Monday, January 29, 2007

Fairy Tales Gone Horribly Wrong

Playing catch up is never fun, but when faced with the slew of usual January dumping ground affairs (“Blood and Chocolate, anyone?), it’s actually kinda fun to be faced with the idea of going to see the mentioned films below.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a wonderfully handsome and inventive yarn that, if there were any justice in the world, would win its nominated Oscar of original screenplay simply for the way the film’s two central plot strands mirror each in other depth and emotion. There are two grand ideas at work here- first, in order to settle his vivacious need for the ‘fantastic’, Del Toro has created an adult fairy tale that frightens with its dark and moody attention and impressively designed creatures (that thing with the eyes in the hands is the stuff of true nightmares). If this alone had been the entire premise of the film, it would’ve succeeded magnificently. But secondly, Del Toro brings us out of the fairy tale world into the harsh realities of past-day Spain in which villains are more clearly embodied as the military and, specifically, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a man so consumed with hatred and spite for the rebels he’s chasing that his actions bring about more cringe-worthy moments than the underworld creatures. As Ofelia (a natural and charismatic young actress named Ivana Baquero) revolves back in forth between the real world and the (maybe) unreal one, Del Toro’s screenplay subtly begins drawing parallels between them. Ofelia in the adult world is represented by Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper who is also sublimating herself between two alternate and equally dangerous worlds, working in the mill for the military while supplying her rebel brother with food and supplies. Simply put, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is that rare type of film that expressively uses a children’s medium (fantasy) to highlight commentary and sneak in mature outcries against the political and social regime of the day. I think the enduring reason that C.S Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series has held up for so long in popular culture is this very reason- it works as a pure children’s fantasy while slowly revealing hidden snippets on religion and politics that become apparent in adulthood. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is certainly not for children, but it hosts a feast of ideas and images for adults and deserves to be seen, felt and heard for a long time.

The Queen

For whatever reason, I never ventured out to see Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” when it was in limited release here in Dallas throughout December. Well, the above is a small white lie. Fact is, this is the type of stodgy British film that never appeals to me so I never had that strong of an urge. With the impending Oscar noms under the film’s belt, I figured it was time to give this feature a chance; that and the fact that director Frears’ versatility is sharp as a filmmaker (he’s recently bounced from “The Hi-Lo Country” to “High Fidelity” to “Dirty Pretty Things”!) While “The Queen” is better than I expected, it also never breaks out of its stuffy confines into anything transcendental. And, in keeping with the title of this post, its a fairly reliable story about a fairy tale gone horribly wrong (royal family faced with the dilemma of losing their beautiful ex-princess to the tragic beasts of vanity). The most interesting aspect of the film (besides the marvelous performance of Michael Sheen as Tony Blair) is the visual struggle that Frears toys with throughout. “The Queen”, at the heart of the story, is the idea of old vs. new and traditional vs. modern. Frears couples that wavering feeling by quietly alternating between traditional pans and cuts when he’s within the confines of the royal family with more handheld and close-up shots when dealing with the fastidious rituals of the labor party headquarters. It was a technique I noticed about halfway through during a scene in which Sheen as Blair calls the Queen (Helen Mirren) on the telephone. That opened up a whole new interest in the film. “The Queen” is one of those polite films that deals with British royalty in a passive aggressive manner, documenting the days after Princess Diana’s death and the royal family’s unwilling interest to speak out or even fly a flag at half-mast. Instead, they spend their days hunting and vainly attempting to keep everything “a private affair”. Archived footage of the social unrest that developed during that week after the tragedy are interspersed with a fictional script by Peter Morgan that also wants to shine a spotlight on the conflicting personalities between the family and the new political labor party. A majority of “The Queen” plays out like a mini-thriller, suggesting that Prince Charles’ alliance lies more with the press and people than the stuffy obligations of the royal family. Likewise, Morgan’s script breathes life into the inner circle of Blair in the early days, including his speechwriter and wife as they attempt to align themselves strategically for the future. “The Queen” is a fine film for its modest purposes and stands to be the next film that declares a best actress amongst its crew.

These reviews and others can be read here

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