Tag Archives: spain

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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Aguirre, the Wrath of God – Review

11 Sep

One of the most iconic professional relationships in the history of film is that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Herzog is a brilliant film maker who pushes the boundaries of cinema and has made a name for himself doing it. Kinski, on the other hand, was an absolute madman who threatened people on a daily basis and had manic explosions that makes the Vesuvius eruption seem like nothing. While the two men were constantly at odds with each other, it can’t be denied that they did some excellent work together. The first film they ever collaborated on is the 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Upon its release, it was a critical success and has been called a masterpiece of cult film making. That’s a lot to live up to, but this minimalist adventure into both the South American jungles and insanity lives up to the hype.

After conquering the Incan Empire, conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés) leads a group of his men and slaves down the Andes Mountains and into the jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado. As they get deeper and deeper into the jungle, Pizarro decides to send a small party further downriver, led by Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) and his second in command being the manipulative Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). When Ursúa recommends going back to Pizarro’s camp after 7 days of searching, Aguirre decides that that this course of action is unacceptable and leads a mutiny against the leader and elects the slovenly nobleman Don Fernando de Guzmán (Peter Berling) to lead the group to El Dorado. Of course, Aguirre knows that Guzmán is a fool and uses this to take power over the party and to build a raft to sail deeper into the jungle that is crawling with native cannibals looking for food. As members of the party start being picked off one by one, Aguirre falls further into madness and becomes hungrier for power, and will stop at nothing to find El Dorado, even when the expedition becomes a hopeless tragedy.

Who better to tell this story than Werner Herzog? Well, I could actually think of a handful of people to make it before I thought of Herzog, but it’s excellent that he was the one to tackle it. The characters in this movie are all based on real people who actually did go looking for the mythical city of El Dorado, but it isn’t known for sure how they all met their demises. Herzog isn’t interested with fact in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Instead, he’s interested in weaving a story full of deception, manipulation, and murder. While this all sounds very theatrical, this movie is anything but. Shot on location in South America, it would’ve been impossible to bring a film crew out that was necessary with the budget Herzog was working with. This made the film maker shoot scenes in whatever way he can which made for a very loose and almost documentary style. It’s a method that makes this film absolutely engrossing and it really worked at making me get immersed in the jungle environment these characters were trying to navigate. It’s a prime example of a low budget miracle.

This was a highly demanding movie for both the actors and the crew, so I imagine it wasn’t always easy getting the performance that was necessary, especially from you know who. Still, the performances in this movie feel very natural and ahead of their times in some ways. Herzog is an auteur film maker and his demand for his vision is evident with the stories that have been recorded from the set and the actual outcome of the movie. I do have to talk about Kinski’s performance since it’s one of the main reasons to even watch this film. He has a fire in his eyes and he captures the madness of Aguirre with perfection. He’s actually not in it as much as I thought he would be, especially since the movie is named after his character. He definitely is the main driving force behind the film, but he often times pulls the strings from offscreen. When he is onscreen, however, his acting is electrifying and you can see why Herzog chose to collaborate with him four more times after this despite the trouble he had.

This movie had the story to be an epic yet tragic adventure tale full of larger than life heroes and villains. Instead, Herzog went the much quieter route and it’s all the better for it. Most of the violence happens within the blink of an eye and most of the dialogue is spoken in a very uncinematic way. Much like everything else, the story doesn’t flow and move like a traditional film. Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a very slow movie that isn’t afraid to completely stop moving for a while and focus on the stability, both mental and physical, of the characters. If you’re looking for a swashbuckling action adventure film, Aguirre is bound to disappoint. This is a film that takes its time and forces you to stick with it.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is an outstanding film through and through. It’s a subtle tale of madness that works so well because the storytelling is so quiet and unconventional. Herzog’s guerrilla style behind the camera also made the film seem all the more authentic. If anything, it’s worth a viewing just to see Kinski’s manic performance come to life before your very eyes. This isn’t a movie for everyone I don’t think, but it is a masterpiece of the cinematic arts and any brave lover of film needs to give it a go.

Final Grade: A

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Review

2 Oct

Woody Allen is a man of many talents and phobias, which seem to really work together to aid in the creation of some unforgettable films like Annie Hall and Bananas. More recently, Allen has abandoned the city of New York for a more European approach to his film making, with an example being Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a movie that explores a depressing view of love all the while teetering the line of comedy and drama.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two Americans spending their summer in the Spanish city of Barcelona. Vicky is level headed, responsible, and engaged, while Cristina relishes in her nonconformity and spontaneous behavior. Everything is right with their world until they meet the mysterious bohemian artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who immediately begins to swoon the two women in ways they have never been before. This triangle of romance gets more complicated when Juan Antonio’s crazed ex-wife, María Elena (Penélope Cruz) enters back into his life with some unforeseen consequences.

One of the best parts about this movie is that it’s almost like a scenic tour of the most beautiful spots in Spain. I love movies whose stories are international, because, as a viewer, you get to see many different locales. While this isn’t technically international, since it all takes place in Spain, I still got to see great spots that I’ve never seen before. It had a new feel and I didn’t feel like I was in a city that was all too familiar.

As I’ve said before, Woody Allen has done a great job at making this film feel like a comedy, but just as much a drama. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an oxymoron, but then again so is Woody Allen. The mood that this film radiates is very light hearted, chatty, and sometimes a little silly. But if one was to dig deeper into what the movie is actually about, they might find themselves feeling a bit hopeless. There is a theme of the fallacies of love and how there really is no such thing as a perfect romance, or even a relationship where both parties will remain happy. Allen seems to be suggesting that there are better people than the one you already have.

I have really only one complaint about this movie, and it can pretty much be said for any Woody Allen movie. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is full of what I like to call  “Woodyisms.” John, what’s a Woodyism? Let me explain. A Woodyism is a very strange, almost impossible line of dialogue that just feels really weird. The use of the term “making love” is thrown around like crazy in this movie when a much simpler word might have sufficed, and there are plenty of words to choose from. But, as I said, this is part of the odd style of Woody Allen that I really can’t get used to.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an above average comedy/drama because of the unorthodox storytelling and the characters that really are full of life and dimensions. It’s been established for many years that Woody is a powerful force in the film industry, despite his personality and appearance. While this may not be as memorable as Annie Hall, but it still is a very strong movie that I enjoyed from beginning to end. If you’re a fan of the trademark depressing humor that this film maker has perfected, I’d say give Vicky Cristina Barcelona a watch.