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The Devil’s Backbone – Review

3 Oct

When I think of some of the best film makers working today, one of my go to names will always be Guillermo del Toro. At his most personal, his stories delve into the darkest of fantasies and bring them to life using real world consequences. We see this with films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak. On the flip side, del Toro can create spectacles for the big screen with a vision completely different from any other big budget film maker. Think of the two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim. With it being the beginning of that wonderful season of Halloween, I thought it would be a great time to check out one of del Toro’s most praised ghost stories, The Devil’s Backbone, from 2001. He’s stated that this film is a sort of cousin to Pan’s Labyrinth and it’s clear why. This is a sombre tale of war destroying people’s lives, while also offering a spooky ghost story and a message of strength that bursts through the sadness to offer hope. To put it simply, The Devil’s Backbone should be considered a modern classic.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an orphan who’s father was recently killed in the Spanish Civil War, is taken into an orphanage the wise Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and his fellow administrator and teacher for the kids, Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Upon arrive there, Carlos finds something very odd about the place, and it’s a something that’s quite obvious. There’s a bomb in the middle of the courtyard that landed and got lodged in the ground, but never detonated. He also hears stories from the kids there about an orphan named Santi (Junio Valverde), who mysteriously went missing when the bomb landed. One night, Carlos is out looking for water and comes across what seems to be the ghost of Santi who warns Carlos that many people are about to die. This apparition keeps appearing to Carlos, and it doesn’t take long for the other kids to believe him. Meanwhile, the groundskeeper, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), with the help of his friends begin scheming to rob the safe that Casares and Carmen have hidden in one of the buildings. As tensions rise between all parties, Santi’s warning of violence and death becomes an inevitability.

There’s so much to love with The Devil’s Backbone, it’s hard to find a place to start. Let’s go with the story. Guillermo del Toro is a master storyteller, and he works really well with telling these creepy tales through the innocent eyes of children. We see what Carlos sees and we know only what Carlos knows. There are only a few scenes where we are privileged enough to look behind the closed doors of the adults at this orphanage and see an establishment that is haunted by both the ghost of a young boy, but also crime, deception, and lust. While being a horror story and a drama and an allegory for war, The Devil’s Backbone has a strong mystery at its core. What’s the deal with the bomb in the middle of the courtyard? How did Santi really die? What does the warning of violence and death that Santi give mean? There’s so many questions asked during the slow burn of the plot that it had me riveted. I had to keep watching to find out more, and the payoff is quite literally explosive.

One of the most fun reasons to watch one of del Toro’s movies is his blending of genres and the fantastical with the brutal realities of life. The Devil’s Backbone is definitely a traditional ghost story at its core. A boy goes to an orphanage during a time of violence and is haunted by a ghost of one of its former residents. That may have been enough to support the movie, but it goes the extra mile. The humans in this movie often become creepier than the little ghost boy. The talks of the war and brutality that is happening in Spain is an ever present discussion by the adults in this movie that the kids can’t seem to comprehend. Jacinto also provides most of the actual horror in this film. He’s conniving and unpredictable and a true sociopath if I’ve ever seen one. Who’s stuck in the middle of all this? The children. They’re caught between the horrors of the real world and the people who inhabit it on one side and on the other the manifestation of the consequences of their actions. It’s not horror in the traditional sense, but it’s horror nonetheless.

Amidst all this terror is a film that’s shot beautifully. There’s something about Guillermo del Toro’s eye for things that isn’t extravagant, but it’s enough to hold your attention. It’s hard to explain, but he just has a way of showing just what needs to be shown in the exact way it needs to be. Can I get any more vague than that? Probably. Just give me the chance. The design of the ghost is also great, and it’s clear that he puts a lot of effort into creating his different specters and creatures for his movies because they always seem to stand out in some way. Santi is one of his greatest creations. He’s just a pale ghost that can be seen through, but what really makes it special is the trail of blood that comes out of his head and slithers through the air. Try to get that image out of your head. I dare you.

What else more can I say about The Devil’s Backbone? I absolutely loved this movie. It’s a haunting tale of ghosts, violence, and war but ultimately ends with a message of strength and bravery even for the most innocent of people. This is a film that masterfully blends gothic horror and the drama of the real world with the victims here being children. Sounds pretty heavy, right? It is and I respect del Toro for making a movie like this. He truly is a master and this is one of his greatest creations.

Final Grade: A+

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Branded to Kill – Review

11 Jun

There are many film makers that create movies that leave me baffled. David Lynch and his fever dreams like Eraserhead and Inland Empire stand out, but who can forget the psychedelic nightmares of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his films like The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre? A name that never really stood out to me was Seijun Suzuki, a Japanese film makers that was actually blacklisted from directing because of the odd and unmarketable nature of his movies. One of, if not his most infamous creations is the 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill. This is a movie that takes genre conventions and blows them out of the water. Is this film just one giant narrative mess or is it a satirical, yet experimental, look at the gangster subgenre? That’s for the viewer to decide.

Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) has the honor of being the third ranked hit man in the Japanese underworld. He also has found a strange, and often unsettling, kind of love in his newly wedded wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa). Hanada is assigned many important missions by the yakuza, including the killing of three seemingly unrelated civilians. He is also approached by a mysterious woman with a death wish named Misako (Annu Mari), who hires Hanada to kill a foreigner that she will be seen with the following day. When this new mission goes wrong, Hanada is soon on the run and betrayed by almost everyone he knows, with the only possible exception of Misako. Things only get worse for Hanada when he finds out the mythic hitman, known only as Number One (Koji Nanbara) is gunning for him and will stop at nothing until he is dead.

Take that summary with a grain of salt since Branded to Kill was not the easiest movie to follow, and it took me a little while after finishing it to fully process what I saw. At it’s core, this movie tells a classic gangster noir tale about murder, love, femme fatales, and betrayal. What makes Suzuki’s film so odd is the way this simple story is told. There are jumps in time and location that is incredibly jarring and takes a while to get used to. This movie is only an hour and a half long, but it felt so much longer than that because time and space was played with so much. The story could take place over the span of a week or a couple of months. Telling a totally linear story was clearly not Suzuki’s intention. While I do very much appreciate the strangeness, the odd continuity, and all of the confusion that goes along with it, I’m not sure how this really fits with telling the story. What I mean is that I can’t really thematically see any reasoning for telling the story like this. The third act gets really out of whack, which is appropriate for the action, but I’m not sure about the other two acts.

Despite Branded to Kill being totally strange, it still has a classic noir vibe which I really like. The lighting is harsh and the violence is sudden, but definitely leaves an impression. Another great example of noir that pushes the boundaries is another Japanese film called Pale Flower, which I reviewed quite some time ago. Branded to Kill takes it to another level, however, and some of it genuinely shocked me. This film came out in 1967, which is still some years before exploitation cinema hit audiences internationally. This film almost pushes things to that exploitive level. Like it comes real close. There are things in this movie that would have made mainstream audiences in America at this time lose their minds. Hell, there’s some things that would make modern American audiences gasp. I have to give Suzuki credit for daring to go the extra mile.

This brashness and willingness to go places traditional films of the time went didn’t come without a price. This is one of those movies where the history kind of provides a good context as to how to look at an appreciate the film itself. Seijun Suzuki made 40 B-movies for the Nikkatsu Company. That’s a lot of time dedicated to working for a company, but it didn’t last forever. Nikkatsu was not pleased with the original script for Branded to Kill, so they had Suzuki rework it. Instead of keeping it the traditional gangster tale, he made it something completely different, which is the movie I’ve done my best to illustrate as a crazy, untraditional ride. Nikkatsu was even more upset with the end result, and this got Suzuki fired. Jokes on Nikkatsu. Over time, Branded to Kill has become something of a cult classic.

Branded to Kill is certainly not for everyone, and it even took me a little bit of time to fully wrap my head around what I just saw. It takes a gangster story with hints of noir and turns it into a dreamscape where time and logic are unimportant. Sometimes I felt like this worked against the film, but most of the time I was really into the weirdness. I have to give Seijun Suzuki credit for making a movie that no one else at the time seemed interested in making, even if it end with him getting fired from Nikkatsu. For any fan of off the wall kind of movies, I’d recommend Branded to Kill. Anyone looking for something easier to comprehend, you can find plenty of other great gangster stories out there.

Final Grade: B

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – Review

21 Jul

In 1963, the world was blessed with Stanley Kramer’s over the top madcap chase comedy aptly titled It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Before this, however, Kramer was known as a dramatic directors with acclaimed films like Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg as testament. What a way to enter the realm of comedy than with a movie that stars more comedians than any movie before it, and I’d wager since. This is a huge, epic comedy with action, excellent stunt work, riotous cameos, and slapstick comedy that brought the genre to a whole new level. To put it simply, this is one of the funniest movies ever made.

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After careening his car off of a California highway, “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells a group of witnesses about a briefcase with $350,000 buried under a giant “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. Thus begins a race by this group (including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, and Jonathan Winter) to get to Santa Rosita and uncover the fortune for themselves. Along the way, alliances are made and broken, vehicles are destroyed, and one gas station is completely obliterated. While all this is happening, police captain T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy) is keeping a watchful eye and planning his own way to get a hold of the hidden money and start a new life for himself.

If ever there was a need to talk about the cast of a movie, this is the time. One of the taglines appropriately reads, “Everybody who’s ever been funny is in it!” While that may not be completely accurate, it certainly doesn’t seem to stretch the truth too far. Besides the names I’ve already mentioned, the case also includes Buddy Hackett, Eddie Anderson, Peter Falk, Phil Silvers, Jack Benny, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and even Buster Keaton. The crazy part is that that still isn’t everyone. This movie is completely PACKED with Hollywood’s funniest people at the time. Even if you couldn’t care less about the plot involving hidden money and the race to get to it, this movie is worth seeing just to see all of these people in the same film. It’s a blast trying to spot everyone.

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While this is a really funny movie, a lot of the humor stems from the action set pieces that happen. Believe it or not, this is a very action heavy movie with car chases, plane stunts, and people just getting flung all over the place. The stunt work is absolutely fantastic and the chases are fast and exciting. It was cool to watch a movie that was as exciting as it was hilarious. From beginning to end, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World does not slow down and refuses to come to a halt of any kind. That’s pretty impressive considering it’s nearly 3 hours long. The full length cut available from Criterion is actually three and a half hours long, so I’d be curious to see how it holds up with those extra 45 minutes.

There’s so many great characters and actors in this movie that it’s hard to choose favorites, but it’s worth a shot. Jonathan Winters and his character Lennie Pike are high on the list for a very important reason. There’s a scene where Pike single handedly destroys an entire gas station. There is nothing left standing by the end of the rampage, and that’s honestly my favorite part of the movie. I also really loved Terry-Thomas as the British J. Algernon Hawthorne, a slimy kind of guy who has nothing nice to say about America or the people in it. Finally, whenever Sid Caesar was onscreen, it was hard not to laugh. He plays a sort of straight man dentist named Melville Crump, and seeing someone that straight laced in the middle a situation as off the wall as this is just hilarious.

Anyone who likes to laugh either already has seen or must see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It’s an exciting chase movie, a magnum opus of slapstick, and the ultimate conglomeration of funny people to ever grace the silver screen. After the success of this movie, Stanley Kramer went on to direct more comedies, and why wouldn’t he after showing just how good at it he actually was. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World should be on any film lover’s list for funniest movies ever made, and if it isn’t I’d have to hear why.

Breaking the Waves – Review

19 May

Every time I watch a movie by Lars von Trier, I begin to hope that maybe it will help me understand him more. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one ever truly will. Enough about that, however. Today I’m going to be looking at a very important movie in von Trier’s career, his 1996 film Breaking the Waves. If it wasn’t for this movie, Lars von Trier would not be the internationally acclaimed film maker that he is today and it also allowed him to explore with techniques that he never worked with before. All that aside, while Dogville is my favorite of his movie, Breaking the Waves might be his masterpiece.

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In a small town in rural Scotland, Bess McNeil (Emily Watson), a mentally ill woman dedicated to her strict church, meets and falls in love with Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oilman who works on a rig off the coast. The two quickly get married and spend their first days together in a state of marital bliss. Eventually, Jan has to go back to the oil rig which leaves Bess devastated. She prays that God will send Jan back to her, and her prayers seem to be answered with the news that he’s coming home. What Bess didn’t know was the accident Jan was in the middle of the left him paralyzed from the neck down. Bess feels an overwhelming amount of guilt for this, thinking this is God’s way of punishing her, and will do anything to help Jan feel better. When Jan makes the request that she go out and find a man to sleep with so he can feel that connection again, Bess takes the request to the extreme which has extreme consequences with the people of the village.

It’s interesting to note that a year before this movie was made, Lars von Trier and fellow director Thomas Vinterberg created the “Dogme 95 Manifesto.” What this was was a set of rules created by von Trier and Vinterberg that they believed would create the purest and most authentic film possible. There are strange rules like the film has to be in color, shot on a hand held camera, and the banning of using any type of filters. In my opinion, it’s all a bit much. Breaking the Waves can’t technically be called a Dogme 95 film because it does break rules about sound and the director being credited, but the movie is shot on a hand held camera with what seems to be mostly natural lighting. This was a huge stylistic change for von Trier, especially since his earlier movies like Element of Crime and Europa are so heavily stylized. This is more really the only way a story like Breaking the Waves can be told, so it was a bold shift in style that should be respected.

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When it comes to love stories in film, it’s very easy to mess it up. If you look at most romantic comedies, there’s really nothing to the love that you see in the movies. It’s the most superficial type of romance you can see. What I love about film makers like Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers is that they all seem very confused by love while also still being a part of it. That is what keeps the love story in Breaking the Waves feel so authentic and ultimately tragic. This film is absolutely devastating, but the relationship between Bess and Jan is very powerful and beautiful in a weird kind of way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a very unique movie with characters and situations and relationships that feel very fresh and real, sometimes disturbingly so.

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without dedicating a chunk of this review to Emily Watson. Lars von Trier’s movies aren’t known for their stellar performances, sometimes due to his awkward writing, but Emily Watson kills it in this movie. Bess is probably the most fully realized of all his characters and Watson taps into something deep here. I haven’t really seen Emily Watson in too much stuff so I never really had an opinion on her. After seeing her in Breaking the Waves, however, I now see just how powerful an actor she really is. Bess is a wonderful character and Watson plays her absolutely perfect.

Breaking the Waves is a truly magnificent movie that is both hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Lars von Trier has become one of my favorite film makers for a reason, and the reason is that he isn’t afraid to tackle new or taboo subjects using a variety of techniques. This is one of his more down to earth movies, but it still has that other worldly von Trierian quality that we’ve all come to expect with his movies. Simply put, Breaking the Waves is his masterpiece.

The Thin Red Line – Review

12 May

Terrence Malick is a very strange Hollywood entity that’s made not that many films over the course of over 40 years. His first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were met with huge success. After these two achievements, Malick disappeared off the face of the earth until 1998 when he released his World War II epic The Thin Red Line. This is around the same time that Spielberg released what I consider to be the best war movie ever made, Saving Private Ryan, but there are people who believe that Malick’s film is right up there with it. While I will say that it is one of the most memorable and well made war films to come out of Hollywood, it may also be one of the weirdest.

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After being picked up on an island in the South Pacific after going AWOL, Pvt. Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) is chewed out by Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) and sent to Guadalcanal to be a part of a siege to secure Henderson Field from the Japanese. While on the island, the mass of soldiers have to secure Hill 210, which causes devastating casualties for the American forces. As the battle rages on and the days begin to pass by even slower, every soldier looks death in the eye through the sights of their guns and has to come to terms with the life that he’s led, the inevitable future that lays ahead,  and the possibility that they may never return home to the world that they know and have created for themselves.

The Thin Red Line is an outstanding example of a war movie, and I’m not sure how many people would deny that. While many war films deal with the European front, this movie deals with the battle that was raging on in the Pacific, specifically on Guadalcanal. This movie takes a really long time to get started, but when the battle finally gets going it doesn’t let up for a really long time. The original cut of this movie goes on for a little over 5 hours, and this is a rare time where I’d actually love to see the full 5 hour version because the 3 hour one that we have is so enthralling I feel like I need to see more. The combat is so intense and realistic that I began feeling anxious for the soldiers onscreen, even though I knew well enough that it was a movie. Not only is this a very intense movie, but the scenes of battle are shot in the most intricate and beautiful of ways. The camera sweeps over the battlefield in such a fashion that I can’t say I ever saw before. That is where Malick’s vision truly shines, and it’s almost blinding.

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So the battle scenes are all excellent and beautifully shot, but also the quieter scenes are shot in such a way that we see all of the beauty of nature that stands idly by as men wage their wars. It’s a pretty strong antiwar message done well, but things do tend to get a little weird. There are parts throughout the movie where the characters give these long winded soliloquies about the turmoil that they face everyday and the toll it’s taking on their lives and their beliefs. Seriously, this movie would gain a lot of points if those voice overs were taken out completely. It’s melodramatic and distracting because people simply don’t talk like that, especially when it’s already been established that it’s definitely not how that character talks normally. It’s just way too over the top, but that’s really my only complaint with this movie.

The Thin Red Line has a very odd story behind the making of it that makes it something of a Frankenstein monster masterpiece. Malick is known for taking an absurd amount of time to edit his movies, and this is a clear example of how far he’ll go to ensure he gets the picture he wants. Adrian Brody’s character went from being a lead to a secondary character who barely even speaks. The opposite goes for Caviezel, who’s character became the main focus of the story. The cast of actors in this movie is huge, but a lot of them end up being only cameos. Like I said, this movie was originally 5 hours long, so a  lot of their screen time got cut. Still, Malick knew what he wanted and the final product is great.

Plain and simply, The Thin Red Line is one of the best war movies ever made. There’s been countless, both old and new, but this movie has a certain beauty to it that Terrence Malick is known for capturing. That’s what really makes it stand out. Unfortunately, the film does lose points for the weird voice overs that more than border on the pretentious side. While that is a flaw, the rest of the movie is an epic masterwork of human drama and war.

Don’t Look Now – Review

5 Apr

The late 1960s and the 1970s were a really important time for the horror genre. It was a time when new and exciting things were being introduced to this type of film making that really breathed new life into a genre of movies that didn’t yet reach its full potential. Auteur film makers were dabbling with new ways to make movies, and one of the most important experiments for horror was Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now. Based off of a story written by Daphne du Maurier, whose stories were used by Hitchcock for Rebecca and The BirdsDon’t Look Now was almost destined to succeed before it was even made, and after its completion it has become a cinematic landmark.

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After their daughter (Sharon Williams) drowns in a pond behind their house, Laura (Julie Christie) and John (Donald Sutherland) Baxter take a trip to Venice where John has been hired to help restore a church. While there, Laura meets two sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather is blind but claims to have psychic abilities and tells Julie that she sees their daughter with them in Venice, and that she has a message of warning for John. John refuses to believe a word that anyone says about their daughter, firmly believing her to be dead and gone. As time goes on in Venice, the couple begin experiencing more strange and often dangerous supernatural events, while the city is also stricken by a mysterious and elusive serial killer that can strike anywhere and at anytime.

Don’t Look Now is a subtle trip down the cinematic rabbit hole that you may not even realize you’re going down. That’s probably the most brilliant aspect of this movie. While it’s on, I felt like I was watching a very straightforward psychological thriller, and in that sense, I felt a little disappointed as I was watching it. I wanted to see something that was really going to blow my mind as much as everyone says it would. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I realized that I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention as I thought I was. There are so many clues hidden in plain sight as to what is really going on, and if you aren’t a super perceptive viewer, they may go right over your head. After thinking about the movie and doing some research on it, the way Roeg made this film is truly remarkable and it demands a second viewing to really appreciate how he blends time, genres, and hides clues for you to find.

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What also makes Don’t Look Now a successful horror movie is the creeping feelings that lurk behind every dark corner and worried glance. There’s so much paranoia and grief that is caked on the entire narrative, and that combination makes for a very suspenseful ride. Don’t Look Now is comparable to Rosemary’s Baby, in that there are many times where you and the characters really have no idea what’s actually going on. Sometimes you may not even realize this confusion, but trust me, you will be confused at certain points. This a sign of a great horror movie. If you watch it and feel your hairs standing on end, find yourself breathing just a little faster, or thinking a little harder, you know you’re watching something worth while. This sort of true suspense is what’s lacking in the “spooky ghost” movies that have flooded the market as of late.

Having the story take place in Venice is also a fantastic idea. This isn’t the same Venice that you see in movies like The Tourist. No way. Far from it. This is the back streets of Venice in the winter, when things are gray, murky, and dead. The water also seems to be posing some sort of ominous threat or holding some unknown secret. Meanwhile, it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinthine alley ways that sometimes lead to nowhere. Venice transcends just being a location, and becomes something of a side character with its own living and breathing personality.

Don’t Look Now has firmly made a name for itself as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, but it would be unfair to just call this a horror movie. It’s a thriller, a mystery, and a family drama all rolled into one. This blending of time and genre set this movie above many, but the attention to detail and suspense is what truly make this film great. You may not realize how intricate it is upon your first viewing of it, but after thinking about it and watching it again, you’ll be completely entranced by its mystery.

Häxan – Review

1 Feb

For this review, let’s get a little weird, and by a little weird I mean a lotta weird. I’ve recently had the odd experience of watching a movie called Häxan, a 1922 Swedish-Danish film made by Benjamin Christensen. I’m not even gonna try and think of things to say about this movie, and instead I’m just gonna write whatever jumps into my mind about it. So without further ado, let’s dive into some insanity.

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To call Häxan a documentary would be a hilarious mistake, even that’s if Christensen originally intended to make. At the beginning and throughout the films are paintings and historical tidbits about witchcraft in order to better explain the topic that is being explored. Everything in between that are fictionalized scenes of witches holding ceremonies in the woods, cooking up potions in their homes, and the church torturing and burning those who are accused of such atrocious deeds. There’s a very memorable depiction of the devil (played by Benjamin Christensen himself). While a lot of it is fictionalized, it’s important to remember that Christensen put in a lot of time for research, which means beyond all the extravagant costumes and effects is some truth.

For a movie that’s about 94 years old, a lot of what I saw really blew me away. There are certain silent movies that floor me when it comes to their special effects, and Häxan is certainly one of them. There’s one excellent scene in particular that shows witches flying over a city, which was done by filming a model of a city that was rotating and the superimposing the “witches” over what they already shot. There are also some costumes that succeeded at supremely giving me the willies. With all of these effects and costumes and outlandish sets made this the most expensive Scandinavian film to be made at the time.

There’s so much fun to have with Häxan with all of the costumes, history, and creativity that Benjamin Christensen put into it. It’s also pretty fun to know that when this movie was first released, it was banned in America for the scenes of torture and nudity. All of these scenes are so laughably tame by today’s standards, but it was clearly a very controversial movie back in 1922. Now, I can admit that Häxan certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I think the amount of people that would really like some of this tea is pretty limited. If you’re interested in silent film or film history in general, Häxan certainly is a trip down the rabbit hole.