Thursday, May 30, 2013


Hi everyone, here at Screen Vistas, summer movies and auteurs go together like PB&J, a view shared by my colleague Max O'Connell over at our sister site The Film Temple. Last year we joined forces to review all of James Cameron's films. That project was such a success, not to mention fun, that we're back at the roundtable to talk about another of our favorite directors, Guillermo Del Toro — The Poet Laureate Of Monsters, just in time for his new film Pacific Rim. We begin this week with his 1987 short Geometria.

Max O’Connell:  It’s technically his tenth short, and he also did a lot of television work alongside Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki on the Twilight Zone-influenced Mexican TV show La Hora Marcada. He did one theatrical short before this, but this is the earliest film of his that’s widely available.

Loren Greenblatt: The plot of Geometria is the simplest thing ever. There’s a kid who’s really bad in school, and he doesn’t want to take the geometry test ever again, so he pulls out his copy of the Necronomicon, which, we all have a copy, right?

MO: I think I lost mine in the move back from school.

LG: Basically, according to this Necronomicon, if you draw a pentagon around you, you’ll be protected when you call demons to fulfill you wishes. As you might expect, it goes wrong. He makes two wishes: to never take the geometry test again, and to be reunited with his dead father.

LG: It’s this really charming little short that shows a lot of his influences and allows him to find his own stamp on them. He’s a big fan of horror films from the 70s, Italian Giallo films in particular. Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento especially. Argento (Suspiria) basically told the cinematographer of his films: “we’re going to light every part of the frame a completely different color, damn it,” and Del Toro follows his example to some degree.

MO: Del Toro really captures the lurid colors of Argento, but also the tactile gooeyness of Fulci. There’s something really nice about the nastiness of this thing, combined with the cheap but really charming rubber monster suits.

LG: Del Toro had his own special effects company at this point, and he was building towards his first feature length film. There's a nice detail where the mother, who doesn’t approve of her son’s interest in horror stuff over school, is watching this odd sweded version of The Exorcist. We know it's specifically The Exorcist even though we only see it for a second because there's a sped-up synth version of the theme playing under it. It's a fantastic little detail.

MO: And the demon that shows up later looks kind of like Linda Blair. And there’s some Cronenberg influence with the body horror of it, which is spectacularly gooey.

LG: Del Toro’s just really well-versed in horror history. As he goes on, he's going to find his own spin on it, but for now he's doing a great job just riffing off what's already out there. It's a really strong first, or early, film.

MO: He’s even already found his color palette, to some degree, with the amber and cyan.

LG: The technique yes, but the shades are still very much in Bava and Argento's color palette, and he’ll develop it further to a more distinctive Del Toro color space, but I love the contrast between cyan blue day-glo effect and the bright pink of the mother’s fingernails.

MO: Or the goofy red glow as the demons arrive. Del Toro also uses sound really well. Aside from the dubbed voices, he introduces the mother by having a toy bat on a stick swung around her head by the son, and it’s making this squeaky bat sound that’s absolutely hilarious.

LG: There’s a lot of wonderful cartoon sound effects. I love that the demon has bubblegum that makes a perfect little pop.

MO: Now, this thing does reflect somewhat on Del Toro’s upbringing.

LG: Yes. He was into demons and monsters as a kid, and his grandmother, a really strict Catholic, had no sense of humor about it. She kept holy water around to exorcise him, put bottle caps in his shoes to mortify his flesh …that the poor guy didn’t end up more messed up is incredible. But he has a really good sense of humor, and this film kind of plays with it.

MO: It’s based on a short story by Frederic Brown called “Zero for Geometry” (or “Naturally” in other titles). In the DVD intro to the short, Del Toro introduces Brown as a master of the twist ending like O. Henry.

LG: The twist is that the kid needs to draw the pentagon to protect himself and (spoilers) he drew the pentagon wrong. (end of spoilers)

MO: Loren noted while we were watching that it was the worst-looking pentagon ever, and it ends up coming back: he drew a hexagon. And not even a good-looking hexagon. This is a shitty hexagon.

LG: It’s no wonder this kid failed Geometry class. It’s pretty great that the only thing left he has to turn to is the devil, and even that doesn’t work.

MO: Holy god, can he not draw a shape. It’s amazing to me, because I suck at math and even I managed to pull a C+ in Geometry. Whenever you make a deal with a demon, it’s probably not going to go over well. It doesn’t go well with the dead father, because he’s brought back as a horrible looking monster that eats the mother.

LG: He gets to never take the geometry test- because he gets eaten!

MO: Del Toro’s also playing with some of his key themes, like the misunderstood youth. The kid’s imaginative, but he doesn’t take things seriously, so he’s pushed aside. There’s hints of Pan’s Labyrinth there.

LG: Or the unfairness of life and the powerlessness of protecting loved ones, which turns up a lot in his films.

MO: There’s also a trickiness of demons that hints at how the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth is going to try to trick Ofelia into doing some questionable things.

LG: It’s just a really well made and charming short. I think I’d give it a B+

MO: I’d do the same, though if this were a student film and I were a teacher I’d give it a curve to an A+. He’s clearly found his voice to some degree already, and it’s the start of a great filmmaker.

LG: Everyone should have a first film this strong.

Loren's Grade: B+
Max's Grade: B+

That's it for our review of Geometria. If you agree or disagree with our take feel free to leave a comment below and check out Max's blog The Film Temple for more great film criticism.

Roundtable Directory:
Mimic (Director's Cut)
The Devil's Backbone
Blade II
Hellboy (director's cut)
Pan's Labyrinth
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Unmade Del Toro
Pacific Rim

The director's cut of Geometria is available on YouTube but it's not subtitled. It's still a lot of fun on a visual level and the sound effects are nice and wacky (Del Toro dubbed all the voices), and I heartily recommend checking it out.


The existence of Star Trek as a film series is something of an anomaly. These days it's fairly common for cancelled television series to get revised for either new episodes or a feature. Firefly became a movie after just 10 aired episodes and we've also seen new episodes of Futurama, Battlestar Galactica, Bevies & Buthead, Hawaii 5-0, Family Guy, Doctor Who, and Arrested Development not to mention the Veronica Mars revival in our near future. But back in the 60's and 70's the idea was mostly unheard of. So why was Star Trek chosen for a feature film rebirth 10 years after the fact? Basically, the answer is money.

Star Trek didn't have the most audacious start. The show was cancelled in 1969 due to low ratings. It did, however, do substantially better in syndication (partly due to a shift in how ratings were measured). Paramount tried to make good on the show's popularity (read: increased value), but the franchise suffered through a cheaply made animated incarnation in the mid 70s while a second live action show, called Star Trek: Phase II, languished in Development Hell. But then came Star Wars, and for a brief moment anything even remotely sci-fi was box-office gold in the eyes of studio bosses, leading to Phase II's pilot script "In Thy Image" being swiftly converted into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. 

Gene Roddenberry's initial conception of Star Trek as a show was "too cerebral" for NBC who demanded he action up his ideas a bit. Honestly, it was a good idea. Roddenberry was a good sci-fi writer, but he was no Rod Serling and left too much to his own devices he could get hokey. There was no way that Star Trek woundn't end up being campy (William Shatner's acting didn't help), but being forced to be more mainstream helped the show go down easier. But it's clear watching this first film incarnation that Roddenberry and director Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still) were determined that Trek be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the result combines all the least accessible elements of the show. It'd be tempting to write it off as "one for the fans," except Trekkies mostly ignore it as well.

The plot involves a massive, possibly evil, space cloud that's headed straight for Earth. You know it's Star Trek when something as goofy and innocuous as a cloud can be anthropomorphized into a galactic threat. It helps that the cloud is a pretty decent special effect, executed by legendary FX wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Blade Runner), and that there is something far more interesting at the center of the cloud.

What's at the center of the cloud you ask? Not so fast! Before we can find out the answer to that we first need to reunite the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise and have a lot of gratuitous character conflict. The reunion takes its time so that everyone can have their "moment," but those moments tend to be distracting and unnecessary. Did having McCoy (Deforest Kelley) dress like a hippie really move the story along, establish theme, or do anything? Did anyone believe that McCoy, the squarest man on the Enterprise, would ever let his beard grow that long? If that's not bad enough, Wise also focuses on new characters like Decker, the Enterprise's new captain, his former girlfriend Ilia, and their hackneyed, Airplane!-style romance.

Kirk (Shatner) fares much better, though his plotline still feels forced: he's now an admiral and, upset that he's not in command of his beloved ship anymore, uses the cloud crisis as an excuse to get it back. Decker, perhaps out of spite, stays on to make Kirk feel old by reminding him he doesn't know the new tech in the refitted Enterprise. It's nice that the film is realistic about the cast's age (a theme that will continue throughout the films), but the role of Decker should have been given to Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a normally central part of the Trek chemistry who in this film, doesn't even step foot on the Enterprise until the halfway point. It's is a shame because Spock's arc, as tossed off and convoluted as it is, is the only one that has anything to do with the cloud.

Okay, so Kirk and Co. finally get to the cloud and the film properly starts. It's clear that Wise wanted to make an smart, adult sci-fi film. Just look at the references: there are long, hypnotic 2001-esque shots of the Enterprise traversing the interior of the cloud and the alien ship hidden inside. We learn that (spoiler alert)  the giant spaceship at the center of the cloud was built by a mechanical race that views people as infestations, which is very Philip K. Dick, as is a fantastic sequence of Spock exploring the ship's memory banks. Later, one crew member is confronted by an artificial reconstruction of a lost love one a la Solaris. To top it all off we later learn that the ship is piloted by (seriously, spoilers) Voyager 6 (or V'GER), an old NASA satellite that has been supped up by the machine planet and, having presumably absorbed all knowledge in the universe, returned to meet its creator. The problem being that having been modified by a digital intelligence, V'GER can't accept that its creator might be biological and threatens to destroy all life on Earth if Kirk doesn't produce something its programing can accept.

This is all really, really cool stuff, Wise and the screenwriters were clearly up on all the hippest sci-fi of the day, but they completely fail to recreate the effect. Part of the issue is that in those long, exploration passages, Wise mistakes spectacle for content. The scenes inside the cloud are pretty and atmospheric as hell, but have nothing to do with the themes of the film and give us nothing to go on. 2001 was about the evolution of man being shepherded by people from "out there," and as mysterious and obtuse as that film is, Kubrick was pretty up front about that theme so that the audience has something to ponder while looking at all the weird stuff. But Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn't do that. There are no hints, little conceptual cohesion and, until the last act, little sense of the intellectual exploration that is a cornerstone the Trek brand. By the time we get to all the cool stuff, we've frittered away the runtime on atmosphere and watching Kirk frump around having a sassy mid-life crisis (everything with Kirk is sassy). So all the interesting implications of the twists have about five minutes each to be explored before being solved in a quick, simplistic way, that conveniently disposes of some of those new characters we don't care about. 

As a Trek film, it's too all over the place, short changing the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship that's always been the heart of the Original Series in favor of new characters who don't really matter. As a piece of hard sci-fi, it's too thin and too long. Trekkies would eventually get good Trek films, but this isn't one of them. It's got great ideas, if only it used them.

Grade: C+

Trekkin' It directory:
The Motion Picture
Space Seed / The Wrath of Khan
The Search for Spock
The Voyage Home
The Final Frontier
The Undiscovered Country

First Contact

Star Trek '09
Into Darkness (spoiler analysis)  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Noah Bambach is one of the great masters of emotional rawness. Over the years he's developed a great gift for taking the most extreme misanthropes and cutting them down until we can connect with them. His new comedy, Frances Ha, doesn't feature anyone as difficult to like as the family in The Squid and the Whale but while that might make this new film seem almost slight in comparison, it still emerges as a complex, richly observed portrait of a friendship in the midst of transformation.

As the film starts Frances and Sophie (Gretta Gerwig and Mickey Summer, respectively) are inseparable. They met in collage and became roommates afterwards. They do everything together: eat, smoke, play-fight, even fall asleep on the couch next to each other watching YouTube. Their friends describe them alternatively as "the same person but with different hair" and "like one of those lesbian couples who never have sex." Such connectivity isn't necessarily unhealthy, but it is unsustainable. A fact Frances learns when Sophie moves out of the apartment to be with her boyfriend.

Sophie promises that they'll still hang out, but they both know that it won't be the same. Their special, almost psychic connection is now diluted and devalued. Frances tires to cope, but the dates she goes on just seem to fizzle and the surrogate friends/roommates she tries out can't keep up with her endless, restless, self destructive energy. Mostly she tries her best to pay her rent with a flagging dancing carrier, couch surfing her way around Brooklyn on a course she hopes will reunite her with Sophie.

How much you like Frances Ha will really come down to how much you like Frances herself, or at least how much you identify with her problems. The film is so much an extension of her. Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay) pulls off some great acting gymnastics, transitioning quickly from childlike glee to forlorn without ever putting it too thick. We perhaps get a few too many scenes of Frances running around the city being silly (the best being a left field homage to Leoes Carax's Bad Blood), but it seems right for a film about a girl with such a shaky personal identity to have a looser, sometimes meandering structure. Does it make any logical, Earth-bound sense to have Frances jet off to Paris for a short leg of the film? No, but it does make sense for her character's emotional journey. She's been alienated in every other way, being alienated by language and location isn't a bad way to externalize her internal troubles.

Frances is a rare kind of film that attempts to map out the life of a friendship in realistic terms. However self-conscious it occasionally feels when things don't work is somewhat irrelevant in the face of what does. There are other films in recent memory that do some of the same stuff well. Many of the films produced by the Mumblecore movement have much of the same emotional rawness within their own profoundly small scopes and many of them also star Greta Gerwig. But few of them demonstrate this much craft. Bombach and Gerwig aren't just doing an expensive Mumblecore movie, they're contextualizing within film history, in addition to that Leoes Carax homage, we have references to the French New wave and Black & White photography that explicitly recalls Woody Allen's Manhattan. What does that mean to the main story? Probably very little except to suggest that as current and zeitgeisty as Frances and co seem, their problems are ones shared by people of every generation.

Grade: B+

Monday, May 20, 2013


I've found it difficult to review Jurassic Park 3D, it's just too nostalgic a film for me. It's the first film I remember seeing in a theater, the film that taught me that the movies could be magic and pretty much the reason I'm a filmmaker. I adore it beyond all reason, but probably not as much as I did when I was a kid. The film came out when I was four years old and while I was in the midst of a dinosaur craze. I had all sorts of books and video tapes, I seriously even knew the Latin names of some dinosaurs. So I thought that since there was no chance of me writing an unbiased review of the film anyway, I might as well call in an expert and do the review with my four year-old self.

Young Loren (stepping out of time machine): Hi!

Old Loren: How are you doing, young me?

YL: Is that what we look like in the future? Your hair looks weird. Am I going bald?

OL: No no, that's just the style, everyone looks like this in the future.

YL (strokes his long, red 90's hair): Sure they do.

OL: Can we just talk about Jurassic Park already?

YL: Oh my gosh! Jurassic Park was the awesomest movie ever! There were dinosaurs! Dinosaurs!! Dinosaurs everywhere! Jumping! Smashing! Roaring! Everything! There were also a lot of humans doing talking stuff, but it was okay because they were mostly talking about DINOSAURS!

OL: Along with commentary about the legal and ethical liability of man interfering with nature, which all feels very Herzogian.

YL: I'm not sure what all those words meant, I just saw dinosaurs!

OL: Well, what do you think the movie was about?

YL: Well there's this guy named John Hammond who buildeded Jurassic Park, which is like giant dino zoo.

OL: Where did he get the dinosaurs?

YL: That was the coolest part, cause the way they say it, it sounds like they could do it for real one day — but they shouldn't cause it's super dangerous —they take blood from mosquitoes that got frozen in the dinosaur times, mostly the Cretaceous era, and clone them.

OL: Fascinating, what happens then?

YL: John Hammond takes some dinosaur experts to the park and show them around. The main guy is Alan Grant, he's my favorite!

OL: He doesn't seem to like kids too much though.

YL: It's okay, I like him.

OL: Kind of like that kid in the movie, Lex Murphy, that looks up to Grant even though Grant doesn't like him.

YL: That kid is supposed to be like me, and I guess he is. I don't know why they try and put kids in movies like that though, the adults are the ones doing cool things. Anyway, there was also this math guy named Ian Malcom.

OL: Jeff Goldblum.

YL: No, his name was Ian Malcom, aren't you listening to me?!

OL: Sorry, go on.

YL: Anyway, I didn't like him. He kept trying to kiss Grant's girlfriend, and he talked the least about dinosaurs. I don't know why he was there.

OL: To underline the man vs. nature themes and also girls like him.

YL: I guess he's okay then. But poor Alan Grant, he doesn't even seem too mind when Malcolm tries to put the moves on her.

OL: Yeah, in real life he'd never stand a chance against Goldblum.

YL: So the dinosaurs get out and start eating people!

OL: Weren't you scared?

YL: My mom thought I'd be, but that was the best part! Like when the T-rex eats the lawyer, that was great! Besides, I know they're not real - they're special effects!

OL: Doesn't that make it less exciting?

YL: No, I think that was so cool. They look so real and feel so real, the fact that they're not real only makes them cooler. Like a really good magic trick. I don't know what I like more, the dinosaurs or the magic trick that makes them so real. At home I have The Making of Jurassic Park on tape, where they explain how they did the dinosaurs with robots, and some of them in the computer and it was one of the first times they did that. They call it CGI!

 OL: It's really amazing how well that CG holds up 20 years later. You have no idea how advanced computer technology becomes – remind me to show you an ipod before you go back – a lot of older computer effects look bad now, because they're pushing the technology too far, or maybe the animation techniques weren't there yet, but Jurassic Park still looks amazing.


OL: But didn't you notice the rampant over-commercialism of the film. It seems determined to establish itself as a brand. The Jurassic Park logo is everywhere in the movie.

YL:Yeah, but you know that the park is a bad idea. We go to the movie because we wanted to see Dinosaurs eat people, we'd never go to the actual park.

OL: But it's trying to have it both ways. Yes, it is condemning the corporate mindset that places profit over human life, but it's also trying to build a corporate brand at the same time. Like there's that whole scene in the gift shop that's just there to show off dinosaur toys.

YL: I have all of those toys.

OL (thinking back): I did have all those toys. Never mind, this movie is awesome!

YL: Yeah it is, the action is awesome.

OL: The part with the raptors chase the kids into the kitchen is wonderfully constructed suspense sequence. It's very playful in the way it uses space and point of view to put you in the mindset of the raptors.

YL: Dinosaurs!

OL: Did you know that in the future, they'll make Jurassic Park in 3D?

YL: That sounds like the most amazing thing ever!

OL: It's not, I mean the 3D isn't bad or anything, it just doesn't add anything, except make everything slightly darker.

YL: That's disappointing.

OL: It's not all bad, it does help to highlight how well Spielberg uses depth in his compositions.

YL: What's "composition."

OL: It's a fancy word you'll learn in film school someday.

Grade: a very nostalgic A

Sunday, May 19, 2013


J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film was one of the more ingenious reboots ever pulled off.  A splendid, efficient blockbuster that somehow found a way to give all seven principal cast members something important to do. Sure it lacked some of the philosophy and allegory the franchise is known for, but it had a surprising amount of emotional resonance and the same blinding optimism that has always set Trek apart from more dour visions of the future.

Four years later we have the blandly titled sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, a good film that escapes the "Every Other Trek" curse, but is still lesser than the previous outing. It does manage to inject some of the allegory and philosophizing that the original missed out on, but has traded some of that efficiency and emotional resonance.

By the end of J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film we saw James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) go from disgraced cadet to captain of the Enterprise in about a day. As Into Darkness opens we realize that perhaps he was promoted too quickly. A survey mission goes awry when Kirk saves Spock (Zachary Quinto) by violating the Prime Directive, that "unbreakable" Trek law that prevents interference with primitive space-cultures. Kirks cocky recklessness results in him being demoted and losing command of the Enterprise.

That is until Starfleet is attacked by former officer turned terrorist John Harrison (Bennidict Comberbach). After the ruble clears, Starfleet gives Kirk back the Enterprise and sends him off on a secret revenge mission to hunt down and kill Harrison, who's hiding out in Klingon space. The "kill" part irks Spock, who feels that Harrison should stand trial, and by simply killing him, Starfleet is throwing out its principles of justice because it's inconvenient to them.

After a series of major twists, the film turns into something of a political thriller, slightly reminiscent of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Just as that film was ostensibly about the political paranoia surrounding the end of the Cold War, Into Darkness is a lot to do with the moral sacrifices America has made during the War on Terror. There are callbacks to other Trek films as well, for a while, it's of interesting how Abrams is remixes bits and bites of the cannon to suit his own needs. Iconic Trek scenes are restaged with some really inventive reversals. This strategy isn't as bold as the reboot, but it never goes for simple rehashing either. It goes a bit too far at times, but it's clear that Abrams is having a lot of fun playing in his decidedly and increasingly alternate Nu-Trek universe.

All this is interspersed with big, loud action scenes that perhaps didn't need to be so big, loud or long. There are some good ones, I was particularly fascinated by the production design of the opening chase which seems to have been inspired by infrared photography, and seeing the Enterprise take a pounding is still good for a few tugs on the heart strings. But there are also a few set pieces that felt a bit airless and give us way too much time to think about those thriller aspects. I am notorious among my friends for never seeing plot-twists coming, but by the end of a big fight scene on the Klingon home world (the name of which, astute Trekkies will note, the film misspelled) I had deduced 75% of what was going to happen. The thriller works as allegory, but less so as a plot in a movie that hangs together.

Abrams's tries to cover this with the films fast pace and the strong chemistry of the cast, and it mostly works. Everyone is as charismatic as they should be and most of the jokes land, even if some cast members feel a bit more shoehorned than last time (no one ever knows what to do with Chekov). Simon Pegg's Scotty is still very likeable, Karl Urban gets more to do as Dr. McCoy. If the film has an emotional heart, it's the tense, but clearly loving relationship between Quinto and Zoë Saldaña's Uhura. This provides the film with a dynamite subplot about the way we choose to deal with our emotions, particularly where tragedy is concerned. It's in these scenes that Into Darkness almost rebottles the magic of the reboot.

In the villain department, Comberbach provides an excellent foil for Kirk, even if his character seems at the mercy of a third act trying very hard to pull off one too many twists. There's a moment near the end, when everything is barreling along at top-speed in typical Abrams fashion, where the film could have slowed down and given us an iconic show-stopper of an ending that would have had us all talking for years. But instead, it just keeps going and going until all the most interesting stuff has either been minimized or undone. Must every blockbuster end with two people hitting each other on top of a green screen set? I know the last film ended like this too, but there it felt like a primal culmination, here it feels forced.

I enjoyed Into Darkness, but notably less so than its predecessor. Good, instead of outstanding. The machine is less well oiled, and is starting to clunk, still more than enough of it works. It feels more like classic Trek, it just needs more finesse and maybe more boldness.

Grade: B

Note: I saw the film in IMAX 3D. About a quarter of the film was shot in the IMAX format which is great, but none of it was shot in 3D which isn't. The quality of the conversion was actually pretty good, but it does lessen the natural majesty that IMAX tends to convey and neither format does anything to enhance the political allegory one bit.