Thursday, June 27, 2013


Welcome back to Director's Roundtable. I'm Loren Greenblatt and joining me in this discussion of Guillermo Del Toro's third film, The Devil's Backbone is Max O'Connell of The Film Temple.

Max O’Connell: Alright, we just finished The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro’s follow-up to Mimic that is, if I may be so bold, a little bit better.

Loren Greenblatt: Just barely a colossal improvement that makes it hard to believe he ever directed Mimic at all.

MO: The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story and fractured fairytale of sorts that came out in 2001. It was a moderate commercial success, a major critical success that got him a lot of respect, and it’s getting more attention now in the years since Pan’s Labyrinth because, in many regards, it’s a companion piece.

LG: They share a lot of things in common: they both deal with the Spanish Civil War, they both center on children dealing with the invasion of both adult, human evil and supernatural elements. Del Toro has said that this is the brother film to Pan’s Labyrinth’s sister film. The plot concerns a young boy named Carlos, played wonderfully by Fernando Tielve, who is sent to an orphanage for sons of the men who fought against Franco’s regime. The orphanage is a spooky place. For starters, there's rumors of a ghost running around. Then there's the small matter of the unexploded bomb in the middle of the courtyard. It’s been diffused, but it’s a powerful symbol of the realities of war and violence that are encroaching upon childhood. As he’s shown around, it feels much like we’re entering a prison film: he’s given a bar of soap to keep, he’s assigned a numbered bed, he’s warned not to try to run away, and he starts to form a bit of a friendship with the other kids that reminded me a bit of the Morgan Freeman-Tim Robbins friendship in The Shawshank Redemption. 
Not ominous in the slightest.

MO: In that he has to earn their respect first. The prison parallel is interesting in that this case they’re not held by a cruel group of people, but by good-natured (if flawed) people that have to make very hard decisions in order to keep the kids alive. Federico Luppi (previously the star of Cronos) is Dr. Cesares, who has to be the kind but very pragmatic and stern mentor to the children. The head of the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) has to limit what they can eat at any given time in order to guarantee that they’ll have enough.

LG: She’s also dealt with the realities of war- she lost a leg and has to wear a prosthetic, which really looks like something that Del Toro would design (though we have no clue what prosthetics looked like at this point in time). This is a film where Del Toro really comes into his own as a visual stylist. Cronos was done as well as it could be done on its budget, but this feels like he has just the right amount of money to make something special.

MO: We noticed while we watched it that the current DVD edition doesn't have the greatest transfer - we’re waiting for the Criterion blu-ray that's coming out the end of next month - but even so it the film has a wonderful soft look to everything that makes it…not nostalgic, necessarily, but more romantic. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro did a wonderful job here.

LG: The two really developed the two-color lighting techniques that they've become known for. He’s found his own color palette outside of his Argento influences. We’re going to see this as a standard lighting technique for Del Toro in almost all of his films from here on out.

MO: You mentioned that this film has your favorite image in any of Del Toro’s films.

LG: The last shot. It’s a ridiculously simple image, of people walking away framed in a doorway, and then there’s a silhouette. It's hard to explain why it works without spoiling it but it's a wonderful, mysterious image that points to the mysterious nature of death.

MO: Del Toro’s also always been in debt to Cronenberg with the body-horror thing, and that’s here, but in a more Del Toro-esque way than before. It’s much more subtle. The title refers to children suffering from spina bifida (a presumably fatal birth defect where the spine is exposed) and the doctor keeps a handful of dead fetuses suffering from this in jars as a way to gain funds. He sells the rum that they pickle them in as “limbo water,” a cure for impotence, among other things. It’s a superstition based out of body horror that can be frightening, but what’s nice is that it’s essentially benign. It’s a very nice symbol for what’s at the heart of the orphanage: a g-g-g-ghost!

LG: The ghost of a child who used to be an orphan there. As someone who’s usually not scared of ghost movies in general (ghosts don’t really do anything), I have to say that this ghost is terrifying, haunting, and beautiful, all at the same time. There’s a sort of benign quality to him right away- he’s frightening to look at, but he’s glimpsed very casually. We really don’t know quite what to make of him at first. There’s a wonderful mystery, especially since we know there are kids who have gone missing from the orphanage. One of the great things about the film is that it has a very fairytale-like feel to it. Part of that comes from rhyming imagery. The beginning and ending of the film have nearly identical images with different narration, the limbo water for the babies mirrors the fate of one of the children who dies in an amber-lit pool.

MO: The doctor even makes reference in his narration to a ghost being like an insect stuck in amber. It’s a very arresting image. Another thing he’s always been in debt to are the classic horror filmmakers like James Whale and Hitchcock. Some of the scariest moments here are entirely because of the way Del Toro has framed the shot - the main character’s head is in a very particular position, and as soon as he moves, the ghost is revealed. It’s very classical, often playing with tropes that have been around since the 1930s, but when combined with Del Toro’s more assured visual sense it feels striking and new.

LG: It's strange, because even though that's a pretty standard shot, it never feels like he’s going for cheap scares. Earlier this year I saw the Del Toro-produced film Mama, which is almost all loud noises and shots designed to startle instead of scare. There’s such a better sense of dread and atmosphere in this thing.

MO: Part of that comes from something that’s going to recur in Pan’s Labyrinth: the true villain isn’t a supernatural monster, but rather a very human monster by the name of Jacinto, played very well by Eduardo Noriega.

LG: Apparently a lot of people were very skeptical of Noriega’s casting. He was more famous in Spain for his telenovelas than anything else, but he’s terrifying here.

MO: Oh, he’s a complete bastard. They do find ways to make him somewhat empathetic- we feel his humanity because he’s a truly pathetic human being. He was an orphan, like most of the characters in the film, and the principal describes him as the saddest orphan there was because he never had anyone to relate to in his 15 years there. He’s a “prince without a kingdom- a man without warmth.” He has nothing to live for. He has a girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), who he doesn’t seem to like very much. He sleeps with Carmen, the head of the orphanage, because the one who truly loves her, Dr. Cesares, is impotent, but she clearly hates herself for it and pities him. We find some pity in ourselves, but for the most part he’s a man we love to hate.

LG: The other thing Del Toro’s going for here is a deconstruction for the macho stereotype that he’s never really bought into. Jacinto is the macho guy- tough, virile, emotionally guarded and here, all those qualities are made to be totally despicable.

MO: It also must be said that although Del Toro doesn’t overstate it too much, the connection to the Spanish Civil War…well, I remember when I first saw the film that I rather liked it, but felt that the Civil War material was just window-dressing that’s happening around the real plot, and it’s stuff that Jacinto takes advantage of. Near the end of the film this time around, though, I thought, “No, I’m completely wrong”. This is an almost perfect allegory for fascism (as macho and hateful as ideologies get), as Jacinto is a man who’s willing to take advantage of everything around him in order to gain power, or in this case, wealth, as there’s gold hidden away in the orphanage from the rebels. It’s not as strong a parallel as in Pan’s Labyrinth, perhaps, but it’s still quite powerful.

LG: The film is also very much about the effect of war on children. This is the first of Del Toro's films where the children feel like real characters. They’re all remarkable actors. They are all very much like boys are in real life, Del Toro is never one to sugarcoat anything, and I’m sure he related to a lot of Carlos’ bullying.

MO: Something else worth noting is how the boys all band together by the end, but that the boys can be nasty little shits before that.

LG: There’s this wonderful sequence where the boys force Carlos to go out to refill a jug of water in the dead of night, and if he’s caught, he’s going to be in a heap of trouble. He has a run-in with the ghost, but he does it, victorious! But as Carlos heads into the courtyard the other boys pull out slingshots and break the jug, and now Carlos is in trouble for being out at night and for breaking a jug. 

MO: We know that none of them are going to buy that he saw the ghost, even though they’ve talked it up for ages. (assume spoilers from here on out) And the ghost, Santi, keeps trying to communicate with them: he keeps saying that “many of you will die”, which can be interpreted as a threat, but it’s really a warning that Jacinto has something terrible planned. There’s a sense of brotherhood even after death that’s quite moving, particularly with the leader of the boys, Jaime (Inigo Garces). And he’s an interesting character- he’s someone who does not open up very easily, because he’s been hurt. We find out later that it’s because he witnessed the murder of his best friend, Santi, by Jacinto. It takes more time for him to embrace Carlos, or really any of them, because he doesn’t want to lose another friend. There’s a scene near the end, though, when he takes leadership, and it’s emblematic of the struggle against Jacinto (and, by proxy, the fascists). The other boys fear Jacinto and his cronies because “they have guns, and they’re bigger than us”, but Jaime leads them by saying that “there’s more of us”.

LG: Now, I do want to talk about the way Santi is presented. Del Toro isn’t shy about showing us Santi’s face, which is interesting, because at first he’s playing the Jaws rule of “don’t show too much too soon”, and he teases out this by showing Santi’s silhouette at first, followed by his footprints in water (sans visible feet, of course), but then we do see him fairly early on, and that’s important. His appearance is a big part of the mystery of who he is and what happened to him. The look of Santi is really influenced by J-Horror (which hadn’t quite become huge, but Del Toro is really plugged into what’s going on in horror), but he goes beyond the standard J-Horror creepy kid. Santi has a large wound in his forehead that blood pours out of in a cloud, and there’s these wonderful little silver flecks floating around him, which reminds us of the pool he died in. The story is that, in order to help light the pool, Del Toro had the pool lined with with silver but by the third day of shooting it started corroding and showing up onscreen when they shot underwater, but Del Toro liked the look of it and incorporated it into the design. But he’s not the only ghost in the movie- as certain characters die, the hopelessness of the kids’ situation ramps up as they’re trapped by Jacinto.

MO: And I love how Del Toro ramps up the tension of that scene. He establishes the spatial dynamics very well- they’re locked in a cupboard, there’s a hallway between them and another room where the villains are trying to open up a safe where the gold might be, and the noise in that room is drowning out their escape attempts, but they’re close enough that too much noise could still be noticed.

LG: There’s a deus ex machina that gets them out (the ghost of Dr. Cesares, who dies from wounds caused by an explosion Jacinto started), but it’s one that works. In any other film, I’d be annoyed, but there’s a mystery to this that’s wonderful.

MO: Something else that I like about the film is the innocence of adolescent interest in sexuality.

LG: There’s a moment in the film where the boys are trading things, and there’s a drawing of a naked woman- which is really just a stick figure. They say that it’s anatomically correct, except that the vagina has been drawn sideways, because the kid just doesn’t know. How would he know?

MO: It’s funny, but kind of sweet in a way. There’s also a lot of sweetness in Jaime’s relationship with Jacinto’s girlfriend Conchita. He dotes on her and gives her this very plain ring- I think it’s just a cigar band- and she takes it very happily. It’s a moment of kindness that plays in direct contrast to the way the brutish Jacinto treats her, and it’s a rallying point for Jaime later on after Jacinto brings the band back to Jaime. One of my favorite shots in the film is a wide shot after Conchita confronts Jacinto and rebukes him, and she crumples to the ground as he stabs her. It’s a very moving moment, and when Jaime sees that Jacinto has brought the band back, he’s ready to strike back and lead his friends against this sadistic monster.

LG: Del Toro is very adamant that fairy tales should be dark, brutal, and violent, and lord knows we get that. The last thirty minutes in particular- the orphanage explodes, children die, the kind adults die, and it makes us really want Jacinto to get what’s coming to him. And he does. The ending isn’t triumphant, which is important, because the tone would be wrong for what’s such a mournful film.

MO: Right. They’ve been through a lot, the adults have had to sacrifice themselves, and there’s only five or six of the kids left, and Jacinto gets an appropriately brutal death.

LG: Lord of the Flies style. There’s an earlier scene where they talk about a mammoth hunt with cavemen, where the men would use sharpened sticks. Then the kids use sticks sharpened by glass, and they just ram them into Jacinto. The first one goes right into his armpit, which has a boatload of nerves, and we really feel that one.

MO: I once had to get stitches under my arm after I fell on a wine-rack. Trust me, I felt it.

LG: And as much as we hate the guy, it’s painful to watch. And we think about the acts that these children have been driven to, even though they’re doing it to save their own lives.

MO: And it’s a tribute to all of their fallen friends like Santi, who was murdered by this bastard.

LG: But what’s important is that it’s their version of a war trauma - they’ll have to live with this for the rest of their lives, and as they go off into the desert to try to find shelter, it’s a very uneasy ending.

MO: And Luppi’s narration as they go off about ghosts being stuck in time, it’s a reminder that the horrors of the Spanish Civil War will never fully disappear. Del Toro was born twenty or thirty years after they ended and in Mexico, but it really matters to him to capture the gravity of the situation.

LG: It was a very personal project for him. He’s a very intellectual guy, he studied history very closely, and he was always fascinated by the Spanish Civil War. He views it as a period of history that we’ve forgotten about completely. Europe mostly ignored it because they were trying to stay neutral, and when Europe did get dragged into war, they were too busy to deal with Spain.

MO: One minor qualm I have about the climax of the film- when Jacinto is dispatched with and thrown into the pool, Santi attacks him, and he can’t escape because he’s weighed down by gold. It’s just a bit much for me.

LG: And it’s not even enough gold for me to believe that he couldn’t overcome that, even with his injuries. But, eh, I’ll go with it. It’s a very minor thing in an extremely strong film.

MO: Oh, yeah, it’s minor. It’s not like I could think of a way to improve it, it’s his choices that have weighed him down and taken him into a monster without humanity. The symbol only slightly bothers me.

Loren's Grade: I give it an A.

Max's Grade: A- from me, but it’s a high A-.

The Devil's Backbone is available for streaming on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and Xbox live. It comes out on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray at the end of July, at which point it will likely be available on Hulu+ along with the bulk of the collection.

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


I have a colleague, the wonderful Micheal G. Smith over at White City Cinema, who has, in his indirect way, been trying to get me off of blockbusters. After seeing Zach Snyder's new Superman reboot Man Of Steel, I'm starting to see his point of view. As I watched Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) tossing General Zod (Micheal Shannon), through building after building in the "exciting" finale, I started to wonder just how many explosions can you see in a lifetime without getting bored, or even appalled that images depicting the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings are being peddled off as entertainment. 

It would help if the film was more effective at making me care about Superman and Zod. As I always say: a good Action movie isn't about explosions, it's about us being worried about the heroes in those explosions. It's hard to care about Clark Kent/Superman in this way as he's is essentially invulnerable. You can take his powers away with Kryptonite but it would be better if we cared about him as a person. It's not impossible to make Superman interesting, the 1978 Richard Donner film made the Blue Boyscout work by embracing the immigrant angle and maintaining a light, comedic touch. But of course modern superhero movies aren't allowed to be silly, so Snyder tires to give us a dark, gritty “realistic” character study of this flying alien who shoots lasers out of his X-ray eyes. But in zapping the silliness, Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer have neglected to replace it with anything worthwhile. The result is like Batman Begins if Bruce Wayne was really shallow and generic (It should be noted that the two projects share Goyer as a screenwriter).

To cover for the blandness at the heart of the film, Snyder amps up everything around Clark. The film begins with with an overcomplicated retelling of Superman's birth on the doomed planet Krypton. All the classic story beats are there, but now there's a sudden coup d'etat by General Zod, leading Clark's father (Russell Crowe) to jump on a flying monster straight out of Heavy Metal magazine so he can retrieve a magic skull fragment that tells baby Krytonians what they're going to be when they grow up. As stupid and convoluted as that sentence was, it's somehow worse in the film which doesn't explain why any of that was important till much, much later. It aims for enticing but it comes off as confusing and badly conceived. By the way, I love that even though Krypton is supposed to explode in "a matter of weeks," the government makes no attempt to evacuate and finds time to try and sentence Zod and his cronies.

We then jump forward to Clark as an adult, wandering around Canada like David Banner in the Incredible Hulk show. This is interspersed with clumsy flashbacks of young Clark learning to deal with his powers like we've seen in every Superhero movie, except now it looks like a bad Terrence Malick movie. Everything is these scenes is sun kissed and beautiful, but the angles are all wrong. This is a consistent issue I have with Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen), who has a wonderful visual style he doesn't know how to use.

It goes on like this for a long time. On the advice of his human father (Kevin Costner) Clark does his best to keep his powers secret, while a computerized version of his biological father tells him how he's really, really destined. Oy vey, how he's destined. He's like Jesus, but he can fly, a sort of SuperJesus if you will, but the film lacks the due diligence to make that analogy work and it resorts to cheep tricks like posing Superman in the crucifix pose without him really sacrificing that much. The film is lost in cheep style, unnecessary CGI face masks and senseless violence. I have no idea what Clark thinks of all this. He doesn't talk much, he just sort of stares stoically into space like a catalog model. It'd be tempting to call Cavil bland, but to be fair, the film doesn't ask much of him. He looks the part, and the Superman costume is fantastic, but the film isn't interested in performances. With the exception of Costner, everyone feels underused. The film casts great actors like Harry Lennix, Amy Adams, Christopher Meloni and Laurence Fishburne in supporting roles only to do nothing with them.

The violence in the film is a real issue. We've seen a lot of cities being destroyed on screen lately but there's a difference between the self-consciously cartoon carnage we saw in Avengers and what we get here. Because he's intent on giving us the “realistic” Superman, Snyder and Co. have decided to go really far out their way to invoke 9/11 imagery in appallingly specific ways. There are scenes of people trapped under rubble, covered in ash and crying for help as building after building topples behind them. The imagery is frankly uncomfortable and not a frame of it is earned. The Superman character is essentially a power fantasy, but instead of being able to share in the feeling of watching Superman triumph over evil and save the day, all I could think about was all the innocent people that are dying terrible, terrible deaths because Superman doesn't think to draw Zod away from  populated areas. We are told that the 'S' on Superman's chest represents hope, but this film has none. It's joyless, cynical plodding leading to tasteless destruction, darkness and despair. You know, for kids!

Grade: D

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Welcome back to Director's Roundtable. I'm Loren Greenblatt and joining me in our continuing discussion of the work of Guillermo Del Toro is Max O'Connell of The Film Temple.

Max O'Connell:
After Cronos made a big splash in the independent film world, Del Toro worked a number of projects. Mostly it seems that he worked on Devil's Backbone, but he also worked on stuff like a version of Count of Monte Cristo for Francis Ford Coppola. Eventually he was approached by Miramax to contribute to a Horror anthology film. For his section, Del Toro chose to adapt the short story "Mimic" by Donald A. Wollheim. Eventually it was decided that the short would be expanded into a feature film which was severely compromised by the studio to such a degree that even the Director's Cut we saw can't be said to represent Del Toro's full intentions and it shows. The film, as it stands, isn't his finest hour.

Loren Greenblatt: No. Mimic was Del Toro’s second feature film, and it has a lot of really interesting things that it completely undersells. It jumps around a lot. It starts off as a plague movie: there’s a plague that descends on New York City that’s spread by cockroaches…and then the cockroach plague is immediately cured by doctors who release genetically-engineered superbugs to kill the cockroaches. Then we jump forward three years and learn that the superbugs have evolved, grown huge, and can “mimic” human beings. It’s a bit like Jurassic Park in the “man interfering with nature” category.

MO: It’s really a lot like Jurassic Park.

LG: But with bugs!

MO: It’s also a lot like Alien in terms of atmospheric horror and the second half of Aliens because they have to kill the bug hive.

LG: But not until the very end, which leads to the biggest problem: the idea of giant monster bugs that can imitate human beings is really cool, and the reveal of it is really cool, but it happens so late in the film that nothing can really happen with it. I kept waiting for one of the characters to turn out to be a bug person or something.

MO: There are a number of ideas that it flirts with but doesn’t really use or develop. Early on, they find a church full of people who have to be quarantined because they’ve been boxed up around this disgusting bug goo. I got the idea that they could have been infected with something, but that doesn’t really go anywhere.

LG: Yeah, nothing happens with them. They were just near the bugs, I guess.

MO: Then Mira Sorvino, who plays one of the main scientists, gets stung by one of the bugs, and you’d think that that’ll be something, but it doesn’t go anywhere either.

LG: There’s a lot of busy work in this film to get to the underground bug lair. There’s a lot of characters who won’t show up again: there’s the street kids who deal exotic bugs to Mira Sorvino, and that’s neat, but nothing’s done with it. F. Murray Abraham shows up as Sorvino’s mentor but does nothing.

MO: He kind of feels like one of those slightly better known actors who was hired to give class to an old B-movie and all of their scenes are shot separate from everyone else.

LG: None of them really add very much. I’m going to say that almost every character in this film is completely superfluous.

MO: Del Toro usually has a talent of making minor characters memorable. Here, even the major characters feel underdeveloped. And these are good actors! Mira Sorvino- Oscar-winner (for a bad film, but she’s great). F. Murray Abraham, Oscar-winner. Josh Brolin is in this back when he was primarily known for The Goonies, but he would have that major comeback ten years later. He’s here essentially doing an impression of Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en, and he’s fine, but he’s not given a lot to do. Charles S. Dutton is a good actor, he’s not given a lot to do. Giancarlo Gianini’s a great actor, he’s given nothing to do. Almost everyone is wasted.

LG: I have no idea what the main character’s name was.

MO: I’ll do you one, better: who was the main character? Was it Sorvino or her husband, Jeremy Northam, the other scientist? Whose story was this?

LG: (stammering while answering this) That’s a good- uh- I have no clue! I guess Northam because he’s the one with the information that Sorvino is pregnant. That is actually kind of a nice idea that Del Toro will revisit in Hellboy 2 where they’re trying to get pregnant but can’t quite, and then one knows and the other doesn’t, but the roles reverse here. It’s kind of neat, since it ups his stakes, and it’s one of the better parts of the film.

MO: It is, though, I had seen the theatrical cut before this and that was completely discarded. There’s a scene where they have the pregnancy test, and it’s negative, and that’s it. A scene later in the Director’s Cut it turns positive, and Northam finds it. I felt that it was something wrong after she got stung.

LG: That would have been great, had it been something instead of nothing.

MO: Yeah, instead her being pregnant just adds to his urgency, I guess, since that was missing in the original cut, but it’s still not much.

LG: Now, you’ve seen the theatrical cut, and I decided to be the guy who’s only seen the Director’s Cut. Can you elaborate on the other differences in the cuts?

MO: Um…no. I can’t! There are so few differences that it hardly matters. Del Toro is famously not happy with this film because the Weinsteins took it away and forced him to shoot some things, didn’t let him shoot the bleak ending that he wanted. I’ve read the shooting script that he had prepared with a darker ending, and it’s still not very good, but it does have that. This cut, though, doesn’t have many differences from the theatrical other than a few added scenes that are completely arbitrary. There’s a scene where we meet Sorvino’s friend (who also doesn’t do anything). In the original, she tells a story about someone on a date trying to slip a roofie in her drink, and Sorvino exclaims “What a pervert!”. In this cut, she’s on a normal date, and she says the guy likes to wear ladies’ underwear, and Sorvino says, “What a pervert!”

LG: That’s perverted?

MO: That’s a downgrade, Del Toro, I don’t know why you changed that. But one of the more puzzling changes is a scene where Sorvino opens a box that has a superbug, and when she sees what’s in it, she says that they have to find those kids, with a panicked look on her face. Then it cuts back to a scene from the theatrical cut of her opening the box with a scalpel. Why did we include that? I was exasperated, because I was pretty sure that while he couldn’t take much from a shoot he wasn’t happy with, but there’s so little difference that I don’t even know why he bothered.

LG: To be fair, while he was writing this film his father was kidnapped in Mexico. Eventually he was released, but it caused Guillermo to move his family, and apparently he's never returned to Mexico because of it. That might have affected the writing. The film also got damaged by notes. For instance, Del Toro originally wanted the monsters to resemble beetles rather than roaches. The studio insisted on roaches, and yet after all the animatronics had been built they got angry that they looked like roaches. There were apparently some subplots that the studio cut out of the film. I know that one of the things Del Toro did do for this cut was replace as much of the second unit photography as he could with stuff he shot himself.

MO: Ah, well, that makes sense, I guess, if he could at least say he shot more of this version. It's still a film full of intriguing ideas that don't work, though. Here’s a couple of other ideas that don’t work: these bugs that mimic humans, how good are they at it?

LG: They’re terrible! There’s a wonderful shot where we see the two-part mask that’s part of their bodies that wraps around their face and looks…kind of like a human face. It works as a shot, but there’s no way this could pass. Maybe at night from a hundred feet away…

Would this fool you? That's a rhetorical question, of course it wouldn't
MO: …which, to be fair, there are a couple of scenes like that.

LG: But there’s no way these bugs could wander around in broad daylight or on the subway and pass as people. It’s just not happening. This already undercuts a huge amount of the dramatic possibilities of that idea. What’s the point of the bugs being able to mimic humans if they can't pass?

MO: They’re constantly evolving, so why not push it a little further?

LG: And again: it’s very late in the film when we learn this.

MO: I guess one of the bugs (played by Doug Jones, one of Del Toro’s main guys) walks around with a trench coat and a hat for a disguise, but I wonder how intelligent this bug is that he can do that, because we don’t really learn what makes these things tick.

LG: The idea is that because Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam messed with these bugs, their life cycle has progressed exponentially and they can evolve quickly because they have so many generations. That’s a great idea, but we don’t know if they’re super-intelligent.

MO: Also, Sorvino has a line about how they, like many bugs, learn to mimic their predators: US. But we weren’t even aware they were there! We didn’t do anything to them. The line makes no sense. And the thing is that the film plays with a lot of things Del Toro usually does well. This is the Frankenstein thing of scientists meddling in things they shouldn’t meddle with.

LG: But it explores it so similarly to Jurassic Park that we kept quoting that Jeff Goldblum line, “life will find a way”. Constantly.

MO: But Jurassic Park isn’t the only big 90s film that Mimic rips off, is it?

LG: This film looks different from a number of Del Toro films, as it wasn’t shot by Guillermo Navarro, and it has a slightly different feel. The film really, really wants to be Se7en. The credits are basically the same, but with butterflies and overblown, bombastic Marco Beltrami music.

MO: The most bombastic music in the world. We had to pause the movie and go out at one point, and we started mimicking the music for every minor action we did. turns on left-turn signal BWAAAAM. That’s how silly it is!

LG: And that’s ignoring the goofy soprano music singing to make it sound ominous. It’s turned way up to 11.

MO: It gets a little better in the second half, but for the first half the score will not shut the fuck up.

LG: Some of the griminess of it is also Se7en, though some of it is just natural Del Toro. Some of it is the way the film was lit. And I guess that’s fine, Se7en is a great film, but I don’t understand how that mood translates to the giant bug movie.

MO: I guess you can say that something else that’s more in the Del Toro vein is the use of religious iconography. How well does he use it here, and to what purpose?

LG: No real purpose. I’m not the Catholic here, but he doesn’t use it well. There are some images that are striking, like the angel statues wrapped in plastic, but that worked substantially better in Cronos. There’s a stigmata wound that Sorvino inflicts on herself with a crucifix, which is…cool, I guess. Bonus points for stigmata wounds?

MO: And the superbug is called the Judas Breed, obviously named after the Apostle who betrayed Christ…which, betraying your own kind, I guess? It’s not overplayed, but it’s not great, either. There’s also a priest who gets killed in the beginning while a neon “Jesus Saves” sign. That’s clever, but there’s really not much to it.

LG: Having a priest character could have been interesting, considering Del Toro’s status as a lapsed Catholic, but nothing comes of that either. Now, this is a film he’s not very satisfied with, but he likes bits of it, which he’s borrowed for later films to greater effect. In Blade II and Hellboy we’ll see underground societies and sewers, which he uses well. The pregnancy thing is in Hellboy 2.

MO: One thing that’s similar to Cronos and a few others is how he starts the film with a brief history of how we got to where we’ll be for the rest of the film, which is the plague-prologue. I don’t think it’s very well handled here. It’s rushing way too much.

LG: It works very little, and it makes us wonder why we couldn’t see that movie. I’d love to see a plague by the superbugs, or something, but here it just establishes the stakes and the backstory, but it doesn’t do much otherwise. Now, there are a lot of stylistic tropes that he uses well: the use of glowsticks as multi-colored lighting. It doesn’t have the fairytale elements that a lot of his films have, which, to be fair, not all of his films have fairytale elements, but this feels lacking for not having it.

MO: Right. I guess we could also mention that the film does look fantastic, and it’s very atmospheric at points. There’s one really great scene where Sorvino and her husband are investigating in this crevice in a subway station, and they drop a flashlight down a crack, and she has to stick her hand down to grab it. We see the bug under there, and it’s going to lash out, and it’s creepy.

LG: My favorite shot in the whole film happens after she’s been kidnapped by a giant superbug, and she’s trapped in the sewer. She looks up and calls for help, and out of the darkness you see the sun pouring in from the sewer grate, and people are walking over it completely unaware. It’s a gorgeous shot that really encapsulates how trapped she is in this world just beneath our feet. But it belongs to a better film.

MO: There’s a lot of set-pieces that belong to a better film. Josh Brolin’s death (a piece of second unit shot by Robert Rodriguez) is a fantastic set-piece, but it’s for a character we didn’t know very well.

LG: What was his name?

MO: Smartass. I actually think it was Josh, which I remember only because that’s his real name.

LG: Again, though, his character only exists for padding.

MO: But this goes even for the characters who stick it out until the end. Charles S. Dutton is given a memorable final moment. We learn that he sings blues songs when he’s scared, and he does that after he realizes that he’s going to die and he sacrifices himself to save everyone else. It’s an interesting moment, but we didn’t get to know much about him, so it’s all for naught.

LG: Yeah, I like that Del Toro wanted to create a living world full of people, but there's an art to making small characters feel like real people he hasn't mastered. If he cut out maybe half of these characters and focused on the ones that are around at the end, it’d be a much stronger script.

MO: Now, we need to talk about the kid. Del Toro is famous for using strange children in his movies. He has a strong sympathy for outsiders, since he kind of always felt like one. And he uses that in a really interesting way with a kid named Chuy, who’s the grandson of Giancarlo Gianini’s shoe-shine man on the subway. He’s autistic, and he’s got a Rain Man ability where he knows everything there is to know about shoes, and he has these spoons that he clicks together to mimic the sounds of different shoes walking. He also has a strange obsession with shiny wire that goes nowhere, but the spoons thing is interesting. When he first hears the clicking noises the bug makes, he refers to it as “Mr. Funny Shoes”, and he uses the spoons to try to mimic it. Because of that, when they kidnap him, they keep him alive because they recognize the sound.

LG: Is that why they have that?

MO: That’s what I gathered, though it’s not explained well. The thing I can say about how Del Toro uses the disabled child device is that it’s imaginative. But it’s still incredibly irritating as a device.

LG: Watching Cronos and Mimic, he hasn’t quite figured out how to make kids characters yet. When we get further on, he improves exponentially. Here, it feels like a missed opportunity, knowing just how far he’s going to come, because the kid really is just a device.

MO: I do like the wonderful gooeyness of the film, like in the scene they have to spread the bugs’ organs over themselves to mimic their scent. That’s a neat moment.

LG: It’s kind of like the garlic-vampire thing.

MO: Or a “look like your predator” thing, in a way that’s way better than the way the film does it with the bugs. It’s a clever bit in a film that doesn’t have a lot going on. Can we talk about the cop-out ending?

LG: (loud groan) Earlier in the film, when the bug dealer kids visit Sorvino, she demonstrates how a bug colony works with a laser pointer and a giant model, and she shows just how the bug-queen relationship works. It’s a wonderful scene, and you expect that it’ll set-up the climax, but it doesn’t. It’s not a set-up for the bug colony or anything. The objective is the same, but the colony isn’t there. I don’t know if Del Toro didn’t have the budget or wasn’t allowed to shoot it, but whatever the situation was, what happens instead doesn’t work.

MO: And that’s only the first cop-out. The script had a bleaker ending that would have been at least more interesting, even though the rest of the script is still problematic (though, to be fair, I don’t know if it’s Del Toro’s original draft or a compromised one that was about to be compromised further).

LG: They went through many drafts. Apparently John Sayles did a draft that Del Toro loved but the studio hated, and Soderbergh wrote a very interesting version that just didn't work tonally with what Del Toro wanted the film to be.

MO: The ending I read was that after the bug colony is blown up, the kid and Sorvino are the only survivors. They come to the surface and most of the people around them are the bugs, but no one notices.

LG: So they actually use the mimic idea? That’s a fantastic ending!

MO: It’s undercut by how bad the bug disguises are, but whaddya gonna do? It’s a clever enough idea. Instead, we just see them blow up the bug nest and that’s that. It’s a conventional ending, a bit of a cop-out, but it’s not the worst one. We lamented that Jeremy Northam sacrifices his life in order to save Sorvino and the kid (not to mention his unborn child in the Director’s Cut) and kill the only male bug, which is what’s letting the bugs reproduce.

LG: Did we mention that this film rips off Jurassic Park?

MO: And he manages to kill all of the bugs except the male bug. Now you could say that this is a horror movie convention with the final scare, but it mostly just seems like he’s incompetent.

LG: You had one job, Jeremy Northam! ONE JOB!

MO: It’s basically just a final “eek!” moment so that Sorvino can kill the bug in a, quite frankly, not very interesting way.

LG: For a film that takes so much from James Cameron’s Aliens, maybe they should have taken the ending from Aliens, which would have worked well here.

MO: But the one thing I thought that I could say for this cop-out ending is that at least Del Toro’s central theme of self-sacrifice was present. We don’t enough about Northam for it to matter, but he sacrifices himself to keep his pregnant wife alive, so it’s theoretically a nice moment…though I don’t know why he doesn’t tell her she’s pregnant earlier, that might have kept her from doing some of these dangerous things.

LG: You’d think that might be important. He whispers it into her ear as the film ends, and that’s how she knows.

MO: Oh yeah, by the way, he really lives, so his sacrifice means nothing.

LG: It’s supposed to be a triumphant moment, but it feels like every bad Hollywood ending ever.

MO: But Del Toro usually does this so well! This is clearly a studio-imposed thing rather than Del Toro losing his nerve.

LG: I understand that Del Toro is only slightly happier with this version. He’ll at least put his name on it rather than disown it. It’s a well-made film, but even under the best circumstances, there’s not a great film in here. At best, it’d be a good B-movie.

MO: Doesn’t explore its ideas, the characters are thin, and while it’s atmospheric and well-directed, there’s plenty of moments where I was bored.

LG: I agree. This is the only time in this marathon where I’m going to give a film a negative rating.

Loren's Grade: C.
Max's Grade: C+.

That's it for our review of the director's cut of Mimic. If you agree or disagree with our takes feel free to leave a comment below. The theatrical cut of Mimic is available for streaming on Netflix and Vudu. The directors cut is available on Blu-Ray and is available to rent via iTunes. You can find more of Max's reviews at The Film Temple, and you can follow Screen Vista's here on Facebook.

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended up being something of a disappointment. Financially it did fine, but failed to fill Paramount’s coffers with Star Wars levels of cash and while ambitious at times, the film was messy, slow, and tried too hard to emulate 2001 while striving too little to play to the shows biggest strengths. Still, Paramount decided to go forward with a sequel, albeit with a much smaller budget and massive amounts of retooling.

That retooling included the demotion of series creator Gene Rodenberry from producer to the nebulous and ceremonial post of “creative consultant.” In his place Paramount installed Harve Bennet to produce and co-write what turned out to be one of the best franchise films ever made: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. We'll get to the film in a minute but first, let's talk about the Original Series episode that inspired it: “Space Seed.” (Spoiler alert for both "Space Seed" and Wrath of Khan follow)
As an episode of Trek, "Seed" is quite good. Not quite in the top tier of Trek, but fairly close. In addition to filling in some much needed back story of the Trek universe, it also supplies one of the franchises standout villains: Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Mantalbán).

The episode opens with The Enterprise stumbling across a 20th century Earth ship, The Botany Bay, drifting through space. Against all odds, a scan reveals faint life signs, prompting Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to send over a landing party which discovers that most of the ships original passengers still alive in suspended animation. Scotty(James Doohan) blunders with the old technology and almost destroys Khan's suspension tube. Kirk acts quickly and has Khan taken back to the Enterprise.

Kirk and Spock are suspicious, but nobody knows who he is yet, which allows the revived man a certain amount of subterfuge in order to familiarize himself with the much more advanced Enterprise. Look, sometimes people do things in TV shows purely for plot convenience. It's understandable when you've got to get through the story really quickly, but there are points where “Space Seed” asks Kirk to be an irresponsible moron. I'll leave it to a bigger Trekkie than I to inform me of proper protocol, but it seems a bit ridiculous to let mysterious strangers read up on the blueprints and security capabilities of an advanced military vessel deep in unexplored territory. On a related note, Dr. McCoy (Deforest Kelley) likes to leave dangerous surgical equipment sitting around and is quite the badass with a scalpel pressed to his neck. 

Soon it's revealed that Khan is no ordinary man, but a genetically engineered superman who built a dictatorship during WWIII. Khan, and the existence of a Third World War is a big deal for the Trek universe. One of the things that sets Trek apart from other visions of the future is its optimism. To Gene Rodenbery and his writers, the future is a statement that we would, eventually, solve poverty, sickness, intolerance and war, but as we learn in “Space Seed,” the emphasis is decidedly on the “eventually” part. More than ever, the show is underling just how flawed people can be, especially when hubris and ambition are involved. 

The crew's reaction is rather interesting. When Khan's identity is discovered, Kirk is amused and Scotty owns up to a “sneaking admiration” of the man. When Spock objects to this nostogification of the past, Kirk is quick to compare him to Napoleon and point out that Khan's dictatorship wasn't responsible for any “major” massacres. But it sits a bit uneasy with Spock and with us. The whole idea of Khan being the product of eugenics is meant to invoke 20th century dictators. Everything about his origins and fascist mindset should fly in the face of the inclusionist Enterprise crew. Part of the problem is that the Enterprise is 200 years removed from Khan and the events of WWIII. By namechecking Napoleon but invoking Hitler and the Cold War (WWIII featured full blown nuclear combat), the episode touches on History's troubling tendency to, given enough time, glorify men who seek power for its own sake. 

Still, Kirk's admiration is understandable on some level. Despite all his intensity, Khan is extremely magnetic, a fact not lost on Lt. McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), a 20th century expert/fetishist. She more than anyone else looks at all the ugliness of the past and glamorizes the ambition of conquerors. She's immediately taken with Khan and the two begin a rather abusive romance. Eventually he manipulates her into helping him revive his followers and take over the Enterprise. Leading to a big fight between Khan, Kirk and Shatner's stunt double.

Eventually the good guys win, but there's a bizarre hitch. Kirk decides to give Khan, his followers and McGivers some supplies and then maroon them on Ceti Alpha V, a nearby planet. How anyone allows this is beyond me. Surely taking over a Federation starship is a serious crime, and I know it's been 200 years, but there can't be a statute of limitations on attempted global domination? In a way it's typical of Kirk's seat of the pants style of command, but it's also a mindbogglingly stupid plot contrivance. Still, I shouldn't be too hard on this ending, if Kirk had been more responsible then we wouldn't have gotten Wrath of Khan

Even more than its contemporary, The Empire Stirkes Back, Wrath of Khan is about its ending. (Just a reminder, this is a spoiler review) It wasn't a creative choice to kill off Spock but a way to lure Leonard Nimoy back to a role he was getting tired of. But to the credit of director/co-writter Nicolas Meyer (Time After Time), you'd never know it to look at it.  He embraces the imposition and builds the film around it.

In this context, Khan is no longer a nightmare from the past but of the future. He is death incarnate. Meyer's film works as a rebuke of just how light and fluffy death is treated in shows like Star Trek. He and his writers seem determined emphasize the mortality of all these characters, especially Kirk's.

The film opens on a particularly unhappy birthday for James T. Kirk. Not only is the admiral no longer commanding the Enterprise, but he's found himself assigned to training his replacement crew. The pleasures of which seem limited to sassily chewing out Lt. Savak (Kristy Alley) a Vulcan cadet in line for his old job. As Captain, Kirk used to explore strange new worlds and cheat death on a weekly basis, now he's feeling his age. As Admiral, he's retreated from the world that suited him best, not wanting to push his luck and now his life savors of anti-climax.

In contrast is Khan. While Kirk was getting softer, Khan was getting sharper and deadlier, growing mad with grief over the death of his wife (presumably McGivers). Bent on revenge he manages to escape Ceti Alpha V by stealing the U.S.S. Reliant, a federation ship doing survey work for the Genesis Project.

Genesis is a device that rapidly terraforms lifeless planets. Think of it as the film's ace in the hole, planting the idea that that from death can come hope and new life. The hitch being that Genesis is ultimately too dangerous because the same process that allows it to create life would also destroy any living thing it came in contact with. All this leads to Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy debating the ethics of creating such a device, particularly considering that Starfleet acts just as much as a military organization as it does a scientific one. In the wrong hands, Genesis is a 23rd century atom bomb. It's not ultimately important to the film, but it's a point not lost on the team developing it, particularly Kirk's old flame Dr. Carol Marcus and the their son David (Bibi Besch and Merrit Butrick).

This is the kind of stuff Trek excels at. Tricky intellectual ideas gussied with a shiny sci-fi action coating. Not that the coating is neglected here, in fact the set pieces are uniformly fantastic. After a slow burning first half Khan uses Genesis and Carol to lure Kirk into an trap. The Reliant mounts a sneak attack on the Enterprise, crippling her. So right away in our first action scene we have the heroes at a major disadvantage. By embracing the mortality angle, the film has upped the stakes and, ideally, that's what action movies are really about. The action genre isn't really about explosions, but the possibility that people we care about might get hurt and die in those explosions. Without those stakes you've got nothing. Obviously it's hard for audiences to get to worried watching a weekly series or the Nth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean because we know that there's a status quo to be maintained. But with a major death being imposed on the film already, the stakes immediately jump much higher. The conventional wisdom is that these types of movies are only as good as their villains. But I'll add that a good villain is nothing without a vulnerable hero.

It's interesting that Kirk and Khan never meet face to face. Perhaps when Meyer saw "Space Seed," he realized how boring the climactic fistfight was and decided to skip it.  Instead they just interact via the bridge viewscreen. These scenes have a palpable tension to them not just because the film has invested in the characters but because they are legitimately about one intelligent tactician trying to outsmart another. In that initial encounter, there's a wonderful sequence where Kirk and Spock try and find a way to use Khan's unfamiliarity of 23rd century tech, while he counts down the seconds until he kills everyone. The film invites us into the heads of its protagonists more than we usually get in these types of movies.

The ending is particularly spectacular. In a final attempt to even the odds Kirk lures Khan into a nebula that disables the sensors of both ships. Eventually leading to Khan detonating the Genesis device as a last Melvilleian gambit to kill his enemy. The Enterprise escapes, but only because Spock sacrifices himself. The death of Spock is a fantastic emotional climax, but if there is an issue it's that after his funeral, the film starts to hedge its bets. Indeed as filming went on Leonard Nimoy had a reversal and now wanted to continue doing Star Trek. We don't see Spock come back to life right away (that would be silly), but the last few shots might reveal too much where the next film is heading.  It's not too bad, the ending comes back to the idea of the Genesis device creating life out of death and it's nice that the film ends on a hopeful note, it's just irritating to see the film building in escape clauses.

"Space Seed": B+
Wrath of Khan: A-

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)  

Note: I saw the Director's Cut of the film. The only worthwhile addition is a small set up where a plucky, young engineer is revealed to be Scotty's nephew. Apart from that one snippet the content in the DC is unnecessary at best, interrupting the natural films rhythms. The superior Theatrical Cut, as well as "Space Seed" are both streaming on Netflix Instant. If you enjoyed this review, you can subscribe to Screen Vistas via Facebook 

Friday, June 7, 2013


Welcome to part two of our roundtable discussion about the films of Guillermo Del Toro. I'm Loren Greenblatt and I'm joined as always by Max O'Connell of The Film Temple. Today we are discussing Del Toro's first feature length film, 1993's Cronos. Like many of his original screenplays, Cronos had a very long gestation period. He'd been planing the film for about nine years before he finally got it made. In between which he trained himself with shorts and by running a small special effects company. We've put up spoiler tags for the worst of it, but it's generally a spoiler discussion, especially as the it goes on so beware.
Loren Greenblatt:  It’s a vampire movie…question mark?
Max O’Connell:
It’s a re-imagination of the vampire mythos with a little bit of both Faust and Frankenstein. There’s a combination of a deal with the devil and a self-made monster in the center.

LG: Del Toro doesn’t like to piggyback on other people’s mythologies, he likes to reinvent, and this really does stand apart from other vampire movies of the 80s and 90s, like The Lost Boys or Near Dark or Interview with the Vampire. Where all of that stuff is romanticized or sexualized, this film is quite the opposite. It’s vampirism as addiction.

MO: Addiction, and the way we can change our bodies with modern technology. Federico Luppi plays an old man named Jesus Gris, or “grey Jesus”, who runs an antique shop, and he finds within a statue an ancient device built by an alchemist called the Cronos device. It’s a little gold device with an insect inside it, and if you put it up to your body, it bites you and hurts like a son of a bitch, but it essentially sucks out your old age. But there’s a bit of a price to this.

LG: To maintain this youth, you must consume blood. One of the themes that runs through the film is the futility of immortality. Obviously, with such a unique device, there are people after it. There’s an old man, Dieter (Claudio Brook), who lives in this factory in Mexico, but he’s hermetically sealed off from the world. The factory, by the way, seems to only make sparks rather than products.

MO: Del Toro has said that it’s a factory so old that no one remembers what it makes anymore, which I just love. It’s very indicative of what this old man is: he has enormous wealth and power, but he doesn’t actually do anything anymore. He’s sealed himself off to protect himself. He’s this decrepit thing that’s just barely hanging on and looking for anything that’ll keep him around longer. It’s a pretty stark contrast to Luppi’s character. Where there’s something sleek and antiseptic about the villain’s quarters, Luppi’s an antiques dealer. It’s related to death, but there’s something human and warm about it.

LG: We should mention that he has a rather sweet relationship with his granddaughter Aurora.

MO: Yeah, she’s fine. It’s not one of the great child performances in Del Toro’s films (see: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), but she serves her purpose. 

LG: Yeah, they have a nice back-and-forth, a very understated verbal relationship, hand cues, whatnot. The statue Jesus finds the Cronos device in is itself is very creepy: it’s this tall, bronze angel with a missing eye. It's hollow like a reliquary and as Jesus touches the hole, a cockroach comes out. Insects are a big trope in Del Toro’s films. I’ve listened to interviews where he says that as a kid he imagined that archangels would look like insects. In this film, someone has a line: “Insects are God’s favorite creatures. Christ walks on water, like the mosquito”.

MO: It’s playing with the lapsed Catholic in Del Toro. He takes a lot from Luis Bunuel, but a lot of it is from his own personal relationship with religion. Jesus Gris is a bit of an elderly Christ-figure of sorts. I’m not going to push the comparison too far, because it’s clearer in Del Toro’s later films, but it builds to an ending that we’ll get to later having to do with self-sacrifice.

LG: But there’s some other interesting names here.

MO: Right. There’s Mercedes, his wife, who’s ostensibly the same age as Jesus but seems much, much younger. She’s very lively and teaches dance classes where Jesus looks frail. “Mercedes” means “Our Lady of Mercy”. There’s something really wonderful there. “Aurora” means “at the beginning”, which speaks to her innocence and youth, which contrasts well with our grey Jesus. The evil factory owner is named Dieter, which we feel is trying to evoke something authoritarian and inhumane (sorry, guys named Dieter). Ron Perlman, one of Del Toro’s favorite actors, is Angel de la Guardia, which means “Guardian Angel”, which is apt because he helps his uncle Dieter, but he’s also a sort of angel of death. He clearly hates his uncle, and wishes he’d just die already.

LG: He’s sort of the man’s pawn as he tries to find the Cronos device, but what’s interesting that he’s trying to transform his own body. He carries around samples of noses because he’s saving up for a rhinoplasty. But he's can't pick, keeps asking people which they think is best. It's definitely a comic relief thing, but it also ties into classic horror and Cronenbergian influences about how we can change our bodies.

MO: It’s kind of a silly parallel to everyone else as a way to underline how these transformations make us less human and less real.

LG: And that’s a huge part of the film. Even though we later learn that there is a biological component to the Vampirism, it’s painted less as something created with malice by other creatures and more of something born out of our desire to fight and control nature through technology. At one point in the film, Del Toro’s camera goes inside the Cronos Device and we learn that it’s (spoiler alert) a container for this little insect that does most of the actual work. It's never explicitly explained, but it seems that the device works as a sort of amplifier or filter for its unique powers. It’s a mechanical prison for this poor creature but the effect of the device is artificial, like plastic surgery or the operations keeping the factory owner alive.
(end spoilers)  

MO: What’s great about Del Toro is that he has that magical realist influence from people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He takes far-fetched and supernatural concepts and makes them feel real by grounding them in the organic and the mechanical. I love the shots inside the device we see all these little cogs in it, which reinforces the mechanical/clockwork man thing. There’s a lot of clocks in the film to remind us of how little time they have left. There’s this really funny background gag of a New Year’s Eve costume party where there’s a guy dressed in this terrible clock costume. It’s very funny, but it’s a great reminder how time is running out. There’s also a fight near the end between Luppi and Perlman next to a gigantic clock.

LG: One of the interesting things about how Del Toro develops the device, is how mysterious it remains. It’s very much like a Cronenberg film, where there isn’t really an expert on this little device. There are people who have ideas about it, but it feels more like conjecture than hard fact, they have to piece it together with us. It’s a much smarter way of doing it than just cutting to a stuffy professor who’s going to explain it away for us.

MO: Now, a number of Del Toro’s influences shine through pretty clearly here. One of the more obvious ones is Cronenberg. There’s a lot of stuff from The Fly here, what with Dieter keeping his old organs in jars.

LG: It was nice of Brundlefly to loan those out.

MO: And then there’s the way both Dieter and Jesus are falling apart. I also saw a connection to Cronenberg’s first theatrically released film, Shivers, in which there’s a parasite that feeds off of people and changes their behavior, though this is desexualized rather than oversexualized. With Shivers, it’s different because it loosens inhibitions and makes them….let’s say sexually free. There’s some shocking stuff.

LG: Cronenberg, you scamp!

MO: (laughs) That is the last word I would use to describe Cronenberg. He is a cold, cold director. But back to the point, there are also throwbacks to classic horror directors like James Whale or Terence Fischer. There are a lot of great gothic influences, there’s a morbid look that Del Toro borrowed from them, and that compliments the feel of film. Death surrounds everything, time is ticking away, the film opens with a ticking clock and the death knell of a bell…and there’s something Hitchcockian there, in the way he plays with sound. I’m thinking in particular of the metronome scene in Rope.

LG: The effects in this thing are amazing, considering how low-budget it is. You can tell they’re effects, but they work. As Jesus starts using the device more and more, he starts losing some of his humanity, and his skin starts to peel off. It’s very gooey, in a Cronenberg or Fulci way.

MO: He’s drained of color. His skin starts to look like marble.

LG: Much like the marble that he licks some blood off of at one point in the movie. It’s a low-point of his addiction as he learns that he needs blood in order to look human and survive, because the device is sucking out old blood. I love that the vampires will look like marble when they’re fully formed. Del Toro will come back to that in Blade II, but right now it’s a controlled color palette between the whiteness of the skin and the marble and the red of the blood, and Del Toro smartly uses red ONLY for the blood and stuff that has to do with life, like a lot of stuff surrounding Aurora. It makes it that much more powerful, and it’s very controlled, especially in that moment.

MO: Right. It’s a pathetic moment. He’s licking blood from a man’s nosebleed. It’s a really great moment of sound design, because they’re at a party, and all of the sudden the sound fades as he focuses on the man with a nosebleed. And he’s still going to get worse as he feeds off of a corpse.

LG: Now, there’s a lot of other stuff going on with the futility of immortality.  At one point, (spoilers) Jesus seemingly dies, and we meet the most marvelous coroner in the world. He’s this very meat-and-potatoes about his job. Death is really deglamorized here. He sews up Jesus’ mouth with needle and thread, puts putty over the wounds as terrible make-up…there’s a priest who seems to be hitting on the guy, because he’s reassuring him about how wonderful it is.

MO: Yeah, it ties into his influences of Gilliam and Renoir (Demme would do this, too), where we get little bits of a supporting character who deserves their own film. It’s very lively, eccentric, and warm. It’s a pretty wonderful morbid joke about what we do to prepare people for death. We’re given some hint that Luppi is still alive, and we’re watching this mortician sew his lips shut and staple his wounds closed. There’s this great line about how he’s “sending him to death naked and with lipstick…people will think he went to a whorehouse” (end spoilers). Now, I have a question: he uses a Christmas setting and a New Year’s setting, and I couldn’t quite grasp why.

LG: Birth of Jesus? A new start? Rebirth? There is that family subplot.

MO: Maybe he was getting at something more specific and he didn’t quite get there?

LG: I don’t know. I don’t think we’re meant to dwell on it. Lord knows, Del Toro doesn’t.

MO: Oh, sure, but it’s a detail where Del Toro often would pick a setting very, very purposefully, and it’s less emphasized here. That’s not necessarily a flaw.

LG: Now, Luppi is wonderful, but Perlman is particularly fun. Now, the story goes is that Perlman read the script, was hired, went to Mexico, got the call sheet, and only then realized that it was a Spanish language production, and of course he doesn't speak Spanish. He tried to learn his lines phonetically, but it was apparently dreadful, so he just did his part in English…and occasionally, the worst Spanish ever. Borderline Peggy Hill.

MO: Yeah, I don’t have an ear for Spanish like Loren does (he’s part Puerto Rican, I am not, and I took French in high school), but you looked like you cringed at a few points.

LG: And that’s part of the joke. Del Toro’s reacting to some of the broad, cartoonish Mexicans he’s seen in American films. Here’s a broad, cartoonish American who clearly hates that he has to speak Spanish sometimes. He hates his whole situation. 

If this were my room, I'd be pissy too. Note the body building pinup, more futile body modification stuff.

MO: Yeah, he’s a threatening boob, but he’s still kind of a boob. Something else I love about Perlman’s performance is that when we first meet him around the little girl, there’s something charming about him even though we know he’s sinister. He’s playing around with Aurora, he offers her gum, he asks her opinion about his nose. Del Toro makes the sinister make slightly charming at first, which he’ll do even better later in Pan’s Labyrinth.

LG: It’s a very fairytale detail, which is another big thing with him. His films tend to resemble classic Grimm’s fairytales before they were sanitized. Sweet-seeming evil, life is not fair, all that good stuff.

MO: Something else that’s fairytale-esque: the heart is the key rather than the brain. That’s part of the vampire mythos, that you have to kill the heart to kill the monster, but it’s done it a fairytale way. When Luppi first uses the device, it’s near his hand, and it only revitalizes him a bit. Later on, he uses it near his heart, which is far more powerful.

LG: I also noticed that the wound on the hand from the device, along with the wound on his foot later when he steps on glass, gives him some very subtle Catholic imagery with the stigmata. I don’t think we’re supposed to see Luppi as a literal Christ-figure, but he’s going for the evocation, and these parallels make it relatable in some sense. There’s also that veil over Luppi’s head when he comes home after the night in the morgue to his granddaughter, looking like a figure from a religious movie. Also: gotta love that the granddaughter is not fazed by any of this.

MO: There’s a sense of childlike curiosity to the whole thing.

LG: She’s not quite old enough to process that this isn’t normal at all. Also love little details, like that the word “vampire” is never spoken. We piece it together because A. it’s the closest monster that fits, and B. Del Toro evokes that imagery very well. There’s a moment where Luppi is burned by sunlight from a hole in the ceiling, and the granddaughter empties out her toy-box to fashion a coffin for him. It’s a wonderful little twist on that imagery.

MO: You can also argue that to some degree, even though he never uses the Cronos device, that Perlman is a vampire of sorts, living off his uncle. Near the end, as he and Luppi fight, they’re both bleeding from the mouth in a way I found reminiscent of vampires with blood dripping from their fangs.

LG: They look fantastic. Blood everywhere, shit-eating grins. That was a fun day at set.

MO: I’ll bet. Other little details that I really like: there’s a delicacy to some of the imagery, like how the Cronos device is discovered wrapped in a handkerchief. Or the little girl when she hides the device from Luppi and puts it in her teddy bear.

LG: That’s a great scene. The little girl knows something’s up because Luppi is using the device after it hurt him earlier. It’s bloody, it’s weird- she’s scared. She’s willing to rip open her own teddy bear to hide it. It takes a lot for a kid to damage a toy. A lot of kids think of their teddy bears as real.

MO: Lord knows I did, and I know my sisters did. Something else that’s great is how it hints at how he’s made a deal with the devil. He tells Aurora a story about how, when he was raising her father, the boy hid his cigarettes from him because he was afraid they would kill him, but the boy knew that it wouldn’t stop him. It shows some clarity in him: Luppi knows there’s something wrong with what he’s using, but the effect over him is powerful. He’ll later realize, though, just how much blood he needs.

LG: There’s an earlier image in the prologue about the alchemist where the camera goes up this creepy gothic staircase and finds a dead man hanging upside down over a pool of his own blood. This is how much blood is going to be needed to sustain.

MO: There’s a great line from Dieter, “You can’t gain eternity with a cow or a pig”. It has to be a human. There’s a great amount of sacrificing your own humanity for immortality, because morality makes us human.

LG: It is this thing where Jesus is faced with progressively more unthinkable choices that weigh on him very so heavily that by the end he's looking for a way out of it, not just to preserve what's left of his own soul but to protect the rest of the world from the evil that's been inflicted on him.

MO: And to me, the defining them in Del Toro’s work is self-sacrifice. Del Toro’s a lapsed Catholic, but he recognizes the power in those images and themes, and here, Luppi is willing to sacrifice his own immortality and life in order to protect his granddaughter, and in doing so he recaptures his humanity as he dies near his granddaughter and wife. It’s not as moving as it’s going to be in his later films, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s still very moving. It damns him to death, but it saves his soul.

LG: This is a fantastic first film. I’d score it higher, but he’s going to get even better. I’d give it a A-.

MO: I’m going A-. It’s a powerful first film, and it’s so controlled that it’s hard for me not to think of it as a major film of his.

Loren's Grade: A- 

Max's Grade: A-

That's it for our review of Cronos. It's available to stream on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection. If you agree or disagree with our takes feel free to leave a comment below. You can find more of Max's reviews at The Film Temple, and you can follow Screen Vista's here on Facebook.

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