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.

 

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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.

Disaster Movies: The War of the Worlds

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Greetings, readers! It’s the last week of my spotlight on disaster movies. For my last selection, I have chosen a classic science fiction apocalypse story. While The War of the Worlds has been adapted multiple times, including the legendary Orson Welles radio broadcast, the best one is the one released in 1953 produced by George Pal.

For those unfamiliar with H.G. Wells’ classic novel, it involves a crashed meteor and an eventual alien invasion.

Scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) discover a crashed meteorite. Not long after their discovery, an alien war machine emerges and begins killing at random. The Marines are called in, but they can’t get through the aliens’ force field. Forrester and Van Buren manage to wound one of the creatures and obtain a sample of its blood. They take it to Los Angeles where they hope, through scientific testing, to discover the aliens’ weakness.–IMDB

The War of the Worlds has the classic science fiction element of the dogged scientists racing against the clock to find a way to defeat the invading aliens. The chemistry between Gene Barry and Ann Robinson works to make that part of the story work and the science feel as credible as necessary.

But the real star of The War of the Worlds is the special effects. While the martian war machines are impressive, it’s worth noting that their design differs from those described in the original H.G. Wells novel. As IMDB notes,

George Pal initially planned to portray the Martians and their fighting machines similarly to how they appear in the original novel. However, after being informed by a United States Army technical adviser that the Tripods, as they are portrayed in the 1897 novel, would pose no real threat to a 1950s era human military, he opted to change the fighting machines. Namely, Pal chose to introduce the atom bomb-resistant deflector shields.–IMDB

Sometimes a little dramatic license is necessary to make a story credible in the era it was filmed. It was the right move. While visually the 1953 version may appear a little dated, for its time it was groundbreaking. We take films like The War of the Worlds for granted today because of the existence of CGI and the special effects wizardry at ILM. But bring the invading alien ships to life was no small feat in the early 50s. In fact, the effects at the time were quite dangerous to being the threat of a fire hazard.

Originally, the Martian war machines were supposed to walk on visible electronic beams. This was attempted by having electrical sparks emanate from the three holes at the bottom of the machine. This was quickly abandoned for fear of it becoming a major fire hazard. The first two shots of the first war machine emerging from the gully have this effect. During filming, the actors were under the impression that they were dealing with the walking tripod machines of the book. This explains the farmhouse scene when Gene Barry says, “There’s a machine standing right along side of us.” However, the results of the walking can be seen wherever the Martian machines fly throughout the film, even though the sparking effect was no longer used.–IMDB

Special effects were a little more dangerous back in the day. The special effects crew of The War of the Worlds definitely earned that Oscar. Credit director Byron Haskin for managing to strike a good balance between visual spectacle and solid storytelling. Barre Lyndon’s screenplay is fairly faithful to Wells’ classic novel without feeling like a complete rehash of it. The writing, effects, solid directing, and good performances by the cast all make The War of the Worlds a compelling alien invasion disaster movie as well as a great piece of thoughtful science fiction. They could make it today with better effects. But I fear the effects would overshadow the story. If you’re a fan of H.G. Wells, this is the version of it to see.