Sunday, June 30, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #5: Blade II


Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 67/B
Loren’s Grade: A- (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Loren Greenblatt: Alright, we’re back, and we just finished Blade II: Blade Sharper (if only it were really called that). This is Del Toro’s wonderfully stylized monster-mash vampire movie sequel to Stephen Norrington’s pretty okay 1998 film Blade, which starred Wesley Snipes as the vampire hunter Blade and Kris Kristofferson as his mentor Whistler.

Max O’Connell: This one came about in an interesting way. David S. Goyer, who wrote all three of the Blade movies (as well as Batman Begins) and directed the terrible third film, Blade: Trinity, got to writing the second film just as the comic book movie craze was heating up. This came out the same year Spider-Man really kicked things into high gear. He was looking for a new director, and he and New Line Cinema really liked Del Toro, so they grabbed him. This is the only Del Toro film where he didn’t have a hand in writing the script, because he felt it suited his sensibility so well that it wasn’t necessary.

LG: And it really does. This doesn't feel like a gun-for-hire job one bit.

MO: Basic plot- Blade is a vampire hunter. He's called the Daywalker, he's half-vampire himself, he has vampire powers but none of their weaknesses except for the need for blood. But he’s found a way to get past it with this serum that he made with Kristofferson. He’s still at war with the vampires, but they form a truce because of a new kind of vampire called the Reaper, a vampire that feeds on vampires who're threatening to overrun the entire world. Furthermore, after the Reaper bites vampires, it turns them into Reapers.

LG: As if that weren't gloriously silly enough, to hunt the Reapers Blade bands together with the Blood Pack, an elite S.W.A.T. team of vampires who were originally trained to hunt and kill Blade. They're a flashy group. Some of whom we don’t get to know that well, but we don’t really need to. They’re entertaining enough as types: big Nordic guy, Asian one, coolheaded black guy, alt-girl with the funky hair, you get the idea.

MO: There's kind of a Cameron influence there- just because we don’t know the characters who are going to be monster food doesn’t make them thin. We're only shown know what’s important about them for the movie.  But there’s two central ones: Nyssa (Leonor Varela), the daughter of the vampire leader (who looks an awful lot like a cross between Nosferatu and the marble vampires in Cronos) and Reinhardt played by Ron Perlman, the alpha male of the Blood Pack, who doesn’t like Blade very much, and not just because he’s got this Aryan Nation thing going on.

LG: Yeah, he asks Blade if he can blush. I liked the way Del Toro uses these scenes to mock the alpha male mentality between Perlman and Snipes- he knows that this is just a bit silly with the macho stuff. It’s a little undercut by how much the film builds up Blade as the kind of macho badass, but hey, Del Toro’s dealing with an established franchise, he's not trying to completely reinvent it the way Cameron did with Aliens. He's just doing it better with a greater sense of humor.

MO: They’re also joined by some of Blade’s friends, both old and new. The new guy is Scud, a weapons specialist played by Norman Reedus, who’s most famous for those terrible Boondock Saints movies, but let’s ignore that, because he’s a lot of fun here.

LG: Scud is essentially Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, but instead of meth, he's  obsessed with The PowerPuff Girls and building anti-vampire weapons. He is Blade’s new sidekick after Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler went missing in the last one. Now I was under the impression that Whistler died in Blade, but nope, we got a retcon! Instead of committing honorable suicide off screen he was turned into a vampire and is found at the beginning of this film by Blade in a gigantic jar of blood. Blade may not look like your typical scientist (what with his leather vest, leather pants and presumably leather socks), but nonetheless he devises a reverse serum to cure Whistler by making him quit cold turkey, because like Cronos, vampirism is played up as an addiction. For instance, vampires snort powdered blood like cocaine, and the other serum that Blade uses on himself to curb his bloodlust which is essentially played as a methadone-type drug.

MO: When Nyssa sees this, she chastises Blade for not having made peace with what he is like she has. It’s an interesting point. We might be able to use more of it, but it’s good for what it is. As for the reapers, they’re described as crack addicts who have to feed over and over again in order to get an insane vampire high, so to speak.

LG: Let’s talk about the Reapers. They are a wonderful mishmash of monster tropes. They’re vampires, they have zombie-like traits, they swarm like the monsters in Aliens. They’re a bit like the bugs in Mimic, but with personality. The leader of the Reapers, Nomak, passes like a vampire-human. It’s like if the mimic bugs could actually blend in worth a damn! He’s taking good ideas from his weakest movies and making them work. There’s a scene where they descend into the sewers that’s a lot like Mimic or Aliens, but it’s still very distinctive, and it’s gorgeous.

MO: It’s like a souped-up Mimic meets Aliens meets Near Dark meets anime, with a shot taken from Alan Moore’s Watchmen thrown in for good measure.

LG: And it turns out that Nomak was created by the vampires, so there’s a bit of a Frankenstein thing going on as well.

MO: It’s interesting that vampirism is also kind of looked upon as a virus in this thing, but also as a genetically-engineered mistake. Del Toro is interested in the Frankenstein thing of humans meddling in the wrong things, but here the vampires are meddling in things they shouldn’t. The real villain is the head vampire, played by Thomas Kretschmann of The Pianist. Kretschmann and the Blood Pack all have that vampire racism thing going for them. There’s a scene where, when the Blood Pack enters a vampire club, they complain that most of the vampires in attendance aren’t pure-bloods, and that they should just kill them all. It’s especially played up, though, when we learn Kretschmann is trying to make a perfect, pure vampire.

LG: And with Wesley Snipes here against the vampire racists, there’s a bit of a Blaxploitation thing going here and in the other Blade movies.

MO: And the Frankenstein thing comes out with Nomak. He’s meant to be the ultimate vampire, but the whole thing ends up biting them in the ass.

LG: Del Toro wants to do a proper Frankenstein movie…

MO: …but that’s among his billions of planned projects.

LG: Now, those Del Toro goo and gore effects that we love so much are here. There’s a scene in the vampire club where there’s a big rave, people are feeding and trading razorblades on tongues while they kiss like one might use ecstasy, a man is casually cutting into a topless woman’s back (a not so subtle reference to Devil’s Backbone). And most importantly in the scene, there’s a bit where a Reaper is impaled on the wall by a sword and has to crawl upwards and tear through his own genitals (which then repair) in order to get away.

MO: The gooeyness there is very purposeful. There’s a great sense of biology, which we get an even better sense of at a dissection of a Reaper corpse.

LG: We see that they have these sacks in their shoulder-blades that inflate when they eat. I’m not a biologist, and I’m sure real biologists would laugh their asses off at this very concept, but it feels real enough in the film to legitimize these creatures.

MO: It’s that shared quality Del Toro has with James Cameron- it’s gobbledygook, but it’s real gobbledygook. And we learn that their heart is incased in bone that’s very hard to puncture, which obviously gets away from one vampire weakness. And there’s another scene where Nomak kills a drug dealer by pushing him into a car window, and he pulls out a shard of glass in the guy’s neck and licks it, saying “so sweet”. It’s a nice moment of gore that serves the addiction angle.

LG: Ebert had a great line about the film calling it a “visceral vomitorium.”

MO: It is that, without a doubt. It plays with just how many kinds of blood we can have- blood gelatin, powdered blood, pools of blood for rejuvenation at the vampire headquarters.

LG: This is Del Toro’s first real action movie, and on our first viewing, I got the impression that I liked the action a lot better than you do.

MO: I can see anime as an influence, which is what Del Toro cites, but this is a point in time where everyone was influenced by anime and The Matrix, and there’s too much of that here. There are some interesting set-pieces, but he became more confident directing action with the Hellboy movies.

LG: I’d agree, but I’m going to stand up for the action here. The difference between the action here and in The Matrix is the sense of playfulness. Instead of martial arts, they’re doing wrestling moves. There are Road Runner moments to play up that this is a live-action cartoon. CGI obviously makes things less tactile, but Del Toro uses that as an excuse to do things with bodies that are impossible and make it really cartoonish and animated. It’s a stylistic choice that really works for this film, where I don’t think the digital stunt-doubles work as well for Hellboy. I will give you that the final fight is dull, perhaps because we’ve been overloaded with awesome moments, but that’s where I check out.

MO: There are some character bits in that fight that are interesting, but the actual fight scene has no sense of humor, where I’d agree that the overt cartoonishness are the best moments here. Example: Wesley Snipes’ performance in the Blade movies has always been a sticking point with me. There’s a sense of humor, but it’s too often self-consciously grim. An exception? His Wile E. Coyote look to the camera in a chase early on in the film. I also love when he uses a vampire as a human shield, as he gets shot the vampire yells out “Fuck, it’s not silver, but it hurts like hell!”.

LG: Or the vampire who wears a red boa and Blade promises to get him later, only to have the guy show up in an epilogue where Blade says, “You didn’t think I’d forget about you”. That’s a lot of fun. I also really like how Del Toro plays with the material of the first film and builds off of it.

MO: Some of what he does so well is how he plays with color and atmosphere. I love when Perlman kills a Reaper with an ultraviolet light ray, and as the vampire explodes, the light reflects off of Perlman’s face and sunglasses.

LG: Or how about the waves of blue light as the light bombs go off? It’s like a laser-light show mixed with Blade Runner. There’s his amber and cyan combo light that helps things pop and give it dimensionality.  The film looks fantastic.

MO: Two moments of cartoon violence I really love in this- first there’s Scud’s death.There's some nice, tense interplay between Scud and Whistler, since Whistler has been living with vampires for two years, and he could be a traitor. In actuality, Scud is a rat bastard who’s working for the vampires. The reveal has a nice moment of visual wit.  where Scud takes a bomb that was strapped to Perlman’s head and tell Blade that it was a dud to make Blade feel in control. Blade then presses the real button revealing that it wasn’t a dud, blowing Scud up. bones and blood goes flying everywhere while Kris Kristofferson gets the funniest line in the movie- “I was just starting to like him.”

LG: And since it’s a movie made in the early 2000s, we have to see the explosion eight times from different angles. That’s fun.

MO: The other bit of cartoon violence I love is in the fight between Perlman and Snipes, where Perlman is cut in half and he’s like a cartoon character who turns into two slabs of meat.

MO: Something else I like about Del Toro’s style is that while it’s a very propulsive and fleetly-paced film, Del Toro has time to have quiet tension-building moments. I love the intro of Nomak as he’s lured into a blood bank. We’re frightened of him because he’s odd-looking, but he might just have addiction problems, and we’re more frightened for him because he’s clearly in a place run by vampires. He’s lured in, and we see the camera pan into a room that’s soaked with blood. And then there’s a reversal that reveals that we should be more afraid of him, as his chin splits open and turns into a giant set of mandibles.

LG: It is a beautiful monster moment. That’s the thing about Del Toro- he believes that monsters are beautiful creatures, and he gives them their due. He will never cheap out on horror elements.

MO: Side note, I checked this out, and apparently the Reapers are influenced by Morbius the Living Vampire from Spider-Man.

LG: That makes sense. It’s a vampire created by scientific means, and they’re both Marvel. They actually wanted Nomak to just be Morbius, but I guess they were told no because Morbius was going to be used for a Spider-Man sequel. Because that happened, right? Right?

MO: Something else I love about Nomak is how sympathetic he is- he considers his existence a pathetic horror.

LG: Del Toro believes these monsters should be real characters, and this is something he’ll carry through to the Hellboy movies. We understand the villains point of view, and the they are very shrewd when planning against Blade. Just like Michael Corleone, they quote Sun Tzu’s “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” proverb.

That said, the Blood Pack isn't great at the whole "friends close and enemies closer" thing. They are terrible at their job. They’re meant to kill Blade, but they need him for this truce. You could wait until after Blade has done the job you've asked him to do before trying to kill him, but no. Instead, three of them try to take on Whistler, a 70-year-old man with a bad leg.

MO: Yeah, it’s pretty funny. Now, there are some brutal bits near the end, though, as Nomak takes a chunk out of the head vampire’s neck and lets him bleed out (green blood!) on the floor. And at the end of the otherwise disappointing final fight, Nomak’s heart is finally punctured, but not enough to kill him, and he realizes that this is his way out, so he kills himself. It’s a wonderful character moment.

LG: And because it’s anime-influenced, the camera zooms inside and sees the blade piercing the heart, which is neat.

MO: Nyssa’s death is less successful.

LG: There’s beautiful imagery as she dies, but it’s building off a quasi-romance thing between her and Blade that doesn't work. It might also bother us less if not for the fact that this death is repeated, to much greater effect, in Hellboy II. It does illustrate a very specific way Del Toro has improved as he’s gotten older. He’s kind of like Buster Keaton, in that he’ll tinker with moments in past films until he feels that he has them right.

MO: Now, do we feel like the lapsed Catholic thing is missing too much here?

LG: Well, there’s a few things, like a fight inside a church, but it’s more of a science thing rather than a religion thing in this one.

MO: Yeah, honestly, the scientific approach fits Blade.

LG: And I’ll give Del Toro his willingness to toy with his style, since his blockbusters have this modern gothic style that’s mixed with a technological edge. Kretschmann’s villain lair is a very Nosferatu-esque element, but there’s also a lot of futuristic material there, and that contrast helps build this world.

MO: It’ll be nice to see how he combines the scientific material with the lapsed Catholic material in Hellboy, but it’s good enough here.

LG: I enjoy the style and the gooeyness of this film so much that I’m giving it an A-.

MO: I’m going with a B. It’s minor work, to me, but it’s really enjoyable

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Spring Breakers


Grade: 49/C+

Ever since he burst onto the scene with his first screenplay, 1995’s Larry Clark-directed Kids, enfant terrible Harmony Korine has established a reputation as one of the most self-conscious provocateurs working in modern cinema. Korine’s films are ugly, by design, and are largely destined for a marginal following, at best. Yet his recent film, Spring Breakers, is one of the big indie success stories of the year, having grossed $31 million against a $5 million budget. It’s easily his most accessible and, to some degree, enticing film to date. That doesn’t mean it’s particularly good.

The film concerns four college students- ringleaders Brit and Candy (Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens), good girl Faith (Selena Gomez), and Cotty (Korine’s wife Rachel), who could best be classified as “the other one”. The party-happy girls want to go on spring break in Florida, but they don’t have enough money. The girls rob a fast-food restaurant and travel to Florida, where they are eventually arrested at a drug-fueled party. The four are bailed out by a strange rapper/gangster named Alien (James Franco), but Faith is uncomfortable with Alien’s lifestyle, and soon the girls disappear down the rabbit hole of moral degradation.

That’s applying more narrative to the film than the director is really interested in. At his heart, Korine is a sensualist, and for a while he crafts a seductive, impressionistic portrait of hedonism in youth culture, filled with booze, boobs, drugs, and plenty of attitude. Even as the plot kicks in, the best moments are less about character and more about the girls following Franco (in an inspired performance that turns a potential caricature into a human being) as he brags about how much shit he has, including “Scarface on repeat” and “shorts of every fuckin’ color”. As shot by Benoit Debie, edited by Douglas Crise and Adam Robinson, and set to the music of Cliff Martinez and Skrillex (tolerable here and nowhere else), it’s often enticing surface material.

Profound social commentary, however, it is not. Korine has trouble sustaining interest past the forty-minute mark, as there’s only so much wanton hedonism one can take before it stops being guiltily enjoyable and becomes boring. When he tries to say something about youth culture, meanwhile, it’s embarrassing, frankly. Korine still hasn’t overcome the sensationalism that made Kids so tiresome, and while his mixture of glorification and tut-tutting at bad behavior isn’t as leaden and infuriating as that of Lee Daniels, it’s still enervating stuff. This is the kind of film that thinks saying things about the American Dream over and over again automatically leads to profundity, or that a few bad apples are a real indictment of modern youth culture. Korine doesn’t even fully exploit the stunt-casting of former Disney stars like Hudgens and Gomez, as the characters are vague, interchangeable figures, and none of the actresses have a chance to set them apart from each other. Korine’s gifts with composition and rhythm are clear, but he has an even bigger problem than his irritating stabs at provocation- he has jack shit to say.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Director Spotlight #14.10: Orson Welles' The Trial


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 90/A-

Quick, what’s Orson Welles’ best film? Chances are that unless you’re a huge contrarian, you answered Citizen Kane. But Welles, for his part, didn’t select Kane as his finest achievement. When asked, Welles insisted that his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial was his greatest achievement (alongside Chimes at Midnight). As with many Welles projects, the film saw production problems after producer Alexander Salkind had trouble coming up with the funds he promised Welles. Unlike many other Welles films, however, The Trial was released as the director intended, although it proved polarizing among cinephiles and Kafka fans. The film is not, as Welles claimed, his finest work, but it is one of his greatest, and one of the most revealing films about its creator.

Office worker Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is awakened one morning by a pair of police officers, who inform him that he is under arrest but refuse to tell him the charge. K. argues with the officers and, later, with the court, but he finds no answers and no sympathizers. K.’s uncle advises him to hire Hastler (Welles), a law advocate, but the man is no more helpful than anyone else, and an old client (Akim Tamiroff) suggests that K. may wait for a very long time before finding justice.

Let’s get this out of the way: the only real flaw the film has, not inconsiderable, is the poor sound, which often makes the dialogue difficult to hear and softens the impact of certain scenes. But Welles more than makes up for it with the imagery on display: when Salkind couldn’t find the cash to construct sets in the studio, Welles shot most of the film in the Gare D’Orsay in Paris, then abandoned. The setting brings a creepy feeling of a crumbling society that’s nonetheless still towering over the people, present but unable to help them. The setting also gives Welles the chance to indulge for his taste in the baroque- low or skewed angles, long takes, and eerie high-contrast lighting all build to give a feeling of a world where something is amiss.

It’s the perfect feeling for the film, at once one of Welles’ most darkly funny and easily his most nightmarish. An early shot that recalls King Vidor’s The Crowd in its portrayal of corporate drudgery and hopelessness, but there’s also something hilarious about ta scene where K. tries in vain to assist a woman with a heavy trunk (“if you’ll just take the cake!”). A violent beating of K.’s co-workers is deeply disturbing at one moment (the light swings back and forth as a whip comes down) and darkly funny in the next (one co-worker puts tape over his mouth and promises to keep quiet). And it’s hard not to laugh at the comic hopelessness of K. butting heads with the police officers in the opening scene, as the officers twist or misunderstand K.’s words to the point of confusing K. and making him say strange things, such as calling a record player a “pornographic player”.

Anthony Perkins’ casting is controversial in some quarters, as some found his performance inconsistent with their conception of Josef K., but he’s absolutely perfect here. His lanky form makes him both vulnerable and slightly off, and as he proved in Psycho, Perkins has a great ability to veer back and forth between affability and bitchiness. Welles may have had something else in mind when casting Perkins as well- though he eventually married, Perkins was noted as being extremely shy around women (he turned down Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot, for Christ’s sake), and was more famous for his relationships with men (he eventually died from complications of AIDS). According to Henry Jaglom and Roger Ebert, Welles knew Perkins was gay, and he uses that to great effect in the film. K. meets several women throughout the film, and while he shows great sympathy for most of them, he resists their advances. An excellent Romy Schneider as Hastler’s nurse has trouble with a  clearly nervous K., and even when K. kisses Jeanne Moreau’s Marika, it seems more out of compassion than romance. This is not to suggest that K.’s possible homosexuality is the reason for persecution, which is purposefully ambiguous, but it adds a layer of realistic tension to the proceedings.

Welles himself likely related to the feelings of persecution- Hollywood never quite forgave him for making strange, idiosyncratic films, and his being labeled as “Crazy Welles” in some circles no doubt stung. A kangaroo court session shows K. standing before a jeering, laughing crowd eager to clap for his misfortune.  Welles had to put up with men cheering for his failure. If K. wants defense, he must beg the likes of Hastler and other odious men for advocacy. Welles had to beg for funding, and often didn’t find it even when he did. K. is an exasperated man in the face of a cruel world, as was Welles, and no amount of protection, be it legal or religious, can help him. This is not to say that Welles or K. are purely victims- the fact that Welles and Perkins are willing to make K. look like a prick half of the time speaks volumes to their clearheadedness- but no doubt Welles related to a man who didn’t understand just why so much of society hated him.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Before Midnight


Grade: 97/A

Has there ever been a trilogy as consistently fantastic as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy? Certainly others had equal high-points (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Dollars trilogy), but Linklater, along with original co-writer Kim Krizan and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, has created one of the most credible and beloved relationships in cinema history. In a way, it’s a combination of Linklater’s much-noted influence Eric Rohmer (talkative young people philosophize, fall in love) and Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, chartering the life of a person (or, in this case, relationship) and how it changes over time.

The third exquisite entry in the series, Before Midnight, follows the now 41-year-old Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), who over the course of the past 9 years have gone from onetime lovers to partners with twin daughters. Now on vacation in Greece, their friends have planned a romantic night for the two before they return to Paris. But while the two remain as talkative and intelligent as ever, their relationship has grown more complicated over the years as they argue about Celine’s job, Jesse’s distance from his son and spiteful ex-wife, and whether true love is just a fairytale.

As with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the camera follows two beautiful people walking around a beautiful location (the Peloponnese peninsula this time around), gabbing all night, and finding some truths about themselves and what they want out of life. It’s perhaps simple, but few directors outside of Linklater and Abbas Kiarostami (whose Certified Copy shares much in common with the Before films) could pull it off so well. The fact that Linklater and company wait nine years for every installment is essential as well: rather than seeming rote, the two actors (both terrific as ever in their defining roles) have grown and aged with the characters, giving their talks and arguments new perspective.

If Before Sunrise was about the overwhelming passion that comes with young love and Before Sunset (still my favorite of the bunch) was about the mixture of pain and nostalgia that comes with rekindling an old romance, Before Midnight is about the difficulty of keeping a relationship alive. Jesse has gone from the more cynical of the two to the more sentimental one, where Celine has balanced her romanticism with a weary practicality. They quibble over minor disagreements and poor choices of words, and they show clear discomfort as their friends question whether old ideas of love are relevant anymore in the 21st century. In the film’s greatest sequence, have a long, heated, relationship testing argument that’ll damn near tear the hearts out of anyone who loved the previous two films. It’s absolutely brutal in its truthfulness. But Linklater and company are careful to balance out the harder material with a sweetness that keeps the tone from curdling, and the film is ultimately hopeful. True love, while not as perfect as most movies would make it out to be, may have a chance after all.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #4: The Devil's Backbone


Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 89/A-
Loren’s Grade: A (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point system I use)

Max O’Connell: Alright, we just finished The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to Mimic that is, if I may be so bold, a little bit better.

Loren Greenblatt: Just barely a colossal improvement that makes it hard to believe he ever directed Mimic at all.

MO: The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story and fractured fairytale of sorts that came out in 2001. It was a moderate commercial success, a major critical success that got him a lot of respect, and it’s getting more attention now in the years since Pan’s Labyrinth because, in many regards, it’s a companion piece.

LG: They share a lot of things in common: they both deal with the Spanish Civil War, they both center on children dealing with the invasion of both adult, human evil and supernatural elements. Del Toro has said that this is the brother film to Pan’s Labyrinth’s sister film. The plot concerns a young boy named Carlos, played wonderfully by Fernando Tielve, who is sent to an orphanage for sons of the men who fought against Franco’s regime. The orphanage is a spooky place. For starters, there's rumors of a ghost running around. Then there's the small matter of the unexploded bomb in the middle of the courtyard. It’s been diffused, but it’s a powerful symbol of the realities of war and violence that are encroaching upon childhood. As he’s shown around, it feels much like we’re entering a prison film: he’s given a bar of soap to keep, he’s assigned a numbered bed, he’s warned not to try to run away, and he starts to form a bit of a friendship with the other kids that reminded me a bit of the Morgan Freeman-Tim Robbins friendship in The Shawshank Redemption.

MO: In that he has to earn their respect first. The prison parallel is interesting in that this case they’re not held by a cruel group of people, but by good-natured (if flawed) people that have to make very hard decisions in order to keep the kids alive. Federico Luppi (previously the star of Cronos) is Dr. Cesares, who has to be the kind but very pragmatic and stern mentor to the children. The head of the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) has to limit what they can eat at any given time in order to guarantee that they’ll have enough.

LG: She’s also dealt with the realities of war- she lost a leg and has to wear a prosthetic, which really looks like something that Del Toro would design (though we have no clue what prosthetics looked like at this point in time). This is a film where Del Toro really comes into his own as a visual stylist. Cronos was done as well as it could be done on its budget, but this feels like he has just the right amount of money to make something special.

MO: We noticed while we watched it that the current DVD edition doesn't have the greatest transfer - we’re waiting for the Criterion blu-ray that's coming out the end of next month - but even so it the film has a wonderful soft look to everything that makes it…not nostalgic, necessarily, but more romantic. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro did a wonderful job here.

LG: The two really developed the two-color lighting techniques that they've become known for. He’s found his own color palette outside of his Argento influences. We’re going to see this as a standard lighting technique for Del Toro in almost all of his films from here on out.

MO: You mentioned that this film has your favorite image in any of Del Toro’s films.

LG: The last shot. It’s a ridiculously simple image, of people walking away framed in a doorway, and then there’s a silhouette. It's hard to explain why it works without spoiling it but it's a wonderful, mysterious image that points to the mysterious nature of death.

MO: Del Toro’s also always been in debt to Cronenberg with the body-horror thing, and that’s here, but in a more Del Toro-esque way than before. It’s much more subtle. The title refers to children suffering from spina bifida (a presumably fatal birth defect where the spine is exposed) and the doctor keeps a handful of dead fetuses suffering from this in jars as a way to gain funds. He sells the rum that they pickle them in as “limbo water,” a cure for impotence, among other things. It’s a superstition based out of body horror that can be frightening, but what’s nice is that it’s essentially benign. It’s a very nice symbol for what’s at the heart of the orphanage: a g-g-g-ghost!

LG: The ghost of a child who used to be an orphan there. As someone who’s usually not scared of ghost movies in general (ghosts don’t really do anything), I have to say that  this ghost is terrifying, haunting, and beautiful, all at the same time. There’s a sort of benign quality to him right away- he’s frightening to look at, but he’s glimpsed very casually. We really don’t know quite what to make of him at first. There’s a wonderful mystery, especially since we know there are kids who have gone missing from the orphanage. One of the great things about the film is that it has a very fairytale-like feel to it. Part of that comes from rhyming imagery. The beginning and ending of the film have nearly identical images with different narration, the limbo water for the babies mirrors the fate of one of  the children who dies in an amber-lit pool.

MO: The doctor even makes reference in his narration to a ghost being like an insect stuck in amber. It’s a very arresting image. Another thing he’s always been in debt to are the classic horror filmmakers like James Whale and Hitchcock. Some of the scariest moments here are entirely because of the way Del Toro has framed the shot - the main character’s head is in a very particular position, and as soon as he moves, the ghost is revealed. It’s very classical, often playing with tropes that have been around since the 1930s, but when combined with Del Toro’s more assured visual sense it feels striking and new. 

LG: It's strange, because even though that's a pretty standard shot, it never feels like he’s going for cheap scares. Earlier this year I saw the Del Toro-produced film Mama, which is almost all loud noises and shots designed to startle instead of scare. There’s such a better sense of dread and atmosphere in this thing.

MO: Part of that comes from something that’s going to recur in Pan’s Labyrinth: the true villain isn’t a supernatural monster, but rather a very human monster by the name of Jacinto, played very well by Eduardo Noriega.

LG: Apparently a lot of people were very skeptical of Noriega’s casting. He was more famous in Spain for his telenovelas than anything else, but he’s terrifying here.

MO: Oh, he’s a complete bastard. They do find ways to make him somewhat empathetic- we feel his humanity because he’s a truly pathetic human being. He was an orphan, like most of the characters in the film, and the principal describes him as the saddest orphan there was because he never had anyone to relate to in his 15 years there. He’s a “prince without a kingdom- a man without warmth.” He has nothing to live for. He has a girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), who he doesn’t seem to like very much. He sleeps with Carmen, the head of the orphanage, because the one who truly loves her, Dr. Cesares, is impotent, but she clearly hates herself for it and pities him. We find some pity in ourselves, but for the most part he’s a man we love to hate.

LG: The other thing Del Toro’s going for here is a deconstruction for the macho stereotype that he’s never really bought into. Jacinto is the macho guy- tough, virile, emotionally guarded and here, all those qualities are made to be totally despicable.

MO: It also must be said that although Del Toro doesn’t overstate it too much, the connection to the Spanish Civil War…well, I remember when I first saw the film that I rather liked it, but felt that the Civil War material was just window-dressing that’s happening around the real plot, and it’s stuff that Jacinto takes advantage of. Near the end of the film this time around, though, I thought, “No, I’m completely wrong”. This is an almost perfect allegory for fascism (as macho and hateful as ideologies get), as Jacinto is a man who’s willing to take advantage of everything around him in order to gain power, or in this case, wealth, as there’s gold hidden away in the orphanage from the rebels. It’s not as strong a parallel as in Pan’s Labyrinth, perhaps, but it’s still quite powerful.

LG: The film is also very much about the effect of war on children. This is the first of Del Toro's films where the children feel like real characters. They’re all remarkable actors. They are all very much like boys are in real life, Del Toro is never one to sugarcoat anything, and I’m sure he related to a lot of Carlos’ bullying.

MO: Something else worth noting is how the boys all band together by the end, but that the boys can be nasty little shits before that.

LG: There’s this wonderful sequence where the boys force Carlos to go out to refill a jug of water in the dead of night, and if he’s caught, he’s going to be in a heap of trouble. He has a run-in with the ghost, but he does it, victorious! And then the boys pull out their slingshots as Carlos heads into the courtyard, break the jug, and now Carlos is in trouble for being out at night and for breaking a jug.

MO: We know that none of them are going to buy that he saw the ghost, even though they’ve talked it up for ages. And the ghost, Santi, keeps trying to communicate with them: he keeps saying that “many of you will die”, which can be interpreted as a threat, but it’s really a warning that Jacinto has something terrible planned. There’s a sense of brotherhood even after death that’s quite moving, particularly with the leader of the boys, Jaime (Inigo Garces). And he’s an interesting character- he’s someone who does not open up very easily, because he’s been hurt. We find out later that it’s because he witnessed the murder of his best friend, Santi, by Jacinto. It takes more time for him to embrace Carlos, or really any of them, because he doesn’t want to lose another friend. There’s a scene near the end, though, when he takes leadership, and it’s emblematic of the struggle against Jacinto (and, by proxy, the fascists). The other boys fear Jacinto and his cronies because “they have guns, and they’re bigger than us”, but Jaime leads them by saying that “there’s more of us”.

LG: Now, I do want to talk about the way Santi is presented. Del Toro isn’t shy about showing us Santi’s face, which is interesting, because at first he’s playing the Jaws rule of “don’t show too much too soon”, and he teases out this by showing Santi’s silhouette at first, followed by his footprints in water (sans visible feet, of course), but then we do see him fairly early on, and that’s important. His appearance is a big part of the mystery of who he is and what happened to him. The look of Santi is really influenced by J-Horror (which hadn’t quite become huge, but Del Toro is really plugged into what’s going on in horror), but he goes beyond the standard J-Horror creepy kid. Santi has a large wound in his forehead that blood pours out of in a cloud, and there’s these wonderful little silver flecks floating around him, which reminds us of the pool he died in. The story is that, in order to help light the pool, Del Toro brought little flecks of silver in that, by the third day, started corroding and showing up onscreen when they shot underwater, but Del Toro liked the look of it and incorporated it into the design. But he’s not the only ghost in the movie- as certain characters die, the hopelessness of the kids’ situation ramps up as they’re trapped by Jacinto.

MO: And I love how Del Toro ramps up the tension of that scene. He establishes the spatial dynamics very well- they’re locked in a cupboard, there’s a hallway between them and another room where the villains are trying to open up a safe where the gold might be, and the noise in that room is drowning out their escape attempts, but they’re close enough that too much noise could still be noticed.

LG: There’s a deus ex machina that gets them out (the ghost of Dr. Cesares, who dies from wounds caused by an explosion Jacinto started), but it’s one that works. In any other film, I’d be annoyed, but there’s a mystery to this that’s wonderful.

MO: Something else that I like about the film is the innocence of adolescent interest in sexuality.

LG: There’s a moment in the film where the boys are trading things, and there’s a drawing of a naked woman- which is really just a stick figure. They say that it’s anatomically correct, except that the vagina has been drawn sideways, because the kid just doesn’t know. How would he know?

MO: It’s funny, but kind of sweet in a way. There’s also a lot of sweetness in Jaime’s relationship with Jacinto’s girlfriend Conchita. He dotes on her and gives her this very plain ring- I think it’s just a cigar band- and she takes it very happily. It’s a moment of kindness that plays in direct contrast to the way the brutish Jacinto treats her, and it’s a rallying point for Jaime later on after Jacinto brings the band back to Jaime. One of my favorite shots in the film is a wide shot after Conchita confronts Jacinto and rebukes him, and she crumples to the ground as he stabs her. It’s a very moving moment, and when Jaime sees that Jacinto has brought the band back, he’s ready to strike back and lead his friends against this sadistic monster.

LG: Del Toro is very adamant that fairy tales should be dark, brutal, and violent, and lord knows we get that. The last thirty minutes in particular- the orphanage explodes, children die, the kind adults die, and it makes us really want Jacinto to get what’s coming to him. And he does. The ending isn’t triumphant, which is important, because the tone would be wrong for what’s such a mournful film.

MO: Right. They’ve been through a lot, the adults have had to sacrifice themselves, and there’s only five or six of the kids left, and Jacinto gets an appropriately brutal death.

LG: Lord of the Flies style. There’s an earlier scene where they talk about a mammoth hunt with cavemen, where the men would use sharpened sticks. Then the kids use sticks sharpened by glass, and they just ram them into Jacinto. The first one goes right into his armpit, which has a boatload of nerves, and we really feel that one.

MO: I once had to get stitches under my arm after I fell on a wine-rack. Trust me, I felt it.

LG: And as much as we hate the guy, it’s painful to watch. And we think about the acts that these children have been driven to, even though they’re doing it to save their own lives.

MO: And it’s a tribute to all of their fallen friends like Santi, who was murdered by this bastard.

LG: But what’s important is that it’s their version of a war trauma - they’ll have to live with this for the rest of their lives, and as they go off into the desert to try to find shelter, it’s a very uneasy ending.

MO: And Luppi’s narration as they go off about ghosts being stuck in time, it’s a reminder that the horrors of the Spanish Civil War will never fully disappear. Del Toro was born twenty or thirty years after they ended and in Mexico, but it really matters to him to capture the gravity of the situation.

LG: It was a very personal project for him. He’s a very intellectual guy, he studied history very closely, and he was always fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. He views it as a period of history that we’ve forgotten about completely. Europe mostly ignored it because they were trying to stay neutral, and when Europe did get dragged into war, they were too busy to deal with Spain.

MO: One minor qualm I have about the climax of the film- when Jacinto is dispatched with and thrown into the pool, Santi attacks him, and he can’t escape because he’s weighed down by gold. It’s just a bit much for me.

LG: And it’s not even enough gold for me to believe that he couldn’t overcome that, even with his injuries. But, eh, I’ll go with it. It’s a very minor thing in an extremely strong film.

MO: Oh, yeah, it’s minor. It’s not like I could think of a way to improve it, it’s his choices that have weighed him down and taken him into a monster without humanity. The symbol only slightly bothers me.

LG: I give it an A.

MO: A- from me, but it’s a high A-.

Devil's Backbone is available for streaming on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and Xbox live. It comes out on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray at the end of July, at which point it will likely be available on Hulu+ along with the bulk of the collection.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.