Volume 4, Number 09
This Week's Reviews: The Devil's Backbone, We Were Soldiers, Crossroads.
This Week's Omissions: Happenstance.
|The Devil's Backbone
BY: DAVID PERRY
Ghost stories come and go from the theatres with little fanfare or impact. The last one that people really noted was The Sixth Sense in 1999, despite the fact that movies like 13 Ghosts, The Others, and What Lies Beneath have bowed since then. The latest genre effort, The Devil's Backbone, happens to come from abroad and, ultimately, proves to be one of the most rewarding ghost films since Peter, Ray, Winston, and Egon went to work trying to rid New York City of poltergeists.
The key to The Devil's Backbone's success is that it is perhaps the most knowledgeable horror film made in years -- this is not simply a movie meant to give people some shocks, but a chance for metaphors to hide themselves behind phantoms. There is a ghost in the film, but that is not the main interest of director Guillermo Del Toro; for him, The Devil's Backbone needn't worry with the scares of a ghost when it already has a rather interesting and frightening story dealing with the Spanish Civil War.
It's odd going over this film just weeks after slightly indicting Charlotte Grey for its lackluster support of its own history -- while not a bad film, its dependence on realism was comparable to Pearl Harbor. The Devil's Backbone deals with a far more unbelievable scenario but strives to keep its surrounding setting as realistic as possible. While Del Toro was born after the Spanish Civil War (not to mention born in Mexico), his love for his subject's time and place is far stronger than anything brought to the screen by people that lived through their film's events. The Spanish Civil War was, for the most part, the beginning proxy conflict that lead to World War II and yet has been left out of most history classes here in America other than a passing remark (my guess is a majority of Americans would have no earthly idea who Francisco Franco was).
Del Toro sets his story in the non-religious Santa Lucia School, an orphanage that has tried to raise religious icons to keep the fascist forces from attacking. The owner of the school, Carmen (Paredes), has turned the place into a fortress for leftist supporters -- herself, most of the faculty, and nearly all of the local patrons are republicans, and the children were orphaned when their republican parents setout to fight for Spain.
When the film opens, the fascists are bombing the area and drop a payload onto the school. But the bomb does not go off and now sits in the middle of the grounds as a reminder of how close the war is to this place. While Carmen and the head professor Casares (Luppi) are trying their best to keep their politics and the war outside from touching the children, their head caretaker Jacinto (Noriega), a former student himself, is distraught over the fact that he is working for a bunch of leftist socialists.
As Del Toro pounds on the symbols for the republicans and the fascists (old guard vs. youth; a crippled former, a servile latter), he also brings in the ghost. The latest addition to the school, young Carlos (Tielve), finds that he is constantly haunted by the child whose bed he has taken. As this kid, referred to by the other kids as the lost Santi (Valverde), roams the place with blood streaming from his forehead into the air, Carlos fights to not only discover why Santi is haunting the place, but also to fit in with the other kids.
Much of the horror in the film is derived from the same standards infused into the style of Alejandro Amenábar. His last film, The Others, was an atmospheric film that attempted to capture WWII milieu in the form of frightened children and their worried protector. The Devil's Backbone is similar in that respect, but ultimately delivers more than Amenábar does. While this is a film that keeps the audience interested in the horror aspects of its story, the main interests always remain on the triangle formed between powerful Carmen, feeble Casares, and virile Jacinto.
Much of the terrific support to the story comes from the performances from these three actors. All semi-veterans of the Spanish-language cinema, the three adult leads make the movie into one of the most insightful historical chronicles within a genre film. Eduardo Noriega, best known as César from Amenábar's Open Your Eyes, gives the film the seething rage from the youths that made the fascist regime so powerful in Spain. Once you see him overpower nearly everyone around in tangent to the two powerful elders, it becomes easy to recognize what made Franco successful in the war.
Marisa Paredes, best known as Huma Rojo in Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother (Almodóvar, by the way, co-produced this film with brother Agustín), retains a strong structure even though her legs, symbolizing the country's republican foundation, have been taken out from under her and replaced with an artificial leg. Her resilience is constantly seen in her face, which carries much of the emotional basis for the film's few sentiments.
However, the best performance comes from Federico Lupi, the magnificent actor from John Sayles' forgotten Men with Guns as well as Del Toro's Cronos, who gets to balance the pathos and the happiness, the disappointment and the resilience. It is so painful to think that actors like Lupi, who has been in films for nearly forty years, never really make a mark in America. Occasionally, a Benigni, Adjani, or Deneuve cross over, but chances of Hollywood ever opening to an old Spanish actor like Lupi is rather unlikely, despite the acting chops he would bring with him.
But Hollywood is willing to court Guillermo Del Toro, who
was at work on this film when he signed up to direct the upcoming sequel to Blade.
While this is not the most encouraging choice -- his only other English language work, the
underrated Mimic, was a film more open to Del Toro's stylish flourishes -- it
does bring some notoriety to Del Toro, a fact that might actually make American audiences
go back and admire his Spanish-language masterpieces Cronos and The Devil's
Backbone. Meanwhile, they can finally be exposed to the acting of Federico Lupi. And,
hey, they might just learn a little bit about the Spanish Civil War too. Who thought that Blade
II might be the aid to an end of some American cultural and historical ignorance?
|We Were Soldiers
BY: DAVID PERRY
My deepest gratitude goes out to Mel Gibson for finally coming to understand that there are battles in world history that do not involve the villainy of England. In 1981, it was Australia vs. England in Gallipoli; in 1995, it was Scotland vs. England in Braveheart; and in 2000, it was America vs. England in The Patriot. Something tells me that the actor has some hatred for the former imperialist power.
That said, I must congratulate the actor on something else: for a period of time when jingoism feels out of place in cinemas, his latest movie We Were Soldiers sufficiently grasps the needed admiration for the military with the right balance of disdain for what it often manifests. We Were Soldiers could have been made anytime, with flags raised high and blood-soaked soldiers saluting their country, but now, with a release that hits on the heels of America's most nationalistic period since World War II, the movie gains a certain amount of freshness. This is not a film that simply idealizes everything that is American, nor does it condemn Vietnam -- the two sides of the story on almost every film intent on the political ramifications of that war -- but instead We Were Soldiers is about the human spirit and what can bring it into a war and, ultimately, into an oblivion of self-doubt and fear for the future.
Yes, there are moments when the patriotic chord is going at full blast, but thankfully director/writer Randall Wallace is more than willing to continue balancing out his film. The movie begins with a dedication to all the men who died in the Vietnam War -- but this is not a call to remember simply the Americans, but it also dedicates itself to the deceased members of the North Vietnamese Army. This does not end with the credits, as Wallace continues keeping a balance -- albeit a skewed one, this is a movie meant mainly for American audiences -- by showing the mental męlée played between the leaders of the two armies and the fact that the dead Vietnamese soldiers were just as unfortunate losses as the Americans, just that they are on the side that normally gets the shaft in Hollywood cinema.
We Were Soldiers is nothing compared to films like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, and Platoon, predominately because the milieu found in those films would not work on today's audiences who want entertainment instead of the downbeat politicking found in the Michael Camino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Oliver Stone films. Randall Wallace has worked on making completely accessible cinema for a few years as the writer on projects like Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, but this time he has come to terms with some restraint in placing the main protagonists on a pedestal built by drawn-out monologues and self-righteous interplay.
Set around the first battle of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, We Were Soldiers follows Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Gibson) as he leads his men, the first battalion of the seventh cavalry from Georgia, into the Ia Drang Valley in November of 1963. The American military had incorrectly estimated the ability of the Vietcong to fight the machinery war waged by America -- 400 soldiers were led into the valley to battle some 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers with a home field advantage. Needless to say, America suffered immense casualties in a military victory that veered on Pyrrhic.
Wallace makes a decision lost on the writers of last year's Black Hawk Down by adding enough exposition to allow the audience to care about these characters. While the dialogue he writes for them is absolutely horrid at times, he does sufficiently give some insight into the characters that makes them more recognizable than soldiers walking into their deaths. The first act of the film is filled with this horrid dialogue (especially found in the family conversations between Moore and his oh-so-perfect band of kids) and veers on unbearable in certain moments, but at least it makes the film worth following when the character development has ceased and the warring has begun. While certain characters never really reach too much audience investment (especially the abyssmal Klein), others like photographer Joe Galloway (Pepper), Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (Elliott), and Major Bruce Crandall (Kinnear) are more interesting to the audience thanks to Wallace's halfhearted screenwriting.
The final feeling after the movie ends is that it was a
shame. Vietnam has never made for a great nationalist film because there was so much
cultural turmoil and disdain for even being in the fight. We Were Soldiers
succeeds in blending jingoism with international realism, though never completely
succeeding in either. The movie opens with the Northern Vietnamese massacring the French
Army in 1954, a reminder that war was part of the territory -- for decades, the Vietnamese
had fought the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, and, despite being victorious, have
been vilified by cinema since. We Were Soldiers is not like Platoon in
that it thinks the entire battle was a shame, but that war is merely the sinews of a human
battle unneeded but inevitable. Give me the stoic naturalism of The Thin Red Line
anyday, but for a by-the-book Hollywood war picture, We Were Soldiers goes
further than the average genre picture.
BY: DAVID PERRY
After finishing a drive from Georgia to California near the end of Crossroads, Lucy (Spears) says her journey "seems to have taken a million years." But the unintentionally funny film lacks the fine tuning to understand that this line is quite similar to what is going through the mind of the audience watching. For a film with an ad campaign that makes the film look like a Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen flick, Crossroads is constantly hindered by its downbeat story and lackluster exposition.
Characters come and go in this film with little interest. Only three young girls, the dark and handsome man, and the doting father (Aykroyd) get any real meat in their dialogue and, in retrospect, the only reason it seems like they have suitable material is that comparing their stuff to the rest of the cast is like comparing a Hot Pocket with a bag of airline peanuts.
The film opens with Georgia eighth graders and self-proclaimed friends forever Lucy, Mimi, and Zoë burying a box of trinkets pertaining to their future aspirations. Flash-forward four years and we find they are friends no more: Lucy is the smart overachiever, Mimi (Manning) is the pregnant trailer trash, and Kit (Saldana) is the popular princess. Begrudgingly they decide to meet each other after graduation to glance at the forgotten oddities they buried when they were still young and pure. Ah, but soon the great memories come flooding back and, when each one finds an excuse (or when screenwriter Shonda Rhimes discovers another contrivance to use) to go to Los Angeles, they pack up their things and jump into the car of low-plains drifter Ben (Mount), whose dimples under those whiskers help us understand that the rumors of him killing a man can't be true.
And so, the quintet hits the open road -- Ben is getting ready to start a band, Kit is going to visit her collegiate fiancé, Mimi has entered an audition for a singing career (based partly on Manning's own tryout for the television show Pop Stars), and Lucy wants to meet her estranged mother in Tucson. They enter the car as struggling contradictions of character foibles, but thousands of miles later, you'd swear they were always soul sisters -- not only do they each see the errors of their intentions to come to LA, but also can join together to sing any pop song on the radio. If amiable redemption were an art, evidently Sheryl Crowe would be its da Vinci.
There are more moments of inopportune humor in this schlock fest than most films -- Crossroads feels like a teenybopper Ed Wood film, replete with the pubescent scandalous innuendo and the high-strung but flaccid drama. Rhimes and director Tamra Davis work in as much filler and inexplicable contrivances that this becomes a ninety-minute video for Spear's featured song from the film, "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," performed four different times in the film via poetry, piano, and orchestra. But even in the realm of Spears videos, its lacks the raw sensuousness of her actual videos, which capture as much pizzazz as can be found in the gyrating of a so-called virginal icon. Without her snakes and astronauts, Spears feels out of place beside real actors.
Crossroads serves as the fourth star vehicle for a
pop star in the past year. While not near as bad as Mariah Carey's Glitter, the
Spears film feels at home with Mandy Moore's A Walk to Remember and Lance Bass' On
the Line. She's not an actor, nor really that fine a singer, but in Hollywood her
name recognition is enough to get her a starring role. Sure, most of your better actors
would never take a script as poorly written as this one, but at least the money wasted on
this torturous road trip could have been spent on something more worthwhile like a Curtis
Hanson film, unless it happens to star Eminem.