Great Oscar Debates: Martin Scorsese and Goodfellas vs. Dances With Wolves

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It’s week three of a look back at the multiple times when the Oscars got it wrong. This week I’d like to take you all the way back to 1991. Why? It was one of the many times Martin Scorsese would get passed over for Best Director and one of his masterpieces would be passed over for Best Picture. Instead of bestowing Best Director on Scorsese for Goodfellas, not to mention awarding it Best Picture, the Oscar voters chose…Dances With Wolves. Now, is Dances With Wolves a bad movie? Certainly not. Kevin Costner’s Civil War film absolutely deserved awards recognition. It was gorgeously photographed, had a great score, wonderful costume design, a solid story…but it didn’t reach the cinematic heights of Goodfellas.

Up until 2007, Martin Scorsese had not won a Best Director Oscar. Let that just sink in a minute. A man whose body of work includes: Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Casino, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, has one Oscar. That’s shameful. In 2007 he finally won his Best Director Oscar for The Departed. It continues a proud tradition the Oscars have of awarding the right people for the wrong movies. The Departed is high quality, but not his best film. That question is a debate for the ages. My vote goes to Raging Bull. But right behind it is Goodfellas.

What bugs me about the 1991 Oscars, is that the Oscar voters could have honored both a proven veteran and a promising up and comer. Why not award Goodfellas Best Picture and Dances With Wolves Best Director or the other way around? Then they could have honored talents old and new. Or they could have awarded Dances With Wolves in the technical categories and given the top awards to Goodfellas. Now, it should be mentioned that Joe Pesci’s scene-stealing supporting performance did win an Oscar. So the film wasn’t completely ignored on Oscar night.

Goodfellas for my money is the best mob movie ever made. It’s a film that belongs in the same breath with Little Caesar, Scarface, The Public Enemy, and The Godfather. It took me into the mafia culture in the way no film ever had before. You really get involved in the whole complex world of the mafia and the effect living in it has on people. It probably helps that it was based on a true story. The film was an adaptation of Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi. It’s a journalistic account of the life of Henry Hill, Ray Liotta’s character in the movie. The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese is sharp and never has a wasted word.

The film is also one of the best acted I have ever seen. In addition to Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, you get Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Lorraine Bracco. Bracco of course would go on to star on the hit mafia series The Sopranos. She’s fascinating as Liotta’s wife, a character of unexpected complexity. She earned an Oscar nomination as well.

To me it’s just unconscionable that it took Scorsese so long to be recognized in the Best Director category. His body of work speaks for itself. I greatly admire what Kevin Costner achieved with Dances With Wolves. I don’t get the hatred he faces sometimes. Costner is a gifted actor and a talented director. But in 1991 the honors should have gone to Martin Scorsese, a man whose films continue to raise the bar decade after decade.

 

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Great Oscar Debates: The Shut Out of Double Indemnity

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Greetings, readers! This month I’m discussing times that Oscar got it wrong. This week I’m shining a light on one of the most inexplicable Oscar shutouts. It seems hard to believe today, but in 1945 Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It won zero. Let me repeat that. Double Indemnity, arguably the greatest film noir ever-made, won none of the seven Oscars it was nominated for. Let’s look at why this feels like an awards season injustice.

In the Best Picture category, there was some heavy hitters that year. You had: Gaslight, Laura (another film noir classic), Meet Me In St. Louis, and Going My Way. And the winner? Going My Way. If any other film had beat Double Indemnity it wouldn’t be such an outrage. Going My Way is a solid movie. But it is not Best Picture material and it’s not in the same league with any of the Best Picture nominees. Meet Me In St. Louis wasn’t groundbreaking  by any means. But it was a superbly crafted musical. Gaslight stands as one of the best psychological thrillers ever-made. And Laura remains one of the best examples of film noir. Double Indemnity losing to Laura I would have been okay with. But Going My Way? No…just…no. With due respect to Bing Crosby, who delivers a solid performance in that movie, it just doesn’t stand out like the other nominees.

Speaking of Bing Crosby, he won Best Actor. Fred MacMurray, playing against type and giving the performance of his career? Not even nominated. That is outrageous! What make it more baffling is that Charles Boyer was up for his performance in Gaslight, Barry Fitzgerald (who gives the best performance in Going My Way IMHO) was nominated, Cary Grant was up for None but the Lonely Heart, and Alexander Knox was nominated for Wilson. How the movie Wilson was nominated for anything is a complete mystery to me. I guess Oscar voters couldn’t see past the light roles MacMurray had played previously.

The next category Double Indemnity got shut out of is a little more contentious. That would be the Best Actress category. The winner was Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight. Now, my choice would have been Barbara Stanwyck for Double Indemnity. To this day I don’t think she gets her due as a versatile actress. That being said, Bergman was brilliant in Gaslight. I really believed everything was happening to her character. It’s one of the many great performances of her career. That year these were the rest of the nominees: Claudette Colbert for Since You Went Away, Bette Davis for Mr. Skeffington, and Greer Garson for Mrs. Parkington. You could make the case for any of those ladies. But Bergman and Stanwyck were the best for my money.

In the Best Director category, Billy Wilder lost out to Leo McCarey for Going My Way. What were the voters thinking? Also in contention were Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat, Otto Preminger for Laura, and Henry King (another inexplicable nomination for Wilson). All those heavy hitters, save for Henry King, and they go with the safest choice possible. But Billy Wilder went on to win the next year for The Lost Weekend. So that got rectified.

Here’s another inexplicable snub. Double Indemnity‘s endlessly quotable screenplay? It didn’t win either. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (yes, THAT Raymond Chandler, crime writer extraordinaire), lost to Frank Butler, Frank Cavett for Going My Way. Laura, Gaslight, and Meet Me in St. Louis were the other nominees. This is another case where it should have come down to Double Indemnity and Laura. There isn’t a single wasted piece of dialogue in either movie. But the Oscar voters once again couldn’t see Double Indemnity‘s greatness. In fact, it has arguably the most film noir line ever.

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?–Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity‘s cinematographer, John Seitz, lost out in the best black and white cinematography category as well. Now, in this case, the winner was worthy. It was Joseph LaShelle for Laura. That film has a gorgeous and haunted look too. So that loss doesn’t bother me quite as much. However, it should be noted that many a noir film copied Double Indemnity‘s visual style. As an example, almost every film noir that came out later had venetian blind lighting across the characters to symbolize prison bars. John Seitz paved the way.

In the Best Sound Recording category, Double Indemnity lost to…Wilson. Absolutely stupefying on every level. But that’s not the thing I remember the most about Double Indemnity, so I’ll move on.

In the score category, (back then it was called Music: Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), the winner was Max Steiner for Since You Went Away. Steiner was certainly one of the greatest composers ever. Buy Since You Went Away was nowhere near his best work. Miklos Rozsa’s score for Double Indemnity heightened the tension right from the opening credits. It deserved to be recognized.

To this day I can’t wrap my head around how Double Indemnity went unrecognized that awards season. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Edward G. Robinson wasn’t nominated for his brilliant supporting performance as MacMurray’s boss. And he was never nominated for an Oscar in his entire career. How is that possible given his body of work? Fortunately history knows better than the Oscars. Ask anyone who knows movies if they’ve seen Double Indemnity and there’s a 99.9% chance they say yes. Going My Way? You’ll likely get crickets. Double Indemnity is now thankfully recognized for being the classic that it is.

Great Oscar Debates: Annie Hall vs. Star Wars

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It’s February, and before you know it, Oscar night will be here. Yes, March 4th is rapidly approaching. As some of us take the time to catch up on this year’s nominees, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some Oscar history. It’s no secret that some winners over the years have left us scratching our heads. All month I’ll be covering what I think were times when the Oscar voters got it wrong. This week I’ll be kicking things off by going all the way back to 1977. That year, the now classic romantic comedy Annie Hall was released. But that same year, a little movie called Star Wars came out and changed movies forever.

At the 1978 Oscars, the following films were up for Best Picture: Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, and The Turning Point. It was certainly a strong crop of nominees. Annie Hall walked off with the award. Now, is it a great movie? Yes. But, for my money, it wasn’t the best out of that group of movies. If the winner had been The Turning Point, I could agree to disagree. If you haven’t seen that movie, stop everything and go find a copy. It’s amazing! But I digress.

Annie Hall winning Best Picture that year was at least a case of the Academy recognizing a comedy. The fact that that is such a rarity is downright shameful. Just because a movie isn’t a drama doesn’t mean it isn’t a great piece of art worthy of recognition. What Annie Hall does, it does very well. The writing is sharp, the performances are solid, it has some great insights about relationships between men and women.But while it is a great example of a well-done romantic comedy, it didn’t revolutionize the industry. Star Wars did.

Star Wars changed so much and I think we take it for granted today. For starters, it completely changed the special effects game. 20th Century Fox, the studio that released Star Wars, had no special effects department to speak of. This lead to the creation of Industrial Light & Magic, the effects studio that paved the way for the creation of great effects, but also birthed PIXAR. As noted in an article in Wired,

Eventually 20th Century Fox gave Lucas $25,000 to finish his screenplay—and then, after he garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination for American Graffiti, green-lit the production of Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. However, the studio no longer had a special effects department, so Lucas was on his own. He would adapt, and handily: He not only helped invent a new generation of special effects but launched a legendary company that would change the course of the movie business.

Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away.

As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes.–The Untold Story of ILM, a Titan That Forever Changed Film

No doubt you’ve seen the imprint of ILM in movies today. They did the groundbreaking liquid metal effects in Terminator 2, they brought dinosaurs back to life for Jurassic Park…the list goes on.

But Star Wars didn’t just deserve Best Picture because of its special effects. It brought back a sense of joy and wonder to cinema that was needed at the time. Look, a lot of great and gritty dramas came out in the 70s: Taxi Driver, Network, The Godfather, and The French Connection, just to name a few. But, occasionally, we all need escapism and a bucket of popcorn. Movies can take us to far off places (a galaxy far, far away in the case of Star Wars) and be a magical experience. Star Wars delivered that experience. Boy, did it ever! Yes, the characters were based on classic archetypes. You had the wise old man (Alec Guinness), a romantic rogue (Harrison Ford), a hero going on a quest (Mark Hamill), the comedic sidekicks (C-350 and R2D2)… We’d seen parts of this story before. But never before had it come together in such exhilarating way. Star Wars changed the lives of not just those who worked on it, but it sparked the imagination of those who saw it. This was a watershed moment in cinema.

Star Wars also changed how movies way movies were marketed. When the film became an overnight success, toy manufacturer Kenner couldn’t keep up with the demand.

After attempting to shop the license around to other toy makers, in 1976 it fell to Kenner, then a subsidiary of General Mills. Kenner President Bernie Loomis saw an opportunity to make good toys with the license (especially in the then relatively new space of 3.75” scaled action figures, cheaper to produce than the larger toys), but expected Star Wars to be a fleeting venture for the company.

Little did anyone involved know how wrong they would be.

Star Wars released in May 1977 to rapturous approval, becoming an overnight sensation — and kids didn’t just want to see the movie; they wanted toys. Kenner were caught flat-footed at the demand, finding that they wouldn’t even have figures out for the lucrative Christmas period of that year. To do nothing would have meant losing out on millions of dollars.

So they made a decision that was, by all accounts at the time, completely ludicrous: They sold people an empty box. The Early Bird Certificate was a box containing a cardboard display stand featuring the characters from the film, stickers, and a certificate for kids to mail away to Kenner to receive four figures in 1978: Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Princess Leia and Chewbacca. The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public’s mind, ready for their 1978 release.–The Groundbreaking History of Star Wars Toys

Nowadays you see movie merchandise everywhere before a film’s release. Star Wars started that trend.

Decades later, I count myself among those unable to wrap my head over how Star Wars lost out to Annie Hall for Best Picture. It was an amazing film that brought escapism to an art level. But sadly, I’m not surprised it didn’t win. Science fiction films are usually relegated to awards for their effects rather than being recognized for their unique stories. If Stat Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey can’t win Best Picture, what science fiction movies can? Science fiction is a genre that deserves more respect. But The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did sweep the Oscars a few years ago, bringing recognition to the fantasy genre. Perhaps there is reason to hope that science fiction will finally be recognized in that category. If you want an entertaining romantic comedy, then Annie Hall is your movie. If you want to see a movie that will spark your imagination like nothing before it, then Star Wars is your movie. The Academy got it wrong.

Guillermo del Toro Retrospective: Pan’s Labyrinth

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This is the last week of looking back at the films of director Guillermo del Toro. And I have saved the best for last. While I have enjoyed all of his films, my favorite is Pan’s Labyrinth. With its haunting/enchanting visual style, strong performances, and a story that works equally well as a Gothic fairy tale and war drama, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most amazing pieces of filmmaking I have ever witnessed. It’s that good.

The story is set during the Spanish Civil War and alternates between that dramatic story line and the fantasy one involving the heroine and her trips into a magical labyrinth.

In 1944, in the post-Civil War in Spain, rebels still fight in the mountains against the Falangist troops. The young and imaginative Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant and sick mother Carmen Vidal (Ariadna Gil)  to the country to meet and live with her stepfather, the sadistic and cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), in an old mill. During the night, Ofelia meets a fairy and together they go to a pit in the center of a maze where they meet a faun that tells that she is a princess from a kingdom in the underground. He also tells that her father is waiting for her, but she needs to accomplish three tasks first. Meanwhile, she becomes friends with the servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who is the sister of one of the rebels and actually is giving support to the group. In a dark, harsh and violent world, Ofelia lives her magical world trying to survive her tasks and sees her father and king again.–IMDB

By having two story lines going at the same time, there was a chance one would have suffered and it would have felt like two different movies. But the screenplay is so skillfully balanced that both get their due. And when they overlap it doesn’t feel forced. Credit director Guillermo del Toro for such a well-done screenplay. He can write as well as direct.

Why do I hold this film in such high esteem? Well, the visual look of this film is one of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. The art direction by Eugenio Caballero and Pilar Revuelta won a well-deserved Oscar. One of the great joys of watching a movie is occasionally seeing images on the screen that make your jaw drop. The labyrinth that Ofelia delves into is one of those times. It’s dark and beautiful with its weird creatures, including creepy insects, a faun, and a creature that chases Ofelia after she stops for a quick snack that looks like it’s in thundering need of a manicure. While del Toro’s films have shown fantastical elements before, Pan’s Labyrinth is the first time he creates a whole dark, Gothic fairy tale world. It feels like something straight out of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Once you start watching this movie, you’ll fall under its visual spell. I also want to mention the contribution of Javier Navarrete. His score is haunting and brilliant. It does a lot to establish the mood of the film.

But this film isn’t just about what happens in the labyrinth. The drama set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War is equally riveting. I must say that Captain Vidal is one of the most chilling villains I have seen in any movie. He’s absolutely sadistic not just the way he handles his military duties, but in his home life with Ofelia and her mother as well. Child actors can be hit and miss. But Ivana Baquero hits a home run as Ofelia. She has an incredible screen presence. She feels like a real kid: curious, vulnerable, and protective of her mother. The film has some really heavy dramatic scenes. And she never misses a beat.

Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most magical viewing experiences you will ever have. Beyond the technical wizardry of the production design, special effects. etc. is a story about a complex and fascinating heroine trying to deal with the drama in the labyrinth and in the real world. It’s visually mesmerizing and dramatically compelling. It’s one of my absolute favorite films.

 

Guillermo del Toro Retrospective: Crimson Peak

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Greetings, readers! This week I continue my look at the career of director Guillermo del Toro. This week I will be discussing Crimson Peak. This film is why I have come to expect the unexpected from del Toro as a director. I didn’t expect Gothic romance to be a type of film he would make. But make one he did. And it’s definitely worth seeing.

Crimson Peak begins in Buffalo, New York in 1887. American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of wealthy businessman Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), sees the ghost of her recently deceased mother. The ghost tells her to, “beware of Crimson Peak.” Fast forward 14 years later and Edith is a budding author. She meets and falls in love with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who has come to the United States with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Sharpe is seeking investors for his clay-mining invention. Edith’s father is unimpressed by the invention and rejects his proposal. Then Edith sees the spirit of her mother again and gets the same warning as before. As Edith and Thomas’ romance progresses, both Edith’s father and her childhood friend disapprove of the relationship and do everything in their power to break them up.

But then Edith’s father is mysteriously murdered. Edith and Thomas eventually get married and return to England. They move into Allerdale Hall, the dilapidated Sharpe mansion. Not only is the house rundown, but Thomas’ sister is cold to Edith and Thomas because physically and emotionally distant. When it’s eventually revealed that the name of the mansion is in reality Crimson Peak, Edith becomes ill. More revelations come to light, including Thomas’ multiple marriages and Lucille’s time in a mental institution.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot. Watching the plot twists unfold is one of the movie’s great joys. Crimson Peak has a great look to it. You expect that from a film directed by Guillermo del Toro. The production design of the mansion by Tom Sanders and cinematography by Dan Laustsen make it one of the most haunting and beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

But Crimson Peak also benefits from stellar performances from its lead actors. The performance that really surprised me was Tom Hiddleston. I’m so used to him playing Loki in the Marvel movies that I wondered if he could pull this type of role off. After the first time he appeared on screen I was sold. I love him in action movies. But it’s great seeing his dramatic acting chops on full display here. If you want to see further proof, check out War Horse. Jessica Chastain is a great baddie. I’ve always appreciated her as a dramatic actress, but wondered about her playing a villain. She’s chilling. And Mia Wasikowska, who I had only known from the remake of Alice in Wonderland delivers as well. She really makes you feel all of Edith’s plight. I hope to see more of her in the future.

Crimson Peak is a film that you have to be patient with. It has some great plot twists. But it takes its sweet old time. To me the wait was worth it. The film sneaks up on you. Not many films have the patience or ambition to do that. I appreciated it. Crimson Peak is haunting, beautiful, and a modern Gothic masterpiece. In a time where haunted house movies have become clichéd, this one is a breath of fresh air.

Guillermo del Toro Retrospective: Cronos

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It’s week two of my spotlight on director Guillermo del Toro This week’s film might be the oddest and most challenging of the director’s works, at least for me. But it’s a fascinating film to study. It’s Cronos from 1993. Today vampire movies have become a but of a cliché. But Cronos is one of the most original takes on vampire mythology that has ever been put on film.

The plot of Cronos revolves around an ancient scarab and its ability to bring people eternal youth. But the gift comes with a price. It also gives you a vampire’s lust for blood.

In 1536, in Veracruz, Mexico, during the Inquisition, an alchemist builds a mysterious and sophisticated device named Cronos to provide eternal life to the owner. In the present days, the antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi) finds Cronos hidden inside an ancient statue while cleaning it with his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). He accidentally triggers the device and soon his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel) and he note that he has a younger appearance. Out of the blue, the stranger Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman) visits Gris’s shop and buys the old statue. The next day, Gris finds his shop trashed and Angel’s card on the floor. He pays a visit to Angel that introduces him to the eccentric millionaire De la Guardia (Claudio Brook) that explains the healing power and the eternal life given by Cronos. Angel is sent by De la Guardia to hunt down Gris to get Cronos no matter the costs.–IMDB

Sounds like a crazy episode of Antiques Roadshow, doesn’t it? But it’s a fascinating story about greed and the macabre. In a strange way it reminds me of a dark Indiana Jones movie with its ties to dark magic and history. Cronos gives us a glimpse of the darker and more fantastical Del Toro we will come to know and love in films such as Pan’s Labyrinth.

The cast and the original story by Del Toro make Cronos a much more involving film than you would imagine based on the plot description. You may recognize Frederico Luppi from the Del Toro film I covered last week: The Devil’s Backbone. Overall I like his performance in Cronos better. He gives a lot of depth to the character of the antique dealer. But the performance that really sold me on the material was Ron Perlman. He’s great as the charismatic right hand man of De la Guardia. He brings the sort of screen presence we will later see in his lead performance in Hellboy and his supporting performance in Pacific Rim.

I mentioned in my opening that Cronos is the most challenging of Del Toro’s films for me. I don’t mean in saying that that it’s a bad film. Cronos is challenging from a story standpoint. It doesn’t tell us a vampire story in the traditional sense a la the Dracula films. It’s a vampire film that feels very modern and that at times is a little jarring. It does take  time for the film to find its groove. But once it gets there it never ceases to be involving. The other part of Cronos that may be challenging for some is the gore factor. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and even part of this made me a little squeamish. I say that not to scare people away from it, but just so people know that going in.

Cronos does have a great visual look to be sure. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro makeup artists M. Carrajal Rigo Mora in particular deserve recognition. This does not look like your grandfather’s Dracula movies. Cronos is the film to see if you like a good mystery, gothic horror story, and prefer your vampires not to sparkle.

Guillermo del Toro Retrospective: The Devil’s Backbone

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Happy New Year my fellow film lovers! As 2018 begins I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the films of director Guillermo del Toro. He’s getting a lot of awards season buzz for his latest feature, The Shape of Water. And I would be more than happy to see him accepting an Oscar this year. His films are not only rich from a visual standpoint. But the stories are much deeper than you would expect. Beneath all the amazing production design of his extraordinary looking fantasy films, are fantastical stories that often have messages that are very relevant in today’s world. To start things off, I’ll be discussing his Spanish Civil War ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. It was the first of his films I saw when I was in college.  It blew me away.

 

The Devil’s Backbone is part war movie, part ghost story, and part coming of age drama.

In 1939 at the end of three years of bloody civil war in Spain, General Franco’s right-wing Nationalists are poised to defeat the left-wing Republican forces. A ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of a fallen Republican war hero, is left by his tutor in an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. The orphanage is run by a curt but considerate headmistress named Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and a kindly Professor Casares (Frederico Luppi). Both are sympathetic to the doomed Republican cause. Despite the suport of Carmen and Casares, Carlos never feels completely comfortable in his new environment. He has an initial encounter with the orphanage’s nasty caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who reacts even more violently when anyone is caught looking around a particular storage room, the one with the deep well. To make matters worse, there is the presence of a ghost, one of the former occupants of the orphanage named Santi (Junio Valverde). Shortly after Carlos’ arrival, Santi latches onto Carlos, badgering him incessantly at night and gloomily intoning, “many of you will die.” And if that doesn’t make the orphanage terrifying enough, there’s the presence of an unexploded bomb that dominates the orphanage’s courtyard, still ticking away. The combination of the orphanage being left defenseless by its isolation and the swift progression of Franco’s troops makes the ghost’s prediction seems depressingly accurate.–IMDB

One of the fascinating things about Guillermo del Toro’s films, especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, is their ability to blend war drama and fantasy elements together to tell a compelling story. It never feels like the director couldn’t decide what genre he wanted to work in and just threw the two together.There’s also the fact that the film has multiple plot lines going on. This is the work of a master storyteller.

The Devil’s Backbone also succeeds where many films fail in their portrayal of kids. Often in movies, kids are portrayed as cook cutter characters that have a few good one-liners. Here, the kids in the orphanage are given solid backstories and treated like three-dimensional people. Carlos doesn’t strike up a friendship with the kid you would expect. He befriends the school bully Jaime. It’s fascinating to see the relationship develop. There’s also the story of the ghost, Santi. Carlos starts seeing Santi in visions. The way the ghost helps unlock the secrets of the orphanage and reveal the skeletons in the closets of the adults is very well constructed and adds to the film’s suspenseful plot buildup.

 

But enough about the plot. The Devil’s Backbone is also noteworthy because of its hauntingly beautiful visual style. The fact that the film was shut out of Oscar nominations is a crime. The production design of Cesar Macarron, cinematography of Guillermo Navarro, and the work of the multiple makeup artists deserved recognition. The look of Santi in particular is astounding. This is not just a deceased person brought back to look exactly the same in ghost form. The blood flowing out of the head, the dead eyes, pale look of the skin…this is one of the most terrifying ghosts ever put in a movie.

 

The Devil’s Backbone is fascinating as human melodrama and as a ghost story. The way those two things intersect will leave you speechless. It makes a great companion film to Pan’s Labyrinth. The Devil’s Backbone is rich in its production design and its plot is more complex than it seems on the surface. One final note. I won’t reveal the ending. That’s one of the film’s many great surprises. The story arc doesn’t go quite in the direction you expect.