Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

What I’m Watching: Week of 6/3/10

This week was made up mostly of repeat viewers of some old favorites, but there’s a new one in there too.

The Devil’s Backbone

Seeing this made Guillermo del Toro’s decision to leave The Hobbit even more unfortunate for movie lovers.  The film predates Pan’s Labyrinth by a couple years, but you can already see the director flexing his masterful control of pace and composition, applying his steady hand to a deceptively simple little ghost story at a boy’s school during the Spanish Civil War.  The setting oozes with dark mood and a sense of looming doom, exemplified by the excellent inclusion of a defused bomb sticking up out of the school courtyard, a constant reminder of both the tragedies of the past and the dangers of the present.  The plot keeps you on your toes and takes its time in bringing the nature of its characters to light.  A very, very solid haunted house film.

Mad Max

It had been quite a long time since I’d seen this, so I was freshly knocked back by just how insane it really is.  It makes sense that this was Mel Gibson’s star turn, as he slips into role of hero with uncanny ease and can convey more intensity with his blue-eyed stare than most actors can ever dream to.  The thematic elements rise to the surface on repeat viewing, and the film contains a fascinating anti-social edge.  Many people think of this as “post-apocalyptic,” and it’s not really that.  This world is not so much different from our own, and I’ve seen similar barren stretches of road where lawlessness could certainly take root and thrive for quite a while.  The counterculture savagery still manages to shock (they kill a toddler, for Christ’s sake!), and it’s a great set-up for the darker and artistically superior sequel The Road Warrior.

The Empire Strikes Back

Really, what can you say?  I hadn’t seen this in about a year so I figured it was time, and boy does it still have the ability to shake me to my core with its awesomeness.  In a series known for excitement, what makes Empire superior to the rest of the Star Wars films is its slower pace.  Not that it isn’t exciting; it sure as hell is.  But it earns its excitement through careful construction and emotional development.  As great as Lucas’ universe and story arc are, the change of director for this one makes such a big difference.  The actors are much more relaxed and the camera lingers more, giving the images and ideas more time to settle.  The buildup to the climax on Cloud City is screenwriting magic, and even in this far-out galaxy, the characters’ motivations, challenges, aspirations, and losses feel so damn real.  This is still the gold standard for sci-fi fantasy.

The Thing

As I continue to roll out my Top 150, you’re certain to see some surprises, and one of those might be the inclusion of The Thing.  But this film really is a masterpiece of suspense filmmaking.  That perfectly unnerving opening sequence sets the tone so well and you’ll rarely see a setting used as effectively as director John Carpenter uses the barren Antarctic ice.  The acting in this is often underappreciated, but it’s top notch.  These are men on the very edge of their rope, and the tension fills every nook and cranny of their snowed-in tomb of a research station.  But the real star is the effects.  A common rule in suspense horror is that the worst horrors are those unseen, but The Thing gives that notion a serious, serious challenge.  If you are going to show your hand, make sure you get creature designer Rob Bottin to do it for you.  His menagerie of grotesque forms taken by the shape-shifting alien still holds up against anything CGI could produce today.  Nearly 30 years on, The Thing can still scare the crap out of you.


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