Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth

El laberinto del fauno, by Guillermo del Toro, written and directed, released 2006, rated R.

A bizarre fairy tale told against the back drop of the end of the Spanish Civil War, 1944. Well, post-end of the Spanish Civil War. Young girl, Ofelia, goes with her mother to live with her step-father, a sadistic Military Captain for Fascist Spain at an outpost house in the hills in the rural country. She has never met her step-father and only comes at her mother's insistence. Mother is pregnant, and the Captain wants the child to be his. Ofelia meets a few nice people, but most of her time is spent with a fearful pallor from the Captain's management. Ofelia finds hope when she is lead by a fairy to a faun who tells her of a past life and a destiny that only she can fulfill.

As the events in the camp unfold and the drama escalates, Ofelia brings herself closer and closer to reaching her desires until the two worlds overlap. Actually, there is a loose parallel in all the events, including how deadly each world is. The Captain is ruthless in establishing order and in eliminating the rebels, and the creatures Ofelia encounter are equally blood thirsty.

Prior to this movie, I had not seen a Guillermo del Toro film, but when I had heard about him it had always been with the associations of Fantasy Visuals. After all, he also directed the Hellboy movies, and Blade II. Incidentally, he'll also be directing The Hobbit. True to the hype, his visuals were seamless. The Captain's actions lead to violence, and the fantasy violence is engrossing. In particular, a face wound leads to many instances for wonder, a lot like Two-Face in the Dark Knight did. On top of the violent images were the scenes from Ofelia's Fairy World, where the creatures are completely intriguing. Not like monster movies where the creatures are withheld from view so our fear of the unknown grows, Guillermo shows us everything and lets us examine it closely, showing his mastery. Giant Frogs, the woody Faun, and the deadly knife, these images feel real.

Honestly, for me the fantasy world was on the back burner for the human drama of the Captain and the rebels, but Ofelia's plight and place was heart breaking, especially, as the tension in the camp grows tighter. All of the characters and actors portray themselves beautifully. I've never hated a villain or hoped for the protagonists so much. A wonderful film, leaves you bitter sweet, but justified.

Rated R for graphic violence, and I don't mean a lot of fighting, and the occasional swear, if subtitle words mean anything to you.


Directed by Henry Selick, released 2009, adapted from the novel, Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Rated PG.

Coraline is a snappy story about a young girl who moves to a strange new home at the Pink Palace Apartments in Oregon with her depressingly busy and irritable writer parents. While trying to find a new place for herself she meets the other bizarre inhabitants of the old apartments, a Soviet Jumping-mouse circuteer, two washed up actresses, a boy named Why-were-you-born, and eventually she stumbles in on an alternate realty where things seem much brighter.

That's great, and it really is, but the story is really only so compelling as it's telling, and that's where this movie really takes off. Henry Selick, the director, also directed the films The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Monkey Bone and several others. What's the connecting link? Stop Motion animation.

Coraline is fully animated with Stop Motion with some of the most gorgeous visuals you can ask for. In fact, to fully grasp what the artists and directors created, they filmed it in 3D, a sight that I regrettably missed out on. However, with a little imagination it's easy to see where the big Pop-Out images would be.

Most of this film is visual, watching Coraline accomplish subtle movements while talking, watching the unique posturing of the characters, being absorbed by the colors in the woods and in the garden. I especially loved the depth of the background scenery. Even when it gets trippy at the end, and probable computer generated images are included, the motion of the characters and the skill of the creators puts it together seamlessly. In fact, I think I really missed out on the 3D there. But equally important to the movie is the audio.

The real soul of the film is transmitted by the voice actors and musicians who fill the screen with life. During the relatively quiet scenes of watching Coraline explore her new worlds there's a hauntingly mellow song by Bruno Coulais sung in French that leaves the hair on your neck standing up. How does a mellow song leave you nervous? I can't tell you, except that it's the kind of incongruous experience that you have when somebody is so comfortable in a horrible situation that you get unnerved. There are tense scenes with tense music, but most of it is just an unsettling ambiance that you can wallow in. And why are you uncomfortable with the scene already? Probably thanks to the visualists.

And that's all I'm really trying to communicate here. This movie delivers it's mood so thoroughly that you'll walk away with it stuck in your pockets. I know people who didn't like that eeriness, but I personally couldn't get enough because the movie was so at home with it. It wasn't just a bizarre situation, but it was the reality of the world they show, so I made myself comfortable.

Now, structurally the story is not as engaging. The pacing is admittedly slow, and the events are really more of a show-and-tell that pays off for a climax. However, thanks to the voice actors and the great visual artists, the characters become so charming that watching the day-to-day of these odd people and creatures is really enough a story in itself.

With an unsettling atmosphere and occasional adult themes, it isn't a show for little kids, but it should do fine with open-minded big kids and young teenagers and most adults.