Archive for January, 2014

Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Year of Release: 2006     Directed by Guillermo del Toro.  Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones.

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – attributed to G. K. Chesterton, probably erroneously. I’ve also heard Neil Gaiman might have said something along those lines.

Regardless of who actually came up with that pithy saying on the importance of fairy tales, it is a very accurate summary of my favorite aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth, a beautifully shot fairy tale that alternates between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the labyrinth of the faun: a world of fairies, giant toads, mandrakes, and a magical underground kingdom. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) spends equal time in both worlds after a mysterious and not at all safe Faun (Doug Jones) gives her three tasks to complete in order to return to her underground kingdom as the princess she truly is.

As Ofelia says in the opening voice over, there is a legend that says many years ago the princess of the underground wandered away and left her kingdom.  She took on a mortal body and died, but her father knew that one day her spirit would enter the body of another girl and she would return.  When the Faun appears and tells Ofelia she is that girl, Ofelia is eager to believe him as a way of escaping the cruel dragons she must face day to day in the form of her stepfather (Sergei Lopez), the sadistic captain of the Spanish fascist army.  Ofelia has also read so many fairy tales, to the consternation of her mother (Ariadna Gil), that she naturally believes the stories are true.  After discovering a birthmark on her shoulder as proof of her royal lineage, Ofelia begins the three tasks.

Whether there really is a fantasy world, or whether the faun and the tasks are created by Ofelia’s vivid imagination as a way of coping with her sadistic step-father and very sick mother, is unclear and besides the point. The fairy tales cast the cold, brutal world that Ofelia inhabits in a new light where evil monsters are destroyed, the sick regain health, and the suffering innocent are rewarded.

Each tasks of Ofelia’s mirrors a challenge she or another protagonist is facing in the real world. Both of them must acquire an important key from a monster for their first challenge. The self-discipline that Ofelia learns from the second task is a skill which the rebel soldiers also need to learn for their second attack on the army base. Both Ofelia and the soldiers suffer similar consequences for failing to keep their desires in check.

Unfortunately, the one dimensional stock villains and heroes are not any less frustrating on repeat viewing. Admittedly fairy tales often have simple characters, and the real world humans are meant to parallel the characters and situations Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth. But compared to the detailed craftsmanship laboriously and lovingly poured into the fantasy world, its characters, and scenarios; the simplistic real world with its stereotypical good-guys and bad-guys is disappointing in comparison.

However, it is difficult to focus on that one weak aspect when the rest of the film is breathtaking, beautiful, and remarkably profound regarding the importance of fairy tales, as it tells one of the most impressive fairy tales of recent years. Del Toro also saves the most beautiful image for the end, suggesting that even in a world as dark as Ofelia’s there can still be a happily ever after of eternal bliss.


Content Advisory: Graphic and gory violence including torture, mutilation, and deadly gunplay; and some obscene language.                            MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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2013 Top Ten

Eligibility is determined by commercial American release date.  I still need to see The Past, The Wind Rises, Museum Hours, Upstream Color, You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, among others, but even without them, this is a very strong list.

Honorable Mentions (#20-16): Lore (Cate Shortland), Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon), The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), August: Osage County (John Wells), To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Runners-up (#15-11): The Bling Ring (Sophia Coppola), Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler), Great Expectations (Mike Newell), Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami), Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

10. Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks gives a powerhouse performance as the titular captain of a cargo ship who is taken prisoner when the ship is hijacked by Somali pirates.  The exchanges between Phillips and the captain of the pirates are anything but expected as the film reveals deep human interests on both sides.  To capture the relentless tension, director Paul Greengrass utilizes his trademark shaky handheld camera, which masterfully places the viewer alongside Phillips and his captors, while generating sympathy for both of them.

9. Stoker­ – Heavily influenced by Hitchcock, most notably Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho, Stoker is a near perfect inversion of the master of suspense’s favorite of all his films.  With striking imagery captured by Chan-wook Park and his longtime cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, Stoker paints an appropriately creepy and sinister portrait of a niece and her uncle who share and strengthen a special bond in the most disturbing of ways.

8. American Hustle – One of the most enjoyable things to watch can be a film from a director who loves working with his actors and lets them act at their very best and play off one another.  David O. Russell’s Scorsese-light satire does precisely that with an extremely talented cast headed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams as con artist who are roped into organizing a sting operation for the FBI, while Bale’s unstable wife (Jennifer Lawrence in her best performance yet) threatens to expose the entire operation. To top off the convincing atmosphere of the ’70’s period piece loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal, the soundtrack features “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Live and Let Die,” as well as countless other classic pop songs.

7. 12 Years a Slave – Unflinching and brutal, yet simultaneously beautiful and haunting, 12 Years a Slave is British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s portrayal of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free African-American violinist kidnapped, taken down south, and sold into slavery.  At the center of an horrifically realistic depiction of a reverse underground railroad,  Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful, heart wrenching performance of quiet suffering as Solomon, a man who experiences unimaginable hardship along with surprising gestures of kindness, but never forgets his one purpose for staying alive: returning to his family in New York.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis – In many ways, Llewyn Davis’ heartfelt country singing is his one tenuous link with humanity.  When he performs, his audience loves him and the viewer sympathizes with him.  The rest of the time Llewyn insults, abuses, and belittles most of his acquaintances while mourning his self-inflicted misfortunes.  The Coen’s bleak drama of a musician, who continually hinders his own chances for success, is infused with country music and terrific performances, as it spends one week inside the life of Llewyn Davis as he aimlessly looks for work and halfheartedly tries to repair the damage of his actions, while his selfishness often makes matters worse.

5. Before Midnight – Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy reunite for the third entry in their Celine/Jesse series, again after a nine year interim.  Where we find the empathetic yet slightly narcissistic couple after the unresolved finale of Before Sunset (the previous film in the series) is a huge surprise.  And from there, Before Midnight takes a sobering and poignant look at relationships structured around putting oneself first versus placing one’s partner’s needs before one’s own, all the while showcasing two of the best performances of the year.

4. Frozen – Easily Disney’s best animated film since Beauty and the Beast, Frozen features a boldly original story, phenomenal songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, breathtaking animation, and the funniest sequence of 2013 – Olaf the snowman’s fantasy of the wonderful things he would do “In Summer.”  Anna and Elsa are two sisters who tragically spend their lives separated after a near fatal accident from Elsa’s magic powers when they were children.  Anna’s childhood plea to her sister for a relationship, “Do you want to build a snowman?” overshadows the entire film as a second accident triggered by the two sisters’ non-relationship causes an enchanted winter to freeze the entire kingdom, which can only be reversed by melting not one, but two frozen hearts.

3. The World’s End – Arguably the cleverest and funniest films of the year, The World’s End blends elements of comedy, science fiction, horror, and apocalyptic thriller as five former college buddies return to their home town twenty years later in attempt to complete the golden mile, a twelve pub crawl in one evening, beginning at The First Post and ending at the famed World’s End, making them just like the three musketeers, except there are five of them.  Containing references to Star Wars, Casablanca, and several other classic films, The World’s End delivers constant laughs amidst a brilliantly structured narrative, loaded with foreshadowing, as the friends’ quest to get drunk and have a good time becomes increasingly dangerous and outrageous.

2. This Is Martin Bonner – Two men, Martin and Travis, are both suffering from disillusion and trying to rebuild their lives after hitting rock bottom.  Martin has recently been divorced, lost his job, and filed for bankruptcy; Travis is being released after serving twelve years in prison for manslaughter while driving under the influence.  When Martin relocates to Arizona as a counselor for released prisoners, the unlikely friendship he forms with Travis forms the heart of a quiet unassuming story that reveals a source of love at the center of all meaningful human relationships.

1. Frances Ha – This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s heard me talk about this film, but I cannot emphasize enough how much I love Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s hilarious quirky comedy about a twenty-something dancer struggling to become “a real person” in New York City and sort out her increasingly complicated friendships and love life, while attempting to earn a living.  Frances herself is a brilliantly life-like character who is flawed, funny, occasionally frustrating, and completely endearing.  Her sense of humor pervades the film, enabling to laugh at her mistakes and learn from them.  As she says at one moment of insight: “And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s – That’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.”  That’s what I want cinema to portray, and Frances Ha delivers in spades.

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