Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth, or On Wonderment-Fatigue

This might mean more if a cursory glance over movies I have seen recently didn't reveal such a mighty torrent of churl, so bountiful a stream of disappointment. So:

- I really, really liked Casino Royale, Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, Hot Fuzz.

- I had an awful lot of time for Babel, The Prestige, The Queen, The Good Shepherd (which, given its two-day running time, was fortunate).

- Just to show that I don't only talk when I dislike something, The Last King Of Scotland was awful rubbish[1].

However, and believe me when I say it gives me no pleasure to hold this position: Pan's Labyrinth, the movie that is, it seems, impervious to dislike, really left me cold.

It's an unfair starting-point, but the fact is that the pic's hype didn't get it off on a good foot. All this malarkey about a hidden gem for discerning, Hollywood-scorning audiences just primes one for a redux of the near-unwatchable Night Watch; and as for the "fairy tale for grown-ups stuff", well, it just smacks of those facile "Mature" comic books boasting teen-angst storylines couched in superfluous menstruation references and people getting shot in the head[2].

Which are something Guillermo Del Toro loves. Being excited about this movie because it was from the director of Mimic and Blade 2 always seemed like an exercise in revisionism, trying to get het-up about these masterpieces of popcorn while forgetting that Del Toro's Hollywood output has been geared entirely toward testosterone-blinded UMD-viewing teenagers and usually meanders somewhere between bland and vomitous (as always, check perpetual 17-year-old Harry Knowles' thoughts on Blade 2 for what I guarantee is the most disturbing piece of criticism you will ever read).

And, yes, Pan's Labyrinth is instantly better than the above. It's even better than the comparatively able Hellboy, taking a leaf from Mike Mignola's book and ably working an original story into a pastiche of fairytale archetypes.

This is where things start to disappoint, though. The most apparent problem is that experiencing Pan's Labyrinth is about nothing so much as how wonderful Pan's Labyrinth is to experience. Whereas the experience of the fairytale archetype invariably involves a measure of wide-eyed childlike wonderment, the thrill of being transported into a world of alien spectacle and terror, this is sustained by such details being an integral part of the narrative.

Pan's Labyrinth will draw comparisons to Harry Potter - it must be better, it's subtitled - but as the age's foremost provider of wonderment, JK Rowling understands that stories about magic are only themselves magical if the story itself is too a work of art (or magic). Pan's Labyrinth, while visually noteworthy, has very little real magic to its story: The narrative proceeds gracelessly from point to point, often sacrificing character at the expense of an arbitrary sense of trope. What's intended to feel True in the deepest most metamythic sense just feels Obvious.

Less sorcerer than cheap parlor magician, Del Toro's tactic for dealing with this shallow frippery is to make his film Gorgeous with a capital G: to misdirect you from the fairly humdrum and utilitarian plot with visuals designed to thrill and amaze. But here, too, the visual showmanship on offer seems to say nothing so much as, "look what visual showmanship is on offer here!" It's not actually all that solid in and of itself (much of the effects work is markedly less convincing than any decent pre-CG fantasy from 15-20 years ago), and the grandeur and intricacy don't really inspire awe so much as communicate - via incessant yelling, all bluster and swooping cameras and grating orchestral lullabies - the notion that awe is the appropriate response to this sort of thing. Again, we're not watching a movie that takes us away, we're watching a movie that tells us we really ought to feel taken away right now. The confidence on show is admirable, but it feels hollow.

And to return to that "fairy tale for grown-ups" line, Pan's Labyrinth's deeper malaise is that it really doesn't succeed as a fairy tale for anyone. Fairy tales aren't about wonder: the wonder is a side-product of the actual business of the narrative. Fairy tales stay with us because they tap into the primal, carrying us through fantastic worlds while they go: Pan's Labyrinth wants to take short-cuts, to get the wonderment without any of the tricky business of placing it within an appropriately sublime story.

It doesn't even shock like a fairytale should. Sure, there's some unpleasant torture, and one plot revolves around the female reproductive system, and a lot of people sure do get shot in their heads, but there's nothing to approach Grimm or Struwwelpeter in terms of hauntingly horrifying imagery or concept. After the film has finished, there's little to take away one way or the other. It's the perfect DVD special edition: filled to the brim with details that scream to be paid attention to, designed to convince viewers they're enchanted in lieu of the actual ability to enchant, geared toward repeat viewing in that it's bereft of lasting depth once the credits roll.

Genuine wonderment is far from dead: it's just in short supply here.

[1] Fine, fine, capsule review: So you have a wonderful actor assaying one of the most fascinatingly notorious figures of the c20th, and the most insightful thing you can think to say about him is, "now THERE'S a guy whose wife you shouldn't bang!"?
[2] Obviously, Pan's Labyrinth features an excess of both.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ancient History: A Look Back At 2006's Cinema

Okay, so you could say this is me doing a clever, post-post kinda thing, where we think about the movies of a year when it's long-faded enough for academic criticism. But the truth is, I wrote this when my computer was in the shop, just found it on my pendrive, and thought it bore sharing. I know, I know. Enjoy?

THE BEST MOVIES OF 2006, in some rough order

1. Syriana - If 2006 was all about sprawling socially-conscious multiple-protagonist films with blown-out pallettes and subvertingly poetic inserts (which it was), I submit that this (rather than the year's simultaneously underrated and undeserving Best Picture) is the one folks are going to dig out in 50 years' time and say, "and when they got it right, this is how good it was". Notoriously labrynthine, confoundingly baroque and self-obfuscating, this is a film that really makes you work for your kicks. But what borders on narratological audience-participation is rewarded with some of the deepest characters, realest plots, most heartfelt performances in what's becoming the genre of the decade.

2. United 93 - Taking a similar approach to its ubiquitous subject matter as 2005's Last Days, Paul Greengrass' uncomfortably intimate, claustrophobic pic succeeds in all the ways that film failed. Throughout, a narrowed, fractured perspective is used to sublime and chilling effect, whether it's watching people react to the Twin Tower attacks or hearing half of a mother's tearful final phonecall to her children.

3. Out Of The Blue - Not just the best New Zealand movie in a long time (fine, ever), but just plain one of the finest films of its type anywhere. Falters at times in its hesitation as to whether to be cinema or verite, but every other - no doubt daunting - decision is made perfectly, planting the pic in the miniscule spaces between exploitative and dismissive, shocking and cloying. The Man Alone had it coming.

4. Casino Royale - Surely should be counted as a catastrophic failure as a Bond movie: unsexy muppet-man sings widely-derided (and excellent) title song before story transpires that's politically feasible and bereft of stupid sci-fi gadgetry, relying instead on the hitherto-avoided gambit of making James Bond an actual character. Consequently, it's by so far and away the best of the series that it makes you wonder how anyone ever put up with anything that went before, and the first instalment that can be wholeheartedly recommended to those without a whit of interest in what James Bond is or why they should care. (All "best" claims, of course, are issued with the caveat that The Living Daylights is still just as good).

5. Hard Candy - Of course it seems timely, but rather than relying on any sort of oh-look-there-is-this-thing-called-Myspace-and-it-scares-eldery-whites ballyhoo, Hard Candy taps into timeless themes of accusation and suspicion, deftly manipulating the sympathies and exchanging victim for predator on an almost scene-by-scene basis. Comparisons abound with The Woodsman, Happiness et al, but Hard Candy's closest cousin may really be The Crucible: both mesh theatrical containment with a cinematic awareness of what's offscreen. This film also contains what may be the single best performance by a young actress ever.

6. Borat - Sacha Baron Cohen's in-character appearance on Letterman makes apparent just what a hell of a director Larry Charles is. The Borat character, as well as being intensely unlikeable, is not possessed of infinite screen-potential; all the more impressive, then, just how well this film holds up. Much has been made of the merciless barbs the film aims at American culture, but what else strikes you is just what a perfect skewering it is of that modern myth, the Inherent Nobility Of Subtitles. Ignore the brouhaha generated by the prodco's dodgy practices; watch Borat as a razor-sharp Christopher Guesting of the tre-arthouse Stranger In A Strange Land genre.

7. Brick - The thing about why-wasn't-this-done earlier ideas is that, underdone, they can be a depressing answer to that very question. Brick, while at times leaning on its gimmick, for the most part is exactly the loving, inricately detailed realisation deserved by its central premise. Onscreen noir having long since passed into lazy pastiche (thanks very much, Sin City), it fell to this odd little genre-twister to bypass all the cliches and pare the style back to the elements. Brick doesn't look or talk like the modern notion of what film noir ought to be; it gives it to you straight, no chaser. As such, it succeeds more admirably than most anything since Chinatown.

8. Thank You For Smoking - Exactly as sharp, subversive and vital as it needs to be. While sometimes experimenting with a Message and peering at length into the ol' comedy trap of Laughs Or Plot?, pic still succeeds admirably as a collection of near-perfect riffs tied together with a story that, well, could've been done a lot worse.

9. Miami Vice - Deeply, deeply flawed, this perfect idea for a movie - Michael Mann shows us exactly what was good about his tv series by taking out all the superfluities and updating what's left - would've been a damn sight better if it could've stayed on target and had a third act filmed. As it is, it's half the best crime movie since Heat, and half a perfectly serviceable romance/thriller that's better than anyone else does 'em, just not as good as Mann's usual.

10. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey - A slightly confused, hopelessly subjective, articulate and vibrant testament to just how much one guy likes headbangin'. Let's have a lot more like this!