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El laberinto del fauno (2006)
A stunning reminder of the harshness of childhood...
There is no one more creative than a child in the dark. As children, almost all of us were overcome by the most macabre leaps of the imagination once our parents had left us alone in our beds, vulnerable and scared. Suddenly every sound was a death threat, every shifting beam from the street transformed into the glare of a burglar's flashlight. Logic was swiftly made malleable; the most bizarre events could be thrown together by youthful paranoia to explain the circumstances by which a mummy could be lurking in the closet, a decaying skeleton under the bed. It was all terrifying, and for a child whose mind was still unadulterated by reason, it was all very real. Guillermo del Toro's new film "Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the best movies to come along in a while for many reasons, but it is most unique in the way it has perfectly captured the terrors of childhood, both real and imaginary. "Pan", like del Toro's previous gem "The Devil's Backbone", takes place against the backdrop of 1930's Spain during the country's civil war between Fascists and Soviets that had torn it apart, The main storyline revolves around Ofelia, played by a luminescent Ivana Baquero, a young girl who has retreated into novels and fairy tales to escape the harsh realities of her life. Her mother, a widow, is heavily pregnant with the child of Capitán Vidal, the deliciously malignant Sergi López, a fascist officer stationed at a dilapidated mill deep in the Soviet occupied Spanish forests. At Vidal's insistence Ofelia and her mother move there, a difficult journey and a heavy blow to the health of the weakened pregnant woman. Ofelia soon finds that she is anything but alone at the mill. Woken in the night by a noisy but amiable praying mantis, she follows the bug to a nearby labyrinth. At the maze's center she meets a faun, who soon sets her off on a series of tasks in order to escape the nightmares of her life. The quest she begins soon after is populated by creatures so freakish, so bizarre and yet simultaneously so familiar that only the mind of a child could have created them. The faun is a duplicitous, creaking old goat whose every movement is echoed by the sound of a branch breaking in the dark or the creak of a door in the night. A monstrous toad living in the bottom of an old oak encapsulates everything that is so paradoxically intriguing and repulsive about amphibians to little boys. The Pale Man, a cannibalistic monstrosity of skin and sinew, is lifted straight from Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his children, another work of art created in a mind tortured by the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War. Del Toro's monsters embody everything that is terrifying to children, brought to life so well that they are almost intolerable even in maturity. This is not a film for the squeamish, filled as it is with images of both horrific fantasy and blood which is all too real. Most of this blood is spilt by Capitán Vidal, whose tyranny is the focus of the film's other plot line. His dogged pursuit of the Communist forces is hampered by a rebellious but motherly housekeeper, played in a remarkable transformation by Maribel Verdú, the sexy older woman from "Y tu mamá también". Grimly set on the eradication and cleansing of Spain, his character gives the film important historical context, foreshadowing the beginning of Europe's own waking nightmare. Del Toro is thankfully not blunt enough to make the two plot lines parallel, instead allowing the audience to draw connections without hitting them over the head with them. About to lose her mother in childbirth, surrounded by death and the burgeoning forces of fascism, Ofelia's innocence brings into stark relief the fallen world of adults which lies around her. Del Toro has created a film which rings true because of the purity of it's' core, just a sad little girl whose dreams are being corrupted by the cruelty of her world. To bring the brutality of that world to us del Toro has resurrected our childhood nightmares, and they are more harrowing than we can ever remember.
Blood Diamond (2006)
Jack of all trades, master of none.
Blood Diamond is the latest in a string of recent Hollywood financed films which have taken on political and social turbulence in Africa and is, in my opinion, the weakest. The script was deeply conflicted about whether the film's main role was as an action film or a political film, and ended up failing as either. The political message, though interesting, was sloppily handled, leading the audience to be angered not by the American and Europeans who control the Diamond business, but by the campy and stereotypical African villains. I felt little pity for the civilian populations, who were made entirely one dimensional and were almost entirely cursory to the main storyline. The exception to this was Honsou, a revelation and easily the highlight of the film. He was compelling to watch, and will hopefully be seen again. DiCaprio wasn't so inspiring. Aside from the fact that he's just too baby-faced to play the tough guys he's been cast as recently, here he was simply dull to watch. Angry, disillusioned and completely lacking in any depth. His chemistry with Connelly was nonexistent. The cinematography was nice enough, but all the action scenes felt overblown and badly handled, and what was really surprising was the complete lack of any feeling of place. There was a village, an urban center, and some fields , and as far as I could tell they were all withing a few miles of each other. All in all, the usual disappointing Hollywood stuff, this time with an important but terribly executed message, made slightly better by one sterling performance. My advice would be to watch the infinitely better and truly touching The Constant Gardener.