Category Archives: Movie Reviews

El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone)- 2001

I watched this film in Spanish, although it is available with English subtitles as well. This screenplay was written (with some collaborators) and directed by the incredibly talented Guillermo del Toro and centers on a haunted orphanage in a remote part of Spain in 1939, the last year of the brutal Spanish Civil War. It is sold as a ghost story, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, there is a ghost in the story (several, in fact), a young murdered boy, Santi (Junio Valverde), but it’s not a “ghost story” in the traditional manner. It’s not about scaring the audience, it’s more about the ghosts of life that drive each of us.

Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of loyalists who leave him in the care of his tutor before being killed by Franco’s forces, is left by his beloved tutor at a distant orphanage in a town with a large, un-exploded (but de-activated) bomb in the center of town. Carlos is small and, as the newest boy in the orphanage, is challenged by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), the resident bully, to fetch water from the kitchen after lights-out, a violation of the rules. Carlos agrees, as long as Jaime accompanies him. Jaime abandons Carlos, who stumbles into a storage area with a large cistern, where he hears a whispered warning of impending death for all. He has a run-in with the handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who is not happy to see him near this particular area. Carlos manages to get back to the dormitory, which (along with taking the blame for being out in violation of the rules and taking blame for owning a knife which Jacinto finds– and uses to slash his face), earns Carlos some respect from the other boys.

Carlos visits Dr. Casares (the venerable Federico Luppi), who addresses his cut. A large jar containing a fetus with a severe spina bifida malformation– most of its spine is exposed– resides in a glass jar in the doctor’s office. The doctor tells Carlos that this is known as a “Devil’s Backbone” and explains that the orphanage brings in extra money by selling quantities of the spiced rum this and other specimens are kept in as a cure-all to the villagers. The doctor claims this rum can even cure impotence, and is later seen ingesting the rum himself. Dr. Casares is in love with Carmen (the equally venerable Marisa Paredes), headmistress of the orphanage who has a heavy artificial leg she must drag around in order to walk. Although she beats herself up over it and continues to insist that this time will be the last time, Carmen has a sexual relationship with Jacinto, each encounter overheard by the brokenhearted, but impotent Dr. Casares. Jacinto was once an orphan in the care of the orphanage, and has a genuine hatred for the place, yet stays on as caretaker. He uses the key his girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), has as a teacher at the orphanage to search for gold. He knows that Dr. Casares and Carmen are loyalist sympathizers who have hidden gold that was dropped off my men fighting Franco for safekeeping. He intends to find the gold and steal it for himself, before leaving the orphanage and town behind forever.

Carlos investigates the idea of a ghost and is told by the other boys that they believe it is Santi, a young boy who disappeared the night the bomb fell on the town. Carlos also posits that Jaime knows more about Santi’s fate than he is willing to admit. The war is coming ever closer, and Dr. Casares convinces Carmen that they must flee the orphanage. As they begin gathering the children, it is discovered that Jacinto, who had been shot and sent running by Conchita, has returned and poured gasoline all over the orphanage. He sets fire to the gasoline, which blows up the kitchen where Carmen and some of the children had gathered. Carmen is killed, but Dr. Casares survives as he was just outside the building, loading children into a vehicle. He holds Carmen as she dies in his arms, and tells the surviving children, Carlos and Jaime included, that he will protect them. Dr. Casares and the kids spend the night in the charred remains of the orphanage, an injured Dr. Casares sitting in front of an open window on the second floor, looking out for Jacinto’s return, shotgun at the ready. Jaime finally tells Carlos the story of Santi’s death. He and Santi were in the room with the cistern, hoping to collect slugs, when they witnessed Jacinto trying to break into a safe that he believed contained the loyalist’s gold. Jaime managed to hide before being caught, but Santi was seen by Jacinto. Jacinto struck Santi and the boy hit his head on the rocks surrounding the cistern. Jacinto got rid of the body by dumping it into the cistern. Thus, a ghost was born. Jaime has decided that he is no longer afraid of Jacinto, and vows to kill him if he ever sees him again.

In the morning, the boys discover that Dr. Casares has succumbed to his wounds, still keeping watch at the window. The boys are caught by Jacinto and locked into a small room. Jacinto continues to search for the gold, but the boys know he will kill them once he has found it. They scheme together to take him down, rationalizing that there are several of them and only one him. They create weapons out of things that are at hand, and are able to escape the room with the help of Santi’s ghost. Jacinto finds the gold (I won’t tell you where), but encounters the boys down in the room with the cistern. In a scene reminiscent of Ceasar’s murder at the hand of the senators, the boys all stab Jacinto, and he is dumped into the same cistern where he had dumped Santi’s body. Jacinto struggles to escape from the cistern but, in a bit of ironic justice, he is impeded in his efforts by his gold-laden pockets. The ghost of Santi comes up from the deep and helps to drag Jacinto to his death. The boys are free and walk away from the orphanage, the ghost of Dr. Casares still keeping watch over them.

I am a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. He has managed, despite massive commercial success, to continue to create projects in the manner of an independent filmmaker, slowly, meticulously, telling unique stories from a distinct point of view. All of his movies have a feel that identify them as his work, but they are not mere copies. This film, in particular, showcases the exceptional talents of the two older leads, Luppi and Paredes. Though not necessarily well-known in the States, they have had long and distinguished careers overseas. They are enormously talented and I was particularly drawn to Luppi’s interpretation of Dr. Casares; warm and gentle, sad and strong. The scene where, heavily injured, he insists on keeping a look out for Jacinto from the second floor are particularly touching. This is why I love watching independent foreign films so much…the stories are strong, the acting stronger.

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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews


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Been a While…Louis (2011)

I haven’t posted in a while, moving is exhausting and all consuming! Just as I felt settled in, I started designing costumes for not one, but two shows…crazy busy, just how I like it. Speaking of things I like, there’s a charming movie from 2011 called Louis.

A fanciful, dance and jazz filled tale fantastical tale of the early life of Louis Armstrong, Louis is well worth watching. It is a silent film with a beautiful soundtrack by the incomparable Wynton Marsalis and Cecile Licad. To call it a silent film is a bit of a misnomer, as Marsalis and Licad use their respective instruments to “talk” in the stead of any dialogue. This is a brilliant element of the film, so unique and interesting. The absolutely gorgeous and aptly named Grace (Shanti Lowry), dances her way through her part as a prostitute with a baby she adores completely. Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley) is running for office…and doesn’t want anyone finding out that he is the father of Grace’s baby. Haley is officially my favorite male actor, here he plays the Chaplinesque public official with aplomb. Louis (Anthony Coleman), is a plucky kid who just wants to play jazz, rising above his surroundings, influenced by it but not jaded by it. He is intrigued by Grace, and this leads him on quite a few adventures. This film is lovely, imaginative, and beautifully crafted.

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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Big (1988)

Penny Marshall directed this sweet story about a young boy named Josh (David Moscow) who makes a wish on a magic Zoltar machine at a carnival. His wish is to be big. The next morning, he wakes up as Tom Hanks! He discovers being big is a problem and he and his buddy (Jared Rushton) head to NYC to find the Zoltar machine so that he can wish himself back to normal. In this age of early computers, the records office tells the boys it’ll be six weeks before they can have the information. Josh has to find an apartment and a job. His interest in these magical machines called computers lands him a job at a toy company doing data entry. A Saturday morning trip to FAO Schwarz, where he lets loose and plays with every toy in sight, including the classic floor piano scene, leads him to being promoted to the ranks of upper management, analyzing new toys and pissing off the establishment. One of these people, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), is a bored, cynical New Yorker who is attracted to Josh…in spite or maybe because of his zaniness. She convinces him to leave their stuffy Christmas party and take her back to his awesome New York penthouse. He gets her to let her hair down and play like a kid again. She enjoys that and it’s intimated that they have sex. The problem is, Josh misses his family. A funny thing happens though, Josh becomes invested in his work and is so wrapped up with how important working is that when the information on the location of the Zoltar machine comes in, he pretty much ignores his buddy. The little boy comes to Josh’s office and gives him the information anyway, even though he’s pissed that Josh has been putting it off. A visit to his hometown, where he sees all his familiar surroundings, finally gets to Josh’s heart and he abruptly leaves a meeting at work to track down the Zoltar machine. Susan follows him to the empty boardwalk where the machine is, and he explains the situation to her. She agrees to drive him home, and watches as he shrinks back down to 12 year old size right before her eyes.

I’m sure this movie is supposed to be commentary on not allowing growing up to kill your inner child…and Hanks does an incredible job of making us believe that this grown man is really a 12 year old. The scenes of him playing with the toys at FAO Schwarz are priceless, and his way of playing naivete is brilliant. There are two big “buts” with this film. The first comes when one tries to reconcile the laughable plot, it’s just too much of a stretch for me. The second, and the major problem I had, seriously, was that, we’re supposed to believe that Josh is a 12 year old in an adult body…who has sex with an adult woman. I guess, from the point of view of a 12 year old boy, that might be awesome, but it just comes across as wrong to me. Maybe it’s because of Mary Kay Letourneau and Debra Lafave, but the story doesn’t come across as a sweet, albeit unbelievable fable…it just comes across as a little pervy.

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Posted by on July 24, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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The Killing Fields (1984)

Cambodia in 1975. The country is war ravaged yet, there are brave people everywhere. Four journalists, Americans Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Alan “Al” Rockoff (John Malkovich), Brit Jon Swain (Julian Sands), and Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), dare to risk their lives to tell unadulterated stories of what is really happening behind the front lines. Atrocities committed by both the Communists Khmer Rouge and the Americans and their allies. They use their photographs and interviews with the locals, which Pran translates for Schanberg and the others, to tell truth to power.

When the Americans pull out of Cambodia, Schanberg helps get Pran’s family out of the country. He and the other journalists stay in country to continue their work. They are kidnapped and released and finally flee to the French Embassy. The men spend many days together with others waiting to be evacuated. Eventually, the Cambodians are ordered to leave the Embassy. Trying to rescue Pran, the men are able to scrape together an expired passport, a camera with film, emulsifiers, and a tiny men’s bathroom. They succeed in photographing Pran and getting the pieces together to make it look like he was a British citizen. All goes to plan until Swain is pulled aside and shown that their photograph has turned solid grey. Pran is removed from the Embassy, and straight into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Back home in America, Schanberg send out pleas for information or help to locate Pran to 500+ aid organizations. Pran, meanwhile, is forced to labor in rice paddies under constant guard. An early escape attempt ends in immediate capture. His life would be forfeit, if not for a kindness done by Pran, giving a soldier the hood ornament from Schanberg’s Mercedes. The soldier now convinces the others to leave Pran alive, what he tells them is unknown.  Pran manages to escape, and, in a powerful moment, stumbles straight into a field full of human remains. He is captured by a local band of Khmer Rouge and pretends not to speak French or English. His captor, who has put him to work as a house servant, eventually finds him out. He entrusts his son into the care of Pran, knowing that the Vietnamese are on their way.  Pran takes the boy, a photo of the boy’s parents, some American currency and a hand drawn map, and flees with a handful of other civilians. The group separates and Pran, another man and the little boy are nearly captured by the Khmer Rouge. The other man, carrying the little boy, steps on a land mine. Both are killed, leaving Pran to continue on alone. He eventually makes it to a Red Cross Station in Thailand and is able to reunite with his family in the United States.

Based on a true story, this is a very powerful movie. I will forever be haunted by the image of Pran falling into a pit of rancid water and realizing he is surrounded by the bones of hundreds of people. The movie does clock in at 2 hours and 30 minutes. The first section, showing the horrors of the war documented by the foursome, was perhaps overlong. I can imagine, though, that this section will be more important as more time passes and the story fades in history. If only we were more aware of the mess that war makes of the country where it takes place, and that the best intentions of westerners are not enough to justify interventions like these. Of course, recent history proves that this lesson has not been learned.

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Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Holiday Inn (1942)

Boy, Girl, Boy singing and dancing group. One boy, Jim (Bing Crosby), decides to settle down with the girl, Lila (Virginia Dale), marrying her and moving to Connecticut, leaving the New York rat race…especially working on holiday’s. Lila stands up Jim and stays in New York with Ted (Fred Astaire) to keep on performing. Jim moves to Connecticut anyway…and hates farming. He meets a new girl, Linda (Marjorie Reynolds), and they join forces to open a Holiday Inn- literally only open on holiday’s. Lila runs off with a millionaire, leaving Ted high and dry. Ted goes to Connecticut, hi-jinks ensue as he steals Linda from Jim, and away to Hollywood. Jim, depressed at Thanksgiving, heads to Hollywood to track down Linda. He locks Ted up and takes his place at the piano where he and Linda sing “White Christmas” together. She agrees to marry him after all…and Lila, having found her millionaire lacking, returns to join Ted in their dance show again. Hooray! Every boy has a girl, every girl has a boy!

An Irving Berlin feature, Holiday Inn is most notable for being the first use of the song “White Christmas”, later used in my favorite Christmas movie, White Christmas (1954). It also features the song “Easter Parade”, first heard in the Broadway review As Thousands Cheer (1933). Nice song and dance numbers are seen throughout the film but, a black-face performance, and a stereotypical “Mamie” character, Mamie (Louise Beavers), strikingly showcase just how prevalent this type of racism was in society at this time, and made me very uncomfortable as I was watching, literally cringing as the beautiful Ms. Beavers came on the screen, thinking about how much more they could have done with her if they had been aware of the waste of talent they were perpetuating. Thankfully, Ms. Beavers did have periodic times to shine in her career…read her bio (linked above) for more!

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Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Grey Gardens (1975) -Documentary

The Bouvier Beales, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were the relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her aunt and cousin respectively. They had come to notoriety through a battle with the Hamptons over the state of their property, Grey Gardens. The idea of two relatives of the famous former first lady, living as recluses, was too juicy not to pique people’s interest. Having met filmmakers (and brothers) Albert Maysles and David Maysles, the ladies invited them in to film a documentary. What follows is a fascinating view of a co-dependent relationship of two women who seem to share a mental illness. As any trained psychologist will tell you, diagnosing someone from video footage is liable to be inaccurate. Since I’m not a trained psychologist, I will venture to guess that they might be diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder.

Big Edie, a former singer and society beauty, reigns mostly from her bed. It is filthy, with newspapers strewn on it for the dozen-plus cats to do their business, pictures and random memorabilia on top of the papers, and a hot plate next to her from which she cooks the random bits of food she eats rather than balanced meals at regular times. Little Edie, who, by nature of being more ambulatory than her mother, features more heavily in the film, is a failed actress and society beauty for whom living at Grey Gardens seems to be as much punishment as refuge. There is a story that emerges through the documentary, although it is unclear just how much of it is fact and how much delusional fantasy. Little Edie, who had moved to New York to become an actress, is recalled by her mother to Grey Gardens after an eye surgery when she needs nursing. By then, Big Edie had been left by her husband, “Mr. Beale” as they both call him. Not believing in divorce, she has lived as a separated woman for the rest of her life, even as her husband divorced her and re-married. Little Edie feels that she was on the verge of making it, and blames her mother and father for conspiring to keep her at Grey Gardens. She is distraught by the male companions her mother has invited to live at Grey Gardens for years at a time, whom she neither gets to approve of nor considers to be her friends, rather just her mother’s. She is also distraught by the men who got away. She mentions all the men whom she could have, should have married, including one whom her mother supposedly scared away in just 15 minutes. This is very distressing to her as she returns to it again and again.

To say the house is decrepit is to put it lightly. If this were not a documentary, one could blame a production designer of being too contrived in using a broken down home to represent the broken down mental state of the two women who live within. Little Edie, in her headscarves made from scarves, sweaters, and towels, her tight skirts, sometimes made from sweaters, and ever-present fishnet stockings, speaks to the Maysles, explaining herself as her mother screeches at her from other rooms. Her mother could be seen as harmless, until you notice how cutting she is with her words. When Little Edie is singing and dancing, her mother criticizes her for singing so badly, unlike herself with her trained voice. She berates her daughter constantly for her failures, never accepting her own.

This is not a Ken Burns-esque ultra slick documentary. It is full of rough camera work, out of focus shots, and camera movement while in tight closeup (which creates dizzying motion blur) and yet, this is all so appropriate. The raw look of the film gives a sense of immediacy and seems a commentary on the mentality of these two women, fascinating, eccentric, and a bit off.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” -Little Edie, Grey Gardens

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Posted by on April 28, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Mar Adentro/The Sea Inside (2004) -Spanish with Subtitles-

Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) is a Spanish quadriplegic with a desire to end his life. This fact-based film chronicles his struggles to procure this right while ensuring that no one who helps him will later be prosecuted; a decades-long effort. A furtive love affair with Julia (Belén Rueda), the married lawyer who is helping him fight his case (and who also suffers from debilitating strokes), ends when their suicide pact is called off and she returns to her husband.  A local woman, Rosa (Lola Dueñas), recently unemployed and lonely, becomes his unlikely hero. She falls in love with him and brings her children to meet him. He doesn’t want to lead her on, as he is still in love with Julia. Eventually, she wins him over to allow her to be his companion, even if there is no love for her in his heart.

The story, which could easily have been very stilted due to the limitations of a film consisting mainly of a man who can’t move and lies in bed all the time, instead is alive with feeling and emotion. Dream sessions in which Ramón flies to the beach, which he can smell but not see from his bed, are spectacular. The colors are super saturated in these scenes and one can almost feel the breeze and smell the ocean. The refusal of Ramón to fall into the trap of self-pity, his willingness to debate with a clergyman who has condemned his desire to commit suicide, and the power of his spirit, make this film powerful and uplifting.


**I am a native Spanish speaker but I do enjoy foreign films in all languages. Don’t let the subtitles dissuade you. If the movie is good, you will eventually be so engrossed with the story that you’ll forget you are reading the dialogue.**

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

War is hell. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the first talkies to take on this theme. Following a group of German schoolboys who are riled up by a professor into enlisting for WWI. It shows the devolution of the group from idealistic boys, to cannon fodder, to bitter cannon fodder. Interesting that the filmmakers feature German youths. This movie could not have been made a few years before because of the lack of sound technology and could not have been made a few years later because of the rising threat of a re-emergent Germany. It was made at a perfect moment when German youths could still be shown as fully sympathetic characters and the movie could focus on the detrimental effects of war, the blind war-mongering of men too old to be endangering their own lives, and the loss of innocence that affects an entire generation.

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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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The Wild Bunch (1969)

Exploding the mythological conventions of prior Westerns, The Wild Bunch tells the story of a gang of outlaws (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine) looking for a new racket after a bank robbery yields nothing but metal washers.They are pursued by a posse of bounty hunters hired by the Rail Road and led by Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their gang. The gang crosses over into Mexico and quickly find themselves recruited by the self-styled General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to rob an American Army train carrying rifles and ammunition to be used in the fight against Pancho Villa. Upon robbing the train, of course, the gang adds the U.S. Army to the list of those pursuing them.

One of the members of the gang, a Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is upset that the General, after plundering Angel’s home village, has taken his girl as a concubine (of her own free will). He avenges this slight by helping the Natives who live in the mountains outside Agua Verde (the General’s garrison) steal a box of rifles and ammo. At the last of a series of exchanges of gold for weapons, the General seizes Angel who is abandoned by his fellow gang members.

The gang finally returns to Agua Verde in order to hide out among the now heavily armed Mexicans. They witness the dragging death of Angel and, when they seek to reclaim his body, the Mexican’s slice Angel’s throat. The four remaining gang members open fire, improbably killing dozens of the General’s men before finally being taken out themselves. The posse come across the scene of the carnage and are delighted to scavenge the bodies of the Mexicans for goodies and collect the bodies of the gang members in order to cash in on the reward. A feeling of what? Compassion? Sadness? strikes Thornton and he stays behind at Agua Verde, eventually joining the Natives in their crusade against the Mexicans.

The violence, gore, nudity and language show the impact of the adoption of the MPAA standards in 1968. None of it is gratuitous. The cinematography is most effective when showcasing the vast vistas of the open West. Stereotypes about Mexicans and Natives, although utilized in the movie, are not nearly as egregious as other Westerns of the period. Slow paced (it takes an hour to get to the train robbery), but with richly developed characters, this is a Western that can be enjoyed by someone who really hates Westerns (me!)

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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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Little Children (2006)

Adapted by Tom Perrotta and Todd Field from Perrota’s novel of the same name, Little Children, is a tale of the lengths two people will go through to escape the soul numbing nature of marriage in suburbia. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a well-educated writer who is disturbed by the way her life has turned out…married to a distant man who is obsessed with a girl on the internet, with a stalled career, and a child she can’t begin to understand. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a law school grad who can’t seem to pass the bar. Married to a successful documentary film maker (Jennifer Connelly) and raising their young son, he is depressed and underwhelmed with his role in life. A chance meeting at the local park, and later at the municipal pool, leads to an affair. Sarah feels alive as she finds a reason to see herself as a desirable woman again. They use their kids as cover for their frequent meetings and eventual sexual relationship. Plans to run away together leads them to one fateful night. A second story (too good to call a subplot), of a pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) who has returned to live with his mother (Phyllis Somerville) and faces the shaming of the town and the particular vehemence of disgruntled former police officer Larry (Noah Emmerich), is compelling for its rawness and refusal to make either man all good or all bad. A complex exploration of modern angst with incredible characters richly brought to life, especially by Winslet and Haley, this is a film that will stay with me a long time. A brilliant piece of modern cinema.

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Posted by on March 19, 2013 in Movie Reviews


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