25 January 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (Warner Bros. 2006)

Intense. Brutal. Vivid. Unforgettable.

All of these terms accurately describe Guillermo del Torro's El Laberinto del Fauno, released as Pan's Labyrinth in English. The story, set at the end of the Second World War in Spain, centres around Ofelia, a girl young enough to believe in fairies and old enough to see the danger in her situation. She and her pregnant mother have been brought to live in an old mill in the mountains of rural Spain. It is the base of operations for her stepfather, Captain Vidal, in his fight against the guerilla fighters living in the mountains. The Captain's housekeeper, Mercedes keeps a watchful eye on Ofelia, especially after her mother is confined to bedrest, but it is she who tells Ofelia that the ancient, crumbling labyrinth in the nearby woods has always been there.

The trailers, posters and promotional material all focus on the fantasy side of this film and I worry that some viewers will go in with unfair expectations. While Ofelia does escape into the world of the Labyrinth, she is also firmly rooted in the real, violent, world at war. Writer/director del Torro neither glorifies nor downplays the violence between the soldiers and the guerillas and it is some of these scenes, more than the fantasy sequences, that are burned into my brain with such clarity. There were audible gasps from the audience around me through some of these same scenes.

Pan's Labyrinth is, in the end, a tragedy in the truest sense; there are many deaths but in the end, there is still hope. The theme of destiny runs throughout each of the storylines from the way Ofelia's mother met the Captain to the lives of the guerillas to Ofelia's connection with the Labyrinth.

The creatures of the Labyrinth are at once otherworldly and also completely organic. The centerpice -- the title character -- is Pan, but there are other creatures lurking in and around the Labyrinth, too. Some seem to be entirely digital, others only partly so, but all fit perfectly into the surroundings. Pan is brought to life by two men: actor Doug Jones in an elaborate costume and makeup, plus a pupeteer who manipulates the upper facial features. Considering the dark, creepy look of the fantasy world and the realism of its creatures, it is no surprise that both Best Makeup and Best Art Direction are among the six Academy Award® nominations received.

I hope that people will see this film, not for the promise of a Jim-Henson like world, but for the dark, tragic, memorable film that it is. I hope, too, that the beauty of the film transcends its subtitles (though it is a shame at times to look away from the screen to read them) to find a large international audience.


23 January 2007

Wiching Hour Theatre by Craig Shaeffer (Creative Guy Publishing, 2005)

Witching Hour Theatre takes place inside the fictional Starlight Cinemas, one of those movie houses that run double and triple features for one low price. Larry Wilson is a regular at the "Witching Hour Theatre," the horror film triple feature that runs every Friday at midnight. Larry is a creature of habit, that's pretty clear, but he also has a bit of a crush on Nicole, the girl behind the concession counter. When things start to get a little weird one Friday night, Larry finds himself tangled up in horror film cliches, trying to be Nicole's hero.

Craig Shaeffer knows how to pace a story. At just under 60 pages, Witching Hour is a quick read by any estimation, but it is also a suspenseful page-turner. I read this in an afternoon, not wanting to put it down for longer than it took to refill my coffee. Shaeffer's knowledge of horror films comes through clearly in the story, as does his sense of humour. Like the Scream franchise, Witching Hour's protagonist is aware of typical, overused plot devices in the horror genre, yet can't stop himself from acting the same way when he is in the same situations as characters in movies he ridicules.

Best to read this with the lights on; popcorn optional.

*** 1/2

Buy Witching Hour Theatre chapbook directly from Creative Guy Publishing
Buy Witching Hour Theatre ebook from Fictionwise

22 January 2007

Playing By Heart (Miramax, 1998)

I have to start by confessing that Playing By Heart is one of my very favourite films. I can't give you a clear reason why this should be among the films that I turn to when I want to be entertained, but it has something to do with a very strong ensemble cast and a slightly soapy feel that pays off in the most satisfying way.

I get warm squishy feelings watching the budding relationships between Trent (Jon Stewart) and Meredith (Gillian Anderson) and between Joan (Angelina Jolie) and Keenan(Ryan Phillipe), though the Stewart/Anderson chemistry rings much more true than that of Jolie/Phillipe. Hannah (Geena Rowlands) and Paul (Sean Connery) are preparing to renew their vows but have to get past some skeletons in the closet. While the film does not lack funny lines and sharp dialogue, Paul gets some of the best, delivering one of my favourite lines of all time and espousing some interesting philosophies about the nature of love.

The film is an exception for writer/director Willard Carroll, most of his work has been on childrens' films like The Brave Little Toaster series and Tom's Midnight Garden. It's a shame, too, because he shows a real ear for dialogue and the messy world of romantic relationships. The only big criticism I have is with the timeline. Events seem to take place inside of just a few days, but I suspect they are spread over several weeks.

Did I mention the soap opera feel? It is, at times, very overblown and melodramatic, but at the same time, it is touching and sweet, and even though I have seen it many many times, I still enjoy spending time with the characters, and that says a lot.


02 January 2007

Sci-Fi Faves

I thought I would break from the pattern and review a few of my favourite Sci-Fi films. I'm going to ignore the usual top tens and all of the Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien and Matrix franchises. I know that most of these have earned "mixed reviews" but I have watched all of these more than once (most I have watched five times or more).

Here are my faves, in alphabetical order:

Dark City. This one is soooooo under-rated. I love the dark feel, the creepy concept and the payoff. Add to that some fun acting (Keifer Sutherland chews up the scenery as an Igor-type lackey) and you get one of my favourite late-night films.

Demolition Man. OK, this one definitely falls under "guilty pleasure." Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes are a cop and a criminal from the past, who end up duking it out in the future. But I LOVE the version of the future, from the "fast food wars" to the "three shells" there is so much subtle alternate history that I can forgive Stallone and Snipes. Plus a perky Sandra Bullock is the love interest.

Fifth Element, The. Although there are scenes ripped right off from other movies (notably one scene almost frame-for-frame from Heavy Metal), there are also some really original concepts and lots of eye candy. Gary Oldman is right over the top, and Bruce Willis is in perfect form.

Galaxy Quest. If you are a Trek fan, this cheesy meta-film movie is hillarious. Normally I can't stand Tim Allen, but he rocks in the lead. The premise is that a bunch of actors hopelessly typecast from a long-cancelled sci-fi show end up actually being contacted by aliens and travelling to space. Supporting cast includes Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub and Sam Rockwell.

Lost Skeleton of Cadavera, The. OK, this one is purposely cheesy. An homage to the great B-Movie creature-features of the 1950s, the Lost Skeleton has a monster, aliens, and yes, a talking skeleton, complete with obvious strings attached. If you love B-Movies, you owe it to yourself to rent or even buy this gem.

Mars Attacks!. Yes, it's cheesy ... what else would you expect from Tim Burton, the man responsible for Beetlejuice and Ed Wood? There is some very, very dark humour in Mars Attacks -- starting with the flaming cattle of the opening sequence -- which makes sense once you realize it was inspired by pulp comics from the 1950s.

Minority Report. Oh, how I hate Tom Cruise... but this film transcends his Cruise-ness with another dark, creepy rendition of the very near future. The concept is that Washington DC uses a "pre-crime" unit to stop criminals before they commit their crime -- how do they find a criminal? Using telepaths, of course. Based on a Philip K. Dick novel.

Serenity. This fan-favourite deserves a wider audience. The universe Joss Whedon created for the TV Series Firefly looks pretty good on the big screen; it's much more gritty and realistic than the plastic universes of Star Trek and similar films. The characters are well-rounded and the plot includes nasty aliens, government cover-up, and lots of action; Serenity is what all good sci-fi should aspire to.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. This one got unfairly panned, but its retro feel blended with high-tech delivery make it doubly enjoyable. Giant robots, a mad scientist, a nod to Conan-Doyle's Lost World, a perky reporter, a daring hero and more await you in this adventure that I suspect was intended to launch a franchise.