From the Archive — Pan’s Labyrinth

mignola pan

Look, I’m well aware that the only movie anyone cares about this weekend is set quite some time ago in a galaxy that’s a significant distance from ours. Ideally, I’d devote this weekly exercise in excavation to an relevant piece of old writing, but everything I’ve ever tapped out about the franchise in question had already appeared here. I’d rather dig up some writing about an older Rian Johnson joint, but those reviews have similarly already appeared here. Instead, I’ll offer a bit of a forecast of a different new movie review that should bubble up here this week. While it’s been covered in one of my best-of-the-decade countdowns, I haven’t yet transferred over my original review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Until, you know, now. Back when this was first posted — in my former online home — I was still using mildly relevant song lyrics to headline the reviews. I’m pleased to report this one was presented under the banner “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl, ’cause it hurts like hell.”

Director Guillermo Del Toro is, first and foremost, a visual artist. His film carry a common denominator of carefully constructed frames marked by fantastic imaginings, and these are the things that linger in the memory after seeing the film: the smoke plume of blood flowing from a head wound in The Devil’s Backbone, the perfectly realization of Mike Mignola’s comic book world in Hellboy, even the creature unfolding itself and its secrets in the process in the underrated Mimic. The emphasis on the images is never at the expense of the story, exactly. It’s just that the stories don’t carry as much richness as Del Toro’s imaginings made as real as film can make them, so the progress of the characters becomes a sort of afterthought.

So it seems a perfect match for Del Toro to craft a fairy tale, a type of story that practically begs for comforting simplicity, where unexpected marvels naturally carry the weight. The new film Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a deep, dark fairy tale, but Del Toro also takes the enduring purpose of fairy tales as a hopeful charge into a land more wondrous than their own and dramatizes it. For many children, the fairly tales are simply an escape for the plainness of their own experience, where they world grows disappointingly smaller with every day and every new discovery. For others, it a far more necessary escape, a safehouse away from a grim, dangerous home. This is the case for the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, a ten-year-old named Sofia.

The film takes place in Spain in 1944, during the beginning of Franco’s despotic rule. Sofia arrives with her mother at the home of her new stepfather, a military leader fighting off a local rebellion while dispensing clumps of bread to the citizenry with the begrudging benevolence of a fickle deity. He’s a vicious man, which Sofia’s mother, pregnant with his child, tolerates because there are few other options for her. Sofia seeks refuge in the strange world revealing itself in the great stone labyrinth on the grounds of the estate. There is a faun that promises her she is the lost princess from a mystical land, and a quest involving an oversized amphibian, a mysterious key and an enchanted chunk of chalk.

For all the charm it holds, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, uncompromising film. The military captain father, played with focused menace by Sergi Lopez, is no cardboard villain, but a font of malevolent rage, his self-perceived power manifested through explosive violence. The movie is not gory in the way of the new splatter renaissance but the frank violence Del Toro puts on screen is more affecting in its purposefulness. Every moment that’s hard to watch is there for a reason beyond making the audience squirm; Del Toro is establishing levels of danger and brutality that are more disturbing that that jolting gushers of blood that populate lesser films.

Del Toro has made a film that is a paean to the powers of imagination. It’s a splendid testament to the inventions of a wandering mind, even when those inventions scare us a little. It’s a terrific film, bathed in the muddy colors of dusk and yet bright with the splendor of unfettered inspiration. It is unmistakably the work of its director, from the soothing growl of its storybook opening narration to its brave, beautiful ending.

From the Archive — Blue Velvet

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The major dust-up on Film Twitter this week centered on the question of whether or not Twin Peaks: The Return can reasonably be considered a film instead of a television series. (By the way, the correct answer is “No,” and I testily made the same argument against last year’s documentary feature Academy Award-winner O.J: Made in America.) That skirmish in semantics came in the wake of several movie critics making room in their year-end top ten lists for David Lynch’s eighteen episode reunion with the twisty denizens of a certain Washington town. In commemoration of the new argument, I’ll dust off my own contrarian, complicated response to the cinematic offering that I suspect is still considered by many to be Lynch’s signature masterwork. This piece was originally published at my former online home as a part of the “Flashback Fridays” feature, hence the header that specifically notes the date of the film’s release. 

1986: Blue Velvet is released

When you come out the theatre after seeing David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” you certainly know that you’ve seen something. You wouldn’t mistake frames from “Blue Velvet” for frames from any other movie.
–Pauline Kael in The New Yorker

David Lynch’s fourth feature film was released in mid-September, a month or so after debuting at the Montreal World Film Festival and about a month after playing the Toronto International Film Festival. The reactions to it were, to put it mildly, pronounced. The film’s willful descent into warped degradations inspired revulsion in some and reverence in others. Tepid reactions were few and far between, perhaps nonexistent. It’s hard to imagine anyone emerging from a viewing back in 1986 and terming the movie “okay” or “pretty good” or “not so great.” It still looks edgy, challenging, frightening, fearsome, and twisted today, but its almost inconceivable how different it looked back then. To provide some context, the week after Blue Velvet opened, ‘Crocodile’ Dundee began a nine-week reign on top of the box office charts. Even Lynch’s immediate precursors weren’t suitable preparation for what he unleashed onscreen this time out. Yes, he’d made Eraserhead, but his most recent efforts were a generally disliked adaptation of a classic science fiction novel and an elegant drama about a 19th century outcast that’s notable for its restraint. If Lynch is something of a brand by now, then Blue Velvet was the launch.

For those with the temerity to follow it anywhere, “Blue Velvet” is as fascinating as it is freakish. It confirms Mr. Lynch’s stature as an innovator, a superb technician, and someone best not encountered in a dark alley.”
–Janet Maslin in The New York Times

I didn’t see Blue Velvet when it was released, with outings to the movie theater difficult to come by and my reliance on others to get me there making it that much more unlikely. I was a year too young to get in anyway. Even though the home video revolution was well underway, I’m not sure I ever saw the movie in any of the humble stores in our backwater town. Despite the acclaim the film received — including a Best Director Oscar nomination for Lynch, even though the film received recognition in no other categories, an odd feat that Lynch would achieve again fifteen years later — it was still a fairly controversial title. Besides, most of my video rental patronage involved securing movies to watch with my buddies on Friday night or with my family on Saturday night, neither crowd likely to respond favorably to Blue Velvet. And so I waited some more and waited some more, until it seemed the chance to watch it had passed me by. How could I recapture the shock of a film like Blue Velvet after viewing Lynch’s follow-ups and imitators? Maybe more damaging, how could I find my way to its wild heart after spending time around drunk college girls joyfully shouting out Frank Booth’s lines of dialogue the same way my pals quoted The Blues Brothers for an easy laugh? The world unknowingly conspired to tame it.

I am not one of the film’s admirers. Or perhaps I should say, I admire its craftsmanship but am not one of its defenders. I believe Lynch is a talented director, and that in “Blue Velvet” he has used his talent in an unworthy way. The movie is powerful, challenging and made with great skill, and yet it made me feel pity for the actors who worked in it and anger at the director for taking liberties with them.
–Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times

Yesterday I finished tracking through the Top Fifty Films of the 90s and next week I’ll continue the conceit by looking to the prior ten year span, tallying up the best of those years. I acknowledge my shortcomings in this endeavor and have been making ongoing efforts to see some of the movies that reside in my own personal blind spot. So I knew I needed to finally see Blue Velvet. As I reported at the time, my worries were proven apt. It didn’t move me or rattle me the way it was supposed to, the way I think Lynch intended. To be fair and completely truthful, I’ve usually been more inclined towards Lynch when he applies his dark poetry to material that doesn’t start out warped, far preferring The Straight Story to Lost Highway. Still, I had the inescapable sense of looking at a museum piece that’s suffered from the erosion of its revolution. It was perfect, even necessary, for a certain time and place, and while I was there, I also wasn’t. I missed my chance, so I can only understand Blue Velvet, I don’t really feel it.

From the Archive: Michael Clayton

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Since I carved out a little digital space this past week to express my disappointment with one of the new movies being aggressively positioned as a Oscar contender, I’ll use this regular archival rummaging to share a review from ten years ago that examined a film that I felt was also overpraised. I actually find Michael Clayton to be a solid movie, but the fervent celebration it enjoyed left me a little perplexed. I’ll take director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up, Duplicity, over this one any day.

Screenwriters routinely see their work savaged after they submit their printed pages to the money machine that cranks out films, so it’s hard to begrudge a writer who, given the opportunity, perhaps adheres a bit too closely to their nicely processed words. Tony Gilroy, with plenty of produced screenplays since he made “Toepick” into a smugly satisfied put-down fifteen years ago, makes his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, and the film plays like the script probably reads. There’s a novelistic seriousness and sturdiness at play in this legal drama about a major law firm’s fixer and the crisis of conscience he faces when he’s called in to bring a mentally unhinged attorney under control. Gilroy wants the story to carry the weight, which generally works nicely, but there are passages where some directorial flourishes and inventiveness may have transformed the more familiar elements into something fresher. Even the actors sometimes seem overly beholden to the script, really punching the emotions that likely showed up in the stage directions. “Worried” and “Manic” come across clear as the studio logo at the start of the film.

It’s not just an empathy for the resounding satisfaction that must come from preserving work that’s often discarded which inspires an inclination towards forgiveness for these minor faults. There’s also the simple fact that all the pieces of the film, including these that I’ve just mildly maligned, add up to something satisfying. It’s hardly groundbreaking — the story of corporate malfeasance harming good, working people echoes from the spirited rambunctiousness of Erin Brockovich and the earnest crusading of A Civil Action to cite two recent examples — but it leavens its familiarity with its solid storytelling. It may be a marker of its era as much as anything that a film with the sheen of peak professionalism and a movie star at its center feels refreshing simply because it’s free of masses-massaging compromise. It’s very craftsmanship is the film’s greatest attribute.

George Clooney, the movie star in question, continues his trend of choosing projects that strive to say something. It may be amusing to identify this as continued penance for prior crimes against moviegoers. Truth is, as Clooney has gotten more capability to chose his projects, he’s defaulted to the sorts of 1970’s potboilers-with-a-point that he adores. His performance here may be more about presence than plumbing depths, yet he does artfully get to the title character’s weary problem-solving and desperate opportunism. He’s just as likely to get out of the way and let Tom Wilkinson verbally pinball through a scene as the conflicted lawyer off his meds, or, better yet, bob in the gentle wake of Sydney Pollack’s beautiful underplaying as a senior partner impatient with the needless distractions he’s facing. As the Dorian Gray portrait of Pollack-the-director continues degrading in the attic, the Pollack-the-actor who periodically waltzes through supporting roles grows more and more vibrant.

This is what movie-making looks like when a writer preserves the integrity of his own vision. This what movie-making looks like when everyone involved cares about the finished product with something more valuable that box office rewards in mind. Studio movie-making used to look like this far more often. It is something of an achievement, that it can briefly look like it again.

From the Archive: Ratatouille

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On the weekend that brings a new Pixar release — thankfully not a sequel or other overt franchise stab — I’ll import this review from my former online home. 

There are plenty of creators working in animation, computer or tradition, who know how to use the inherent flexibility of the technique to expand the parameters of what they can include in the storytelling. The can turn sentient candelabras or tough guy baked goods into supporting characters and use the wildest of worlds as settings that are as easily attainable as a suburban kitchen. But until Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, I don’t think I’ve even seen a director take full advantage of the limitless possibilities of animation when it comes to things like staging and shot construction. Bird creates images that are astoundingly dense with details and concocts camera angels and placement that truly ingenious.

The story revolves around a French rat named Remy whose pronounced sense of smell causes him to eschew his family’s garbage-eating ways in favor of the life of a aspiring gourmand. This gets a boost when an unexpected disruption separates Remy from his clan and he winds up in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant using a strange, follicle-driven method of marionette-esque manipulation to guide an otherwise unskilled member of the staff into creating dishes that become the talk of the city. While Remy’s methodology in controlling his culinary figurehead don’t make much sense, neither does a rat who can rescue a disastrous soup after a few deep sniffs, so griping too much about the necessary devices to drive the action would be a needlessly curmudgeonly response to the wonders onscreen. Besides, the involuntary muscle responses yield at least on scene that serves as a worthy, animated successor to Steve Martin’s astounding physical achievements in All of Me. The willing suspension of disbelief is richly rewarded.

If there’s any complaint that can be leveled, it’s that Bird’s film is so stuffed with ideas, that his themes and overall points sometimes get a little muddled (for a little stretch, the film seems to be presenting the argument bros-before-hos, which doesn’t really mesh with the film’s earlier standpoint on the female character that makes up the latter part of that equation). But that same bustling, bulging busyness more often develops into grand set pieces, such as the film’s inspired scene of kitchen rescue late in the proceedings or moments of unexpected grace and insight like the monologue about the art, futility, and daring of criticism (and Bird is certainly not picking a fight; as the director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles he’s been the beneficiary of their largess).

When it comes to that monologue, it’s definitely elevated by Peter O’Toole’s cragged mountain voice, one of many wonderful vocal performances in the film (one of the best, surprisingly enough, comes from Janeane Garofalo). The great cast is just another way that Bird makes the most of the options afforded to him by working in animation. I don’t know if he’s spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how to use the inherent adaptability of his chosen style of filmmaking to push past standing parameters into grand new achievements. I do know, however, that that’s absolutely what he’s accomplishing.

From the Archive: Jesus Camp

jesus-camp

Writing about Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God the other day got me thinking about this earlier documentary that shows another side of the way religion and zealotry can be leveraged into callous exploitation of youth. This was originally published at my former online home.

The freakiest moment in the new documentary Jesus Camp comes right at the beginning. We see a sort of performance, seemingly in some church’s multi-purpose room. There’s a young boy whose face is painted with camouflage makeup stomping rhythmically atop a riser, beating together long batons in time with a soaring, anthemic song plays and a little battalion of girls in leotards before him match his movements. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Flies: The Musical” as staged by Julie Taymor. It sets the tone perfectly. These are children being trained for war. That’s metaphorical, but just barely.

The film is about Evangelican Christians and their overt efforts to drag America towards being a Jesus-loving nation in accordance with their belief systems. It frames it all with the efforts of Becky Fischer, a cheery zealot who focuses on indoctrinating the youth (because they’re giving kids hand grenades in the madrasahs in Pakistan, after all), running a bible camp where the kids are brought to hear scary (to me) lectures about the sinners that need saving, the genocide brought on by Roe v. Wade and the evils of Harry Potter. It’s a place where the pre-teen campers are worked into such emotional frenzies over their love of Christ that they start sobbing and speaking in tongues. They cheer joyfully when asked if they’d be willing to lay down their lives for their saviour. Jesus sucker-punched me and it felt like a kiss.

The film posits that this is a concerted effort, a tactical assembling of Christian soldiers to march ever onward. To a degree the film makes a compelling case, if only because the glassy-eyed stares of the most fervert proselytizers seem so impenetrable. The greater this clan gets, the more problematic it’s going to be for us heathens.

And yet the film’s not wholly successful, largely because it follows that current trend of documentary filmmaking that involves gathering plenty of footage on a fascinating topic and slapping it together into something shambling and shapeless. It remains fairly effective when it focuses on the camp itself, but the film falters when it heads down (admittedly relevant) sidetracks to a mega-church or a Washington demonstration. These stretches may help the film reach feature-length but they don’t deepen the story, even if there are some scattered telling details that the camera captures. There’s good material, but it doesn’t really serve this film.

Even more problematic is the inserted footage of radio personality Mike Papantonio sounding off on Evangelicals on his show, the camera prowling the studio, catching the bright green modulation waves on a Cool Edit Pro computer screen in a desperate attempt to make the broadcast visually exciting. The bigger issue (albeit the one that doesn’t give me a chance to snarkily show off about recognizing the radio station’s audio software) is that Papantonio’s editorializing seems stagey and forced, a cheaply calculated way to insert a dissenting voice into the film. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are experienced enough (they made the much-admired The Boys of Baraka) to let the material they’ve filmed unspool without added commentary. The voices that are already in the film are speaking loud and clear.

From the Archive — Henry V

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As the latest directorial effort from Kenneth Branagh is greeted with fairly grim reviews, let’s remember a better time — artistically, anyway — for the knighted titan of the British arts. I wish I had a Henry V review written upon its release, but that was a year before I flung my opinions around on the radio. This was written several years later. It’s also fairly brief, but it gets the job done. I’ve gone ahead and changed the timeframe noted in the opening line, which only makes the parenthetical gulp more accurate.

Even if this wasn’t one of the more robust classic readings of Shakespeare in the past (gulp) thirty years, this rendering of the most stirring of the history plays would be worth watching solely for Derek Jacobi’s inspired effort as the Chorus that introduces individual scenes and segments. It’s giddily engaging enough that he is striding through historically accurate battle scenes aloof from the mayhem in his modern dress, a conceit that makes a world of sense given the role, but Jacobi tears into the thick, resounding words with uncommon zest. It’s as if he brings a career of Shakespearean training to bear on every line. There’s a similar quality throughout as Branagh populates the film with great actors who seem exuberant over this ever-more-rare chance to tackle the Bard on the big screen. It makes for a splendid retrospective argument that Branagh shouldn’t have abandoned his reliance on the most seasoned residents of the British stage in favor of the distracting stunt casting that followed.

From the Archive — Richard Linklater films

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On the occasion of Last Flag Flying, the new Richard Linklater feature, arriving in theaters — at least in New York City — here are, I believe, all of the reviews of the Texas filmmaker’s work that I’ve written, but that haven’t previously shown up in this digital space. While there are plenty of titles in Linklater’s filmography that would cause me to offer breathless raves, all of these are lesser, deeply compromised efforts. Of course, in the case of most of these, Linklater was also in the extended process of making a flat-out masterpiece, so I give him a pass on these varied misfires.

Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001). Released the same year as Waking Life, Linklater’s trippy foray in animation and dream analysis which perfectly suited his penchant for talky philosophizing, Tape is comparatively small-scale. Without any specific comparison, it’s bland and unimpressive. Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play, the whole movie take place in the confines of a dingy little motel room as two old friends wage a battle of psyches over a long-ago transgression. It’s not an issue that Belber and Linklater chose not to open up the play, leaving it much the same way it probably was when it played out on the confines of a stage (in fact, Linklater’s few attempts to create some dynamic camera angles to shake things up are weaker than his more flatfooted presentation the material), but someone should have reminded the actors to adjust the level of their performances. Ethan Hawke is especially over-amped, pitching his take on an admittedly anxious character somewhere between the Phantom of the Paradise and Daffy Duck. Uma Thurman fares somewhat better as a woman intrinsically involved in the dispute between the two friends, but her role is a much a dramatic device as a fully drawn character.

Bad News Bears (2005)On paper, this has a lot of potential. The screenwriters behind Bad Santa recondition the 1976 Michael Ritchie film for the foul-mouthed frontman Billy Bob Thornton and turning it over to director Richard Linklater, who proved his slick entertainment chops with School of Rock. In execution, however, it’s a real mess, somehow managing to be both weirdly tame and pointlessly profane.

Fast Food Nation (2006). Eric Schlosser‘s 2001 book is a mind-spinning feat of investigative journalism, examining the insidious influence of fast food on the American culture in a way that goes well beyond the sort of health-based condemnation that’s become commonplace. Schlosser digs into the nasty child psychology manipulations employed by the big chains and considers how the meat-packing industry has dangerously cut corners in part to meet the high-production, low-cost demands of the top clients. Linklater works directly with Schlosser in adapting the book into a fiction film and that sort of ambition remains in place. Unfortunately, the material seems to repel these efforts. Linklater and Schlosser throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks only to find themselves staring down a blank wall. Nothing ever gels. Individual story threads just drift along and sometimes vanish for lengthy stretches, leaving them feeling especially underdeveloped (Greg Kinnear’s fast food exec is unseen in the last third of the movie, only reappearing for an afterthought coda). It’s a bad sign when the throwaway details–like a man toiling away at the meat packing plant despite missing a good chunk of one of his arms, undoubtedly sacrificed to the machinery earlier in his career–carry more impact than the big scenes taking aim at the powers-that-serve-burgers.

A Scanner Darkly (2006). Have no fear: Robert Downey Jr’s trademark style of fidgety overacting can survive the process of being rotoscoped into animation. He’s as distracting as ever in writer-director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. It maybe unfair to lead with that bit of snark since Downey is hardly the biggest problem with this well-intentioned but sadly inert drama of paranoid science fiction. For one, it hardly seemed necessary for Linklater to return to the animation technique he employed in his excellent 2001 film Waking Life. In that film it helped him to create imagery with the fluidity of a dreamscape, merging his philosophical meanderings with visuals that were as casually exploratory. Here, beyond realizing a couple of concepts in a way that would have difficult to believably pull off with the most advanced CGI, there seems little reason to have taken the steps beyond using the filmed footage of the actors. The story itself is grim, probably more faithful to Dick’s original vision than is usually the case and a bit of a bore.