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United 93 (2006)
a harrowing cinematic experience
I only recently saw this film on DVD as my partner refused to see it as the whole September 11 event had a big impact on him. I've never been overly sentimental about what happened. I didn't see it live on TV like many I know (including my partner), and as I am on the other side of the world I felt far enough removed for it to be little more than merely a shocking and surreal event. So I came to watch this film by myself, in a comfortable armchair, the day before I was to fly to Melbourne, and it left me devastated. As many have noted, the final 10 minutes are unbelievably tense. Yes you know the outcome, but the matter-of-fact, documentary-like way in which the events are presented allowed me access to this tragedy in a way I had previously been unable to manage. As the list of mistakes and oversights on the part of the Aviation authorities, airlines and military grows, so too does the tension, as the film marches towards it's inevitable conclusion. The helplessness of all involved and the seemingly naiive disbelief that something like this could possibly happen makes United 93 extremely unnerving. On display is some of the most remarkable sound design and editing I have ever seen. This is one of the most brilliantly constructed films I have ever seen. Greengrass should have received an Oscar for this film. And United 93 should have at least been nominated for Best Picture, if not taken out the category. I have never been emotionally affected by a film this way. And it achieves this effect without any exploitation or manipulation of events. Truly, this is cinema or the highest order and an important film to experience.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
The best fantasy of the past decade
Everyone's been raving about this. My opinion doesn't differ too much. It did however suffer slightly from the overwhelmingly high expectations I'd developed based on how brilliant everyone said it was, and the whole "20min ovation at Cannes" thing. Really, who stands for that long? That said, it's an amazing work.
Skipping the plot recap (find the briefest synopsis you can if you need to be filled in), I'll go straight to the tech specs. I'm not a huge Del Toro fan, Cronos was interesting but lacked something for me. Mimic was dross. Hellboy was enjoyable and Ron Perlman is always great on screen. But here, the director really outdoes himself. By far. He has wrapped together some amazing elements and somehow maintains a balance, that doesn't tip into the mundane or the ridiculous for a moment. And this is no mean feat. The story is part historical drama, part fantasy, part family melodrama. When it dips out of the fantasy, it still enchants.
Sergi Lopez and Maribel Verdú really drive the story in the historical drama scenes. I haven't seen Lopez in anything other than a film called Lisbon, in which he played a character so completely opposite from the Captain. He is a fierce and terrifying guy but actually comes across as sympathetic in a couple of scenes. Verdu is incredible as Mercedes, the head housekeeper (or something) who is Ofelia's closest friend in the house. The scenes with these characters and the civil war subplot never fail to hold your attention. Ivana Baquero is excellent as the main character Ofelia, her performance is very mature and believable and she shares some beautiful scenes with her mother and Mercedes.
When the fairy tale elements return, it's astounding how naturally they fit into the story. I think that is the real magic of this film. The war drama and the fairy tale stem so naturally from each other.
One thing that most reviews haven't mentioned is the violence. I think it's been firmly established that this is an adult's fairytale, but at times it is a very intense and brutal film. There are a couple of scenes in particular which are very disturbing and difficult to watch. These do not distract from the tone and theme of the film however so they don't seem exploitative at all. If you are squeamish, it may get a bit much for you.
A final and obvious point I spose I can't get away without making: the set design, costumes and effects are superb. That's all.
I was perhaps expecting a little more fantasy, but the unique blend of genres is absolutely compelling. There wasn't a false note anywhere or a plot hole, which are too often present in fantasy films. I can't recall a good, original fantasy film from recent years. Fortunately this blows MirrorMask out of the water. It doesn't share any of the contrivances, vagueness or ineffectual characters with that film.
I just wish I'd seen it without already having read so much. I've tried very hard to not reveal any plot details at all as it does go to some surprising and unexpected places. Fortunately most of the reviews have done the same. I'd urge anyone with the chance to see it to do so immediately, and try not to read too much more.