered here.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Experimenting with Time Lapse

Despite the hot, muggy weather - and it being Summer and all - I managed to catch a cold from a colleague at work last week and on Friday felt so ill that although I made it into the office, half an hour later I set off back home for a hot bath, Lemsip and bed. Not good for the cashflow, but what can you do?!

Alas, the cold seems to have totally messed up my sleep patterns, which are sporadic at the best of times, such that at 4am this morning I was still wide awake, not feeling at all sleepy.

So I decided I might as well just get up and head off to South Bank and try and film the dawn, using the time lapse feature on my Sony PMW-EX1 camera.

Alas, it may have been warm and muggy when I left the flat at around 4.15am, decked out only in a thin t-shirt, shorts and sandals, but by 5.30am it was distinctly cold, and by 6am it was raining that annoying thin drizzle that we only seem to get here in the UK. Net result is that it was pretty much the worst thing I could have done, most certainly hasn't helped my cold recovery time, and the rest of the day is going to be pretty much a write-off as I try and catch up on sleep.

Cold and wet I had to give up on the filming, since it was clear the sun was never going to come out, but here are a couple of scenes I shot (just over a minute - nothing too time-consuming to watch) that show the 'time lapse' feature I'm talking about:

Time lapse is rather more difficult than I'd anticipated. I haven't found any way to lengthen the interval time so it takes less than one frame a second (although I guess I could use the 'stop animation' feature for that if need be) and you have to do some funky stuff with the shutter settings to 'smooth out' movement that would otherwise be so jerky it's really unwatchable. However this shutter adjustment makes using the LCD to line things up extremely difficult as suddenly it's like having a display that responds to movement etc 12 seconds after it's happened, and then displays only a streaky image to help.

Alas, there's a couple of nasty changes in the exposure about half to two-thirds of the way into the clip above because the 'zebra' function on the camera which warns about over-exposure was suddenly going crazy as the light started to increase. I over-reacted and adjusted the aperture setting when really I think I'd have got away with just leaving things as they were.

Anyway, it was an interesting exercise, and I'll be going back to try it again when the weather's a bit less inclement. I must say I LOVE using this camera - almost as much as I love editing and playing around with video. So, despite being cold and wet it was nice to have the chance to use the camera for something other than just filming user group talks, which don't really lend themselves to a lot of creativity.

What surprised me most about my little excursion this morning was the number of people walking around at that time of a morning. It seems that Vauxhall is full of gay people heading out TO (not from!) nightclubs at around 4.30am on a Sunday!