Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Not your typical fairytale creature...

There is something to be said for the immersiveness of a foreign film, especially one with subtitles, because of the way the brain must be engaged in order to comprehend what's on the screen. There is also something to be said for this irony: My review for "Pan's Labyrinth" will perhaps be one of the worst ones I've ever written, even though it is one of the best movies I've seen in awhile. And even funnier: I'm not even sure WHY it's one of the best movies I've seen in awhile. So let's break this down here, so that perhaps by the end of this piece, I'll have a better grasp on my own appreciation for this remarkable piece of cinema.

First of all, I'm not even sure what kind of movie "Pan's Labyrinth" is. It's a fairytale, it's a drama, it's a thriller. The only genre this film misses out on is romance. Here is the basic blueprint:

The time period is 1940s Spain, where the country is in the throes of Fascist rule. A young girl, Ofelia, travels with her pregnant mother into the country to live with the man her mother just married -- a cruel, ruthless captain of the Spanish army. Because the child's mother is restricted to bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy, and because the girl's existence is nothing short of lonely and grim sharing an old, creaky house with a cruel, sadistic stepfather, Ofelia finds herself in the midst of a fantasy of her own creation, a world filled with imagery that is nothing short of frightening and enthralling. She's a creative girl, and the creatures who fill this dreamscape are an exercise in artistic brilliance. In a better world, Ofelia would have made a hell of an author. An example of this is the Faun creature, who looks something like a minotaur meshed with a tree trunk, as envisioned by someone who has had a healthy dose of toxic mushrooms sprinkled on their breakfast cereal. This Faun guides Ofelia on a series of quests that, upon their completion, are supposed to transport her to a magical kingdom, of which she is a princess.

That brief synopsis makes Pan's Labyrinth seem rather simplistic, and it is anything but. The film itself is a labyrinth of ideas and story, and Ofelia's adventures in her "wonderland" are frequently interrupted by goings-on in the real world, particularly by the cruelties enacted by Captain Vidal against the rebels of the country's regime. There are images in this film of unabashed greusomness, and a lot of it is not for the faint of heart or stomach.

Visually, Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece and should be a sure Oscar contender for Art Direction, not to mention Best Foreign Film. It is refreshing to see such stark imagery on the screen. For the second theater experience in a row, I have been taken on a unique, visceral journey. I'm not entirely sure this is coincidental, because both films (the previous one was Children of Men) were made by foreign directors (Alejandro Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, respectively) and both challenge American convention. Perhaps that reason, above all others, is why I admire and recommend this movie.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

As a side note: this film heavily earns its "R" rating and is decidedly NOT for children, although I wouldn't be entirely averse to showing it to someone around 12 or so.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Children of Men

I don't care what this picture says, Clive Owen is still hot...

Believe it or not, some people imagine the future to be a pretty bleak place, envisioning war, famine, disease, and oppressive, violent governments. What author P.D. James conceived for her novel Children of Men was a highly dystopic future, where every woman on the planet was rendered infertile for no apparent reason. In the year 2027, no new children have been born for the past 18 years. Now, this might sound like a dream come true for some people. In fact, I know of one in particular to whom this scenario would be more like a utopia; however, this story, as realized on film by director Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) paints a dreary landscape on a canvas of despair, one frought with unimaginable suffering and violence, and it hits one in the solar plexus with brutal imagery so realistic that it would take a guided tour in a Hummer through downtown Fallujah during a full-scale attack to match, at least in terms of shock value.

The story is centered in England, which has become a bit of something out of George Orwell's lighter dreams in terms of a totalitarian society, and it is scarred by almost 2 decades worth of hopelessness, the inevitable byproduct of a civilization that realizes it can no longer reproduce. Hopelessness so severe, in fact, that the government regularly distributes suicide kits for people who want to help bring about the inevitable that much quicker. Not helping matters is that the government has also imposed an all-out imprisonment (more like genocide) of illegal immigrants. They are rounded up, caged, and placed into hellish refugee camps. Hitler would have been proud. We are never quite let on to what began this spat of violence against immigrants, but I think this was intentional. It is merely used as a backdrop to create an immersive world full of turmoil, as well as to create the conflict for our major characters.

Clive Owen plays Theo Farron, an unlikely hero who gets by in an unassuming job while nursing a liquor habit. He is contacted by his estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who is an outlaw activist working in favor of immigrant rights, and the leader of an extremist (some would say terrorist) group. She asks him if he could procure papers that would help a refugee woman out of the country. It turns out that this particular refugee is pushing full steam ahead into her third trimester of pregnancy, which of course makes her a valuable commodity. What ensues from this point is a volatile trek to get this woman to safety. Safety being "The Human Project." We have no idea what this entity actually is, but it is perceived that they are working on something that could help women conceive again. Michael Caine makes for the film's "lighter" side, playing Theo's friend and aid, as well as an aging hippie and political cartoonist who has made a great life for himself by selling what the government, in a sad irony, still makes illegal -- marijuana.

There is much that is not explained by way of plot in Children of Men. In fact, the film can at times be very cold, stark, and difficult to watch. The action and cinematography (filmed with a hand-held camera) are jarring, and they sear the memory with images on par with a film like Saving Private Ryan, particularly by the third act when our protagonists enter a refugee camp that is nothing short of nightmarish in its realism and authenticity. Clive Owen provides his best acting work to date in this decidedly unglamorous role.

Themes and moral messages abound in this film, and whether or not one agrees with them is a whole other matter. It is difficult to ignore the destructive tendencies of human beings, particularly when matters turn desperate. Children of Men captures this desperation at its most dire, and it haunts the mind long after the viewer leaves the theater.

Gouda's Final Grade: A