January 2007


Reading manchicken’s comment on my Pan’s Labyrinth review, I realized it might be helpful to post the review I wrote for Guillermo del Toro’s earlier The Devil’s Backbone. As you can tell, this was written in early ’02, but it might be even more relevant today.

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“What is a ghost? An emotion, a tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again? An instant of pain perhaps? Something dead which appears at times alive. A sentiment suspended in time . . . like a blurry photograph . . . like an insect trapped in amber.”

The ghosts of September 11th have hovered over our country for weeks now. Despite the passage of time, our “victory” in Afghanistan, and everyone’s desire to “get back to normal,” there is something about the tragedy that refuses to release its hold. Is it due to the catastrophic loss of life? The sheer senselessness of it all? The fear of another attack? Probably all of those things. Yet, I think if we were to be honest with ourselves, we’d also have to include another factor–our brutally rude awakening to the nature of evil and death which we are usually so careful to avoid.

Hollywood is, of course, complicit in our evasion of this reality. In the movies, death is usually just a plot device or, worse, a sign of victory, a validation of the hero’s power. Evil, when it’s not presented as some historical artifact, is cartoonish or insane and can be dispatched with relative ease. And even if it’s more than that, well we can just walk out of the theater into the bright light of reality. But now the bright light has turned into something harsher, and we’re all finding it difficult to adjust to the glare.

devils_backbone.jpgSo if I may, let me recommend that you make a point of seeing The Devil’s Backbone. It is a film that speaks to our present and very human condition, that reminds us of the cost of violence but also the virtues of love and sacrifice, that wipes the mist from our eyes and helps us to see things as they are, and that reminds us that the ghosts of history must be dealt with and not ignored.

The movie, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro (Cronos), is set in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, as the Nationalists are gaining the upper hand over the leftists. Carlos (played by Fernando Tielve), a ten-year-old whose father was killed in the war, is brought to a boys’ orphanage that is secretly supporting the leftists. Left behind, he’s forced to fit in with the other boys who are predictably antagonistic.

The ringleader is Jaime (Inigo Garces), an older kid who tests Carlos’s loyalty and fortitude. One night, after Carlos accidentally knocks over a pitcher of water, Jaime challenges him to cross the courtyard and get another pitcher. While Carlos is there, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a worker in the orphanage who’s trying to locate and steal some gold he believes is hidden, comes into the kitchen. Carlos is forced to hide in the basement, where he’s startled by a ghost. The other boys have also seen the ghost and believe it’s a former classmate of theirs, a boy named Santi who was killed by an unexploded bomb in the school’s courtyard.

The orphanage’s leaders, an older woman named Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and an older man named Casares (Federico Luppi), don’t quite believe in the ghost but they’re happy to help Carlos. They’d like to help Jacinto, too (he lived in the orphanage as a boy), but he’s too selfish. All of this comes to a head when the war approaches the village, and everyone is forced to leave.

One of the things I like about The Devil’s Backbone is how it incorporates various themes into the film’s plot. Casares is in love with Carmen, but he’s also impotent and feels unworthy of her. In many movies, that would lead to some big statement about sexuality, but here it’s seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Other issues–such as money and greed, growing up, memory, homoeroticism–are raised, but they all take place in the natural course of the story.

screens_roundup4-1.jpgThe most impressive aspect of The Devil’s Backbone, however, is its approach to violence. A woman is stabbed, and you can feel her agony. A boy is cut with a knife, and the suffering is palpable. This is in stark contrast to almost every other movie currently in theaters. In The Lord of the Rings, hundreds of creatures are massacred and not one ounce of blood is spilled, not one real emotion is felt. In fact, it is rare to find any movie that tries to convey actual pain. Instead, we’re programmed to think violence doesn’t have any results, that killing and maiming are routine.

This desensitivity to violence and its victims has important effects. There’s a famous “Star Trek” episode which features two worlds that conduct war by computer. The computer tells them how many people in each civilization must be killed, and the leaders give the order. It’s a much more efficient method, they argue, but it’s only possible because the leaders have no contact with either the enemy or their own people that are dying. Violence has entered the abstract and is disconnected from its effects.

The Devil’s Backbone
vividly reminds us that the effects of war and violence are brutal and deeply personal. The film pierces our imperturbation and jolts us from our passivity. It forces us to realize that the victims of war and violence are real people–someone’s children, someone’s parents. But it’s not a pacifist’s movie. It acknowledges that sometimes violence is required and that some wars are good, but it reminds us that we should not embrace violence lightly. Furthermore, it argues that even necessary violence has lasting effects, ghosts that will not always be mollified.

Lest I paint The Devil’s Backbone as some philosophical tract, it is also a fantastic ghost story, reminiscent of The Sixth Sense. It has gripping characters and provides a compelling portrait of a community. The acting is strong, from the young boys to the accomplished seniors. The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro is stunning, particularly in how he contrasts the world inside the orphanage with the landscape outside. And the music, courtesy of Javier Navarrete, is haunting. There aren’t many movies that work on both narrative and metaphorical levels. The Devil’s Backbone succeeds brilliantly at both.

The Devil’s Backbone: four 1/2 stars, out of five

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The Jonestown Massacre took place on Nov. 18, 1978. Over 900 members of the Peoples Temple, who had relocated from San Francisco to an isolated village in Guyana, killed themselves by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-aid (a drink akin to Kool-aid). Among them was their leader, Jim Jones. The event has largely faded from our cultural memory, leaving only a few bad jokes and a well-worn phrase. Those who think about Jonestown at all probably see it as a fuzzy symbol of the end of the ‘70s and the hippie/Jesus movement that preceded it.

I had cause to think again about Jim Jones and the cult he led when I saw the fantastic documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. The film benefits from a tremendously evocative opening that sets the mood. While bells toll in the background, intertitles remind us of what the Peoples Temple was and what happened at Jonestown. Then we hear from surviving members of the cult (several dozen people were away from Jonestown on the fateful day, and five who were there escaped). They describe what Jim Jones was like, how he was whatever you wanted him to be: “friend, father, god.” But while we read and hear the chilling story, the footage we see on the screen is of happy young people working and worshipping together, of an inter-racial, inter-generational church coming together. The obviously joyous faces are startling, undermining what we assume we know.

The documentary goes on to describe Jones’s upbringing in a small Indiana town in the ‘30s and ‘40s, his dysfunctional family, and the community he found in a Pentecostal church. He became an itinerant preacher in his early twenties and fiercely desired to lead a racially integrated church. That didn’t go over well in Indiana, so in the mid-‘60s he packed up his thriving ministry and headed for California, where the group started a commune on a farm. In 1974, the commune moved into San Francisco and continued its politically active ministry. But Jones’s growing paranoia, fueled by a skeptical media and the accusations of those who had left the church, precipitated the move en masse to Guyana.

jonestown_05-resized.jpgBecause Peoples Temple thrived during the ‘70s, when everyone was buying home video recorders and because the news media was present at Jonestown in its last 36 hours, director Stanley Nelson has a wealth of material to choose from. To his credit, he’s assembled an absolutely compelling film. He and his brilliant editors Lewis Erskine and Aljernon Tunsil combine photos and video footage in provocative ways, helping show why people would’ve been drawn to Jim Jones and his ministry in the first place. As one interviewee points out, “Nobody joins a cult,” and the documentary does a fine job of explaining why the church was so attractive, especially in the late ’60s and ‘70s when the social landscape was changing dramatically.

Even better, though, are the contemporary interviews, as former members reflect on why they joined, what Jones was like, what Jonestown was like. Some of their recollections are almost frightening, as Jones instituted a brutally demanding schedule that left Temple members hardly any time for sleep. He used public beatings as teaching tools and, in private, sexually molested apparently dozens of members, both men and women. He rejected the Bible and set himself up as a god. Yet, his progressive politics and self-help message, resting on the foundation of a charismatic personality, drew hundreds to the church and then off to Guyana. As one former member remarked, “everything was plausible, but in retrospect everything seems bizarre.”

What’s especially fascinating is how many of the members still get emotional over 25 years later, not just because of those who died but because of the dreams they had for the community. Instead of looking at the Peoples Church as some sort of raving cult that they were lucky to escape, most of them still see it as a lost dream, an Eden destroyed. It’s a stark reminder of why cults are so attractive, of how our search for meaning can lead us into a labyrinth of deception. Yet in our culture of gross materialism and superficial lifestyles (tell me why I care about Paris Hilton again), there’s something compelling about people who truly believed they were making the world a better place.

That makes the film’s conclusion especially heartbreaking. The description of the mass suicide (including some audio recordings from that day) is set against photos taken a day later, with hundreds of bodies scattered around the compound. Nelson then segues from photos of church members to the final credit sequence. But intercut with the credits are long shots of the visibly shaken interviewees, and on the screen appears a list of the relatives they lost. My eyes are tearing up six weeks later just thinking about it. The abstract idea of Jonestown is transformed into something deeply personal and profoundly moving.

It’s not fair to expect a 85-minute documentary to answer every question, but I left the theater with more than a couple. I particularly wish the film could explain at what point the church turned into a cult. Was Jones always a megalomaniac who sexually and physically abused his parishioners, or did something happen along the way? Is this the story of a bad man finding a place where he could do the most damage or a tale of power corrupting a good man? But maybe those aren’t the right questions to ask, maybe that dichotomy is too simple an explanation. Maybe the movie is a reminder that some events are inexplicable.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple — four stars, out of five

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Chicago natives have another chance to see Jonestown. It opens Fri., Jan. 19 at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a one-week run. Thanks to my friend Neil for his thoughtful editing suggestions on this and several other of my reviews. All mistakes, of course, are my responsibility.

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Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone was one of my favorite films of 2001, with its tale of war and brutality seeming prescient and haunting in the wake of 9/11. So when I heard that he was going to make a companion piece (“a sisters film to go with the brothers of Devil’s Backbone”), Pan’s Labyrinth moved to the must-see list. Del Toro was at the Toronto Film Festival and gave a wonderfully self-deprecating introduction, in which he described the film as an anti-fascist fairy tale.

And a fairy tale it is, though it’s also a historical drama that takes place immediately after the Spanish Civil War. A pregnant mother and her beautiful young daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, reminiscent of a young Natalie Portman) arrive at the home of the mother’s new husband, a senior military officer (Sergi Lopez, great as always). panslabyrinth3-resized.jpgThe daughter is an avid fan of fairy tales and thinks she’s spotted a real fairy when she notices a bug winging around. It turns out she’s right, and as we learn in the poetic voiceover, the girl is the reincarnation of a beautiful fairy princess. If she can perform three tasks, she can return to her underground kingdom “where there are no lies or pain.”

There’s plenty of lies and pain in the real world, as we’re given yet another narrative incorporating soldiers abducting and torturing the oppressed (the topic du jour of the last twelve months–I wonder why). Fortunately, Lopez isn’t some exaggerated maniac designed to elicit hisses from the audience. He’s the villain, but his motives are comprehensible if despicable. And as the film goes on, he becomes Ofelia’s nemesis.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a gorgeous film to look at. An early scene with Ofelia being tempted by an extravagant table of food is eye-popping. The fairy tale sequences use perfectly calibrated special effects that are awesome to watch but also serve the story rather than overwhelm it. Her encounter with an enormous toad is oddly compelling, and clearly a reference to other fairy tales. The historical scenes are lushly designed as well, and del Toro has a perfect eye for color and composition. His elegant wipe fades transition beautifully between scenes.

panslabyrinth2-resized.jpgThe movie isn’t quite as strong as Devil’s Backbone, however, in part because the fantastic and historical modes never quite mesh. The fairy tale aspect doesn’t have the payoff that you’d expect (not like the ghost story of Devil’s Backbone). The finale of the three tasks is somewhat anti-climactic, and, unlike many fairy tales, the story isn’t an allegory for the real world.

Furthermore, we don’t spend enough time with the historical characters to understand their situation. They become mere abstractions: the good and the bad. It’s possible that there were allusions to Spanish history that I just didn’t catch, but the conflict between the Spanish officers and the rebels hiding in the hills could have been in any war-torn country. Of course, that might be del Toro’s point, but the lack of specificity distances us from the narrative. And though del Toro understands how to communicate the brutality of violence, it feels more showy here and less authentic than it did in Devil’s Backbone.

Nonetheless, the strong acting, richly detailed setting, and powerful thematic material make Pan’s Labyrinth a worthy addition to del Toro’s oeuvre. If it doesn’t rise to the heights of The Devil’s Backbone, it only shows how hard it is to make a second masterpiece.

Pan’s Labyrinth: four stars, out of five

And to go along with the top 10 of 2006, here are ten older films I especially enjoyed last year.

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1. Woman Ascending the Stairs
It’s hard to believe the Mikio Naruse retrospective at the Film Center was only eleven months ago. And while it didn’t achieve the heights of the Ozu retro from the year before, it did feature this masterpiece. Hideko Takamine, who appeared in many of Naruse’s features, stars as a middle-aged geisha who must find a way to buy a bar of her own or get married to a man she doesn’t really love. Naruse’s best films are melodramatic and deeply affecting without being sentimental, and Takamine gives a towering performance.

2. The New World
Director Terrence Malick returned to theaters with a gorgeous tone poem set around the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, but it’s really a meditation on innocence and loss, nature and civilization. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Children of Men) create images of extraordinary beauty that have lingered in my mind ever since I saw it in January. And the use of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” is especially transfixing. It might be Malick’s best film, and that’s saying a great, great deal. — full review

3. All that Heaven Allows
I waited to see this Douglas Sirk weepie until I could see it on the big screen, and I’m glad I did. His spectacular widescreen color compositions are amazing to behold, but those would be empty eye-candy without a powerful script about conformity in the ‘50s and excellent lead performances from Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.

4. Side/Walk/Shuttle
Northwestern’s Block Cinema included this Ernie Gehr experimental film on one of their programs. Shot in a glass elevator on the outside of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, the film repeats a slow trip up and down. But with each variation, Gehr changes our perspective through how the camera is placed, what’s in focus, or how the film is edited. A city film that’s also a reflection on the process of seeing.

5. Hud
Somehow I had missed this quintessential Paul Newman performance until Doc Films showed it, and it’s just as iconic, if not more, than his turns in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy. Add in stunning widescreen cinematography from James Wong Howe (one of classic Hollywood’s best) and a stark script about a bickering family of ranchers, and you’ve got a masterpiece.

6. Far Side of the Moon
I wasn’t familiar with the work of Robert Lepage until I saw this riveting, wonderfully creative drama. An adaptation of his own play, he also stars as twin brothers coping with their mother’s death. The track record of director-actors isn’t a good one, but Lepage brings together the cerebral and comical for a marvelous mix.

7. Flowers of St. Francis
Pure joy! Roberto Rossellini provides a portrait of St. Francis that makes the monastic life seem exuberant and delightful. Moments of deep spirituality combine with hilariously earthy moments for a religious film that even atheists can enjoy.

8. Best of Norman McLaren
McLaren was a well-known Canadian animator who’s been largely ignored in the States, but this traveling program of his shorts (tied in with the release of a seven-disc dvd set) was a revelation. I could take or leave the live-actor, stop-motion animation, but his traditional animation, often set to jazz music, is simply awesome. And while watching it, I suddenly realized where the inspiration for half of Sesame Street came from.

9. Land of Silence and Darkness
An early Werner Herzog documentary that focuses on a group of people who are both deaf and blind. An older woman named Fini Straubinger emerges as the film’s focus, and her enormous personality is captivating. Herzog brings his customary mystical touch to bear and creates a documentary of stunning beauty and power.

10. Counsellor at Law
I haven’t seen even close to all of William Wyler’s oeuvre, but what I’ve seen (The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, Funny Girl) has left me underwhelmed. But that’s not true of this crackerjack law-firm drama. The great John Barrymore plays a lawyer who’s left his working-class roots behind, and Wyler expertly juggles issues of class and politics while creating a thoroughly enjoyable drama about a man walking an ethical tightrope. The script, with its rapid-fire and witty dialogue, shows its theatrical origins, but Wyler uses the office setting (and some glorious high-contrast lighting at the climax) to strong effect.

And since we’re here, how about two more pairs…

Borzage x 2
This year was my first encounter with director Frank Borzage, and now I want to see as much as I can. Especially if they star the spectacular Janet Gaynor. Street Angel and Lucky Star are late silent works, and Gaynor is absolutely luminous in both, while Borzage’s trademark romanticism uses silent cinema tropes to full effect.

Mizoguchi x 2
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and The Sisters of the Gion won’t displace Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff from my list of favorite Mizoguchis, but it was a thrill to see them on the big screen. Chrysanthemums, in particular, was a reminder of how Mizoguchi, more than any other director, uses space to tell his story. His long diagonal shots and particularly the contrast between foreground and background reveal how flat most other films are.

Better late than never…

I started writing for the Hyde Park Herald, a small weekly paper on Chicago’s south side, in the summer of 1998. At the time it was a struggle to get into press screenings. So as I came to the end of that year, I hadn’t seen many of the big Oscar movies, which tend to dominate most critics’ top 10s. But being a critic and, therefore by definition fond of lists, I wanted to make my own top 10 for the year. I decided, then, to include any movie I had seen in the theater for the first time that year, whether it be new or old. My list for 1998 was: Pretty Village, Pretty Flame; Shoot the Piano Player; The Apostle; L.A. Confidential; Full Metal Jacket; Henry Fool; Ju Dou; To Catch a Thief; Saving Private Ryan; and Touch of Evil.

My motivation to include older films was also to highlight the strong repertory theaters that Chicago has, as well as to remind people of movies that are well worth seeing no matter when they were made. Reader feedback was positive, and all my top10 lists since have been a combination of old and new.

But as I get my blog off the ground, focusing on what played in Chicago seems misguidedly provincial. Furthermore, the blogosphere makes it so much easier to compare the lists of hundreds of critics, but that only works if we’re comparing apples and apples, if the pool of possibilities is roughly the same.

So this year I’ve decided to compile a top10 of movies from 2006, drawing from the same list that most American critics are using–what movies opened in New York during the calendar year.

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1. The Devil’s Miner
I caught this documentary of a 14-year-old Bolivian boy who supports his family by working in the precarious silver mines at the 2005 Chicago International Film Festival. Not only is it a compelling story but the movie thoughtfully explores the larger issues of ethnicity, religion, and globalization. And unlike so many contemporary documentaries, this one is beautifully shot with spectacular footage from deep inside the mine and a powerful sense of the mountain landscape. It’s simply a great film.

2. United 93
An absolutely vital film and one that every intelligent American should see. Director Paul Greengrass takes a story that no one was ready to re-visit and powerfully shows us why we must. By using largely unknown and non-professional actors, including many of the actual participants on Sept. 11, the film achieves a deep authenticity, and Greengrass’s editing style–which moves between air traffic controllers, military officers, government officials both local and national, the passengers on the fateful plane and, in a remarkable choice, the terrorists themselves–lays out the story in apparent real time and creates a film of incredible intensity and power. A film about heroes of all kinds.

3. Be with Me
One of those quiet movies I like so much, this feature from Singapore was another favorite from the Chicago Film Festival. It’s based on the autobiography of an older deaf-and-blind woman (who plays herself in the film), and director Eric Khoo surrounds her with a series of marvelous fictional characters, each one searching for or pining after true love. His formal rigor (spectacularly beautiful widescreen compositions and patient editing) mixes with a deeply emotional storyline for a powerhouse of a climax. — full review

4. Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Shot mostly in real time, it’s the story of an older Romanian man struggling with his local health care system. It takes forever to get an ambulance one night, and then that ambulance has to take him from hospital to hospital trying to find someone who can help him. The movie’s two-and-a-half-hours fly by (trust me), helped by hilarious doses of dark humor and strong acting across the board. And any budding filmmaker looking for a master class in unobtrusive hand-held cinematography would do well to watch this one many times. The allusions to Dante and the Bible provide a fascinating sub-text, and the film’s strong humanist streak makes for a film that crosses borders with ease. — full review

5. Army of Shadows
This doesn’t exactly count as a 2006 feature, as Jean-Pierre Melville made it in 1969, but it inexplicably had never played in the U.S. until this spring. Jean-Pierre Melville returns to World War II with this tale of French resistance fighters. His taut storyline and a cracker-jack lineup of actors make for a compelling narrative, and he combines a cynical yet heroic take on the “good guys” of war. Fascinating and thought-provoking.

6. Duck Season
A strangely beautiful story of two boys, a teenage girl, and a pizza delivery man, all set in a Mexico City high-rise apartment. Director Fernando Eimbcke has not only written a wonderful story, but his direction is sparkling. His decision to shoot in black-and-white cinemascope creates images of startling beauty and makes the film seem like a fable, though the dialogue is earthy and compelling. He also deftly guides the movie through a series of tones. Moments of high comedy slip into more serious conversations filled with pathos. The themes of friendship and family are universal and will resonate with a wide range of audiences. Finally, the film’s coda is a lovely ride through the streets of Mexico City, one that illuminates the movie’s evocative title.

7. Volver
Penelope Cruz struts her stuff (in a good way), and Pedro Almodovar earns the acclaim that often comes his way. This tale of three generations of women manages the difficult task of being funny, thoughtful, sweet, and melancholy. A chick flick in the best sense of that phrase. — full review

8. Children of Men
Bravura filmmaking that utilizes all the tools of cinema and pairs them with a thrilling story. Clive Owen is wonderful as a man who has to escort a miraculously pregnant woman to safety. Three incredible set pieces define the film, and director Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki pair up to create a movie that had me gaping in awe. — full review

9. Requiem
A provocative exploration of a young woman’s struggle with suffering, despair, and faith, Requiem may be the first understated movie that also includes an exorcism. Director Hans-Christian Schmid uses razor-sharp editing, and Sandra Huller gives a bravura performance. With a tone and thematic approach strikingly reminiscent of Werner Herzog, this is more evidence of the resurgence of German cinema.

10. Old Joy
A beautiful, melancholy film that ruminates over what we lose as we get older, though it’s not depressing. It’s a portrait of two men and a celebration of the moments they can still share, even as they both realize there won’t be many such moments in the future. The movie also explores how idealism, especially political idealism, changes over time. Director Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful sound design incorporates sounds of nature with talk radio, and a long road trip traces the movement from city to suburb to country to the woods. It’s a gorgeous movie, anchored by two strong performances and luminous landscape cinematography. — full review

Other highly worthy movies of 2006 include: 49 Up, Conversations with Other Women, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Half Nelson, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Lassie, Little Miss Sunshine, The Proposition, The Science of Sleep, Sophie Scholl–The Last Days, Street Fight, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and The War Tapes.

But I don’t want to lose touch with all the great old movies I saw this year, so tomorrow I’ll offer another top10. Because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a top10 list, and there’s no reason we can’t have two. I’ve even noticed that Girish and Doug Cummings have beaten me to it.