A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 533 – Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth – August 15th, 2011

Unlike the movie from last night, this is a movie I’d been meaning to see for a long time. It was sort of a victim of overhype, but in the sense that I’d heard such good things about it and I was petrified that it wouldn’t live up to what I was expecting. I wanted it to be magical and unreal and everything that The Brothers Grimm failed at. I wanted a new fairytale I’d never read or seen before and I wanted it to feel right. And I was so worried that something about it would ring false to me. That something other people were able to accept or overlook would jump out at me and ruin it all and I didn’t want that. So I didn’t watch it.

Thankfully, this movie was everything I wanted it to be, including incredibly dark and cruel. Which fits. Have you read any of the original Grimm stories? Take a look at The Juniper Tree for a good example. These were stories meant as lessons and cautionary tales. They weren’t padded at the corners with comic relief and lessened consequences like the Disney versions. People do horrible things to other people in the old stories. Parents hurt their children and people die hideous deaths. Gruesome things happen. And I should have known that Guillermo del Toro would get the tone right. He’s clearly well versed in the feel and mood of folklore like this.

The story has all the hallmarks of a classic fairytale: A young girl off in an unfamiliar place, a sick parent and a cruel step-parent, the promise of a better life and a quest to obtain it. But it’s all set in a very real time and place, a few years after the Spanish Civil War, in the woods where rebels are still fighting and the military has set up a presence at an old mill to try and weed them out. Ofelia and her mother arrive to stay with Ofelia’s new step-father, the sadistic Captain Vidal. Her mother is heavily pregnant and the pregnancy is going poorly. Ofelia worries about her mother, refuses to accept Vidal as her new father and yearns for something more. And she is rewarded for her imagination with the appearance of a fairy who leads her to a labyrinth in the woods. A labyrinth with a strange creature inside who tells her of another world where she is a princess, lost long ago. She’s given a quest to complete three tasks to reopen the other world and of course she accepts the challenge.

Now, in older fairytales, it’s simply accepted that there’s magic in the world and that it can be dangerous but also helpful if used right. That seems to be par for the course. In this story, however, the people around Ofelia have plenty to worry about without magic and believe that she simply has an active imagination and lets it get the better of her at times. She ruins a new party dress by climbing into a hole in a treestump and getting all muddy. She disappears when she should be somewhere important. She uses folk remedies to try and help her mother. And almost all of the adults around Ofelia are dismissive at best and downright cruel at worst. Ofelia has legitimate fears of losing her mother, of what her step-father is capable of, of her new baby brother dying. And not only are the majority of the adults around her dismissive of what they claim is her imagination, but they dismiss her fears. They dismiss her.

Now, it would be incredibly easy to write off the fantasy aspect of the movie as being all in Ofelia’s head. It’s a fairly easy leap to make from fantasy to coping mechanism. And that’s all well and good. It works on that level just fine and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to view the movie in that light. Personally, however, I prefer to believe that it’s a melding of the two. That when Ofelia most needed some magic in her life to cope with the horrible events unfolding around her, the magic in the world responded. It could be argued either way, and I can see how one might lean towards the fantasy being imaginary, given that it doesn’t end up saving Ofelia’s mother and it doesn’t fix everything right from the start, but that’s just not how these stories work. There are always tasks to be undertaken and prices to be paid and monsters to defeat. If you don’t take the time to prove your worth, then you haven’t earned the help you’re being offered.

Likewise, I choose to take the ending as it’s presented to me. In a fairytale, with a magical land under the ground, there’s no reason why Ofelia couldn’t be transported there. She’s repaid for the work she did and the people left behind in the regular world don’t need to know what’s happened. It suits a story of war for there to have been such a loss. As painful as the situation must be for Ofelia’s one stalwart supporter, the amazing Mercedes, she’s not one to shy away from painful situations. The combination of magic and non-magic worlds hinged on Ofelia’s presence, so her departure leaves Mercedes to deal with the real world problems she needs to focus on. I like that there’s a separation there. That the worlds converge for the space of the story and then separate again.

And let me take a moment to praise the character of Mercedes, who is one of the strongest women I’ve seen in a movie in a while. She is fantastic and powerful and sympathetic and amazingly well presented. I loved everything about her. She is, as an adult, dealing with difficult situations that Ofelia, as a child, is not ready to handle. The two of them together are fantastically well written characters and I loved seeing them in the same movie, reflecting powerful female characters at two stages of life.

The other thing I’d like to praise, which makes the movie complete, is the visual style. It is distinctly Guillermo del Toro’s style, and that is gorgeously perfect for a story like this. I’m sure if I could spend more time on this and more time on the movie itself that I would see more and more and more details that connect back to the story itself and its meanings. It’s a rich world in both aspects, with the real world no less deep than the fantasy world, just with a different look. If the visuals didn’t work the movie would still be a wonderfully told story with fantastic characters and acting, but it would feel as if it had been cheated of much of its depth had it not looked like it does. Fortunately, the movie has everything I could have asked for and everything I hoped it would and I was very much not disappointed.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth

More than a year ago, when Amanda and I first embarked on this movie a day project, we randomly chose a movie from our stacks and that movie was Hellboy 2. (Because we wanted to watch movies in order we instead watched Hellboy first of course.) It was through those two beautiful movies that I first discovered the work of Guillarmo Del Toro, and from the first time I saw Hellboy in the theater I was a dedicated fan of his vision. (I had seen Mimic and Blade II, but I didn’t really begin to pay attention to his name until I saw Hellboy.) This movie is probably the most purely Del Toro one we own – it shows just what kind of film he can create if allowed to do something completely original and completely in his own way. The result is absolutely one of the most beautiful movies we own.

This movie has been pitched as a fairy tale for adults. I have to admit that I’m somewhat resentful that such a film should be so very rare. Yes, it is a beautiful fairy tale with fantasy creatures, a fairy princess who has been re-born as a human, magic and fairy tale tasks. Yes, it also contains scenes of violence, blood, torture and oppression which are wholly inappropriate for children. In my mind however there is no rule which states that a fantasy film has to be appropriate for a young audience. Adults need fantasy too, perhaps even more so than children.

What Del Toro has done here is wrap a young girl’s fantasy adventure up inside a stark tale of war in Spain during World War Two. Young Ofelia has come to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother to live with her wicked stepfather. He is a captain in the army tasked with quelling a local communist underground and he is petty, bureaucratic, violent, egotistical and thoroughly evil. Near the mill he is using for a base of operations there is an ancient labyrinth, and one day Ofelia is led by a fairy deep into the maze where she meets a decrepit old faun who greets her as the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld.

The faun tells her that she can re-gain her immortality and join her father in the underworld if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon. These are fairy tale tasks like retrieving a key from the belly of a toad which has polluted the roots of an ancient fig tree or recovering a dagger from the lair of a child-eating pale monster which is simultaneously emaciated and bloated. She also wants to find a way to help her mother, whose pregnancy is not going well and naturally she loathes her wicked step-father.

Meanwhile Captain Vidal has been clamping down on the local populace in an attempt to root out the rebels. There’s a vivid scene where he brutally murders an elderly hunter and his son because he thinks they might be in cahoots. He is becoming paranoid and desperate. Things are made worse by the fact that several of his trusted staff members are working against him, such as the kindly house-keeper who cares for Ofelia while her mother is ill and the local doctor. Vidal is absolutely the worst kind of petty tyrant and his only real concern is that Ofelia’s mother bear him a healthy son to carry on his line. Del Toro has him obsessed with his dead father’s cracked pocket watch and living in the mill surrounded by gears and cogs – he’s very much a man of the mechanical future.

That’s the kind of gorgeous, detailed visual feast that this movie is. Guillermo Del Toro has used the familiar tropes of fairy tales and given them vivid life. It’s like taking a trip into his dreams, or maybe into his nightmares. As with most authentic fairy tales there’s a darkness here. There’s blood and danger, and monsters. You can see Del Toro’s hand in everything here – it’s like his sketchbooks made real and it’s fantastic to behold.

Also fantastic to behold is Doug Jones both as the faun at the heart of the labyrinth and the sinister “pale man.” He’s such an expressive actor, able to communicate so much with an intricate wave of his hands. Even delivering his lines in unfamiliar Spanish he has a fantastic flair, it’s always a delight to see him at work.

After saying all that, however, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed in this movie. It’s visually stunning, and it does a wonderful job of giving life to fairy tales, but I’m not sure I like the way that the fantasy fits into the real world around it. Only Ofelia ever sees anything fantastic in this movie. Everybody else is trapped in a nightmare world of violence and death. The conclusion of the movie is left very much open for interpretation but I can’t help feeling that the fantasy in the movie is more of an escape for Ofelia and not something that really makes a difference in her life or changes her circumstances. Does she learn anything or gain any strength from her adventures? I like to believe that fantasy and magic are there to improve our lives and act to make us better people, not just to offer a refuge.

That is a small quibble and a mater of interpretation more than anything else, though. This is a powerful, beautiful, magical movie, and an absolute masterpiece. It makes me sad that Guillermo seems to have concentrated more of his energies on producing of late and hasn’t directed a movie since Hellboy II. I love visiting his sad, dark, fantastic worlds and long for another chance to do so.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 433 – Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico – May 7th, 2011

So we come to the end of our Mexico trilogy. Or rather, Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico trilogy. This is the third and final movie of the set and definitely the biggest of them. It’s not quite the same degree of difference from the second movie as the second move was from the first, but it’s certainly a few steps up in terms of the stakes and the action. Everything’s bigger in this one, which I have some issues with. But I also greatly enjoy the movie anyhow. It has some great characters and some fantastic action. I’m just not sure it fits as seamlessly with the other two as they do with each other.

Part of the problem here is just how big it’s all gotten. The plot in this movie isn’t about local problems on a city or town scale. It’s about local problems only if you define local by country. Because what’s at stake here, and at the heart of the schemes and double crossings, is the position of President of Mexico. There’s a general involved, and the CIA and the FBI and their Mexican counterparts and a US fugitive and a crime lord and a hit man, or rather hit men, and generally the scale is just so very much larger than the others. Sure, El Mariachi’s involvement hinges on a personal connection and drive for revenge (of course), but that’s not really the focus of the film, regardless of all the flashbacks we get.

There’s just too much politicking and bribing and scheming on the parts of everyone else for the flashbacks to make as much impact as they might have in a tighter movie. El is hired to help with a coup. Certain people would like the current president overthrown, but those people also don’t want the general who’s going to overthrow him to actually gain power. It just so happens that the general in question murdered Carolina and her and El’s daughter, so he’s not going to pass up the opportunity to take the man out. The thing is, in either of the other movies that would be the plot. It would all be about El arriving in the city and sizing up the opposition and making his moves against the general’s men and eventually killing him, possibly while meeting another woman in the process. But since that road had been trod twice already Rodriguez decided to toss in a whole additional plot with the man who hired El in the first place. Agent Sands is a corrupt and sociopathic CIA agent stationed in Mexico and the secondary plot here deals with his wheeling and dealing with a crime lord and his cartel and agents. Some of it involves El as well, but a lot of it doesn’t. A lot of it is Sands on his own. It splits the movie, in my opinion.

Now, this is not to say that this isn’t a good movie. It’s a great movie! But for me it doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Desperado as much as I’d like. It doesn’t feel as intimate. Yes, there’s a bar brawl scene in the beginning. It’s the scene of a story being told about El Mariachi and his deeds and how now he’s got this woman with him and she’s just as deadly. But the story is being told to Sands, who is one bad ass dude, and even the bar the brawl is in feels bigger and more expanded than the bars in the previous movies. And after Sands’ contact leaves the restaurant they’ve been taking in and we see that Sands had a hidden gun on him the whole time we know that Sands is going to be a focal point. And he’s played by Johnny Depp, who gives this bizarre agent of chaos a comedic spin while keeping him utterly terrifying in his badassitude.

So here’s my problem. I love Johnny Depp as Sands. I love how he is emphatically not a good guy. I love how he’s very much an instigator in this whole mess and how he pretty much sees that as his purpose in life. He lives in Mexico and fucks with people by setting up schemes and plots and putting them in motion to maneuver local politics and crime and he enjoys it. He says to El that his purpose is to maintain balance in Mexico, but it’s a balance that he defines. He is a strange sort of figure here. And yet you want to see him make it out of this alive. Or I do, anyhow. He’s morally reprehensible and devoid of empathy and yet he’s somehow not evil. Not in comparison to the general who killed El’s wife and daughter. Not in comparison to the crime boss, Barillo. And to be honest, he kind of steals the movie and I find myself not caring because he’s just plain fun to watch. Horrifying, but fun.

But where does that leave El and his storyline? Sort of shoved to the side. We get plenty of flashbacks, as I said, showing the general killing Carolina. We get El going to recruit two of his mariachi friends to help him with the job Sands has hired him for. We get fight scenes with El and Carolina in the past and we get more fight scenes with El in the present. We see him with Sands, we see him on his own. But thanks to there being so much that’s not related to him, his personal background and mission feel less immediate, which is a pity because that’s where the soul of the first two movies is. As much fun as this movie can be, its soul just isn’t as apparent. Probably because, as I said, Sands is much of the focus and Sands is pretty soulless.

To be honest, the whole thing with Barillo and his body double and whatnot feels like its own plot. In any other movie it would be great! But it’s so different from the tone of the other movies. I’m used to the emotional impact of the movie coming from El’s connection to the major villain and it just isn’t there. There are a couple of key characters, such as Barillo’s man, Billy, AFN agent Ajedrez and former FBI agent Ramirez, who never meet El. They’re involved in the whole coup plot, but they’re connected to Sands, not the mariachis.

Thank goodness for the mariachis, though, because they really are awesome. I can’t even knock the guitar case weaponry for being an old trick because it’s so much fun to watch. I do enjoy the scenes where they talk to El and he tells them what they’ll be doing. I love seeing them case the building they’ll be working in later, actually playing music. I love that they save the day at the end. I just wish they and El had gotten more to do. I wish Carolina had been in more of the movie. I wish the Sands plot had been its own picture, because I don’t dislike it. I like it a lot. But it distracts me from why I love the first two movies. It makes me love this one for an entirely different reason and I’m so very conflicted about that. It’s frustrating. I like this movie a lot, but in many ways I wish it was two movies. I’d love them both, I promise.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 431 – El Mariachi

El Mariachi – May 5th, 2011

I admit I’ve sort of been saving these movies. I love them and it’s been ages since I’ve seen them and we’ve run through a lot of our series and a lot of the movies I’ve seen before. So I’ve been saving them. Not for any specific day or event, but then we didn’t have anything planned for today and it is Cinco de Mayo and hey, why not, right? Any halfway decent excuse to watch these movies would have been good with me.

Now, Desperado gets shown on television with some decent regularity and Once Upon a Time in Mexico was made most recently, though it’s not new anymore by any means. But I just don’t see El Mariachi in the television listings as I see the other two. It just doesn’t crop up, which is a shame because it’s a fantastic movie even if you don’t know how it was made. It’s got some good action, a little romance, a fair amount of wit and humor and a fun plot, even if there is a giant hole in it. It’s all in Spanish, sure, but why should that matter?

Amusingly, I think I could possibly have watched this without subtitles and still followed it. I’m absolutely horrible when it comes to foreign languages and what I’ve retained from college and high school isn’t usually enough. But for some reason the dialogue in this movie goes slower than I’m used to Spanish language movies going. And I found myself able to look down and just listen and catch the gist of what was being said. Maybe it helps that I’ve seen it before, but still. I was surprised and unsure of just why the dialogue is spoken at a speed I can still handle. Goodness knows the El Santo movie we picked up that has no subtitling was totally out of my league (and yes, I do regret that, because when we watched it, it looked awesome, but totally incomprehensible to us Spanish-challenged folks).

Anyhow, the movie is a story of mistaken identity and dueling gangsters in a small city in Mexico. A mariachi arrives in town, hoping to find work so he can continue on his family legacy of musicianship. A noble goal! Unfortunately for him, a notorious gangster named Azul is in town too, and he’s been going after the local crime lord, Moco, taking out his men with weapons he keeps in a guitar case. Since Azul kills pretty much ever associate of Moco’s whom he meets, Moco’s other men have only a sketchy description of him: He wears all black and carries a guitar case. You know what two things also describe our hero? He wears all black. And he carries a guitar case.

Now, being the pedant that I am, I feel I have to mention the gaping plot hole here. Azul? Is heavy-set and has a mustache. El mariachi? Slimmer and not a single whisker on his face. And yet various people describe them at different points and the only identifying things they can say are ‘wears all black’ and ‘carries a guitar case’. Come on, people! Can we differentiate between a leather vest and a black jacket over a white shirt? Maybe between facial hair and no facial hair? Build? Apparently not. But I guess that would unravel the whole movie and while some things could have been relatively simple to fix (similar wardrobe for the two characters, shave off the mustache, etc.) we are talking about a movie made for the equivalent of $7,000. I doubt there was much money for wardrobe and my guess is that the cast wasn’t being paid big bucks. Demanding that someone shave their mustache? Eh, I’ll get over it. To be honest, it adds to the ridiculousness of the whole film.

Really, much of this movie is intended to be over the top. There’s some sly humor to it all. The repeated joke with Moco lighting his matches off his henchman’s face? The sped up footage when people phone him to tell him Azul is in town? Things like that. When Moco sends his men to take out Azul in the beginning they pay off a woman who’s guarding the jail he’s hiding in. And then Azul pays her off on his way out after killing them. There’s the whole bathtub scene! After our hero manages to get the fantastic bar owner, Domino, to let him stay in her apartment to hide out from Moco’s men we get shot after shot of Domino’s dog’s reaction. Which is a blank and disinterested stare. I’ve never seen such an uneager pitbull, to be honest. It’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of funny. These aren’t big obvious gags and set-ups or knee-slapper jokes. They’re winks. Little teasers that let you know that the movie isn’t to be taken entirely seriously. Sure, much of it is serious, but the audience should keep a certain perspective on that.

Of course you know that eventually there’ll be a showdown between Moco and Azul, and the mariachi will get caught in the middle and since Domino’s the love interest she’ll be involved somehow too. It’s not a movie full of surprise twists and turns. Once you know there’s an innocent dude caught in the middle of a gang war, well, the end is a bit of a foregone conclusion. People are going to die and there will be consequences. What I like here is that while there is humor to the movie, the plot with the mariachi and Domino is still carried off with a nice sense of drama and emotional weight. I think part of it is that Domino is so cool. She’s not immediately won over by our hero and she’s no damsel in distress for most of the movie. She’s got a mind and her independence and she’s not afraid to enforce it. So her relationship with the mariachi comes across as genuine, which makes the ending have a great tone to it.

I remain absolutely thrilled to know how this movie was made as cheaply as it was, with shortcuts like single takes creatively edited around mistakes and improvisation to work around missing props and the like. It’s well written, well acted, well shot and well edited. Robert Rodriguez has certainly moved up in Hollywood, gaining budget potential and the ability to attract big name stars to his projects. But just look what he did with what he started? It’s fantastic and I can’t wait to watch the sequels.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment