Friday, November 20, 2009

Into The Vault: The Devil's Backbone

Before there was Pan's Labyrinth, before Hellboy I or II... before any talk of the Hobbit movies, there was simply a Mexican director who had made a cool Hollywood movie and one independent film called Cronos.

The movie is about an orphaned boy who is left at an underfunded orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The life there is pretty brutal, between the teasing, the violent handyman, the many secrets hidden by the other people, an unexploded bomb in the courtyard, and a creepy ghostly figure that shows up from time to time. We know from the beginning of the movie that a kid died in the orphanage, and that this is who the specter is of. The question is why is he haunting the place.

Yet the movie is not just about ghosts as a literal interpretation. A ghost, as the narrator eludes, is simply a secret. This movie is full of secrets too. Every single character seems to have one, and all the plots are brought together in the end. This was done to the same effect in Pan's Labyrinth, which was the spiritual sequel to this movie.

The movie does not have a set genre. It's not a horror movie, as the American DVD distributors like to make you think it is. At least it's not in the usual way. Horrible things happen in this movie. Yet the movie is also a western, a war movie, and a boy's adventure story. Del Toro even mentions in one of the commentaries that it's his "Mario Bava western." Mario Bava was an Italian director known for his stylish horror and giallo films, and Del Toro is a big fan. I love that this movie isn't set to a specific genre. It keeps you guessing, and sets up for some amazing left turns.

I think my favorite aspect of the movie is how there's a sense of somberness throughout the whole movie. No one is happy in this thing. The orphanage is in the middle of nowhere and is falling apart. It's a very creepy place, even in the daytime. The owner of the orphanage is despondent and is sleeping with the handyman out of self-pity. The handyman is sleeping with her to find where she keeps some gold, so he can steal it. At the same time, he also has a girlfriend who knows nothing of the affair. I'm still trying to get my head around how Guillermo Del Toro fit all of this stuff into one movie and ended up with it being fantastic!

It's a shame people don't know more about this film. It's a true work of art and just as good as Pan's Labyrinth. If you take out the fantasy elements of that movie, and replace it with gothic horror, you'd have a good idea of what to expect. It's ruthless, sad and very romantic (stylistically, not lovey-dovey) yet is not altogether a downer. There's some hope in there too. It's really a shame that this movie didn't get a surge of popularity with the release of the popular Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II. It truly is Del Toro's best film so far.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tonight! - Front Row Center Podcast, Ep. 64

I figure what with this whole blog here and everything, I might as well plug our biweekly podcast!

For those of you who don't know, we host a podcast every two weeks (or three, in this week's case) where we review the movie's we've seen, have some heated discussions about said movies, and even chatter on about recent movie news.  It's kind of an all-inclusive podcast, but we try to keep things current.

We record each podcast live on, and one of the perks is that you, the audience, can listen in live and talk to us in the chatroom during the show.  How awesome is that?  I mean, TalkShoe's been around for years, but I still think it's pretty cool...

Anyway, this week we'll be reviewing 2012, The Men Who Stare at Goats, A Christmas Carol, and The Box.  We'll also be doing a once-over on some of the most recent movie news.

If you'd like to join us, we'll be starting our show at 9PM (Eastern).  I'll try and post an update the day of the podcast from now on, just as a reminder.

Follow this link to our show page.

Monday, November 16, 2009


People seem to be completely torn on the merits (or lack thereof) of Roland Emmerich's latest film, 2012.  There are those who say the film is simply a tragic miscalculation on the level of Transformers 2.  Their argument is, in a nutshell, that the film is completely devoid of merit, that there's nothing to enjoy, and that it's a complete waste of celluloid.  Then, there are the more level-headed viewers such as Roger Ebert and myself, who acknowledge that the film isn't without it's faults, but that there's so much spectacle on display that it's hard not to find something, anything, to enjoy here.

The film is a portmanteau of sorts of half a dozen other disaster films.  When scientists discover that solar radiation is heating up the Earth's core, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) takes it upon himself to enact a three-year plan to preserve humanity.  John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a virtually unknown author who acts as our everyman.  When it starts hitting the fan, Curtis and his family flee an earthquake in Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park.  When Yellowstone explodes, they take a plane to Las Vegas, where they get a connecting flight to China, where the world's governments have been building giant arks in which to survive the coming tsunamis.

This is the plot in its simplest form.  I'm ignoring about three dozen other primary and secondary characters, as well as two or three big action sequences.  Not that they're not important, but...  Actually, parts of this movie are pretty unimportant.  The most damning thing I can say about 2012 is that this really is not a tight script.  Emmerich seems bound and determined to borrow wholesale scenes from The Poseidon Adventure, Volcano, Earthquake, and even his own The Day After Tomorrow.  If he wanted this to be the disaster flick to end all disaster flick, he definitely swung for the fences.  However, certain characters add little to the proceedings, such as Oliver Platt's chief science advisor, who acts as the film's de facto villain.  Being the antagonist isn't really the problem, but rather that his character arc fizzles out so thoroughly by film's end.

At 160 minutes, 2012 is definitely a long film with a relatively thin plot.  However, what the film lacks in narratve efficiency, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle.  As stated above, there are at least six big action sequences in the film, and the best of these is easily the explosion of the Yellowstone caldera.  The resulting mushroom cloud and raining fireballs is definitely a sight to behold, and seeing John Cusack running for dear life is popcorn entertainment at its finest.  What sets this apart from obnoxious crap like Transformers 2 is that A) the action is easy to follow, and B) while it is dumb, it never attempts to insult its audience's intelligence.

And despite the relatively poor script, the cast acquits itself nicely.  Ejiofor and Cusack come off the best here, the former getting the bulk of the big hero speeches.  It seems sort of antithetical to cast an actor of John Cusack's calibur for a film that mostly just requires him to run away and look frightened, but 1408 proved the man can handle genre as well as he can handle drama.  Oscar-worthy it ain't, but he does his best with the material Emmerich tosses at him.  Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, and George Segal are among the dozens of other actors relegated to the film's sidelines, but make good use of their limited screen time (Harrelson in particular).

Somewhere in this preposterous soup are mixed in themes of morality, humanity, the preservation of culture and all that jazz.  It's almost standard issue for this kind of end-of-the-world flick, but its presence never gets overplayed.  We see the Mona Lisa being put into a vault and replaced with a reproduction, supposedly for safe keeping for after the end comes.  I understand why, but it's a theme which is brought up only once more, over two hours later.  It really only serves to pad the running time, and it's just not really necessary.

If you've made it this far, you've probably gathered that I'm giving this film a pass.  But why?  It's not a great piece of cinema, destined to win a dozen Oscars.  It's the popcorn flick in its purest of forms.  The spectacle has been amplified ten-fold, with every dollar of its $225 million budget on full display.  If you don't get a visceral thrill (or chill, your choice) watching the USS John F. Kennedy riding a tsunami wave into the White House, among other things, then you're clearly not the audience for this kind of movie, and you probably shouldn't be watching it in the first place.

The rest of us acknowledge that 2012 is an action flick from the master of the genre (faint praise though it may be) capitalizing on popular end-of-days myths, and we put down our $9 knowing full well what we're getting.  2012 delivers precisely what it advertises, and I enjoyed every moment of it.  Mind you, I enjoyed it on the basest of levels, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  If you ARE planning on seeing this, see it in theaters.  It might still be enjoyable on DVD, but to get the full effect, you really need to see it on the big screen.

3.5 / 5

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Box

People, I must say I am very, very surprised. A little movie that I thought would be woefully lacking ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year so far. The Box is actually a whole lot of preposterous fun.

The basic plot of the movie is thus. There's a couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with an adolescent son (Sam Oz Stone) in Richmond, VA in 1976 that has fallen into money trouble after the mother loses the tuition waver for her son to go to school, and dad doesn't get the promotion he was so betting on. Well, Frank Langella shows up at the door one day with a box contraption in his hands, a briefcase of money and a badly burned face. He tells the couple (well, the mother since Marsden isn't home at the time) that he has a proposal to make. They take the box, and if they push the button on it they will get 1 million dollars, tax free. Somewhere, someone they don't know will die. Don't push the button, and nothing will happen, and they don't get the money. (He gives them 100 bucks just for allowing him in though.) He tells them they have 24 hours to make a decision. To make a long story short, the button ends up being pushed, and the effects are larger than anything you could imagine.

The most interesting part for me was that the movie was set in Richmond. I didn't know this before I went to see it. I saw the movie while in Richmond too. It's evident they filmed it there, as what few landmarks they have are in the movie... at least the ones they had in 1976. That's another thing I liked. I love movies that are set in some recently past time. Movies set in the present are rendered uninteresting when everything can be solved using the internet or a cell phone. Richard Kelly has set a movie in the recent past before. Donnie Darko was set in the mid 1980s, and it gave that movie a feel that you couldn't have if it was set in the present. It made things more interesting. The same can be said here. I think setting a movie in the past like this throws the audience. Things are familiar, but at the same time very different. It can create an odd sense of mystery or dread, and I must say I have no idea why it does.

The film is much more complex than the trailer or plot summary would make one think. It's definitely a wild ride from start to finish. Does everything make sense? It seemed to for the most part, but I'm sure when I watch it again, I will notice a few plot holes. The movie is just under two hours, but had a rough cut of three hours. I think it'd be interesting to view that full cut one day, and I hope I can. I'm already willing to call this movie one of the best of the year, so I can't imagine the director's cut making me think otherwise.

I wasn't ready for the movie to be as creepy as it was, which I should have been, as I found Donnie Darko to be a bit creepy too. It's obvious that Kelly stole something from the '78 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, because there are scenes where people in the film will just stare at the main characters or just randomly start to follow them with blank expressions. Now it may sound like I'm just gushing over this movie, but it did have it's faults. I couldn't connect with the main characters because they acted like they were having all this financial trouble, and were worried about how they would live their life. Sounds reasonable, considering the circumstances right? Not when you count that Marsden works for NASA, Diaz works for a private school, they live in a nice house in downtown Richmond (which is not cheap even in '76), and Marsden drives a nice Corvette. Heck, that's better than I'll probably EVER do. I just can't believe that, sorry.

The movie worked in a lot of philosophical ideas that were very interesting as well. John Paul Sartre is brought up quite a few times in the movie. I propose that anyone interested in philosophy go see this, as in that context it's perhaps even MORE interesting. I think this movie is better than both of Kelly's other films, (not a hard thing with Southland Tales), and I am eager to see where he goes from here.

Is the movie preposterous? Yes. But damned if it isn't interesting and fun as hell. I tell you, a movie hasn't had me as engrossed this year since Knowing, which had the same creepy mysterious feel as this. I heartily recommend this.

**** out of *****