Saturday, October 30, 2004

Review: Hellboy, Special Edition DVD

The Harvard Crimson, October 29, 2004

Directed by Guilermo Del Toro

Columbia Pictures

If, to the purist, movie adaptations of novels are the equivalent of glorified book jackets, adaptations of comic books might be no-brainers: with the visuals already on paper, Hollywood writers and directors get to bypass the harder and, often, more imaginative steps of screen translation. But shortcutting is too often to the detriment of the films, not to mention unfair to their parent comics—the X-Men and Spiderman movies being among the rare exceptions. Hellboy, is another dark horse in this inked-up Hollywood universe, a steam-train of an adaptation that stays vividly faithful to the comic book engine underneath, even as it accommodates those whose only experience with a “graphic novel” film is Dangerous Liaisons.

The ways Hellboy manages to balance these audiences, like its special effects, are a sight to behold. Director and writer Guillermo Del Toro takes Mike Mignola’s cult-fave comic to new depths, adding meat to the hero and villains, expanding the back-story, and throwing in a crucial monster-human love story that the books lacked. But Del Toro’s adoration for the off-kilter miasma of Mignola’s world and the monster-fighting monster is also evident in his attention to the bizarre detail and playful spirit of the comic.

Everything from the gothic scenery to the story’s vaudevillian tone seeps through Guillermo Navarro’s vibrant photography and Del Toro’s script, as full of thrills as it is of an anti-formulaic, self-aware logic. Ron Perlman, of TV’s Beauty and the Beast fame, has the chops (and the eyebrows and the jawbones) to deliver Hellboy’s throwaway one-liners and punches with the appropriate devil-may-care √©lan: he’s Dirty Harry with a penchant for beer and pancakes, a superhero-everyman less detached than Batman and much cooler than Spiderman.

And, with a bad temper, a troubled relationship with a sultry firestarter (Selma Blair), and dark beginnings (some Nazis and Rasputin—stay with me here—invited him over from Hell through an inter-dimensional portal, before he was raised by the U.S. government), he makes Superman look like Al Gore. If that makes the tempestuous and down-to-earth Hellboy a more popular superhero version of our president, well, some may not argue with that. (Just as an FBI agent wonders if “we should go back and request a special permit, type 2—,” Hellboy punches through the brick wall. BRRRAM! “You guys comin’ or what?” he asks with a wink.)

Considering Del Toro’s deft exposition of the backstory, deepening Hellboy’s craggy recesses is probably unnecessary; but, in an era when films are shot with the DVD in mind, necessity takes a back-seat to the three disc special edition, complete with collector’s booklet of arcane diagrams and vulgar Latin. Character bios, conceptual art and hours of behind-the-scenes commentary abound; one feature even allows the viewer to jump from the movie into comic book expositions at crucial moments. The trigger-happy viewer will quickly dissolve into Hellboy nerd-dom, muttering “I did not know that” as he is apprised of the items on Hellboy’s utility belt.

While such extras may verge on the excessive, having background footage and extra features is far nicer than just silly screen-saver animations, especially when DVDs have so much space for extras anyway, and when the films themselves are as fun as Hellboy. Only a few recent DVDs, including the special editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, can, with justification, rival Hellboy’s encyclopedic treatment of the imaginaries and pools of ink that gave rise to its film version. Of course, only the devil knows what kind of tome we’ll get after the inevitable Hellboy sequels.

—Alex L. Pasternack

Friday, October 22, 2004

Sounds of Silence: New albums that know when to shut up

Review: Adem, Homesongs, and Kings of Convenience, Riot on an Empty Street

Harvard Independent, October 21, 2004

By Alex Pasternack

These days it’s hard to find records, even “folk” ones, that aren’t laced up with some slick production team, some ambient hum, or even the thick click of a drum machine somewhere in the background, lest there be a moment of silence. The slight twinkle that opens Adem Ilhan’s debut, Homesongs, could easily signal another attempt at folk-tronica, but it’s actually a sendoff. As his wistful, distortionless voice and guitar spread over the song, accompanied by a rattling autoharp, Mr. Ilhan reveals the song’s most important feature: a ponderous quiet. “Let this be a moment that you won’t forget,” he sings delicately.

This is no minor feat, but it seems even grander, in its own understated way, after a glance at his resume. Since high school he’s been the bassist and guitarist for a post-rock outfit called Fridge, which weaned him on the 1s and 0s, bleeps and pedals that bandmate Kieran Hebden skillfully wields in his own electronic solo act as Four Tet.

Instead of relying on laptop accoutrements however, Mr. Ilhan determinedly stuck with his trusty six-string and, over a few years of bedroom recording sessions, discovered he had another old-fashioned instrument lying around: a dark, personable tenor that can ably wind through hymns (“Long Drive Home”) and unlikely pop songs (“These Are Your Friends”), without losing its valuable sense of wobbliness, an uncertainty that floats between desperation and distance. When he sings, almost moaning, “It’s alright, everything will be alright,” on “Gone Away,” he is talking to himself as much as to a former lover.

But his intimacy doesn’t prevent an occasional intensity, appearing in the album’s warmer, more symphonic moments and pieced together from instruments exotic and accidental. Amidst the lonesome harmony of glockenspiel or harmonium, Adem allows the spindly rattle of guitar strings, the sound of lips opening and the sprinkle of indistinct background noises to spill in, creating a soundscape that is sparse but still expansive and inviting. That combination is fitting for an album of heartsick lost-love letters that relish the quiet of loneliness while still reaching out to the listener with compassion. “There will always be room at my table for you,” is his last beautiful refrain.

The divide between happy isolation and lovelorn wistfulness also drives a set of even quieter ballads on Riot on an Empty Street, the new album by the Norwegian duo of Erlend Oye and Eirik Glambek Boe, who go by the moniker Kings of Convenience. While the disquiet of that title—and that of their debut, Quiet is the New Loud, and Mr. Oye’s solo album, Unrest—is hardly evident in the Kings’ placid tenors, their lyrics capture the contradiction of moving forward while looking back. “Stay out of trouble, stay in touch / Try not to think about me too much,” is their mantra on one song, sounding as effortless as it is heartbreaking.

As with their lyricism, the Kings are firmly stuck in the past, not so much the founders of a “New Acoustic movement,” as the British press once dubbed it, as they are the inheritors of a pop-folk crown. Alongside lonely British troubadours like Damien Gough (Badly Drawn Boy) and Andy Votel, the Kings hardly stray far from the meandering footsteps of Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, and especially Simon and Garfunkel. But unlike their 60’s counterparts (of whom they do as impressive an imitation in their harmonies as on their cover photography), the Kings don’t want to be alone. On both Kings covers, a girl sits coyly in between them, a symbol of reticent sexuality that Simon and Garfunkel all but abandoned for the solitude of “I Am A Rock.”

The Kings attempt to step out of their progenitors’ shadow with the cutesy, upbeat, “I’d Rather Dance With You,” won’t rouse many listeners out of their hammocks. But the bossa-nova experiments on some songs (the guitar and trombone song “Live Long,” and the lovely, piano-sprinkled “Misread”) along with the introduction of a female vocalist, the tidal-voiced Leslie Feist, signals a still-growing, promising sound, with a lyricism less cloying and twee than before. Any lingering doubts about their preciousness are washed away in “Gold in the Air of Summer,” the Kings’ best song to date, in which guitar, piano and an effulgent, swelling trombone give way to a hard-won but decisive dismissal of what’s come before: “I’ve brought everything we need/ don’t look back, don’t think of the/ other places you should have been/ It’s a good thing you came along with me.” Yes, it is.