Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Where movies and music are concerned, I have a real soft spot for artists that demonstrate the capacity to improve, to develop and to produce something better each time they make the decision to sit at the drawing-board. There is a reason for this, and it is the fact that this type of artist is taking a risk, leaving their comfort zone, and perhaps attempting to tread on unfamiliar ground. Risk is universal, we all know what is involved. It can be exhilarating and worrisome in equal measures, and the possible outcomes can, in this case, define careers. The downside may be that your creative departure is not accepted by your audience, and your career is set back by a few years. However, the upside could be not only that a whole new audience comes to discover the great new stuff you've been putting together, but also that you get better at what you do! At the end of the day, isn't that the point of creative endeavours?

Hollywood agents would guffaw at this suggestion, but Tinseltown is over-populated with people in creative comfort zones, their decisions depending more on demographics and dollar signs than any artistic instinct. Think of the litany of Jerry Bruckheimer productions over the last ten years, and you can see the level of creative risk involved. Any creative leaps forward in this long list of big-budget multiplex-fests are generally due to the special effects teams involved. I associate Johnny Depp with the category of creative risk-takers, and admire this about him, but even he can succumb to the relaxing creative time-out offered by a Bruckheimer production (or three!).

However, it is a measure of Depp's talent that, in a movie where most 'stars' would get their sushi chefs to telephone in a performance, Depp delivers something iconic to the world of cinema. I would argue, however, that his acting ability is equally due to the risks he has taken over the course of his career and his willingness to try difficult projects, as to any innate talent or simple star charisma. Where Dean Martin had charisma, James Dean also had real acting talent, and there is a difference. Look down through their careers, and you see the vastly different levels of challenge they gave themselves.

Guillermo del Toro demonstrated more than the seeds of real creative talent when he directed the beautiful, but flawed 'El Espinoza del Diablo', or The Devil's Backbone. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this suspenseful tale starts off on a track that makes you think it will be 'The Spanish Sixth Sense', and then careers off wildly along different paths, finally ending up like something a little more from the mind of Robert Rodriguez. However, amid the dense story, there is definitely something there. Comparisons are difficult at best, but 'The Devil's Backbone' defiantly resists being compared to almost anything, with a stubborn mediterranean way all its own. In the uniqueness of its style, it made a name for Guillermo del Toro. And this is satisfying as, prior to this, del Toro was really only known for having helmed a couple of horrors, to mixed critical reaction ('Cronos' good, 'Mimic' baad). But del Toro was all the time gaining experience, both in Hollywood and through his native language in Spain and Mexico.

Following the Devil's Backbone, del Toro took up residence in Hollywood, and promptly gave us the over-rated 'Blade 2' and the criminally under-rated 'Hellboy'. Blade 2 felt like an experiment in special effects for me, and while there was much to like in terms of new ideas, the movie itself didn't really grab me, possibly because I was looking for something a little less fantasy, and a little more gritty, like the first Blade movie, but there you go. With 'Hellboy' on the other hand, we have a franchise that Del Toro can make his own, and he is well and truly on the case, with a sequel entitled 'Hellboy 2 - The Golden Army' out next year. Possibly for fans of the comic-book genre only, Hellboy is a tongue-in-cheek actioner, that lovingly recreates a character as portrayed in the comic book.. something that Hollywood repeatedly gets wrong.. (I'm still quite bitter about 'Judge Dredd', that should have been a good movie dammit)

Before I reveal any more of my own nerd credentials, I'll get on to Pan's Labyrinth. I don't want to give anything important away about the plot, because I'm going to recommend you go and see it. However, I will say that del Toro, who wrote, directed and produced 'El Labyrinto del Fauno', has taken a real creative leap forward with this movie.

The visual style he has developed with his Hollywood special effects fests is used to great effect here, and certain scenes are like little else seen on screen before, resembling Tim Burton's style, but with an extra dash of horror added to give the audience a real nervous edge. This is not only wondrously beautiful, it is vaguely threatening, and in the more fantastic scenes the audience is never allowed to relax.

You will have probably heard that the movie is essentially a fairy tale, but this is definitely not a kid's movie folks! The story is very much targeted at adults, even though the central character is a young girl. The 'Alice in Wonderland' fantasy feel to her part in the first half of the film is offset by the real-life struggles of her mother and the actions of her newly adopted father in reality. In Ofelia's newly adopted father, or 'El Capitan', as he is called throughout the movie, del Toro may just have created a truly iconic bad guy to add to the cinematic annals. He is very much 'the bad man' of the piece, and Sergi Lopez delivers a performance that is chillingly restrained, and very frightening.

I should point out that the film is at times unflinchingly violent, and this may turn some people off. Personally, I feel that screen violence should never be taken out of context, and that it's difficult to pin down what makes certain scenes more difficult to watch than others. The 'Reservioir Dogs' ear chopping scene never really bothered me for example, whereas the gritty torture scene in 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley' left me officially traumatised. There are scenes in Pan's Labyrinth that may horrify, but there was only one scene where I felt it was slightly excessive, reminiscent of one of those 'Goodfellas' style beatings. It is more the threat of impending violence that really chilled me in Pan's Labyrinth, especially from the relentlessly wicked El Capitan.

Like 'Devil's Backbone', 'Pan's Labyrinth' is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia, the main character, is a young girl whose father has died recently. Her mother has now re-married - unfortunately for both of them - to a certain fascist Capitan Vidal and they relocate to Vidal's country manor, which is also a fascist command centre, tackling the problem of the resistance. Ofelia is a reader, and takes refuge in her many fairy-tale books to avoid the painful reality she is faced with. Immediately after arriving in the countryside she begins discovering strange, magical things..

'Pan's Labyrinth' is tightly written, well performed, and beautfiully brought to life on screen. The themes it tackles are universal - art reflecting life, fantasy versus reality, children's relationships with adults - but the story is so timeless it is difficult to believe that del Toro has written it himself. Like hearing a really great song for the first time, you have this nagging feeling you've heard it before.

So, as a football commentator might say, all credit to del Toro, for he has without a doubt produced his best work to date. And it is not an easy piece of cinema by any means, either in terms of production, or indeed in terms of an experience for the audience. However, a simple rule of investment states that, the greater the risk, the greater the potential return. In this case, del Toro has gone out on a limb, and taken a creative risk. I recommend you take a risk, and go see Pan's Labyrinth, because the returns are generous.

The Verdict: It is at times frightening, tense, violent and sad, but overall, Pan's Labyrinth is a beautiful story, exceptionally well told.
The Rating: 9/10

No comments:

/** Amazon Affiliates code /** Google Analytics Code