Famous Filmmaker’s Firsts: Guillermo Del Toro’s “Cronos”

Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro in 1993 “Cronos” was the director’s first feature film. I knew virtually nothing about the film going into the opening credits. What I found in “Cronos” was an inkling of the director’s stylistic touches that he would eventually become known for. Since Del Toro frequently cites monsters, fantasy, and mythology as the sources that he most draws inspiration from I should have known that his first feature length film would focus on such material. The story follows a unique take on one of film’s oldest fascinations: Vampires. This film takes a new route to reach a familiar destination.

Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) owns and operates an antique shop in Mexico with his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) always nearby. She continually prods his sense of familial connection and identity through the knowing eyes of a child. Señor Gris is an old man who seems content in the life he’s living when we meet him. He opens his antiques shop with Aurora on his shoulders and is seen playing hopscotch with her in the next scene on the floor of his shop in between aisles of relics and charms discarded or lost in time. After awhile an anxious and quiet man quickly enters the shop peeking and prodding around. Eventually he tears open the wrapping of an old archangel figurine leaving the face revealed and leaves in a rush. This prompts Señor Gris to give the angel a look. He and Aurora unwrap the two foot tall figure and inspect it. After some investigation he finds a golden scarab device. He curiously taps at it, quickly finding a circular part that winds. Therein lies the weakness of Señor Gris, his curiosity. The Cronos Device then sticks out six sharp legs before stabbing them into his hand.

From that point onward Jesus Gris is a changed man, one with new fascinations, urges, and adverse affects altogether. What I really enjoyed with this film was the tangible sense of family and the charm of this small Mexican family’s life, it really helped to ground the supernatural effects of Jesus Gris’ actions. I also really appreciated the film taking a light body horror touch as the effects of the Cronos Device wound their way through Señor Gris’ humanity. His transformation is slow at first, but by the end of the film he nears all of the typical vampire tropes. The events of the film are prodded along by the antagonists, Dieter De la Guardia (Claudio Brook) owner of the De la Guardia fortune, and his brutish impatient nephew Angel De la Guardia (a young Ron Perlman). Dieter is another old man, but he is dying rapidly and looking for the Cronos Device to secure immortality. His scenes are shot and staged in stark contrast from that of Señor Gris’. Dieter lives in a cold, dark, and sterile environment clinging to what little life he still has while Señor Gris’ scenes are bathed in warm and earthy tones as he plays with his granddaughter and dances with his wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel).

The film adequately merges a tangible mirror held up to reflect life with Del Toro’s stylistic horror mythology bleeding in from the edges. While this isn’t my favorite of Guillermo Del Toro’s films it’s still a good story told with a deft hand and a clear voice. “Cronos” is definitely worth a watch and can be wonderfully informative on the director’s creative evolution if you appreciate his other works.


Final Score: Two old men and one Cronos Device!


Review: Mother!

This last weekend there was a lot of talk around the internet about Writer/Directer Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, “Mother!” So I thought I’d go ahead and give the film a shot, under the assumption that at the very least I’d have a good conversation piece. Well, “Mother!” starring Jennifer Lawrence as Mother and Javier Bardem as Him, or “the Poet” is certainly something to talk about. First, I’d take note that for this review, spoilers are sort of a necessity. The film is probably the most allegorical, methaphoric, and symbolic film to hit the silver screen in decades. Nothing that happens is purely what you witness taking place. Every character and every scene is translatable to Aronofsky’s message-which you will undoubtedly get by the time the credits roll. This is an incredibly divisive film, some will love the ideas in play, and others will consistently roll their eyes at what some might call pretentious filmmaking.

Personally, I mildly enjoyed the film. The performances by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are expertly acted, and the cinematography is fluid and jarring when needed. However, it was the sound design that gripped my attention the fiercest. Whoever took on that aspect of the process deserves accolades, it was crisp, taught, and appropriately overwhelming at times. Which brings me to my reaction to this film as a whole; this film reminded me most of another film by Aronofsky, “Requiem for a dream”. Both films are works that inspire on the filmmaking side of viewing, Requiem’s editing is a thing of beauty and you really should watch it just for that aspect, but I also have no urge to re-watch either of these films. They are not bad films, but both harbor subject matters that are fairly depressing and morbid.

“Mother!” seems to be a film most concerned with how humanity, in tandem with God, eventually destroys the earth by their very nature. In the film Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live together in a large octagonal country house in the middle of nowhere, with no discernible paths or roads leading there. Mother claims she is helping the poet rebuild his house, it had been destroyed in a fire when he was young. She is his young wife, and he is a famous writer whose words have abandoned him. She tends to the health of the house and the many ongoing projects that she has put time into, and he stays up in his study staring at blank pages. Suddenly a knock comes at the door, and a Doctor, who had been told their house was a bed and breakfast, arrives at their doorstep. The Doctor (Ed Harris) eventually admits that he is a fan of the poet’s older work and the poet allows the doctor to stay- they talk, drink, and smoke late into the night. The next day the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives without an advance notice and is also greeted by the poet and allowed to stay indefinitely-much to the chagrin of his young wife. The Doctor’s wife quickly takes a judgmental eye to the Mother, asking why they have no children and if she is doing her part in the bedroom while guzzling down heavily spiked lemonade. Not long after this the Doctor and his Wife are found sneaking into the one room they were not allowed to enter, the Poet’s study. They break a treasured crystal and the Poet loudly banishes them from this room. From here the biblical allegories only continue to mount. The Doctor’s sons arrive arguing about their inheritance, one kills the other out of jealousy and then the house is filled with a wake of family and friends before the tension mounts for Mother as the guests frequently go against her simple requests and carry on rudely breaking things until a pipe bursts and the Poet finally sends them away as it rains outside. I’ll leave the rest of the film as something to be discovered, but it only escalates from there.

The meaning of this film could be interpreted in many different ways. The biblical scenes seem to hint at this overarching theme of Mother Earth being betrayed by God as he is too absorbed by the attention of humans to take notice of how his, and our, actions are negatively affecting Mother Earth. Though the film does seem to say things about celebrity and fandoms, the creative process and writer’s block, and the nature of creators in general. It’s a bit of a fascinating film, but this is also something that likely only got a wide release because of the director’s clout and the big-name actors attached, otherwise this is very much a film fest circuit story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it most definitely will not be loved by all.

Final Score: a Poet and a Mother(!)


Review: IT (Chapter 1, 2017)

*There are mild spoilers involved in this review, but nothing that would drastically take away from the joy/horror of this new film. Enter at your own risk and enjoy!*

Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti “IT” is the second live-action adaption of the infamous novel written by Stephen King. Things are not well in the town of Derry, Maine. Things are not well at all. Luckily, their misfortune is our bounty as this adaption for the new millennium has been crafted with great care for the source material. For the uninitiated, “IT” is about seven misfit children in the town of Derry that all separately experience the fear of being hunted by a demonic presence that takes the form of a clown and calls itself ‘Pennywise, the Dancing Clown’. Eventually they all stumble into each others’ path and come to realize that they have all been encountering the same terrifying thing. Using the power of… the library (If that doesn’t make you feel old, nothing will), they come to know that It resurfaces every 27 years (or so) to feast on the children of the town by tricking them into getting all too close before opening it’s otherworldly maw.

King’s titanic novel, nearly 1,200 pages, goes into great detail about the haunting of Derry and the workings of the malevolent shape-shifter Pennywise. However, it also dives deep into the everyday lives and histories of all of the seven main characters, especially what each one is afraid of, and why. In this way Pennywise embodies a horrific sort of pairing between the Joker and Batman as he cleverly uses each character’s main fear to his advantage. There are some major differences between the book and the film, but the spirit of the novel is fully embraced here, trusting mood and the feel of a scene or an image over the exact logic of it all. Which, I believe, is one of the larger aspects as to why the film is as effective as it is. The remainder of the weight of the story rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they carried it with great skill.

First we might as well cover the main entity itself, Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. After the memorable role of Tim Curry’s Pennywise from the 1990’s mini-series, Skarsgard had to make this version a clown of his own accord. By the way, if you remember that series with fondness, it’s a memory shaded by rose colored glasses. Curry was most definitely the only really good part about the whole thing, give it a watch for nostalgia or comical reasons-and remember that time can be cruel. Back to the modern era though-Skarsgard is a horrifying joy as the killer clown. He’s a more brutal foe than Curry’s, but distinctly different in his approach. Skarsgard’s Pennywise lures children in with smells and sounds, at least with the iconic Georgie sequence. Here he drops the more mainstream monster foes of the book and miniseries (The Wolfman, creature from the black lagoon etc.) and directly taps into their psychological fears. He mimics a dying animal on a meat hook for farmhand Mike Hanlon, turns into an infectious leper for Eddie Kaspbrak who’s mother has induced a fear of the biological in him, and for Bill Denbrough the monster takes the form of Georgie- Bill’s dead little brother and previous victim of Pennywise. Skarsgard excels in taking the character and making him into his own brilliant version of everyone’s nightmares. The real jewel of this film however is the Losers Club.

While all seven of the kids do a remarkable effort in bringing the characters to life, you can only do so much in a roughly two hour film with that many perspectives. The standouts in this film are Finn Wolfhard as Richie ‘trashmouth’ Tozier, Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom, and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak. Again, not to dismiss the rest of the Losers Club as they all did an impeccable job for such young actors, these four simply won me over more so than the rest. Finn Wolfhard, in particular, was a real treat as he completely owned the motormouth tendencies of Richie- and he was far funnier than expected. Sophia Lillis did a standout job as the bravest of the losers, pairing real compassion with courage, I would not be surprised to see her star in increasingly demanding roles in the future as she can act while maintaining truth in her performance. Jeremy Ray Taylor put forth a solid effort as the heart of the group and really landed those ‘New Kids on the Block’ jokes. Jack Dylan Grazer was also a real scene-stealer with his risk averse nature playing well as comedic relief.

Now that the film has hit wide-release and smashed previous horror box office opening records we can rest assured that we will indeed receive the second chapter when the Losers return to Derry as Adults to once again confront the evil that is Pennywise. Personally I can’t wait for the sequel and will revel in the assured weekly casting rumors for the months to come. This was a fine adaption of a Stephen King classic and a huge financial success, hopefully we’ll get more genre films like this in the future.

Final Score: Seven kids, one clown, and a mythical turtle