Over the past weekend I dutifully trekked out to see the two most wanted movies of the moment, PAN’S LABYRINTH and CHILDREN OF MEN. Both were directed by Mexican directors, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, who along with BABEL’S Alejandro Inarritu complete a hat trick of inventiveness that American directors just can’t seem to muster at the moment.
First PAN’S LABYRINTH. I liked HELLBOY, but it struck me as pretty fluffy, so I was taken unawares by the power of PAN’S LABYRINTH, which critics have embraced in a death-grip. Some have called it ALICE IN WONDERLAND for grownups, but I would more accurately say it is BRAZIL for kids — not that you would ever take a kid to see this film. At the sold-out screening I went to, a theatre full of nerve.com nerd hipsters–proud of the fact they were going to see a critically lauded foreign film–was reduced to a tense, blubbering mass collectively asking “Is it safe to look now?”
PAN’S LABYRINTH is the story of 11-year-old Ofelia, a bright, sensitive child whose mother is pregnant by Capitan Vidal, the leader of a squadron posted at an old mill to stamp out the remnants of rebels. The time is 1944, the Spanish Civil War is winding down, but guerilla fighting goes on. Vidal is brutal; Ofelia, like many children before her, discovers a fantasy land, led by a cranky faun and a chattering mantis. The brutalities of the real world and the brutalities of the fantasy world intersect in a story best called…bleak.
As I said, I never mistook del Toro as a heavyweight, but his Spanish-language films are evidently much deeper than his English ones. PAN’S LABYRINTH is a feel-bad movie, but it feels bad in a very necessary way. Several commentators have compared it to MIRRORMASK, and it’s almost as if del Toro wanted to remake that movie in a way that worked. (MIRRORMASK director Dave McKean supplied jaw dropping visuals, but the characters remained cold and remote.) In PAN’S LABYRINTH you’re all too sympathetic to the human characters, which proves panful when they’re tortured, disfigured and shot in the head.
The film is also a triumph for the intelligent use of CGI. Contortionist/actor Doug Jones (Abe Sapien, Silver Surfer) proves he’s one of a new breed of actors, along with Andy Serkis — the cgi-model, the Astaire/Rogers of the future. The effects in PAN’S LABYRINTH are not over abundant, but they are perfect, startling and a welcome reminder that using imaginative CGI to tell a real story will eventually make memorable films, and not cheesy, plastic crap like (alas) DEAD MAN’S CHEST.
Del Toro is of course, One Of Us, a comics nerd/cartoon dabbler. His production method involves lengthydoodling.
The “embryo” of Pan’s Labyrinth lies on a nearby table as del Toro sits down to talk about the film the day after its premiere at Toronto’s elegant Elgin Theatre. It is impossible to resist flipping through the slim, leather-bound notebook filled with his thought processes — pages of tiny, neat writing weaving around detailed coloured drawings of potential scenes, set pieces and grotesque creatures. Del Toro works this way for all his films, starting by hand, then assembling the people and tools to lift his flights of imagination from page to screen. (Several pages of his Pan’s Labyrinth notebook can be seen on the film’s official website.) Del Toro, who speaks with a gentle intensity and sounds like a cool, brilliant film professor with a minor in psychology, describes his new film as “a female movie not only in gender but in energy.” The main clash, he says, is between the male world, “the super-phallic fascist concern,” and a more embryonic womb-like world of possibility. Pan’s Labyrinth is a sister film to The Devil’s Backbone (2001); both are stories of children set during the Spanish Civil War, skimming the edge of the horror genre, but the first goes even deeper into the fantasy realm.
Don’t go to PAN’S LABYRINTH looking to escape — like the original unsanitized myths and fairy tales it conjures, it’s a reminder that fantasy can be as cruel as reality.
Meanwhile, back in the future, there’s CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s 2027 and the world had been plagued with infertility for 18 years — not a single baby has been born. Clive Owen is here to save us…but not in the way you think, not in Alfonso Cuaron’s dark world, based on the PD James novel of the same name.
In many ways CHILDREN OF MEN is but from the same cloth as DMZ and SHOOTING WAR, two other bleak assessments of the way the world is going. Cuaron isn’t quite the comics junkie so many other directors are — everyone is just playing in the pools initially muddied by Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury, after all — but there’s a little bit of V FOR VENDETTA thrown in there as well. In addition, Michael Caine has his usual scene-stealing role as Jasper, a lovable stoner editorial cartoonist.
Owen plays Theo, a drab fellow in a drab raincoat in a sad future London where a morning coffee stand bombing registers barely a blip. An old girlfriend, played by Julianne Moore, shows up and needs Theo’s help to transport a girl to the border — England has closed it’s borders and “fujis” or foreigners are being shipped out via chaotic detainment camps. It turns out the girl is pregnant, and hijinks, as they say…ensue.
CHILDREN OF MEN ads compare it to BLADERUNNER, and it’s apt not in a visual way, but in a gritty visceral way. Both movies feel far too real — Deckard’s rainy LA was full of ad-fueled wonders, but you still ordered ramen in the rain. Similarly Theo’s future world—where terrorists destroy works of art, fans stab the youngest living human to death, and Government messages to turn in foreigners are a constant back-beat—is not much of a stretch as I contemplate my Metro card with the message “if you see something, say something” on it, and tube riders are reminded to turn in abandoned packages every three minutes.
Although there is no Syd Mead to slyly imagine a bright future through the dystopia, CHILDREN OF MEN is equally spectacular, but in a different way. Cuaron and his genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have shot the movie with handheld cameras, giving it an immediacy and jeopardy that only Paul Greengrass and YouTube hanging videos could rival. Just to make it interesting, they use long, five minute takes in the middle of jagged, chaotic battles between tanks, mortars, and squads of men with machine guns. The long, fabled shots of Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese have nothing on Cuaron. But to my relief, this virtuosity serves to only drag us further into the story. As Cuaron said in an interview:
AC: The reason for that is, we don’t want to favor character over the environment, we want to keep a balance. And that means that you don’t do close-ups, because then you are favoring the character over the environment. So you do only very loose shots, because then the character, ideally, blends with the environment and, hopefully, has a conflict. So you can have tension between background environment and your character.
In another heart stopping scene, we see a car ambush and chase from entirely within the car, a technical achievement of daunting complexity
And so the soap opera of the Fiat unfolded on a road under cloudy skies, which meant the exteriors were five times brighter than the inside of the darkened car, making it difficult to photograph both without over-or- underexposing the shots. Not to mention the difficulty of fitting a camera and operator into the car to film each of the five actors in close up, Lubezki adds. “I said, ‘Cuarón, this is practically impossible to do,’ ” Lubezki recalls. ” ‘You really have to let me think about this shot.’ “
CHILDREN OF MEN is another bleak, sad movie. I would not recommend either of these films to anyone in a blue mood. Yet the same could certainly be said of an intelligent viewing of any news program. In CHILDREN OF MEN, the government is not exactly the enemy, but it is certainly no friend. I wanted to keep saying “Oh, that could never happen.” And then I remember that my own government has decided it’s perfectly safe to give me cloned meat and not tell me about it.
Both these challenging movies have been out in Europe for some time, but were released at the very last minute in the US for Oscar® consideration. Both are doing very very well in limited release. (CHILDREN OF MEN goes wider this weekend.) They’re both too smart and too dark for the average American movie goer, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run out and see them ASAP.