Review: Lady Bird (2017)

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Retail therapy: Scott Rudin Productions/Entertainment 360

While we’re up to our eyeballs in father-son stories on film, even pretty frequently seeing father-daughter and mother-son stories (both examples involving sons tend to be dysfunctional, because aren’t we just the worst?), there are relatively few really good mother-daughter films. Then along comes LADY BIRD.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is at a difficult time in her life. Her Catholic school life is coming to an end, she wants a boyfriend, she wants to go to a college that will nurture her artistic inclinations and she’d love it if her mum (Laurie Metcalf) would get off her back for once. Since none of this (by Lady Bird’s estimations) will happen while she is stuck in Sacramento, “the Midwest of California”, she sees it as just the right time for her to leave the nest.

It’s so refreshing to see Saoirse Ronan, a young actor who I’m sure has bad hair and greasy skin days like the rest of us, allowed to have acne and lank hair, because that’s what real teens look like! The teenage characters speak how real teenagers do as well; they’re bright but not ridiculously verbose as someone like Diablo Cody might write them. Lady Bird’s defense of her mathematics skills not being a strength (“that we know of…yet”) and her uncomfortably “not flirting” with the cool kid in the band (Timothée Chalamet) rings far truer than all the forced (if charming) quirk of JUNO.

Major props to Laurie Metcalf for playing a challenging personality (the family “bad cop”) so sympathetically. Lady Bird’s mother is a formidable woman really struggling to understand her difficult daughter. In one of the film’s major moments, as she leaves Lady Bird at the airport for her journey to college she has a mini-meltdown that traverses an impressive emotional obstacle course in a very short space of time, and she still just about pulls herself together before she sees her husband (Tracy Letts) again.

The best scenes are the constantly shifting, passionate, petty arguments between Lady Bird and her mother. God bless her, but Lady Bird can be more than a little insufferable. She is the kind of kid who makes a scene over eggs at breakfast and would rather throw herself out of a moving vehicle than continue an awkward conversation, after all. A key point has Lady Bird asking her mother, of her potential, “What if this is the best version?” Tellingly, her mother struggles to alleviate her doubts. Still, at least she doesn’t lie to her!

The film unusually portrays a pretty positive Catholic education. Supportive and passionate teachers (Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson among others), ample opportunities for extra-curricular growth, not being expelled for graffitiing “just married to Jesus” on a nun’s car… Even if Lady Bird feels lost, it looks like a good school, a school with a sense of humour apparently, which sends the Irish kids home to sober up after they got drunk on locker-stockpiled minis on St Patrick’s Day.

The McPhersons have a really interesting, unusual family dynamic, with adopted children, surrogate children and ungrateful biological children. This isn’t overtly explained, but seeing the family unit sitting down for breakfast and the dynamics between them gradually flesh out throughout the film is enough.

Lady Bird draws liberally from Gerwig’s experiences, and the timelines certainly match up, but Gerwig has been keen to distance the film from the biopic label. Lady Bird’s story is perhaps a bit too neatly tied up by the end, it maybe could end a scene earlier for a more ambigious final note, but there’s very little else to criticise of the film as a whole.

Gerwig’s naturalistic delivery in her acting has carried over to her writing and direction. It’s a really good-looking, sharp, confident debut and her authorial imprint is already clear. We have graphically strong transition scenes, low-key character beats and jolts of joyous, more extrovert, endearingly goofy energy. Lady Bird is a thing of understated, honest beauty and a sign of great things to come from Gerwig. SSP

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Review in Brief: Mute (2018)

I’m so pleased Duncan Jones got this one out of his system. It’s just a shame MUTE doesn’t feel fresher or more complete. Speechless protagonist Leo (Alexander Skarsgard, cast for his big sad eyes) is Amish . Except for when he isn’t. Yes, Leo sits with his back to the TV, but he also has family photos (which promote vanity) and uses desk lamps and modern plumbing (both of which are conveniences of modern life). I know some visual similarities to last year’s BLADE RUNNER 2049 were likely coincidental, but there’s also an exotic dancer in gold bodypaint and a clear plastic poncho that unwisely invites comparisons to Ridley Scott’s original, as does his less smoggy future city (if there’s one city that’ll stay shiny and well-run even if the rest of the world goes to hell, it’s Berlin). I’ll say one thing for Mute: the relationship between Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s incredibly dark characters is fascinating, but one thing working isn’t enough. SSP

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Review: Call Me by Your Name (2017)

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Study break: Frenesy Film Company/La Cinefracture

I was just starting to think the 90th Academy Award nominations weren’t all that impressive. Then I watched CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, and thank goodness I did. This is one of the most powerful, thoughtful and heartfelt dramas of recent years.

Gifted teenager Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) long Italian summer with his family is rocked by the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), a mature student on placement with his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Though standoffish to the newcomer at first, the pair’s relationship soon blossoms to a full-blown romance, one that will change at least one of their lives forever.

It took me a while to get used to the pace of this one. I’d describe it as languid or leisurely, completely befitting the Mediterranean setting. It’s a long film, and might feel longer were it not for these characters, but they quickly grow to fascinate you and the passage of time becomes unnoticeable. I adored this strange but natural developing relationship, from apathy to open hostility to grudging friendship and finally passionate physical attraction. Elio and Oliver are both proud, troubled, brilliant men who become the best versions of themselves together, as tragically fleeting as their summer dalliance is. Elio shows off, Oliver dismisses him, and both compete for the affections of the locals and Elio’s family. Their love scenes are tender and real, but tastefully handled. This isn’t just for the sake of studios squeamish about portraying gay sex, either. Both Elio’s intimate scenes with women and with Oliver are handled in the same manner. The more disturbing potential of their age gap is avoided because of one key concept: consent. This is not a one-way relationship.

Distance is used in some really interesting ways by director Luca Guadagnino and DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. When Elio comes clean about his feelings for Oliver, they are working their way around opposite sides of a WWI memorial, never mind making eye contact, they can seldom even see each other at this key moment. More often than not the camera pulls back and takes the characters in as part of the landscape, their big beautiful emotions and experiences swallowed up by the even bigger, more beautiful landscape. The sun-drenched Italian countryside couldn’t look more enticing, yet it hides pain and heartbreak in equal measure to passion and elation. Is there a word like “bittersweet” but for a bright summer’s day? That’s what Call Me by Your Name is.

This is the kind of work Armie Hammer excels at. Despite his looks, he is not a Hollywood lead, he is, and always will be, a character actor. You completely get why Elio falls head-over-heels for Oliver, why their meeting matters. Their scenes together positively crackle, but the simple purity of the film’s final flourish is  completely reliant on the skills of one talented actor conveying a storm of repressed emotions. There is nowhere to hide here, and it is here that Timothée Chalamet becomes a star by staring, utterly distraught, past the camera and the stages of grief overwhelm him.

As stunning as Call Me by Your Name’s final shot is, the film’s best scene, indeed the best scene of 2017 comes a little earlier and it is typified by a some wonderful small moments between Chalamet and Stuhlbarg. If you take nothing else away from the film, take this quote about young love: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new”. The scene plays out unexpectedly and refreshingly honestly, it accepts that first love may feel like the end of the world when it ends, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

This is a story of first love and sexual awakening that is optimistic but also realistic. As Elio’s story, we see his world glimmer with new possibilities during the good times and get plunged into blackness in the bad. The chemistry at the story’s core makes all this work and the craft, from the locations, filming and sensitive adaptation of the source novel elevates the whole package to something gorgeous enough to hang in a gallery. SSP


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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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Dressed for a dirty job: Fox Searchlight/Film 4

The more I mull over THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, the more its place at the head of the Oscar race baffles me. Martin McDonagh’s first film since SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS boasts admirable performances and fiery dialogue but fundamentally frustrates you as well. This year’s Oscars boast two films that will almost certainly win for their lead performances but which shouldn’t even be in the conversation for the top prize.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes her town’s police department to task for failing to bring her daughter’s killer to justice. Hiring three billboards on the outskirts to publicise their ineptitude (“Raped while dying / And still no arrests / How come, Chief Willoughby?”), she draws the ire of Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), blunt instrument Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and many of the residents of Ebbing, Missouri as well.

McDormand is outstanding, a sweary toughnut matriarch ready for war (just look at how she tears apart the local reverand with a foul, personal monologue). Unfortunately, her character Mildred is utterly abrasive and unlikeable throughout. I know that’s the point, that the terrible defilement and loss of her only daughter has reduced her to a bitter, combative shell of a human being, but it’s a long two hours to spend in her company. Between her and Rockwell’s bigoted live wire as the two showiest roles, you find yourself praying for more time with Woody Harrelson who at least plays a character with light and shade. I wish we were given more time with Mildred’s family unit as a whole – we only get one real flashback that establishes two things: they argued, and they used the C-word very liberally.

I became irritated by the rolling series of coincidences that is the main plot, the on-the-nose dramatic irony in the flashback sequence and whenever McDonagh thinks he’s playing the part of a clever satirist. He’s much better at peppering his barbed dialogue with creative or unexpected swearing, like Mildred’s seemingly innocent billboard inquiry, “I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say, ‘f***’ ‘p***’ or ‘c***’. That right?” The rest is all just a bit contrived, whatever the intention was. I know McDonagh isn’t exactly a subtle creative force, but Three Billboards still features one of the most heavy-handed pieces of symbolism I’ve ever seen, and it’s made all the worse by a character further explaining it to the audience.

While it’s always nice to see Sam Rockwell getting recognition for something, I completely agree that the film’s excusing Dixon’s deplorable actions because he’s dumb and lives with a monster of a mother is pretty repulsive. Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby pulls the old “good deep down” justification for his psychotic subordinate and we’ve no idea what he’s spotted to give Dixon the benefit of the doubt. All points to slightly shoddy writing for Rockwell’s character: if he’s going to be forgiven, redeemed towards the end, then he has to be given more than one dimension.

Equally troubling is that by the end of proceedings, McDonagh seems to be advocating the virtues of vigilantism. I understand the reputation of the Police in the USA has rarely been lower, attitudes, working practices and disciplinary procedures are in dire need of change, but there’s a fair few steps separating the idea of Police reform and the call to arms for citizens sorting it out for themselves, especially when guns as a way to dispense justice comes into the conversation.

My biggest issue with Three Billboards, even beyond the disturbing political subtext and surface-level characterisation, was that I did not feel engaged in this story or characters. I felt passive, unemotional, despite the hard-hitting human story being told. We’re relentlessly pummeled by horribleness for little payoff, and because the story is told in a conventional a-b-c manner instead of playing with time and perspective to gradually reveal the moments that made Mildred who she is, we’re not given enough context or emotional resonance to really understand these characters. Bursts of classical music, the laziest shorthand for “we’re an important film, we’re intellectual, we promise!” really doesn’t help this misjudged, strangely dead-eyed Oscar-contender. SSP

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Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

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Is your glass half empty or half full?: Fox Searchlight/Double Dare You

THE SHAPE OF WATER promises a lot, and as such you might want to manage your expectations. Don’t worry, it’s good, but with such acclaim lavished on it from the Venice Film Festival onwards you might be expecting another PAN’S LABYRINTH. It isn’t that, but it’s still beautiful and beguiling in its own way.

When an unusual asset arrives at an American government facility during the Cold War, mute cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins an unlikely relationship, blossoming into a full-blown romance between the unlikeliest of lost souls. But can Elisa and her amphibious paramour (Doug Jones) escape their government captors and survive, together?

Here, water equals both sex and death. It’s certainly del Toro’s most overtly sexual film (yes even more so than CRIMSON PEAK, which lest we forget featured Tom Hiddleston’s bum cheeks) but being del Toro’s usual brand of twisted fairy tale, acts of passion beget a balance to be paid in blood, and though the actual body count isn’t high there are consequences to everyone’s actions. The Amphibious Man is seen as a key to the USA getting an edge in the Space Race (something to do with its bilateral respiratory system…or something) and this was very probably intentionally ridiculous. It’s really amusing actually about how quickly the Russian agents in the film lose interest in this particular “asset”. They soon realise that the Americans are desperately clutching at straws and don’t really have anything worth their while.

Sally Hawkins is captivating as Elisa, a bouncy, passionate dreamer who lives and speaks vicariously through film. Tellingly, all the women she idolises on the big screen have very distinctive voices, and they speak on her behalf. Elisa and her new friend are of course (slightly simplistically) made for each other – both are trapped by their physical forms, without speech and only able to communicate through one (OK, two) ways with each other. It’s not subtle, it’s not an especially new or profound take on a relationship, fantasy or not, but it serves this story well enough.

Scene-stealers Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg steal their scenes, funnily enough. The trio ground the story, lend humour and heart, and provide a nuanced take on a well-worn archetype, respectively. I’m also pleased to report the film features Michael Shannon at his Michael Shannon-iest. Government “security consultant” Strickland doesn’t quite top Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth as del Toro’s most chilling villain, but that’s mostly because he uses a cattle prod rather than the blunt end of a bottle to kill people and the latter is somehow scarier. But when it comes to cruel, murderous sociopaths, it’s an apples and oranges situation really.

The Amphibious Man (who looks like a cross between HELLBOY’s Abe Sapien and Thane from MASS EFFECT) doesn’t quite end up being a leader in the del Toro creature pack. The Faun, the Pale Man and the Angel of Death (all also played by Jones) all somehow looked and felt more memorably original. What the Amphibious Man is, though, is a new benchmark in CGI-enhanced man-in-suit performance. Jones’ performance is among his most sophisticated as well, largely because he is being asked to be the least human. This divide between the other-worldly and and real asks you to suspend your disbelief at the central relationship a fair bit, but I guess you should fully expect to do as such in a merman romance.

This could be a dark horse for the Best Picture Oscar what with the established auteur behind it (which the Academy loves), the gorgeously-rendered stylised period setting (which the Academy loves more) and the frequent, indulgent references to the Golden Age of Hollywood (which the Academy loves the most). The Shape of Water doesn’t quite have the magic of Pan’s Labyrith but it has at least as much heart and knowing world-building as Guillermo del Toro’s other work in Hollywood. He still whips back and forth between fantastical wonder and grim reality better than anyone else, but I wasn’t quite swept off my feet by the love story at the heart of this particular tale. If anything, I wanted more of Richard Jenkins clumsily flirting with the pie shop guy. Egg? SSP

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Review in Brief: A Futile And Stupid Gesture (2018)

Netflix really were straight out of the gate with their 2018 Originals. I hope it’s further evidence of them being enticing for risky, different projects and that we’re not just going to get a deluge of mediocrity. National Lampoon biopic A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE gets the Lampoon tone just right, flitting between rowdy hijinks, pretty sharp and unforgiving satire (“the Kids need something to read while getting tear-gassed!”) and the more out-there postmodern stuff, like an alternative, modern Doug Kenney (Martin Mull) talking to camera, mocking the storytelling and the story mocking him right back. It’s a great-looking, MAN ON THE MOON-esque alt-biopic and the cast, particularly Will Forte’s whirlwind Kenney (“You really think Will Forte’s 27?”) and Domhnall Gleeson as the brains and clear head behind National Lampoon Henry Beard (“The oldest man to ever be a teenager”) really make their mark. One for fans and non-fans of ANIMAL HOUSE alike. But mostly, it’s for the fans. SSP

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Review in Brief: Good Time (2017)

For those of you still in denial: Robert Pattinson is a really good actor, given the right material. GOOD TIME, the tale of a robbery gone wrong and good and bad brotherly influence, comes from the ridiculously talented Safdie Brothers Josh (writer-director) and Benny (director-star/beating heart of the film). They have aesthetic flair with imposing aerial shots, sickly neons and deep shadows, they clearly push their actors to go that extra mile with some of the most pained exchanges of heated dialogue I’ve seen in a long time, and they really have something to say about our world and its shortcomings. Admittedly the middle section of the film where Pattinson’s Connie hides out at someone’s house then goes looking for a fellow outlaw’s valuable acid stash doesn’t compel quite as much as the rest of the film. But the final scene, so pure, so simple and affecting, absolutely floored me. SSP

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Review: Black Panther (2018)

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Hear me roar: Marvel/Disney

I was thrilled and enthralled by BLACK PANTHER. I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch this if you’re black.

Newly-crowned Kind T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to secretive high-tech African nation of Wakanda to rule. He must unite the tribes and maintain order using the royal birthright alter-ego of the Black Pather, not to mention deciding on how his isolationist country should interact with the world. Everthing becomes much more complicated when vengeful radical Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) returns to Wakanda and challenges T’Challa for the crown…

Refreshingly, T’Challa doesn’t subscribe to the old “lone hero thing”. He knows he needs, and he asks for, help. Always having a team to back him up has a lot to do with him being royalty (even back when kings led the charge into battle they were surrounded by loyal bodyguards) but it also speaks volumes of his personality, and how he sees his family and friends. To T’Challa, those he values are indispensable assets.

And what assets these loved ones are! Letitia Wright’s impish gadget gal Shuri (T’Challa’s sister, who must surely be destined for a scene where she emasculates Tony Stark through tech talk in INFINITY WAR) and Danai Guira’s deadly spear-wielder Okoye (imagine how deadly you have to be to be asked to protect a bulletproof warrior-king). Both are undeniable highlights of the film, and Marvel better be busy writing them into anything and everything they can. Chadwick Boseman is strong in the lead even if his accent occasionally veers into uncharted territory and yes, everyone who has proclaimed Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger as the most interesting and compelling villain in a Marvel film are correct. His arc, his aims and motivations carry the entire film and fearlessly skewers and subverts realities of race in our contemporary world.

This is less a superhero movie than a fantastical spy thriller. As for the spy/espionage stuff, the gadgets are better than Bond, the politics more self-aware and the tech displays more original and exciting than in most sci-fis. We see traditional tribal cloaks become energy shields, holograms that disintegrate into sand clouds and a range of remotely-piloted vehicles (Shuri has a moment of panic when taking sudden control of a car in South Korea and wondering, “Which side of the road do they drive on?”).

Black Panther’s action scenes are something else, a whole new scale and level of vital energy for Marvel. I didn’t stop grinning for the entire Busan sequence from the (AVENGERS-topping) long-take casino fight to the deliriously fun gadget-driven car chase that follows it. Later on we have a pitched battle on the plains that wouldn’t look out of place in LORD OF THE RINGS or GAME OF THRONES.

I was not familiar with the concept of Afro-futurism at all, but it’s a fascinating aesthetic, presupposing an untouched African nation as a vibrant cultural collage focussed through a science fiction lens. Director Ryan Coogler revels in the look and feel of this world, with soaring camerawork capturing both vast tableaus (the awe-inspiring first flight into Wakanda) and every little detail of characters’ traditional African dress (taking in the distinctness of each region’s tribe as they gather to observe a bout of ritual combat). Colourful tribal dance performances are played completely straight and without much comment, and as such it just sweeps you up (from an outsider’s perspective) as a striking, vibrant celebration of a wealth of African cultures.

Black Panther represents Marvel’s boldest move yet in many ways. It’s one of the darkest and most violent of the studio’s offerings so far, but it’s also one of the most fun and full of life. While the spectacle on offer will surely mean it’ll end up as one of the blockbuster highlights of 2018, it’s an important marker in wider film history as well. The modern superhero movie cycle may not have happened at all without BLADE in 1998, now another black hero is taking the genre into its next phase with wit, bravery and a whole lot of power behind its punches. It’s fantastical but grounded, escapist but about the here and now. Here’s hoping our return to Wakanda isn’t in the too distant future and that Coogler gets to make whatever the hell he wants next. SSP

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Review in Brief: American Made (2017)

In AMERICAN MADE, Tom Cruise turns in his most beguiling performance in years, and much like Leonardo DiCaprio did in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, he does it by playing a complete and utter bastard. In an exaggerated take on pilot-turned-smuggler Barry Seal’s exploits in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, Cruise, director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli produce a zippy, stylish and extremely entertaining comedy-thriller. Seal gets by a lot on luck, avoids death and arrest numerous times and somehow (and unwisely) manages to juggle working for the CIA and the Medellín Cartel. Events have been moved around and compressed, characters combined and dramatic license wholeheartedly embraced, but that’s the norm for biopics. Cruise doesn’t get to run and jump as much as he usually does, but he gets to fly and play off some well-cast supporting players like Domhnall Gleeson (CIA handler “Schaffer”), Alejandro Edda (Medellín’s Jorge Ochoa). Sometimes true stories only need a little Hollywood-ising. SSP

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Valentine’s Day Review: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

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Blue is definitely their colour: Universal Pictures/Dark Horse Entertainment

Spoilers ahead for HELLBOY II.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is one of my absolute favourites: a beautiful, unique and kick-ass fantasy superhero movie that builds and expands on the solid foundation of its predecessor and ends up, in style and tone, halfway between Guillermo del Toro’s Hollywood output and his artier, richer Spanish-language projects. During my latest re-watch I got to thinking what a lovely alternative Valentine’s Day movie this could be, because it is, in the end, all about love…and kicking ass. Just in time, eh?

Mankind’s demon protector Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and the no-longer-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence face Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), a vengeful elf renegade who will stop at nothing to reclaim the Earth for his kind. The end of the world may be the least of Red’s worries, with his relationship with Liz (Selma Blair) strained and about to get far more complicated…

We know del Toro marshals wonderful production design teams (the animatronics and creature designs in this are stunning), that he electrifies fantasy spectacle and breathes life into monstrous characters in a unique way. You can’t help but be drawn in by how this universe is realised by del Toro’s, a universe inspired by the whole run of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics rather than a particular storyline. Such pleasing details can be found throughout, like how the elves bleed sap and turn to amber when they die, how the faerie folk live and reluctantly grow amongst the rusted pipes, struts and supports of the human world above.

But what makes me really love Hellboy II, weirdly, is the unexpectedly affecting goofy rom-com element. Amphibious Abe Sapien’s (Doug Jones) faltering awkward new relationship with Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), Hellboy’s more established relationship with pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz hitting new roadblocks. The choice of “Can’t smile without you” as the movie’s theme song really was a stroke of genius, resulting in HB and Abe getting sloshed on Mexican beer and mulling over their love lives (“I can’t smile, or cry. I think…I have no tear ducts”, “I would die and do the dishes!”). This scene always makes me think of a friend I don’t speak to anymore; we shared many a moment like this.

Love is everyone’s mortal weakness here. Hellboy can’t fight Nuada to the best of his ability for fear of harming the Princess (the old supernatural bond between twins thing) and is seriously crippled by Liz’s sudden appearance at his duel, ghost-in-a-diving-suit Krauss (Seth Macfarlane/John Alexander/James Dodd) lost his body forever trying to save his fiancé (offscreen), and Abe essentially releases Nuada’s unstoppable Golden Army by keeping the final piece of the all-powerful eleven crown as a bargaining chip for the safety of his elf beaux. Added to this Nuada himself, his twin sister being the one chink in his armour and his ultimate downfall.

Both Nuala and Nuada say “I love you” in their way when they die. Nuala does it in a more explicit fashion, making a final empathic connection with Abe. For Nuada, it’s more a grudging acknowledgment of Hellboy’s impossible position trapped between two worlds, just as he was. He feels for him and hopes he can make it work out (“We die and the world will be poorer for it”).

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. If you’re with someone, watch a film together. If you’re on your own, watch a film, and consider Hellboy II in both situations, the best of alt-romantic movies and tragically unresolved relationship stories. I really wanted to find out what kind of endearingly weird parents Hellboy and Liz would have made, ah well… SSP

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