Saturday, April 10, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Alamo

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric, Billy Bob Thornton
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: War Violence

Preconceived Notions: Delayed from last year's Christmas-season release. That's not a good sign.
The Bottom Line: Unromantic, just the facts, ma'am treatment of one of history's most famous battles.

You will not forget The Alamo. Now that we've gotten past the predictable cliche, let's talk about what this film is not.

It's not a history film with a tacked-on romantic subplot, like Pearl Harbor.

It's not a gritty, gut-wrenching war picture, like Saving Private Ryan.

It's not a Disney-fied portrayal of an American legend, like Davy Crockett.

I have to wonder if that's by design or result. The making of this film was a battle in itself. Ron Howard moved from directing to producing when studio brass mucked with his vision. Two A-list stars bowed out. The release date was pushed back to accommodate studio demands.

Touchstone ended up with a dazzling yet unglorified picture. The Alamo subtracts from the legend, painting its heroes not as heroes but as a bunch of guys standing up to unbeatable odds. Even Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) would rather be known as David, or maybe even Dave. Most of what people have heard about him is hype. And that coonskin cap? He's only wearing it for the fans. Col. Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) has his own problems. He's in a struggle to command his ragtag bunch. And he's got TB. The Alamo itself looks like it has already lost the battle from the start.

General Santa Ana, as portrayed here in his fancy bicorn, is a Spanish-speaking Napoleon. His character is not drawn for us any more than absolutely required, and the same goes for his Mexican troops. They at times seemed like they belonged in Attack Of The Clones.

The climatic battle sequence is one of the few I've seen recently where I have not had to wonder at times who is winning and losing, meaning there are no shaky camera shots in the heat of battle. Or maybe I just found a better seat further away from the screen this time. It's worth mentioning, too, that all the battle sequences are relatively bloodless, making this a film that's probably all right for kids under 13 who have some appreciation for history (and know that the Alamo didn't always have the word "dome" after it). And watch for the scene with the cannonball that reminded me of a particular shot from Pearl Harbor.

If a textbook company wanted to make a big-budget historical film, this may be the one they would have made. And no doubt this film, or excerpts, may make its way into a few history classes. No it's not boring. Not by a long shot. But it is also curiously restrained, and for Hollywood, that's a wonder.

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Saturday, April 3, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Copious Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: Another comic-book movie. But this one seems like a cross between X-Men and Men In Black.
The Bottom Line: Ron Perlman's performance gives an edge to what would otherwise be just another comic-book film.

Hellboy is not, as a coworker jibed, the life of Chris Francis. It is, however, a hell of a picture easily enjoyable by non-fans of the comic-book series from which it emerged.

Hellboy (Perlman) is a demonic creature raised from the underworld by Nazi dabbling in the paranormal gone wrong, a la Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He is adopted by eccentric paranormal expert Dr. Broom (Hurt), who raises him to be more angel than devil as part of a super-secret Bureau Of Paranormal Research and Defense. There are no Men in Black, but there is a fish in blue -- mer-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones). There's also Liz Sherman, Hellboy's flame in more ways than one. And there's Hellboy's keeper, FBI man Meyers (Rupert Johnson), who's got something for the girl, wouldn't you know.

Perlman's character may file down his horns, but his wisecracks are pinpoint sharp. He enjoys cigars, cats, Baby Ruth candy bars and food in mass quantities (something he must've picked up from a Conehead or two). And while he's stone-fisted, he's also soft-hearted.

Hellboy's mission is stopping the evil Rasputin from bringing about the apocalypse through a wormhole to the dark side of the universe. The first attempt with the Nazis failed, but Hellboy slipped through as a cute little devil. Now Rasputin needs Hellboy's help, notably his repressed evil side, to do it. He also needs the help of hundreds of Alien-esque monsters who only multiply when you kill them.

Director Guillermo del Toro was determined not to let this picture turn into one of his earlier films, the disappointing Mimic. He got his way, and we get an above-average picture out of it. And it's mainly because both del Toro and Perlman realize one key fact: comic-book films, good ones, must possess a human factor we can all relate to. Perlman does a lot of acting under that red suit.

Yet I feel some of the picture's backstory could've been stronger. In the comic-book series, Hellboy is raised with a Christian upbringing, and while there are plenty of hints of it, I didn't think it was set up well enough. I would've liked to have seen more of how Dr. Broom raised "Red" into someone who fights evil while containing the evil within him. I know you have to review a film for what it is, rather than what you want it to be, but I felt there could be more.

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