Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Saving the best for last: "Pan's Labyrinth," "Children of Men" create worlds to remember

PAN'S LABYRINTH

directed by Guillermo del Toro
starring Ivana Baquero, Sergí López, Maribel Verdú

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is no movie for children, yet no movie in recent memory has so effectively captured the wonders and fears of a child’s universe. There’s no denying the film has a dark streak that shadows its wealth of vibrantly colorful and delectably, sometimes grotesquely fantastical imagery at every turn. Yet it’s precisely that chiaroscuro effect that gives the imagery its ring of emotional truth. It embodies the recognition that children's private worlds have a potential for sheer terror that easily eclipses anything an adult can conceive to frighten them.

Set in Spain some years after the fascists won the civil war, the film maps the double life of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl hovering on the brink of adolescence but still clinging to the fairy tales and fables of her childhood—not so much a case of arrested development as a self-protective impulse against the grim, morally corrosive reality that threatens her from all sides. Framed as a tale within a tale, “Labyrinth” begins with the arrival of Ofelia and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), at a military outpost in the mountains where Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), is stationed. Vidal, not to put too fine a point on it, is a monster: an icy one at home, with no concern for anyone in his new family except his unborn child, and a sadistic one abroad, determined to seek out and destroy the remnants of the resistance forces hiding out in the mountains.

When Carmen falls seriously ill from pregnancy complications, Ofelia becomes a virtual orphan. She is not, however, without allies. She finds a maternal surrogate in Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú of “Y Tu Mamá También”), who’s also providing clandestine assistance to the rebels. And she finds another guide of sorts in Pan (Doug Jones), a faun who looks more like one of Tolkien’s Ents than Mr. Tumnus of Narnia. He informs her that she is the long-lost princess of a magical subterranean kingdom, but that to reclaim her birthright she must fulfill three tasks. From this point on, director Guillermo del Toro’s fervid imagination takes flight, shifting fluidly between Ofelia’s two worlds while amping up her increasingly urgent attempts to escape from one to the other (and back again). Some viewers may debate—pointlessly, in my mind—whether Ofelia's adventures are "real," a question that essentially amounts to asking if you believe in magic. As in so many classic children’s stories, only the child who believes may enter the magical realm—which, of course, is not the same thing as saying the realm doesn’t actually exist.

This deliberate ambiguity lies at the heart of the film’s haunting power. For Ofelia’s story functions not simply as an allegory of fascist Spain, but as a variation on the age-old philosophical conundrum: who’s dreaming whom? The most nightmarish moments in her quest mirror the horrors that grip the “real” world, and vice versa. In the film’s most spectacularly creepy fantasy sequence, Ofelia unwittingly awakens the Pale Man (Jones again), a cadaverous figure who vaguely resembles a skinned, stripped-down Pan and who can only see through eyeballs screwed into the palms of his hands. As he lurches after the terrified Ofelia, devouring every living creature in his path, he inevitably calls to mind the blinkered, murderous single-mindedness of that other ogre, Captain Vidal. At the same time, Vidal’s hunt for the rebels—a narrative in which Ofelia is often absent, even as an observer—frequently takes on the elemental feel of a fairy tale. Even the conclusion of that narrative has something of the quality of a fairy-taleish wish-fulfillment, albeit one exacted at a terrible price.

Remarkably for a film that depends so heavily on archetypes of good and evil in its characterizations, “Pan’s Labyrinth” features impressively layered performances—particularly by Baquero, who manages to capture the nuances of a child just this side of losing her innocence, and Verdú as the adult woman whose demeanor suggests a complex mix of toughness and vulnerability. But the real tour de force performance—apart from the incredible work of the cinematographer, makeup artists, and art direction teams, all of whom fully deserve their Oscar nominations—is that of del Toro. All talk about “los tres amigos” notwithstanding, prior to this film del Toro had never quite achieved equal status with compatriots Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mamá También”) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams,” “Amores Perros”). Now, with “Pan’s Labyrinth” under his belt, he’s assured himself a place in their ranks. Cuarón may have breathed cinematic life into the Harry Potter series, but it’s del Toro who’s succeeded in creating a world of pure enchantment.

GRADE: A


CHILDREN OF MEN

directed by Alfonso Cuarón
starring Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, others

At first glance, “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” share little in common other than the fact that they're both helmed by up-and-coming Mexican directors who happen to be buddies. Yet, having seen the two films within a week of one another, I came away with similar reactions to both. Each succeeded in plunging me into a world that felt at once terrifyingly alien and utterly believable. And each did so with a visceral visual punch and intense emotional appeal that kept me riveted till the last frame—something that rarely happens these days, even at movies I enjoy.

Whereas “Pan’s Labyrinth” offers the promise of riches as well as terrors, the universe of “Children of Men”—directed by Alfonso Cuarón and very loosely based on the novel by P.D. James—is almost unremittingly bleak, relieved only at fleeting moments by glimmers of humor and tenderness that have the feel of distant memories. The year is 2027, and human civilization is dying. Women have become mysteriously infertile, meaning no babies have been born for the last eighteen years; poverty and terrorism run rampant; political chaos reigns everywhere except Britain, which has dug in by closing its borders and implementing a de facto police state that ruthlessly hunts down and deports all illegal immigrants (or as they’re called, “fugees”). Even this measure of stability is constantly disrupted by raging mobs and guerrilla forces reminiscent of the old-guard IRA.

Every dystopia needs its Everyman, and “Children of Men” taps Theo (Clive Owen, in a terrifically realized performance – arguably his most sympathetic yet), a morose, disillusioned civil servant who ends up risking his life for nothing less than the salvation of the human race. The catalyst is Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo’s former lover and companion from his activist days, now head of a pro-fugee, anti-governmental resistance group known as the Fishes. One day, quite out of the blue, she picks him up and leads him to a miracle: a pregnant fugee girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). Theo, for reasons that aren’t initially clear even to himself, agrees to help ferry Kee to the Human Project, a shadowy scientific entity devoted to figuring out why humans can no longer reproduce.

Alas, the Fishes’ network turns out to be no Underground Railroad, and things soon go badly awry, leaving Theo as the sole protector of Kee and her midwife, Miriam (Pam Ferris). He gets some assistance from an old friend, a philosophizing pothead named Jasper (the ubiquitous Michael Caine, very funny here), but otherwise he’s virtually on his own, tracking a perilous path to the coast that along the way reveals a society on the verge of complete breakdown. What’s especially unsettling about the horrors we see is that they hardly seem inconceivable from the vantage point of today—from the bomb that wipes out a shabby London diner to the nightmarish detention camps where refugees are placed in literal cages before being deported, and where the only rule seems to be shoot first, ask no questions later.

Cuarón films this journey through hell with dazzling virtuosity, eschewing close-ups in favor of long tracking shots that convey a vivid sense of almost newsreel-like immediacy and, in what’s bound to be the movie’s most studied sequence, a single take of a breathless, hair-raising car chase. The film also imbues the struggles of the two central characters with strong religious-allegorical overtones—perhaps too strong, as the charm that envelops this latter-day madonna and child occasionally tugs hard at even the most willing suspension of disbelief. Still, there’s no quibbling with the symbolic power of the newborn babe in a land of barren wombs and unstinting death, or the light that gradually dawns on Joseph’s, excuse me, Theo’s, face as he draws near the culmination of his quest. For, much as “Children of Men” operates as a sobering commentary on man’s capacity for self-destruction, it is just as much a paean to man’s capacity for faith and hope. It’s the spirit that never dies as long as there is one soul to nurture it, and it’s this spirit that lends the gray, despairing landscape of the film its lingering shimmer of beauty.

GRADE: A-


Also saw:

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

directed by Clint Eastwood
starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Ryo Kase, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Completing the diptych that began with “Flags of Our Fathers,” Clint Eastwood takes a second look at one of WWII’s bloodiest battles—this time from the other side of the barbed wire. While “Flags” (from what I understand, not having seen it) had a lot on its mind besides the battle itself, being based on a book that was at least as much about the U.S. war propaganda machine and its adverse effects on four individuals it exploited, “Letters” is fundamentally a simpler and more focused film. Still, many of the themes it explores intersect with those of the earlier movie, including the horrors of war, the price of patriotism, and the meaning of duty to a country that may manipulate one’s loyalty for doubtful, even unworthy ends. “Letters” examines the Japanese perspective on Iwo Jima from top, middle, and bottom: though it spends much of its time with Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), the general charged with defending the island, it’s just as interested, if not more so, in the responses of the lower ranks, particularly the grunts.

I have no idea how historically accurate the film is: I assume screenwriter Iris Yamashita did her homework, though having been raised with certain images of the ruthless efficiency and brutality of the Japanese war machine, the single-mindedness of Japanese nationalism, and the rigidity of the Japanese hierarchical structure, I found myself surprised, even a shade skeptical, at the degree of doubt, chaos, and insubordination revealed here. At bottom, though, Eastwood’s less interested in the effectiveness of Kuribayashi’s military strategy than in the aspects of human nature drawn out by those last, desperate hours fighting without military advantage or, indeed, military support from his own nation. As such, “Letters” is a fine, thoughtful, frequently poignant piece of work, though I couldn’t escape a vague sense that everything it had to say, every ambiguity and conflict it raised, was something I’d seen before. As a pure narrative, it packed no surprises: indeed, every small irony or reversal felt faintly formulaic and predictable from miles away. (I blame Paul Haggis, who co-wrote the story, and whom I still haven’t forgiven for “Crash.”)

That said, one doesn’t generally go into a war movie—at least not an Eastwood movie—for plot subtleties or flights of aesthetic fancy. At the end of the day, unless you’re Terence Malick, a war movie is there primarily to remind us that war is indeed hell, that it brings out the best but also the worst in man, and that when faced with whether to enter that hell, it may, in fact, be our duty to reason why, not simply to do or die. Nowhere is this better embodied than in Watanabe’s beautifully textured performance as a born leader, trapped in a situation not of his own making, who ultimately keeps his doubts—but not his humanity—to himself. In one of the film’s best scenes, we see Kuribayashi in the simple act of listening to a radio broadcast that’s practically tailored to evoke a sea of conflicting emotions. We see a hint of these emotions passing over his face before he masters them and turns around—only a hint, but it’s enough.

GRADE: B+


THE PAINTED VEIL

directed by John Curran
starring Naomi Watts, Ed Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones

Something about “The Painted Veil” doesn’t quite come together—at least it didn’t for me. It has all the ingredients of a great film, including exquisitely delicate work by Watts, Norton, and Jones, breathtaking cinematography that highlights without exoticizing the stunning beauty of the Chinese countryside, a haunting score by Alexandre Desplat, and a literary pedigree that still carries some weight, even if Maugham may no longer be an A-lister in the English canon. Yet the end product lacks the epic sweep and romantic energy that this genre of film really needs for full effect. Everything feels too carefully crafted and polished, too refined and restrained. Even the acting is so subtle that it sometimes comes across as muted. It’s not helped by the script’s overly brisk pace—particularly in the beginning, where we’re given a large chunk of plot (courtship, marriage, adultery, journey, cholera) and not enough corresponding characterization to get more than an abstract sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.

Nor do we get much sense of what a powder-keg China was in the 1920s—apart from a couple of uncomfortable scenes where the colonized threaten to turn on the colonizers, and which are clearly meant to be interesting primarily for their effect on the relationship between the two central characters. This, I suspect, is mainly the fault of Maugham, for whom the Chinese and the birth-pangs of the Chinese nation probably functioned as just so much scenery. The film tries to tweak this view a little, but not very much, and indeed it would have been futile to change the story’s essentially hermetic nature without rewriting it altogether. That, perhaps, is the root of the problem. For a film that paints on such a panoramic canvas, it feels small and strangely passé.

GRADE: B

2 Comments:

Blogger richard said...

your casting order for the painted veil is wrong. the correct order as per the official poster and opening credits of the film is:

naomi watts, edward norton, liev schreiber and toby jones.

9:01 AM  
Blogger David said...

I love your review of El Laberinto del Fauno (my two criticisms of the film being the poorly translated title and the scene where Mercedes doesn't kill Captain Vidal when she gets the chance - necessary for the plot but odd otherwise).

When I come across something beautiful, it helps me to understand why it is beautiful by reading from well versed, articulate people. Sadly, most critics seem to miss the point of the movie, while stabbing at things that make them sound intelligent.

Your review helped me understand the film's beautty.

The 2nd great thing I read that helped me understand the beautty was something Sergio said about his character, Vidal:

(rephrased) He's a coward, and Ofelia, despite her stature, is scared, but courageous.

3:32 PM  

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