The eyes have it

Near the start of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, there is a posh auction of ancient artefacts. The artefact that is important to the plot is an object able to resurrect the titular Golden Army, as seen in an animated prelude. But before we get to that there is another item for sale: a vastly enlarged version of what is known to students of ancient religion as the Venus of Willendorf.

That stone carving of an exaggeratedly rounded female figure is one of humanity's oldest crafted items and probably its oldest religious artefact.
It is presumed to be a fertility object, something to do with the worship of (or at least reverence for) Mother Earth, as personified by the female form. With many such figurines from sites all over Europe, it represents the root of all that continent's myth and folklore. It is about 25 000 years old.

The Venus on sale in the Hellboy II auction is huge, while the actual Venus of Willendorf is only 11cm tall. But the reference to that figure gives us a clue as to why director Guillermo del Toro's fantasy films are so powerful—why they seem to evince a greater mythic power than many another fantasy movie with similar pretensions. I think it's because Del Toro's imagination has deep roots, roots that go all the way down to the most ancient beliefs of prehistoric Europe, and then take in all the rest of the folklore and myth that came after.

Certainly, such a rooted imagination is vividly apparent in Del Toro's previous film, Pan's Labyrinth—or, in Spanish, and better, El laberinto del fauno (Pan as a character does not appear, and the faun is a more archetypal figure than the Romanised god Pan). There, Del Toro linked the above-ground world of daily reality—and war and oppression and torture—with an underworld in which the creatures of myth are still active, still powerful. They can reach into our world and make things happen. Apart from being the only film in that year that I reviewed and saw again in a cinema, Pan's Labyrinth is the only movie I can think of in which the protagonist gets killed at the end but, because of the power of the film's fantasy, it feels like a happy ending.

Hellboy II doesn't have the depth or resonance of Pan's Labyrinth. That's to be expected, because it's based on a comic book, and, although comics are an American form of myth, they tend to be relatively shallow variations of old hero tales. That said, Del Toro makes as much as he can of this story of a mutant creature from Hell and how he now serves the good.

Del Toro's main means here are a bit of emotional complexity in the character and relations of Hellboy (Ron Perlman), particularly vis-à-vis his literally fiery partner Liz (Selma Blair), and Del Toro's ability to conjure extraordinary visual scenarios peopled with amazing creatures. This quality is particularly apparent in the scenes set in the Troll Market, an underworld demesne hidden beneath today's New York. This space is Del Toro's riff on the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, which was filled with weird aliens and provided a sense of the sheer diversity of that imaginative world.

But his Troll Market trumps George Lucas's alien drinking hole. When Del Toro goes underground, as it were, his imagination goes into overdrive, burgeoning into a detailed visualisation of place and being that is simply spectacular in the richest, most entrancing way. (Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, that scene also contains the movie's funniest and darkest line.)

The storyline of Hellboy II may be relatively simplistic (and I don't think we get to see nearly enough of the titular Golden Army), but its look and style more than make up for that. The wisecracking, cigar-chomping Hellboy and his cohorts, especially the touching fishman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), lead us on a fairly traditional quest, with some punchy action, but the spaces through which they move are more important than the quest itself. Echoing the obsession with eyes in odd places (hands, wings) that has popped up in a few Del Toro movies now, it's about the eye—and in Hellboy II Del Toro makes sure that that organ is fully satisfied.

In Bruges
Peter Bradshaw: Here are four words I never thought I'd write, not since his career seemed to wilt with pure embarrassment under his blond wig and short tunic in Oliver Stone's Alexander: Colin Farrell is back.

Despite appearing in films by some heavy-hitters (Terence Malick, Michael Mann, Woody Allen) he'd been off-radar for a bit and the celeb-o-meter was cooling. But Farrell has brought his A-game to In Bruges, a cracking little comédie-noir written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh.

He is superb: moody and funny, lethally sexy, sometimes heartbreakingly sad and vulnerable like a little boy. He radiates the star quality that once made him the world's It Boy—and will do again. He and Brendan Gleeson, who is also excellent, play Ray and Ken, a couple of Dublin hitmen who have been ordered by their paymaster, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to lie low and await instructions in Bruges.

For a lot of the time the film shows these two moody tough guys having to mill aimlessly about Bruges. The city becomes a continuous, mute running gag, and as Ray and Ken snap at each other McDonagh's whip-smart dialogue hints at Samuel Beckett, Quentin Tarantino and even Graham Greene.

British and Irish theatre audiences have long relished McDonagh's brilliant combinations of the bizarre, macabre and tragicomic, and it is exhilarating to see him transfer this talent to the screen.—

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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