Tributo de Guillermo De Toro: "The Devil's Backbone"

3/28/2017

Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s 3rd film is the finely crafted gothic fairy tale “The Devil’s Backbone”.  This critically acclaimed film was release in 2001, four years after the disappointing experience of “Mimic”.  It’s a Spanish language ghost story that takes place at the end of the Spanish civil war in an isolated and ominous looking orphanage.

The film is full of atmosphere and mystery surrounding a tragic event that happen not so long ago.  When Carlos, a twelve year old boy, arrives he brings with him a youthful innocence and hope for place that has all but lost it.  He has been left there by his uncle after his father’s death in the war.  He panics at first with the idea of being abandon there, but like all of the other children he has no choice.  The place is run by head mistress Carmen, whose prosthetic leg becomes heavier, and heavier over time.  Her husband is Dr. Casaras, played by Federico Luppi the lead actor in “Cronos”.  Their relationship is strained and since Casares is impotent Carmen has been sleeping with the angry and lonesome Jacinto.  Jacinto has his own nefarious plans and has been slowly biding his time until he can get his hands on all of the gold bars in the safe.  Then there is Conchita, the sweet young girl who is in love with Jacinto.  

An unexploded and rusty bomb rests in the center of the courtyard.  Its a symbol for so many things in the film and is a sign of things to come.  At the center of all this moody darkness is a group of orphans lead by the older Jaime who bullies and harasses Carlos.  It doesn’t take long for Carlos to begin seeing “the ghost that sighs”.  His name is Santi and he disappeared from the orphanage and presumed to have run away.  Santi looks like a cracked porcelain doll with a billowing cloud of blood coming from a wound in his head.  Carlos and others are terrified of the ghost but what does it want?  Santi’s does warn of more death to come.

The war continues to take its toll on its people as well as the orphanage.  All of its inhabitants are bound that this place with little hope for the future.  Jacinto is a passionate but dangerous character who get exiled from the place after a violent attack on the children.  Jaime’s character evolves beautifully throughout the film as he transitions from being a child to a man and a leader.  Carlos faces his fears and learns of Santi’s story and his only request is vengeance for the person who killed him.  Santi is not meant to be a so called scary ghost, but a trapped soul looking for justice.  


When Jacinto returns he no longer holds back his anger and rage and is hellbent and destroying everything and everyone.  Left to there own devices the children must fight for there survival more than ever before.  Can hope survive?  Del Toro tells a remarkable story and doesn’t cop out with any cheap Hollywood crap.  It doesn’t offer any easy answers or short cuts but is an honest depiction of its characters.  Del Toro’s later film “Pan’s Labyrinth” is quite similar but stars a girl in the lead role.  They are meant to be companion films.


“The Devil’s Backbone” is available on disc from The Criterion Collection.

Tributo de Guillermo Del Toro: "Mimic"


3/25/2017

Guillermo Del Toro’s second film was the modestly budgeted studio film “Mimic” and according to Del Toro was a complete disaster from start to finish.  His stylistic touches can be found sporadically but things just don’t come together in the end.  Miramax, the studio who bankrolled the film, has since allowed Del Toro to release a new Director’s Cut edition on blu-ray.  This version also contains an insightful commentary about the filming and production by Del Toro.

The giant cockroach movie it has been called.  When roaches start infecting the children of Manhattan with a deadly disease entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler, played by Mira Sorvino, helps bioengineer a new breed of roaches called the Judas breed.  It kills off the disease carrying bugs and the epidemic ends.  But 3 years later, theses roaches have rapidly evolved into a more dangerous problem than they ever though possible.

An autistic young boy who lives with his grandfather spends hours looking out his bedroom window, the man across the street is a bit strange and he calls him Mr. Funny Shoes.  He uses two spoons to mimic the sounds he hears and the sounds coming from across the street sound like cockroaches.  Kids in peril and battling evil is a theme of Del toro’s work, but here its gets second billing to Dr. Tyler and her husband Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam).  Along with Josh (a young Josh Brolin) and transit cop Leonard (Charles S. Dutton) the group hunts the NYC sewers for a human like cockroach species that is looking to replace the human race.  



With numerous script re-writes and issues during production it is surprising how good the film turned out.  There are some dead end story lines likes Dr. Tyler’s pregnancy and a sappy Hollywood style ending.  The bug effects and action were descent as well as pacing.  The characters were nothing special, about a tic up from your stock horror movie fodder.  There is a lot here that could be something and the director’s cut tries to focus things a little better by adding some scenes and cutting others out, but as Del Toro says in the commentary, “This is as good as it will get”.  Surprisingly there were two straight to DVD sequels for which Del Toro had no involvement in.  After his experiences with the film Del Toro’s next project goes back to his roots with the Spanish language ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone”.


Tributo de Guillermo Del Toro: "Cronos"

3/21/2017

Mexican auteur director Guillermo Del Toro’s first film was the vampiric fairy tale “Cronos” about a husband and grandfathers encounter with a small golden device that houses a worm like creature and gives everlasting life.

Del Toro’s themes are present in all of his films.  Insects, children, gothic fairy tales, and  lighting.  “Cronos” introduces us to his world with a very small budgeted but finely crafted story.  Jesus Gris is an antiques dealer and while investigating a new piece finds a small egg shaped device that opens like a beetle and clamps down on his hand, drawing blood.  His blood awakens a dormant worm like creature inside the device that begins a transformation of Jesus.  His granddaughter Aurora is always by his side and goes on this journey with him.  Although silent until the end Aurora is her grandfathers pride and joy.

A wealthy industrialist, De La Guardia, is a Howard Hughes like billionaire shut in that has been searching for the Cronos device ever since he came across a sort of users manual for it.  His nephew, caretaker, and heir in waiting Angel (played by Ron Pearlman) helps him in his search.  Meanwhile Jesus has been enjoying a youthful resurgence thanks the device.  Although it does have a hold on him like heroin addict and further bodily changes come quick.  Soon his skin is starting to rot and is extra sensitive to the sun.  Aurora turns her toy box on to a makeshift coffin for him to sleep in.  His growing need for blood rears its ugly head in a public bathroom where he is seem licking it off the floor.  Filled with themes of mythology and Catholicism the film feel more than what is on the surface.  Jesus and Aurora come face to face with De La Guardia in his factory/mansion and hopes of getting out alive and seriously in question. 


According to Del Toro, horror stories are born out of childhood fairy tales. His subsequent films “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” are prime examples of this.  A retrospective museum exhibition entitled “At home with Monsters” offer a deep look into both Del Toro himself and his films.  It is as though they are one in the same.  “Cronos” is available on blu ray from the Criterion Collection with a very insightful commentary from Del Toro.  It is highly recommended you buy the new boxed set from Criterion simply called  “Trilogia de Guillermo Del Toro”.

"Dead Snow" Starring Nazi Zombies!


Dead Snow
3/7/2017

The 2009 German horror film “Dead Snow” takes a crazy B movie premise, Nazi Zombies, and makes it into a blood soaked worldwide hit.  Made on a shoe string budget of only $800,000 the film was made exclusively for the horror connoisseur.  Although the film is in German with English subtitles which may put off a lot of people, what’s on the screen is what matters most.  Director Tommy Wirkola has gone on to directed “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” which came out in 2013 and had a budget of over $50 Million.

“Dead Snow” is plotted out like so many other horror films a group of young people, this time medical students, go on a ski vacation to a cabin in the mountains.  You have your various stereotypical characters, The fat party animal, the hot guy, the hot girl, etc.  All very one dimensional and uninteresting.  They find out early on that the mountains interfere with the cell service, so they can’t call for help when things start getting interesting.  There is even a scene where a mysterious old man come into there cabin to tell them the history of the area and to beware the evil presence.  After leaving the guy is brutally killed later on in his tent by some mysterious monsters.  Being a German film their are a number of American pop culture references and homages to other horror films.


While searching under the floor boards they come a cross on old wooden box filled with World War II era gold coins, suspected to be hidden Nazi gold.  Stop right here!  Put the Nazi gold down and back away from the cabin.  They don’t take that advice and battalions of Nazi Zombies emerge from the ground.  While some of the student smoke pot an have sex, in a stanky outhouse for instance, the other drink themselves stupid and party it up unknown to them what lurks outside.  When the invasion starts the blood and gore starts flowing it’s an all out battle for survival.  There doesn’t seem to be a hero survivor character to really get behind and cheer for but for the Zombies it’s Col. Herzog the rarely seen leader of the pack.

“Dead Snow” seems to be heavily influenced by the films “Evil Dead” and “Dead Alive”.  The often times comedic and slapstick style of violence and gore is sure to get a reaction out of the most hardened horror fan.  From chainsaws, sledgehammers, and snowmobiles, we zombie kills from every angle.  The film is a very simple and straight forward and doesn’t aim for anything more than it is.  Nazi Zombies.


A well received sequel was released in 2014 again directed by Tommy Wirkola, but this time with a bigger budget and starring Col. Herzog. 

The Power of "American History X"


American History X
2/21/2017

One of the great films of to ‘90s and and according to imdb.com the #30 best rated film of all-time. Tony Kaye’s “American History X” starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong is a deeply  moving story of love and hate.  Norton’s portrayal of Derek Vinyard, a reformed white supremacist, earned him an Oscar Nomination as well as wide critical praise.

Hate breeds hate and feasts on vulnerable young minds.  With a little encouragement from the wrong group of people, and a charismatic leader Derek is led down a dangerous path.  Living in Los Angeles Derek and his family seem to be living a normal suburban life, until his firefighter father is killed while responding to a call in a dangerous neighborhood.  His father was a racist and influenced a lot a Derek and his younger brother Danny’s thoughts.  After his death, Derek found a sort of surrogate father in Cameron (played by Stacy Keach), a powerful white supremacist leader.  Derek takes to the teachings and rhetoric and is all in.  He now has a big swastika tattooed on his chest and a a white power tat on his bicep.  

The film opens in black and white with a major turning point moment in Derek’s life, a group of young black men are trying to steal his truck from his driveway.  When Danny tells him about it, Derek bursts out of the house locked and loaded.  He shoots two of the guys and curb stomps the other.  This scene and other parts of the event are recalled throughout the film.  Derek is sent too prison for three years.  The film is told in a non linear fashion going back and forth between Derek’s activities before prison, his time locked up, and when he gets out.

In the present day Danny is seen going down the same road as Derek, his school report entitled “My Mein Kampf” obviously drew the attention of the faculty and of principal Dr. Bob Sweeney (a black man).  Danny’s new assignment is to write a report on his brother entitled “American History X”.  The overall voice and perspective of the film is through Danny’s eyes as he writes his report.  The bond between him and his brother is very strong and when Derek emerges from prison a changed man, he does everything he can to change Danny’s thinking.  Now looking for like an accountant, with his button up shirts and grown out hair, his old friends look for him to return to his old self.  Derek’s mind has grown in prison, the realities and lies of the white power movement become more clear as he is eventually betrayed by his arrayan brothers, for befriending Lamont, a black man he works in the laundry with.  Lamont calls him out on all of his bullshit and gets through to Derek on a deeper level. 


Where Derek tries to distance himself from his old life, he is meet with some strong resistance.  He must now try to rescue his family from sickness, his mother has emphysema or something,   and poverty.  He does have a sister, Davina, who seems a little underused in the film and just kind of a prop.  When everything seems to be looking up and we think were headed for a classic Hollywood ending, we have out hearts ripped out with an ending that really brings the house down.  Its tragic but feels right, if all you do is spout hate don’t be surprised is it come back to bite you in the ass.  Hate has a memory and things can pop up when you least expect it.


Ryan Gosling is "The Believer"

2/16/2017

Henry Bean’s film “The Believer” was the Grand Jury Award winner at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and made a rising star out of Ryan Gosling.  Although acting since he was little, this was Ryan’s first starring role and his performance was nothing short of brilliant.  At first controversial due to its subject matter, if you actually watch the film you’ll find that the message is ultimately a positive one.  The “Believer” is also based on a true story.

Gosling plays Danny Balint a morally confused young man with a fervent hate for Jews, but get this he’s Jewish himself.  Danny is a cocky young man with his buzz cut and proudly worn swastika t-shirt.  The opening scene show him stalk and terrorize a young Jewish man through the streets and subway of New York City.  He punches and screams at him to fight back, but the man sheepishly takes it, only to walk away.  Danny’s story is about a young man in the midst of a crisis of faith and that of identity.  Somethings cannot be changed, his jewish upbringing is so ingrained in his mind and body that no amount rebellion or denial can shake what he truly is.

He roams around with a group of other white supremacists who seem to do nothing but pick fights and terrorize people.  Often winding up in front of a judge, who sentences them to sensitivity training.  They are brought before three Holocaust survivors, and are forced to listen to their experiences in the concentration camps.  While his friend mock and disrespect them, Danny is moved by the story of a man who’s young son was murdered by a Nazi soldier.  This story will haunt him throughout the film as it is flashed back to a number of times. 

Danny then meets up with Curtis (Billy Zane) and Lina, the leaders of an organized fascist group, who see potential in him as a great leader and speaker to promote their cause.  It is there he also meets Lina’s daughter Carla AKA the love interest.  Danny’s commitment to hate and bigotry is starting to crumble when him and his friends vandalize a synagogue.  As he sees his friends desecrate the Torah, something inside him snaps.  He starts to doubt everything he’s believed in.  His most tightly guarded secret is also starting to leak out as well.  A New York Times reporter has been looking into his past and sets up an interview with him.  They get together at coffee shop and towards the end the reporter drops the bomb.  He knows he is jewish and threatens to expose him, Danny doesn’t take this lightly as he pulls out a gun and threatens to kill himself if he prints the story.


Danny’s double life can’t last for much longer as his mind is constantly at war with itself.  The Nazi rhetoric and propaganda he has been spouting no longer rings true, but like in the mafia, it’s hard to just walk away from it all.  We come to a climax that is both tragic and life affirming.  Danny’s final action to rid himself of the hate comes with a price, and he is willing pay it.  Does this atone for all of the pain and suffering he has caused?.  “The Believer” is a great film and can be seen for free if you have Amazon Prime.  


Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive" with Ryan Gosling


2/7/2017

The 2008 film “Bronson” starring Tom Hardy was the calling card film for director Nicolas Winding Refn’s as it received a hand full of awards and rave reviews.  He initially drew a small cult following with his “Pusher” trilogy of films about a gritty and brutal drug dealer.  “Drive” in 2011 marks his first major studio film with a wide theatrical release. Boasting an impressive cast, Ryan Gosling stars as “Driver” a mechanic and stunt driver by day and a for hire wheelman by night.  He’s a cool and quiet dude sporting a flashy silver jacket with a scorpion on his back.  With its 80s style Euro synth score by Cliff Martinez, “Drive” has a unique feel and aura to it.

Set in downtown Los Angeles the opening scene shows the Driver at work.  Evading the cops while being the getaway man for a couple of small time thieves.  The atmosphere is electric as he darts up and down alleys and freeways and is finally able to freely walk away the consummate professional. 

The Diver then becomes becomes involved with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the single mother of a little boy named Benicio, who lives next door.  Her husband Standard is serving time and is in debt to some mafia guys.  The mob big shots are Bernie and Nino played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perelman and in typical movie fashion they own a pizzeria as a front for there activities.  The Driver works at garage repairing car for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also has a history with the mob guys, and has paid his debts.  This group of characters all intermingle in a story about masculinity and drive (the motivational kind).


The Driver is man of few words, an anti-hero with good intentions.  He lives a solitary life and follows his own code of ethics.  But when it comes to protecting Irene and Benicio from the mob, it drags him down into some pretty dark emotional places.  When Standard is paroled he comes home to Irene and Benicio, leaving the Driver out in the cold.  Although when Standard asks for his help to repay his debts, he agrees.  When things eventually go south, the Driver finds himself in an life or death situation.  The Driver is a man of action and when Irene and Benicio are threatened, he doesn’t take this lightly.  Intensely brutal violence has also been a hallmark of Winding Refn’s films and we get plenty of here with Drive.  The ending feels authentic as it doesn’t go for a stock Hollywood finale.  It feels right but at the same time a little sad.  It has you asking questions, but in a good way.  “Drive” did well when award season came around and it furthered the careers of Gosling and Refn.  But only to be taken down a peg on their next collaboration in the completely unwatchable “Only God Forgives”.


Nicholas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon" Starring Elle Fanning

The Neon Demon
2/5/2017


Beauty and style are two words that immediately come to mind with writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” for both good and bad resaons.  The film starring Elle Fanning and Jena Malone comes off as extremely egotistical with style over coming substance.  Although the film does try to come off as a satirical attack on the modeling industry and our concepts of beauty itself.  This point is muted with several bizarre and questionable scenes where bright neon lights and over stylized symbolism cloud the message.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a fresh young girl of 16 arriving on the L.A. fashion scene.  She is beautiful, innocent and pure, for how long?  The film opens with her at a somewhat foreshadowing photoshoot where she lies dead sprawled out on a couch covered in blood. Afterwards she has help wiping the fake blood off with the older and more experienced make up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone).  Ruby admires he beauty and they quickly become friends.  They go to parties and mingle with a few other experienced models, Sara and Gigi, who are obviously jealous of Jesse.  After years of modeling and the constant threat of newer, younger faces and bodies, Jesse is just another threat.

Jesse has a meeting with an agency and although she is really only 16, they just fudge the papers and have her say she is 19.  She gets invited to do a test shoot with a highly sought after photographer named Jack.  Jack is stereo typical photographer. He is intense, intimidating and demanding of his models.  He closes the set so its just the two of them and in no time, Jesse is nude.  Although Jack does not come off as a sleazy perv, but a professional artist pushing the boundaries of his craft.  The shoot leaves Jesse with a sense of confidence and power not to mention covered in gold paint.

Jesse lives in a low rent motel run by Hank (Keanu Reeves) and after coming home one night finds an intruder in her room in the form of a mountain lion.  Whether this is suppose to be a metaphor or just something that happens in L.A. I’m not completely sure, but needless to say Jesse is freaked out.  She starts dating a photographer, Dean, from her first shoot (the one with the blood).  He is about 25 or so and is by all outward appearance a pretty good dude.  As Jesse quickly climbs the local modeling ladder, things get a little more intense and we begin see some changes in her attitude.  She is well on her way to becoming a neon demon.


When things get a little rough Jesse runs to Ruby who has her own plans for her.  Ruby has had a thing for her ever since they met and when she finally makes a pass at her, Jesse freaks out and tosses her aside.  Ruby then really starts to lose he shit.  She also works at a morgue applying make up to cadavers when her deepest fantasies for Jesse gets a little carried away and she ends up defiling that poor corpse.  Jesse’s ultimate fate is a little anti-climactic and the 3 women go all medieval on her ass and consume her beauty both literally and figuratively.


Winding Refn referred to his film as a “ceremonial celebration of narcissism” and used a lot of artificial visuals to make things feel more synthetic and fake.  He takes the age old story of the pretty young girl going off the Hollywood to follow her dream and in the end being unfulfilled (and dead).  The basic story structure is nothing new, but the visual style and the always wonderful Elle Fanning make this film something to check out.  If you have Amazon Prime it is currently streaming for Free.  Amazon Studios was also involved in the distribution of the film.