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Feeling weary and battle-worn, I have just staggered out of the cinema
three and a half hours of special effects creatures fighting other
effects creatures. I had taken refreshments but barely touched them -
probably because the film I had watched is one of the most mesmerising,
evocative, inspiring, and awesome I have witnessed of any big adventure
epic. Not to mention superb ensemble acting, moods that shift
between mediaeval battles of colossal proportions and convincing
beauty and wonderment, fantastic natural and artificial landscapes and
cityscapes, touches of humour, well-paced dramatic tension, and human
bonding that is moving enough to just let you dry your eyes as the
unassuming credits flash by.
Return of the King is the greatest of the Tolkien trilogy by New Zealand director Peter Jackson. Although I've seen the other two and read the book, I felt it would also stand alone well enough for people who hadn't done either.
The storytelling is much more professional that the first one - which maybe laboured to introduce so much information - or the second one - which has little let up from the tension of long battle scenes. In Return of the King, there is an emotional sting at the start, as we watch the transformation of Gollum from warm, fun-loving guy to murderous, mutated wretch. The movie then moves deftly between different segments of the story - the sadness of the lovely soft-focus Liv Tyler as fated Arwen whose travails and woman's love succeeds in having the Sword that was Broken mended, the comradeship of Sam and Frodo (Sean Astin & Elijah Wood) that is tested to the limits, the strong commanding presence of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who keeps an eye on things whilst turning in an Oscar-worthy performance, the ingenious and very varied battle scenes, and the mythical cities of that rise out of the screen and provide key plot elements.
This is a fairy story of human endeavour, the defeating of power cliques and the triumph of the human spirit that could almost be compared to Wagner's Gotterdammerung. It is a fairy story without any sugary sweetness, a fairy story the likes of which hasn't been told so well before, and is even unlikely to be done so well in the future. The haunting scream of the Nasgul stays with you, the physical attractions are not airbrushed, and the battles are about as far from pantomime characters waving wooden swords as you can get. The ingenious monsters keep you on the edge of your seat. The whole narrative maintains the spirit (if not archival, detailed accuracy) of the original and makes you want to read the book (or read the book again!)
The worst I can say about it is that it is maybe a tad long - but not that you'd notice . . .
Do you like chocolate? Do you know that moment, even before you put it
in your mouth? You can imagine that taste. You can feel that rich
sweetness on your tongue, the smoothness going around your mouth . . .
The Holiday is a romantic comedy. You know what that means. And if you don't like romantic comedies, don't go and see it. If you do, you will know what to expect. The mushy feelings creeping up on you. All those 'If Only . . .' emotions telling you there is a lovely place somewhere in which people fall in love and everything works out kinda perfect. If only for a while . . . say, for the holiday period over Christmas and New Year . . . or for the 138 minutes which this film lasts.
Two Women on the Verge of Emotional Breakdown do holiday house swap. They escape lovelorn predicaments and find 'unexpected' love on their opposite sides of the Atlantic. Cue picturesque English country house just the way Americans imagine it (with sheep out the back). Cue enormous L.A. mansion with swimming pool (just the way Brits imagine it).
Cameron Diaz is Amanda, owner of a movie-trailers editing firm. Since she's played the same comedy character several times, there are few surprises; but an excellent script, written directly for her and the other three leading stars, projects it rather better than average. Kate Winslet as Iris, a successful writer on The Telegraph, is more nuanced: an actor with considerable range, we cannot but help admire the way she does 'pathetic girl' rather beautifully in a role that she could manage with one hand counting the ways to have fun and get paid simultaneously.
Formulaic it is (wonderful women with scoundrelly fellas eventually get The Real Men They Deserve - meeting puppy dogs, children, and falling snowflakes on the way of course). But, well-done within a narrow genre, it still stands out. No-brainers like this tend to have dumb scripts and dumber acting, but The Holiday contains warm, natural dialogue and heartfelt chemistry. If this was the 40's, you'd want Jude Law and Cameron Diaz to get married off-screen afterwards. Charismatic and entertaining, unless you find Diaz, Law or Winslet personally irritating (some people do), they are a joy to watch, filling their parts with love and light. Excellent production values keep the rather trite story flowing. Everything is picture-perfect, long lenses flattering the features of the already handsome stars, filters and soft-focuses carefully delineating the mood.
There is an overall honesty to the performances. "You look like my Barbie!" delights a four-year-old excitedly to Diaz. Ironic? But said with so much affection it is self-deprecating rather than cutting. Jack Black struggles to get out of his music-and-silly-faces typecasting but just manages to look the part for an intellectual Iris who is not attracted to skin-deep. Jude Law, on the other hand, could be an advert for men's skin cream, and too rounded a character to be mere pin-up material.
With more Christmas songs than you can shake a piece of tinsel at, The Holiday is a warm, snuggly romance to lose yourself in before coming firmly back down to planet earth. It might be shallow, but it's seasonal entertainment - and a Swiss chocolate of romantic comedies.
Let's face it, often we go to the cinema for a bit of inconsequential
fun. In case you were in any doubt, Music and Lyrics kicks off with an
80s-style Wham-like video of a band called as 'PoP'. Firmly tongue in
retro-chic, Hugh Grant is Alex Fletcher, the washed-up has-been now
playing the nostalgia circuit for middle-aged housewives. He meets
bubbly Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) who waters the plants in his
apartment but has a knack for writing lyrics. This saves his day when
current pop-diva princess Cora asks him to write and record a duet with
Chances are you are now reaching for the vomit bag or saying that maybe sounds like quite a giggle. If you can stomach the idea of Hugh Grant singing his own songs and staging a come back then rest assured, this is a very polished and unsubstantial rom-com. He and Drew Barrymore propel the movie with energy, wit and a warm, lovable enthusiasm. While perhaps doing little more than playing new aspects of themselves, it is a delightful performance, and one backed up with catchy songs, a fabulous debut by Haley Bennett (Cora) and a heartfelt, realistic script.
Cora is a sort of teenage megastar, somewhere between Shakira, Britney Spears and a youthful Madonna. Her elaborate stage-shows have a 'Buddhism & thong'(mysticism and sex) philosophy. Here, as with Alex and Sophie, the echelons of the music world seem realistically portrayed. While the matches seem unbelievable at first, by the end of the film we want Hugh and Drew to continue their romance offstage, just as with classic romance films of the 30s, so by any mainstream yardstick, Music and Lyrics is a success. The film is as unpretentious as its two lead actors, makes no great claims, and satisfies Valentine's Day release requirements with a sincerity that takes it a notch above the average cheese. Casting is spot-on, even down to Sophie's older (and much larger) sister, who has similar characteristics and mannerisms. It's easy viewing, and even contains nothing unsuitable for older children. If you want more sophisticated and substantial fare, you probably don't need film reviews to find your way to the nearest art-house cinema or Oscar blockbuster. But for straight enjoyment, Music and Lyrics slides down like a very reasonable glass of rich chardonnay. Silly, formulaic, but rather well done.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Where does horror reside in the psyche?
Lars von Trier has established himself as a maker of serious, avant-garde drama. He came to fame through Breaking the Waves, a controversial story of how far someone would go for love. He founded the Dogme movement of verite cinema, and made The Idiots, where lunacy and sanity are cleverly mixed. Next came Dancer in the Dark, an almost Janacek-like musical where a blind girl takes inner fantasy to extremes. There were experiments like The Five Obstructions, and two highly theatrical Brechtian pieces called Dogville and Manderlay, with chalklines instead of sets. One of the few uncontroversial films he has made is Boss of it All, an extremely clever comedy that didn't receive much attention.
If someone like von Trier makes a horror movie, it is hardly likely to be standard fare. He makes films that provide himself and his audiences with thorny intellectual challenges. This results both in adherents and those which dismiss his work as pretentious. (Inasmuch as this review is partly interpretative, other viewers may find their own preferred readings which differ from the approach given here.) With Antichrist, although there are standard 'fright' moments, the main horror is deep psychological manipulation that stays with you for days afterwards. Instead of lashings of gore that can retrospectively be dismissed as 'more CGI,' von Trier seems to do exactly the opposite of what a Freudian psychotherapist would do in releasing obsessions. He locks the terrifying nature of the horror to the most extreme sexual images. The narrative itself follows a similar process. A psychotherapist, with the best intentions, leads his wife into the darkest recesses of her mind. But instead of releasing psychological trauma, he reinforces it, until he has to defend himself when she becomes the controlling force.
A psychotherapist (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are making love as their young toddler climbs onto a desk to look at snowflakes outside. And falls to his death. This opening prologue is operatic in its soundtrack and intensity. Exquisite monochrome photography captures water droplets in slow motion to Handel. There is a very brief, aesthetically contextualised glimpse of penetration, setting the audience up for the psycho-sexual horrors that follow later. In the trauma of bereavement, He asks his wife to visualise her worst nightmares in order to help her overcome them. She pictures the woods as symbolising her fear, and they both retreat to an 'Eden' an isolated cabin surrounded by woods.
The film is divided into six parts, including a Prologue (the lovemaking and death), Grief, Pain, and Despair; The Three Beggars, and an Epilogue. At the end of the prologue, the next three chapters are heralded by three toy soldiers from the dead son's toyroom, each appropriately named.
With Grief, comes very palpable sorrow from both leads. The players become substantial rather than dramatis personae. Colour is added to the previously monochrome palette, literally and in terms of filling out their characters.
As we go through Pain, his wife seems eventually cured. Our nerves, however, are frayed. This is compounded by the rhythmic, hypnotic pounding of acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, and his irritating but inescapable smugness as he treats his wife as a patient rather than a human being needing support. He forever has a self-satisfied, smart answer. Retreating to her own area of expertise, she comes out with ever more unanswerable metaphors, including, "Nature is Satan's Church." (She had been working previously on a book about 'Gynocide' and witch-hunts). The chapter finally introduces openly surreal elements, when a fox is unearthed. (The cunningness of foxes suggests a reliance on logic, whereas the subconscious can rely more on symbols, introducing chaos to a 'logical world.') Chapter three is entitled Despair (Gynocide). He learns things about his wife he didn't know before but perhaps should have. He is pulled into her nightmare. We see him soaked in the rain, at the mercy for the first time of the elements. The fourth chapter gives form to the imaginary content of the preceding three, and includes the most upsetting and outrageous scenes (which some viewers will find objectionable). The epilogue provides a narrative and psychological resolution in the only way possible when things have come to such a head. We also see the story relate now to the whole of humanity.
The title of the film contains far more than is at first apparent, although there is also some weakness for the film there. In ancient (pre-'Christian') mythology, the 'Christos' was the enlightened soul within, a central experience of the Gnostic 'heretics.' Their pure aspiration enflamed prayer to reach this exalted realisation. The danger, of course, was that they would mistake an experience along the way for the 'ultimate truth' and become 'obsessed.' This also relates to why so many mystics and spiritual seekers form their own sects. From a Roman Catholic viewpoint, it might be used to explain many different churches that fall short of the ultimate authority. Von Trier is a lapsed Catholic, and describes himself as increasingly atheist. He has said he keeps a copy of Nietzsche's Antichrist at his bedside. In Nietzschean terms, any (traditional) religious conviction is an obsession that falls short of ultimate truth. In New Testament orthodoxy, an Antichrist is what (or who) precedes the Second Coming. Obsession as a temptation along the way works in all mythologies. Psychologically, this is simple description of a process in the mind. But von Trier's use of Christian symbols complicates the issue and obfuscates an elaborate tragedy that is already nearly Shakespearean in its format.
Antichrist is sure to get reactions, even from audiences not geared to his work. For them, the extreme and graphic sexual imagery may be a psychological device too far. For others, among whom are a rare breed of horror aficionados that enjoy a challenge while being outraged and violated, it is a gem of inestimable value.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
During one scene, high powered corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda
Swinton) practices answers for a coming interview. How do you achieve a
work-life balance? The question, of course, could apply to us all.
Ideals versus the reality of paying a mortgage? Trapped in a fast lifestyle. You maybe realise what you are doing is less than perfect. How easily can you get out? (One might also ask, how do serious actors balance worthwhile projects against box-office returns. A question that seems to prompt the fluctuating choices of stars like Swinton and Clooney.)
By putting such an impasse at the heart of the movie, Michael Clayton becomes more than an edge-of-your-seat legal drama: it is a powerful psychological study that asks how far we will go to avoid facing unpalatable truths.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an in-house 'fixer.' He works for a big New York law firm. He sorts out their dirty work. For instance, a big client is involved in a hit-and-run. Or bad stories in the press that need smoothed out. Clayton is good at his job. But discontented. Divorce, gambling addiction, failed business venture, loads of debt. No easy way out, even if he wanted one.
U-North is a large agrichemical company (think Constant Gardener). Their in-house chief counsel is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Karen wants to see off a multi-million dollar class action suit. Clayton's firm is employed to wind it all up nicely for her. But Clayton's colleague, the brilliant Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has an apparent mental breakdown. He strips off during a deposition. Then tries to sabotage the entire case. Clayton goes in to 'fix' things, yet he is gradually forced to admit how good the firm has maybe become at making wrong seem right.
Much in the tradition of Erin Brockovitch or even Syriana, this is a film that tries to attack the respected authorities while still working within the format of mainstream cinema. (More cynically, it uses high production values and scenes that last no longer than the attention span of passive audiences supposedly the length of a TV commercial break.)
Directed by the man who wrote the Bourne trilogy, Michael Clayton racks up an intelligent suspense movie out of a plot nominally too dry for mass-market appeal. It reminds us of a world of imperatives we all succumb to. Maybe we don't always stop to question our job or its ethics too closely? Finish our overtime. Get reports ready for tomorrow. Close the deal. Have some private life. Let's leave philosophy for people with time on their hands. 'Nothing to do with me.'
This is a moral-dilemma-movie that could easily have failed and doesn't. Two hours of lawyer-talk could be enough to bore anyone. But the screenplay cleverly contrasts high-intensity scenes and well-developed characters. Arthur's psychotic ranting. Clooney's impenetrable cool. Swinton's prepared polish. These are displayed in the boardroom. Or uncomfortably restrained emotion in family scenes. The high-stakes backroom card game. Or the simple, almost documentary-like portrayal of one of the plaintiffs claiming damages from U-North.
Director Tony Gilroy is in no hurry to play all his cards. By the time murder enters the game, we are so engrossed that it seems like a natural progression.
Cinematography by Oscar-nominated Robert Elswit is crucial. Right from the start, we are torn by fascinating contrasts. A long panning shot through expensive, empty offices is coupled with a sound-over of manic rambling. Suddenly the camera wanders into a busy room. An annoying reporter over the phone. And the overheard phrase, "The time is now," brings everything together in the present. Shortly afterwards, a horrific scene in which Clayton is almost killed. Then flashback four days to unravel a 'smoking gun' that can overturn the lawsuit on which lives, careers and whole firms rely.
At one point, a shadow on the lower right of the screen could almost be an audience member standing up. As it advances, we see it is Clooney. His 'reality-check' moment one with which we have been subtly led to identify then saves his life. The subsequent soul-searching and inner turmoil also provide one of Clooney's most rounded and complex performances to date. (Additional casting is spot-on, with Wilkinson and Swinton both excelling themselves.)
Clayton's ability to ask himself difficult questions is matched by Crowder's knack for self-deception. It is a frightening depiction of the legal mastery of words when she gives instructions for the most abominable acts with total deniability.
Although the overly obvious Blackberry product-placement annoyed me slightly, I found Michael Clayton a satisfying film without any of the usual over-simplified characters. Threads are pulled together a bit too conveniently towards the end, but it succeeds in never seeming contrived. If you have always put off thinking a little too deeply about where your own life is heading, it might even give you a necessary nudge. But as all-round entertainment to a thinking audience, Michael Clayton is one of this summer's better movies.
"All my films have started with an image," says director Andrea Arnold.
"It's usually quite a strong image and it seems to come from nowhere. I
don't understand the image at first or what it means, but I want to
know more about it so I start exploring it, try and understand it and
what it means. This is how I always start writing." What does the image
of a fish tank conjure up for you? On the inside longing to look out,
is fifteen-year-old Mia. Trapped in a housing estate. Trapped in a
single parent family. Trapped by people around her she can't respect.
Trapped in herself. For being fifteen. She has her own inner world,
fighting to manifest itself . Fortified by cigarettes and alcohol she
can kick in the door of the empty nearby flat. A bare floor. Her CD
player. Practice her moves. A better dancer than those kids on the
block she just nutted.
Mia is quite content to carve out her own double life, f*ck you very much! Never mind she gets caught and nearly comes to grief trying to steal a horse. And social workers don't scare her. But mom's new boyfriend that could be a pain! A real spanner in the works. Especially when he's so annoyingly nice.
Under Andrea Arnold's hand, life on this inner city concrete backwater is suddenly very alive. Banalities become beautiful. Like sunlight through cracked glass. Vibrant, gritty and riveting, but in a way that entertains powerfully. As pulsating and funny as Trainspotting but without the yuck factor. Its momentum is overpowering. We never know what is going to come out of Mia's mouth or where events will lead. Each jaw-dropping new scene surprises yet seems the result of inexorable momentum. As if that wasn't enough, the story mercifully avoids kitchen-sink drama, excessive violence, drugs, getting pregnant, grand larceny, car crashes and all the other cliché-ridden devices to which cinema-goers are usually subjected. Tightly controlled, Fish Tank attacks with a potent and thought-provoking arsenal of story-telling.
Andrea Arnold proved she could do hard-hitting realism with her award-winning debut, Red Road. Here she excels her earlier efforts but still imbibes many of the verité approaches and senses of discipline that have filtered down from the Dogme and Advance Party movements. Her 'strong initial image,' or lack of subservience to more traditional methodology, maybe reminds of the devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema taken by artists-turned-filmmakers such as Steve McQueen (Hunger) or theme-over-story technicians such as Duane Hopkins (Better Things). Michael Fassbender, who took reality to new heights as Bobby Sands in Hunger, here plays the mystifying and warmly charismatic Connor (Mum's boyfriend).
Arnold didn't allow actors to read the script beforehand. They were given their scenes only a few days before filming. For the part of Mia, she chooses a complete unknown with zero experience. Arnold spotted Katie Jarvis at a train station after drawing a blank with casting agencies. "She was on one platform arguing with her boyfriend on another platform, giving him grief." However the performance is achieved, Jarvis is electrifying. If Arnold wanted a 'real' person for the role, this seventeen-year-old takes over the screen with raw adolescent power. Says Arnold, "I wanted a girl who would not have to act, could just be herself." Fish Tank will lift you out of your seat and on an unstoppable flight, ricocheting against confines of circumstance and imploding a dysfunctional family with its head of hormonal steam. Laugh, cry, hold on tight. You will need to. I could almost taste the vodka, as Mia goes through her Mum's dressing table drawers, bottle in hand. I wish all British films were this good.
A quick glance at the story or trailer tells you that School of Rock is
probably the cheesiest, gratuitous, airhead excuse for a movie in ages, but
if you thought that was a good reason to avoid it you'd be wrong. Jack Black
plays the slightly past it rocker, stuck in a groove of 70s heavy metal rock
and roll and refusing to move on until his (more up to date) band fire
him. Struggling to pay the rent, he takes a phone call intended for his
schoolteacher flatmate and accepts a job as supply teacher at a top school.
Soon he has the kids not only studying the history of rock and roll,
soundproofing the room and playing rock instruments, but actually competing
in a major Battle of the Bands' competition.
Unbelievable? Yes. What's more unbelievable is that somehow the whole thing works Jack Black's over-the-top enthusiasm for his subject is contagious, the edge-of-disaster suspense is continued throughout the length of the movie, and by the end the audience is so desperate to see how the kids (who they all play their own instruments by the way) perform in the concert that seat wetting would probably go unnoticed. Joan Cusack, as the gobsmacked headmistress, delivers a performance that is worth the price of your cinema ticket in itself. Achieving such tears-down-the cheeks laughter and adrenalin-packed excitement for air guitar music is nothing short of miraculous.
School of Rock is a movie that promises entertainment and delivers. Everything is as it says on the packet. For sheer feelgood factor, this movie is unbeatable and you can even take the kids!
Control, a biopic about a band from Manchester, is getting serious
attention from around the world. Starting with an award in Cannes.
That's maybe more than you might expect. Joy Division, a respected band
of the 70s, are hardly a name on everyone's lips. And films made by ex
music video directors about yet another load of rockers rarely raise
eyebrows. So why is this different? Joy Division, for non-initiates,
were a post-punk Manchester band of throbbing guitars and dark,
doom-laden lyrics. Recognition in the music biz (especially by other
musicians) was perhaps even greater after the death of lead singer, Ian
Curtis. Control covers a period from his schooldays to his end in 1980
(aged 23). It is based on the biography of his widow.
Control uses Curtis' love of poetry, as well as the more familiar songs-that-tell-a-story device, to provide at least scant insight into the music. "I wish I were a Warhol silkscreen, hanging on the wall," he muses. But what is dealt with in much more detail is his growing sense of isolation, coping with epilepsy as the pressures of touring build up, and the distraught domestic relations he is embroiled in with wife Debbie (Samantha Morton) and romantic-interest-from-afar Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara). "It's like it's not happening to me but someone pretending to be me. Someone dressed in my skin," he says.
In a telling scene when he is under hypnosis, the camera revolves around his head as we hear voices speaking to him. "Ian, let me in, love," says his wife, "there's room to talk." Responsibilities as husband and father. A mistress who is also in love with him. A band and fan following who want more than he can give. From warholian, carefree screen-dream of youth, he has arrived at a place where he doesn't want to be. Drugs and their side-effects no longer a schoolboy's recreational laugh. Prescription bottles grip with morbid fascination. And the knowledge that doctors don't have a cure.
The film carries viewers away with blistering intensity. Relative newcomer Sam Riley plays Curtis with alarming energy. With Samantha Morton, it's not what she says but what you see going through her mind. She contains her expressiveness for the camera to pick up (rather than thrusting it on us). We want to cry inside for her character. As a feat of interiorisation, Control puts her as a contender in the shoes of Meryl Streep.
Supporting cast members come through with believability and sincerity, sparkling with well-honed contrasts. Toby Kebbell, fast-talking manager Rob, lifts us out of the depressive mood with wisecracks enough to make legless monkeys jump. "Where's my £20?" asks a hapless stand-in as Rob deals with an emergency. "In my f*ck-off pocket!" he barks back. Craig Parkinson is record producer and late TV presenter Tony Wilson (to whom the opening screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival was dedicated). He demonstrates fine shades of teeth-gritting tolerance, explaining to the band, seconds before their first live TV show: yes, 'large dog's c*ck' counts as swearing, and would mean the broadcast is pulled. Established Romanian actress, Alexandra Maria Lara, succeeds in making Annik far more than the two-dimensional bit-of-fluff that would have been an easy course. As potential home-breaker, it is tempting to hate her, yet her character is shown with the intellectual appreciation and chemistry that Debbie can no longer offer.
Morton, in the Q&A after the Edinburgh premiere, links the film to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It is the kitchen-sink, downtrodden existence that her Debbie inhabits. Cinematography is also reminiscent of this period, with its careful black-and-white observation of working class streets. I watched it a second time, enjoying careful compositions and suggestive mise-en-scene. But director Anton Corbijn is typically modest. "I really wanted you to look at the actors on the screen and only afterwards at the look of the film." While Ian, in Debbie's eyes, might be the licentious and 'angry young man' of social realism drama, the Control scenes from which she is tormentedly absent show another side: the world experienced by her husband (a reference in the film likens his isolation to Brando's character in Apocalypse Now).
"And we would go on as though nothing was wrong. And hide from these days we remained all alone."
Riley takes on manic expressions as if marching away from an impending epileptic fit while singing Transmission. It is such a potent, almost frightening feat, that we have to shake ourselves to remember he only got the part when he was stuck for a job. "Not a lot was going on in my life before this, so I was appreciative for the work and the money," he tells the opening night audience. "I imagine this will have opened doors for you," I had said to him earlier; he smiled like a man who still can't believe his good luck. But the 'luck' is very well deserved. His 'Ian' is physically and mentally complex. When I had managed to stop him on the Red Carpet long enough to congratulate him, Mr Riley explains that he had a friend who was an epileptic. "I witnessed an attack often enough to be able to copy it."
Although the film has a driving energy that takes our breath away, it drifts a little towards the tragic conclusion. We know the ending and it is a case of waiting for it to happen. And although it features plenty of excellent Joy Division tracks, any music biopic will never be good enough or accurate enough for some fans.
Fortunately this is not just for music fans but for serious film fans as well. It careers in a tightly controlled arc, where music biopic meets cinematic excellence. Why should you see it? "Some people visit the past for sentimental reasons," says Corbijn. "Some people visit the past to understand the present better." Control is not in the sentimental exercise category.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
1944. Franco's authoritarian fascist regime is a horrid world for a
child, barely into her teens. Ofelia retreats into herself, finding in
her fantasy world the lessons of courage, self-discipline and integrity
she will need. With her, we travel beyond outward appearances, through
a labyrinth of fears and uncertainties, from which Spain will not
escape for several decades.
A dark, brutal fairytale, chillingly set in the real world but full of hope and warmth, Pan's Labyrinth accomplishes a masterpiece.
Our film opens with a momentary shot of Ofelia, blood from a nosebleed disappearing as the frames are introduced in reverse. A voice-over takes us back to the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia arrives (with her pregnant mother) at a nationalist military base in the woods and is introduced to her stepfather, a vicious commanding officer. Capitán Vidal dispenses arbitrary justice to anyone he suspects is against him. Two suspected rebels caught by his men are summarily executed. Only afterwards is a rabbit discovered in their bag, proving their claim that they are just woodsmen (and maybe also a throwaway reference to Alice in Wonderland).
Ofelia is unwilling to accept this harsh adult world. She retreats into a labyrinth where she meets a strange Pan-like creatures, Fauno, who gives her a set of tasks where she has to face some of her darkest fears, winning a key for her next task.
The story becomes more intense, both outside the labyrinth (where Vidal is busy torturing people) and inside, where Ofelia has to face the Pale Man - a creature that has plucked out its eyes and can only see by placing them in the stigmata on its hands. Around the walls of the room are pictures of people being cast into hell by the Pale Man (From inference or the director's comments, it is apparent that the Pale Man represents authoritarianism, whether that of the Fascists or the Church). In Pan's Labyrinth we have a parable about the journey of Spanish society from the 1940s to post-Franco, a magical fairytale of stunning beauty, a story of the struggle and character development of a child on the edge of puberty, and a tense story of battles between Nationalists and Republicans. That they are all welded together seamlessly and precisely in a multi-level narrative is a remarkable achievement and thrilling experience. The sheer artistry recalls Cocteau's La Belle at la Bête. Del Toro sweeps us into a dreamlike, poetic vision, with a minimum of CGI and a grasp of dialogue that seems almost transcendental.
In a brave decision, an actor (Ivana Baquero) who is only as old as her character has been used to play the young Ofelia. But as the ethereal figure between two worlds, she is also there to cast the earthy characters involved in material battles into more visceral contrast. Editing is crisp throughout, without a single frame wasted. Rich colours and unflinching camera-work keep us rooted in the experience, whether it is Ofelia crawling face-down in the mud and covered with insects, or a hapless victim having his nose smashed in by the Capitán. Yet scenes of tenderness and beauty are equally as moving - Ofelia retreating into her mother's arms, a nursemaid powerless to help her republican lover, or a doctor performing an act of mercy.
The movies, like our dreams, folklore and imagination, are rich with symbols and images that can strike a chord in our deepest being. Artists, as well as creators of myths and religion, have long employed such symbols to guide and inspire, knowing that the conscious mind may accept a sign more easily than rational argument alone.
In watching a movie, we combine ideas of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic to find an inner affinity. And, if the filmmaker has done his job properly, will feel truly moved.
One of the things that can make or break a movie that makes extensive use of symbols is whether those symbols echo in the collective unconscious, often through time honoured association, or not. Knowledge of mythology or Jungian psychology can make all the difference. Much has been made of the title. Originally 'El Laberinto del Fauno', the translation at first appears sloppy, but Del Toro has done his research well. While quipping that it 'just sounded better', a little investigation of classical authorities shows Faunus as a form of the ancient god Pan (Lempriere). Pan, the goat-like god that represents a totality of possibilities, together with goat-like stubbornness and independence of thought, is the perfect symbol. In the film he says, "I've had so many names... I am the mountain, the forest and the earth. . . . I am a faun. Your most humble servant, Your Highness." In Greek Mythology, Pan also won the affections of a princess under the form of a goat. The freedom of thought (and sexuality) he advocated, with the rise of Christianity, caused him to be portrayed as the Devil; but we learn his intentions are good, whereas the holy-looking Pale Man offers temptation only as an excuse to rip his victims apart. As an aspect of the creative power, fauns in mythology also symbolise firm aspiration and human intelligence.
The one symbol that Del Torro is less adept in using is that of dying. He tends to use the valid, if flawed connotation of redemption-through-death promoted by the religions he disavows, but it is a small point that in no way spoils the story.
Pan's Labyrinth leads us through parallel stories and themes without once losing its internal consistency. Some audiences may be put off by the idea of using flights of fancy in such a blatant way or, sadly, by the fact that it is subtitled. Such minor monsters should not get in the way of enjoying the film on a simple entertainment level. Cinephiles, on the other hand, will not want to miss such a rare treat of talent.
I remember the last time I saw my mother. I sat on the end of her bed,
strumming guitar, and singing a song she used to sing to us as
children. I hoped she might remember it. She would probably not,
however, recognise her son. Or even speak. She had Alzheimer's.
After self-righteous 'disease of the week' movies such as Iris, it is maybe hard to imagine a riveting, nuanced love story of depth and imagination, one centred on loss of memory, but Away From Her succeeds in spades.
Fiona (Julie Christie) has been married to Grant for 44 years. They have reached a stage of lifetime love based on deep knowledge of each other and acceptance of past misdemeanours. Then Fiona's memory starts to fail. As her Alzheimer's begins to need 24hr care, she checks in to Meadowlake residential centre. There she not only forgets who her husband is, but develops an affection for another patient an affection that holds all the tenderness she used to share with her (now onlooking) husband.
Says Producer Simone Urdl, "The role of Alzheimer's in the film is a metaphor for how memory plays out in a long term relationship: what we chose to remember, what we choose to forget." And our ability to recall things, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, is highly selective.
Secure in the knowledge that he has given his wife many years of happiness, Grant glosses over his unfaithfulness in their younger days. But Fiona's early memories stay longer, and come back to haunt him. To bring his wife joy now, he is driven to encourage her towards that which gives him most pain.
Away From Her takes us from frozen, luminescent mise-en-scene of the couple's secure existence in snow-drenched, rural Canada, to the hand-held cameras and uncertainty that hits in Meadowlake. Excerpts from Auden's Letters From Iceland are sprinkled into the script like shards of crystalline beauty. Julie Christie, for whom the lead role was written, exudes dynamic good looks and the vibrancy of a young woman, bathed in such warmth and passion of years. When she asks Grant to make love to her before leaving, there is an urgency and scintillating sexiness about her.
Away From Her sparkles as we watch Grant walk his emotional tight-rope. The movie is made with such surety that it comes as a shock to realise the director is a first time filmmaker in her twenties. Sarah Polley evokes Bergman, as she too touches "wordless secrets only the cinema can discover." This talented young woman is highly selective in her acting roles and now, behind the camera, impresses with her insight and intelligence.
My last conversation with my mother, before she was institutionalised, or I even realised what was happening, was a long distance phone call. After chatting happily for five minutes, she said, quite chirpily and very politely, "What's your name again?" Memory is not always a two-way process. Nor objective. But, like this film, it can be mesmerising, heart-wrenching, and a remarkably intimate vision.
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