The Devil’s Backbone

(2001) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 08/03/02

The Devil’s Backbone is an elegant nightmare of a children’s story set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish-American war. Beautifully produced and consistantly interesting, it is a very good film.

Set in an orphanage in the middle of the desert, the narrative tends toward the gothic, with ghosts, a hidden stash of gold bricks, and an old headmistress with a wooden leg. The orphanage is a haunted place, both literally and figuratively. All of the characters seem to have a good deal of melodramatic history hanging about them. There is a defused bomb standing in the center of the courtyard, a looming reminder of the threat of death that lurks so close to all of the characters.

It’s almost downright classical, like Henry James or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden turned evil. It’s a children’s story in many ways, told mostly from the perspective of Carlos, the recently orphaned protagonist. The fears of abandonment, ostracism, and death are keenly aligned with Carlos’s perception. However, the point-of-view is not utterly attached to the singular third person character of Carlos.

And really, if this was truly a children’s film, it would give serious nightmares to under-aged viewers.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Jorge Grau
viewed: 08/03/02

This is a Spanish-produced English zombie flick, shot in and around the vicinity of Manchester in the early 1970’s (among its alternate titles, it was also known as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue).

The film has an ecological edge, as the zombies are raised by some sonic radiation that the British government is using to kill insects that affect horticulture. The opening sequence also includes many shots of pollution and nucular power plants…and a streaker (whose significance slipped past me). The pro-environmental theme is perhaps more admirable than significant. It is not so radical to suggest that pollution and abuse of natural resources will result in an “apocalyptic doom” for humankind, though the zombies ultimately seem represent some sort of vengeance against people (trying to follow these notions out though seems to hit a wall for me).

It’s an earnest little film, not without qualities, though the lead actors are a little unlikeable. There is also and interesting “period” anti-police/extablishment theme, particualarly exemplified in the head detective’s palpable dislike for “hippies” (read: youth/youth culture). Of course, the audience is meant to identify with the irreverant young leads and to resent the prejudices of the constable.

Y tu mamá también

Y Tu Mamá También (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Alfonso Cuarón
viewed: 08/02/02 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

This film had been at the top of my list of films that I wanted to see for months, but I only just now finally got to see it after it had been recommended to me by just about everyone that I know. And it well-deserves such recommendation. It’s an excellent film.

A Mexican “road movie” about two teenage friends and their “older woman” companion searching for a nonexistent beach called “La boca de cielo,” the mouth of heaven, it is a film that is on the surface about sexuality and friendship. But only slightly beneath all of the surface narrative is a critical and broad look at identity and character of contemporary Mexico, from its physicality to its societal problems.

Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal play the two friends, Tenoch and Julio, the former is the son of the wealthy, government-connected elite and the latter is a child of a working-class mother in a tenement. Though they have different economic backgrounds, they are best friends, and in their youth, share a perspective on things. They are sweet-natured, but myopic and self-obsessed with their own pleasures. Bernal’s sister is an activist, but they only perceive the activists as potentially “hot chicks.”

Whether in the lap of luxury or in the seat of poverty, the friends are perpetually unaware of the world around them, either oblivious or unconcerned. Cuarón populates the film’s world with images of Mexico’s culture and beauty as well as its marginalized and poorer sides. He often follows out passing moments in voice-over “asides” explicating people and places that otherwise flash by for the protagonists. Tenoch, who is named (ironically – due to his lack of appreciation for it) for a figure of native culture, glancingly passes by the hometown of his main caretaker, barely moved by his connection to a place that should hold some significance for him.

Interestingly, it is Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a Spanish immigrant, who seems able to appreciate Mexico for what it is. She talks to the local people, appreciates the regional culture, and immerses herself ultimately in the landscape. At the end of the film she is encourages the boys to immerse themselves in their world as they would in the water at the beach. She tells them how wonderful a place Mexico is, though they hardly seem to hear her, drunk as they are on both sex and booze.

Cuarón clearly critiques the boys’ lack of appreciation for the beauty and culture of their world, and for their lack of interest in its social problems and the plight of its “downtrodden.”

Their myopic perception of their home is illustrated in one of the key plot points. In order to lure Luisa to come with them, they concoct a location called “the mouth of heaven,” an ideal, undiscovered and undeveloped beach. It is totally made up. The boys are lost, with a map drawn by someone who is totally stoned, they randomly discover just such a place as they have described, and it is called “La boca de cielo,” and is as beautiful as they could have imagined. Quite literally, the mouth of heaven is indeed in Mexico, something that they never even realized (though, in another aside, Cuarón tells us that it will soon be developed and destroyed — another fact of which they are unaware).

Such criticisms could well be made probably about the youth of many countries, and maybe not simply about the young. In that sense, the subject truly transcends region. However, at the same time, the film is very much about Mexico itself, beautifully depicting its countryside, the towns, and the cities in many long shots in order to offer a strong literal visual “perspective.” The film depicts a complex image of Mexico, as it attempts to represent the different strata of society, and the people and worlds of the country.

Lantana

Lantana (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ray Lawrence
viewed: 07/14/02

The film Lantana was recommended to me by a few different people, which may have inadvertently raised my expectations above what they should have been. It’s a good film, though I would say it was a far cry from a great one.

The film is interested in the lives of its middle-aged protagonists, in the late afternoon of their lives. It focuses on marital trouble, trust, and infidelity. And a murder mystery. It’s quite like a soap opera, particularly in the way that the characters’ lives intersect and bump up against one another, though not so heavy-handed.

It’s set in Sydney, in its suburbs and probably outskirts, which makes for an interesting background for the events of the film. The Sydney of the film is not the postcard glimpses of the city with which one is familiar, but rather the more average suburban neighborhoods and homes that look very similar to various American counterparts. It is foreign but not is foreign-looking. It is interesting to glimpse a little more of the places that people actually live rather than the “sites” that all tourists know. At the same time, these places have a boring familiarity, recognizable and undistinguished.

Was the film-maker really as interested in the background as I was? Or was the narrative less interesting and was my mind wandering? The title refers to a shrub, native to the area, in which the body, central to the film’s mystery, is discovered. Maybe there is a hint of suggestion in that, but I am hard-pressed to support that theory. The characters of this film are similarly recognizable. This American/Australian blur must be purely my own, though. The film may well be commenting on the life of Australia’s middle-aged citizens, but other than the one American character, certainly is not about America in any way. Though interestingly, not much is made of Barbara Hershey’s being American in the film, which in some ways might support the absence of difference recognized there.

Again, I find myself out on some far off tangent that probably no one else who has watched this film has even begun to consider…in that there really isn’t anything to consider….maybe.

Himalaya

Himalaya (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Eric Valli
viewed: 07/13/02

Beautiful landscapes. Interesting people. Too bad it wasn’t a documentary.

Well-meaning French director Eric Valli’s intent was to make a film about the salt-trading people of the Himalaya region to document their fading way of life, presumably one that has not changed for centuries. His narrative, I believe, was based on an actual event or story.

But the film’s narrative takes very western bent, a very traditional style of characterization and of story-telling. The cinematography is beautiful (filmed on location in the Himalayan mountains), in that the landscapes are stunning and the faces of the non-professional acting cast are fresh and interesting. With those strong subjects, good cinematography almost becomes a “point-and-shoot” situation…it is hard to go wrong.

However appealing the photography, the film feels over-directed. The camera movement seems excessive. And the handling of the non-professional cast significantly hides their lack of professionalism. While this sounds like a good thing, it seems to hide the charm that can arise from the use of untrained actors behind slightly more polished and less-interesting standard performance styles.

I am sure that this sounds nit-picky. But that is how I read it.

It almost seems that a documentary of the film’s production could be much more interesting, though the slow 20 minute featurette that accompanies the film on the DVD is so lacking in pace and action that it perhaps begs the question. Though still an interpretation, showing the people as they are, perhaps a little more literally, rather than viewing them through a foreign-born visitor’s concept of story-telling, might have offered a more honest and insightful view of their world.

Metropolis

Metropolis (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Tarô Rin
viewed: 05/27/02

Tarô Rin’s Metropolis is a Japanese animated science fiction film that envisions the future with distinct elements of the past. Tipping its hat to the classic silent sci-fi film from which it took its name and some of its ideas and owing its story and character design to an artist of a much different era, it is quite unlike run-of-the-mill anime.

I should have read up on this film a little bit more to confirm what I think are some of the aspects of its creation, but I will preface this entry by saying that I don’t know 100% if all of the “facts” that I am offering here are true.

I am not sure of the whole script-to-screen process for this film, but I vaguely recall reading about it when it hit the theaters here that it was adapted from an old Japanese manga by Osamu Tezuka, the “Walt Disney of Japan,” creator of Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion.

Tezuka’s characters are of an older cartoon style (his best known work was from the 1960’s & 1970’s). In fact, they echo back even further to the style of American newspaper cartoons from the 1920’s and 1930’s, though some of them also have a look of the period from which they were originally created. It’s a stark contrast to the ruling style of chracter design in most contemporary Asian animation.

The film poses these retro-style characters against the epynomous city’s digital created three-dimensionality. I am not an expert on animation production, enough to fully distinguish all digital shots from traditional cel animation, but I would hazard a guess that the bulk of the character animation was cel drawings and the backgrounds and settings were largely, if not entirely, digital. The flatness of the characters against the complex machinery of the sprawling mega-city seems entirely intentional.

Metropolis also reckons of the 1927 Fritz Lang Expressionist classic of the same name. The central figure in both is a female robot who will either save or destroy the Metropolis for which she was created. It has been some years since I have seen the Lang film, and so I am hard-pressed to draw any conclusions regarding the connection here. A re-envisioning of that film perhaps? Or merely just “inspired by”?

While the film’s visual background is digital and modern, its musical backdrop is yet another echo of the past. During much of the film, a Dixieland-style jazz music plays in a tinned, almost piped-in muzak sort of way.

It is possible that the very nature of adapting an “old-fashioned” story about a supposedly still-distant future brought the creators of Metropolis to this multitude of “retro” angles on the presentation.

Fulltime Killer

Fulltime Killer (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Johnny To, Ka-Fai Wai
viewed: 04/28/02 at AMC Kabuki Theater, SF

Fulltime Killer, which I saw as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, was one of the first new Hong Kong action films that I had seen in some time.

I had been quite the aficianado of HK films through much of the 90’s (like, apparantly, most people), but I had dropped off my viewing of HK films right about the point when Hong Kong was handed back to mainland China. Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Chow Yun-Fat, and Tsui Hark all started producing work in Hollywood to varying extents, so a significant portion of the talent pool had been drained, and quite a lot of buzz said that the heyday of HK film had come and gone.

So, I don’t know exactly why I hadn’t been out to see a HK film in such a long time. Ironically, the last one that I had seen had been really good (Beyond Hypothermia (1996)), so I don’t have a better explanation.

The film was pretty slick and entertaining, featuring Andy Lau, Takashi Sorimachi, and Kelly Lin. Interestingly, or maybe oppositely so, one of the screenwriters was an American, Joey O’Bryan, who helped adapt the script from a popular novel or something. I am supposing that he is the perpetrator of the Quentin Tarantino-esque, heavy- handed filmic reference-dropping that gave the film its rather clumsy psuedo self-referential side. It seems like a particularly American thing.

Ironically, dropping cultural references into films in such blatant fashion seems to finally have gone out of fashion. The film handles it in particularly gauche style, inserting it into dialogues by the flamboyant villain. After stabbing a guy in the hand with a knife at the bar, he tells him to go check out this Alain Delon film, from which he got the idea.

Oddly enough, one of the funniest parts of the film arises out of this very sequence, when later that guy who got stabbed comes back yelling at him that he looked all over town for the film and he couldn’t find his stupid movie.

I thought the film made some pretty good use of location filming, shot in numerous places in Asia from what the titles said.

I found the film lacking in some respects, like lacking much real meaning. Outside of the heavy-handed, rather self-conscious attempts at clever self-reference, I don’t know what else to say.

While it was indeed a fairly entertaining film, it is a far cry from the heyday of HK film-making, Or maybe it is simply a less talented team that produced this film. I note that Johnny To also helmed the directoral chair for The Heroic Trio (1992) & Executioners (1993), two pretty fun action/fantasy flicks which did come from the HK film heyday. So who knows?

With a Friend Like Harry…

With a Friend Like Harry… (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Dominik Moll
viewed: 05/23/02

This was a good, entertaining, mildly disturbing comedy/thriller.

Harry, an old forgotten classmate of the protagonist shows up suddenly in a French roadside bathroom and reinserts himself into his former classmate’s life, joining him and his young family at their dilapidated farmhouse in the country for a few days. Quickly it turns out that Harry is an ardent fan of the lost teenage writings of Michel, the protagonist, and is motivated at whatever cost to see Michel complete his unfinished novel (about monkey’s with propellers on their heads). It is absurd and beautiful.

Harry is an evil muse. He reawakens Michel’s long-forgotten yen to write, but begins to see that all of the members of Michel’s family are impediments to his creative process, killing them off and clearing the way for Michel to complete his opus. It’s a discourse on the creative process and a rather cynical one at that, though always it retains a rather smiling cynicism.

The film is clever and funny. Eleanor and I both enjoyed it.

Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Jonathan Glazer
viewed: 04/20/02

I don’t know what I could say about Sexy Beast that wouldn’t sound like a kicker off the back of the DVD box.

It’s slick British noir comedy/drama, that compares favorably with the Guy Ritchie films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Sexy Beast, though, is not nearly as over-stylized as Ritchie’s films (just plain stylish) and features far more substance, pound for pound. Whereas Ritchie’s leads are young hip urban hoods, director Jonathan Glazer’s protagonist is a middle-aged “retired” criminal ex-pat, who has left London’s mean streets for a villa in Spain. None of the gangsters portrayed in Sexy Beast are younger than forty. It’s a different generation altogether, though some of the nasty bigwigs of the organization have similar counterparts in the aforementioned films.

Whether it is the history and backstories to these characters that give them weight, in comparison, or just simply that the characters are less cartoony caricatures than Ritchie’s, Sexy Beast carries a heftier impact and is ultimately a far more interesting film on the whole, while still as poppy and fun as Rithie’s films.

There is an interesting contrast between characters and their environment. The four ex-pat Brits who have made their home in Spain’s isolated desert region have soaked up the sun and the pace of the lifestyle, but their bright-red sunburned tans show that they are not 100% acclimated to their new climate. Their thick working-class Southern English accents are also incredibly incongruous with the smouldering desert scenery. Though at first you don’t know exactly where they are supposed to be, you know that they are clearly not natives.

When the intimidating Don (Ben Kingsley) arrives, he is a fish even further out of water, paler in the sun and not at all at home in the blistering heat.

The contrast between character and location is strong as well when Gal (Ray Winstone) returns to London with his bleached hair and suntan amidst the rainy chill and cold of London. What all this adds up to, I am not quite sure. Certainly, characters are defined by their relationship to their setting, and maybe there is some commentary on Englishness or the growing lack thereof.

Another strong theme that plays throughout is one of power and masculinity. Don, a small, but intimidating man, weilds power via a dangerous machismo. Gal, on the other hand, though a big and tough-looking character, is pacifistic and non-confrontational. His effeminate name, his pacifism, and his semi-homoerotic relationship with Enrique, his Spanish houseboy, clearly paint him in opposition to Don. The criminal world in London, from which Don has come, seems to be an all-boys club, a tough, brutal group. Again, I hesitate to press analysis further, after only one viewing, but these are certain strings that run throughout the film and may well lie at the heart of its meaning.

I guess I have found things to say that you probably wouldn’t find on the back of the box.

Whatever the case, the acting is great, as is the script, as is the cinematography. It’s a tight package at a running time below 90 minutes. A lean, fun flick.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/21/02 at Castro Theater, SF

Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away, is both his newest and very possibly his most-brilliant.

Miyazaki, for those that do not know it, is a Japanese feature filmanimator who could finally perhaps be the filmmaker that rescues feature-length animated films from the gigantic rut that Disney has dug for them.

Miyazaki creates wonderful fantastic images, that are truly unlike those of any other filmmaker. And Spirited Away is replete with such wonderful invention.

The story is about a girl, Chihiro, who relocating with her family to a different part of Japan, moving away from her friends to a new place. The family takes a wrong turn and ends up exploring and falling into a spirit realm that is ruled by an evil witch, who turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. Chihiro has to work for the witch at her business, a bathhouse for the many native gods of the country.

It is a story, while original, echoes of traditional Japanese culture, like a classic fairy tale. Miyazaki was said to have been inspired by the “lethargy” of a young girl that he met, by her lack of understanding and interest in traditional Japanese culture, and it seems a significant aspect of the source and style of the narrative.

The landscape in this film is also very Japanese, supposedly based on an older region of Japan, one not far from his Studio Ghibli. Environment is always a significant theme for Miyazaki, and settings are always rendered in loving detail.

The spirit world of Spirited Away is populated by an utter menagerie of fantastic characters. There are too many to begin to enumerate.

This is a brilliant film, fantastic, surprising, beautifully rendered, sweet, scary, tremendous.