The Devil’s Backbone–Peter Pan meets “The Shape of Water”

Devil's Backbone

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) (Spanish: El espinazo del diablo), directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, was independently produced by Pedro Almodóvar and foreshadows his Academy Award winning “The Shape of Water” (see my March 19, 2018 review).

Set in 1939 during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, we see in the opening scene an orphanage in the middle of a solitary dessert. A deactivated bomb is standing in the courtyard.

An unexpecting twelve- year-old, Carlos, is left by his guardian and almost immediately bullied by two other orphan boys. On a dare to sneak to the kitchen for water, Carlos hears a chilling whisper from an unknown ghost, Santi, appearing as a boy about the same age.

This is a mythic tale of love and revenge, greed, the loss of family, mixed with a potent dose of magical realism del Toro conveys in all of his films (including his masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth”.) Carlos, who fearlessly wants to know the truth, and Santi, whose demise is shrouded in mystery, eventually make a pact. As the war begins closing in on the orphanage, violence and desperation erupt and Santi’s prediction comes true. The abandoned boys must band together if they hope to survive.

Dr. Caseres shows Carlos how the orphanage raises funds: by selling a spiced fluid preserved from deformed aborted or stillborn fetuses that “remedies” many ailments including impotence. The exposed fetuses in fluid are “the devil’s backbone”, an elixir with miraculous power. A visual metaphor illustrating how war entraps, just like insects in amber and fetuses in jars, The Devil’s Backbone exposes the horrors of war and fascism through the lens of fantasy.

This film, after a sagging middle with slow camera movements leading nowhere but to the orphanage basement, eventually evolves into an extraordinary dramatic narrative of tension and dread. It is a coming-of-age story combined with a tale of enormous deception resulting from misjudging human character.

Fantastic cinematography, –some sepia-toned scenes evoking the lighting of a Velasquez painting,– is well-worth viewing on its own merits. The opening underwater sequences will remind the viewer of del Toro’s later cinematic undertaking, “The Shape of Water”. The mark of del Toro is everywhere in evidence. Watching The Devil’s Backbone now within the context of having seen “The Shape of Water” allows a glimpse into the imagination of a very original filmmaker!

 

“20 Feet From Stardom”–Stellar Performers

 

20 Feet from Stardom

In the wake of the passing of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, 20 Feet from Stardom will resonate more than ever. The mainly female backup singers featured in 20 Feet From Stardom are all daughters of preachers, as was Aretha Franklin, who fine-tuned their extraordinary singing voices in the church choir while very, very young. Director Morgan Neville connects Gospel, Blues, and Soul to these roots of Rock and Roll.

You may not recognize the names or faces of Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton, but you will surely recognize their unforgettable voices. Love has been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fischer still works as a backup singer, touring with Chris Botti, Sting and The Rolling Stones. However, the heart-stopping climax of the film belongs to Merry Clayton, as we are treated to her mind-blowing performance on the single “Gimme Shelter”. Hearing her raw voice blast out “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is gut-wrenching.

Twenty Feet from Stardom creates a visual and auditory record of these great soul singers and in the memory of Aretha Franklin, the time to watch this documentary is now. This film is groundbreaking, with the archival footage of performances we have heard but not witnessed. It is a joy to understand the sacrifices that creatives make for the love of their art, even if their dreams are not fulfilled. 20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary about a secret that needs to be told. And unfortunately,  the backup singer is rendered even less significant as music employs advanced recording and sound technology to emulate the gifted backup singer’s voice.

While we see personal frustration, regret, and betrayal we also witness a passion for music and a personal need to share their vocal gift with others. Most importantly perhaps, we understand the underappreciated gift their voices have brought to the music world.  Some of the stars truly recognize the valuable and indispensable contribution these backup singers gave to their success. Interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Lou Adler, Chris Botti, and Mick Jagger underscore the music-composing elements these virtuoso singers created . We also see Luther Vandross as a back-up singer to David Bowie and Sheryl Crow, who worked as Michael Jackson’s back-up/lead female. These are the examples of the back-ups who became well known later on. But 20 Feet from Stardom is focused upon those whose dreams did not come true.

My only criticism of 20 Feet from Stardom is structural. The first part of the film repeats the performances and sacrifices of the backup singer’s role. Each of the individual stories is very similar. So each singer’s personal story did not have to be told in such detail that it slows the film almost to a grinding halt.

But be patient. The poignant, fascinating sociological study of the cost of pursuing fame instead of excellence is eye-opening and well worth waiting for the personal reflection on the price of success. This would be a great evening’s watch along side Muscle Shoalssee my July 19, 2015 review  and Searching for Sugarman. Even the fictional Birdman ties into the main theme: neglecting the efforts of the team who supports and holds up the main attraction.

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

The Tunnel–Seasons 2 and 3

 

The Tunnel Seasons 2 and 3 continue the tension from the first season, with a British and French detective partnership (Karl Roebuck and Elise Wasserman respectively) again working to solve a heinous series of crimes. (See my August 7, 2016 review of season 1: The Tunnel–Turf War or Building Bridges”.) Both season 2 and 3 seamlessly continue the tension, though by different writers and directors.

In Season 2 (“Sabotage”) the main plot is trying to figure out why a commercial airliner was hacked to override the autopilot, crashing in the ocean, killing everyone on board. The crash might be connected to other strange incidents including the abduction of the parents of a five-year-old girl while in the Chunnel.

The Tunnel Season 3

There are many plot twists  and subplots: connecting all the dots and understanding the motivation of each character, including the detective team. The narrative becomes quite convoluted. The sexual lives of Karl Roebuck (the excellent Stephen Dillane from “Game of Thrones) and Elise Wasserman (Fleur Delacour in “Harry Potter”) are revealed to be more complicated than in season 1. A sinister and mysterious mastermind, as well as a chemist who could rival the Nazi Mingele in his experiments, will keep the viewer on edge. No spoiler alerts here, but be prepared for nail-biting terror. Twisted ideologies, revenge, spies, terrorism, “marriage for sale”, sex trafficking, the vulnerability of love and loss, and the insidious nature of high-tech equipment in the hands of malevolent actors all make this second season of “The Tunnel” just as spellbinding as the previous season.

The Tunnel Season 3

Season 3 (“Vengeance”) stands on its own from the previous seasons with again, a new director and writer. In the anti-refugee hysteria of our times, we see the desperation of a mother looking for the  child she gave up decades ago during the war in Croatia.   An escalating refugee crisis and the exiled souls who experienced unspeakable tragedy seek relief from a society which mostly has turned its back.

Playing on the “Pied Piper” who purportedly promised a better life for the children who followed, we see the two intrepid investigators try to make sense of grisly sexualized murders, cyberstalking, a plague of rats echoing the Pied Piper,  and a macabre medieval enactment of murder. There is a subplot of a past cold case that still haunts Elise, also involving a child: missing children, children found, abandoned, troubled, and redeemed overlay the subplots and involve deceit, corruption, and trauma.

All of the disparate strands of this drama come to a tightly woven, shocking climax in the final episode ending this phenomenal three-season thriller. Few hints of what is to come in the finale prepare the viewer for the resolution, part satisfactory and part disconnected.

Highly recommended! And worthy of a repeat viewing, because the plots are so difficult to follow at times.

 

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (first two seasons) and Netflix (all three).

 

 

Calibre–A Bullet Through the Heart


Calibre movie

This bloodpressure-raising thriller opens with two best buddies, Vaughn Carter (Jack Lowden) and Marcus Trenton (Martin McCann), deciding to go on a guys’ weekend hunting trip to a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. Nothing could prepare them…or us… for what happens. Calibre tests the friends’ relationship and their moral character as Vaughan has to deal with his future as a father (with his expectant wife almost due to deliver) and his drug-addled best friend Marcus.   In its best moments, Calibre is part “Deliverance” and part “Dogville”. It attacks your nerves, ratcheting up the tension and suspense.

The hunting trip is Marcus’s idea, a way to celebrate Vaughn’s “last few days of freedom” before fatherhood, but Marcus is also intent upon drinking, having sex with local women, and drugs. Vaughn, on the other hand, is inexperienced as a hunter and doesn’t join in Marcus’s rowdy night-time antics the night before they stalk deer. He does get hungover, however.

Calibre Netflix Original

The opening is a terrifying hook setting the stage for horror and violence the viewer knows is inevitable. The village locals, hopeless men sporting thick beards, thick accents, and even thicker sweaters, begrudgingly welcome the two buddies to their economically depressed town.

From there, Calibre becomes a study in guilt, fear, vengeance, and toxic masculinity. An increasingly hostile and suspicious community leader (Tony Curran) becomes the tribal judge for what comes next. Now, Vaughan and Marcus must scheme and plot at every turn, reassessing what their friendship and survival are suggesting.

The ending is twofold–one expected and one perhaps not so much,– making Calibre a white-knuckle, teeth-clenching film to watch.  Calibre touches on the “me-against-them” classic set-up but with a complex nuance in recognizing the problems of a village where their livelihood is now obsolete, development non-existent and the young are restless and desperate, holding on to their tribe for stability and belonging. This is not a straightforward “evil local-yokels menace innocent city slickers” story, even if Calibre plays at times with those stereotypes. All characters are flawed in this intricately complicated and menacing spellbinder!

Note: Available on Netflix streaming.