Pan’s Labyrinth

So you know the Disney versions of fairytales we all grew up watching? With the singing animals and the pretty princes and the happy endings? Yeah, this movie is the opposite of that.

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Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Fauno)
Writer and Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez
Music by: Javier Navarrete
Released: 2006
Rated R

Pan’s Labyrinth is a faerie tale about a young girl named Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be growing up in 1940s, Fascist-controlled Spain. In a bit of a twist on the traditional faerie tale set-up, she has an evil step-father, a sadistic army officer who has just summoned her and her heavily pregnant mother to come and live with him. Despite the cruel realities surrounding her, Ofelia still believes in magic and faeries. So she’s delighted when she enters the titular stone Labyrinth on her step-father’s property and meets an ancient Faun. The Faun tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost faerie princess (named Moanna–don’t laugh, this was years before the Disney version), and that her true parents have been searching for her. But in order to prove she is the real princess, she must perform three difficult and frightening tasks before the rise of the full moon.

I enjoy a good dark faerie tale every now and then. And there really aren’t enough of them in movies–not the grim, bloody, Grimm-style ones, full of child-eating monsters and morally ambiguous Fae. When this movie is a fantasy, it’s exactly that type of fantasy, and it’s fantastic. The creature designs–largely created through costumes and prosthetics, not CGI–are some of the most imaginatively creepifying things I’ve ever seen. Extra points for creepiness go to The Pale Man (the aforementioned child-eating monster), of course, but everything else about the magical realm is mysterious and oddly beautiful, too, from the tiny, insectoid, shape-shifting faeries to the majestic Faun. All it takes is a haunting soundtrack and some gorgeous underground scenery to complete the atmosphere.

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Shaking hands with him is awkward.

But Pan’s Labyrinth spends about as much time being a war movie as it does being a fantasy movie, and as scary as some of the supernatural monsters may be, they’re nothing compared to the human ones. Ofelia’s step-father, Captain Vidal, is one of the more irredeemably evil characters I’ve seen in a movie. One of his first acts onscreen is to viciously stab a young man to death in front of his father because he thinks he might be a Communist. And he only gets worse from there. Thanks in large part to him, the movie is almost unbearably bleak and sad at times. This is not the kind of story where the villain is defeated easily, or without causing the heroes a lot of misery along the way.

But fortunately, it does have its fair share of heroes. Ofelia may make one or two of those idiotic choices that seem to be required of all faerie tale protagonists, but she also shows constant courage, resilience and selflessness even as tragedies pile up around her. Ofelia’s only ally in the mortal world, a maid named Mercedes, is also worth cheering for as she secretly helps a band of resistance fighters behind the Captain’s back.  Ditto for Mercedes’ friend and fellow conspirator, Doctor Ferreiro. Throughout the movie we constantly see people rebelling against evil authorities (whether human or Fae) in order to do the right thing, regardless of consequences. And the bleak circumstances just make these heroic moments stand out all the more.

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“But captain, to obey, just like that, for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.”

I found the theme of disobedience particularly interesting, because a lot of faerie tales are all about how important it is to obey the rules: “Don’t touch that spindle,” “Don’t eat that food,” “Don’t go into the woods alone.” And there are moments like that in this movie, but the problem is that almost all the people making up those rules are either evil or under the sway of evil. So the only way to be a hero is to disobey. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good moral to teach kids, but in case it wasn’t clear enough, this movie is not suited for kids in any way, shape, or form. And the importance of disobeying evil authorities, even when it could cost you your life, is an excellent moral to each adults…especially if they happen to be living under a fascist regime.

My only real problem with this movie is that its fantasy elements all but disappear for most of the third act, leaving us with just the war elements. I was hoping for more fantasy lore and prosthetic monsters. But that’s a personal preference on my part. Both halves of the story are told equally well, and neither would work without the other.

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“I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce.”

Some other thoughts: 1. The English title is a misnomer. The god Pan neither appears nor is mentioned at any time in this movie, and the Labyrinth is never said to belong to him. The Spanish title, “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” is much more accurate. 2. This is the first foreign-language movie I’ve watched in which I could actually understand the foreign language (most of the time). So that was fun. I now have the words for “faerie” (hada) and quite a few expletives added to my Spanish vocabulary. 3. Some might say the ending to this movie is ambiguous, but they are wrong. It’s a faerie tale ending, plain and simple.

I don’t think everyone would enjoy Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a little on the odd side and very much on the tragic side. There’s quite a lot of gore and at least one scary monster (possibly more, if you’re not into the Faun’s design), and if you go in expecting a more Disney-esque fairytale, you’re going to be very disappointed. And probably traumatised. But the movie’s been out long enough that I think most people know what to expect, and for me it delivered exactly what I was hoping for: a dark, tragic, visually stunning fantasy with enough layered symbolism and references to a history that I (sadly) know little about to make it worth further unpacking.

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Now that I think about it, this movie has a lot of Alice in Wonderland vibes, along with the whole faerie tale thing.

So even though it didn’t spend quite as much time with the magical creatures as I would have liked, this is still a movie I could see myself watching over again. Like all great fantasy, it immersed me in a creative magical world without ever letting me forget what the real one is like.  And despite its deep darkness, it ultimately tells a rather hopeful story: one in which wonder, courage, and innocence are glorified while arrogance and cruelty are condemned.

Man, I wish Del Toro had directed the Hobbit movies…

Grade: A-

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My Faves: Young Justice

I know I’ve mentioned this show briefly before, but it got taken off Netflix yesterday, and I’m feeling sentimental.

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Young Justice
Creators: Mostly Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti
Starring: Danica McKellar, Jesse McCartney, Nolan North, Khary Payton and so, so many others…
Aired: 2010-2013-2018?
Rated TV-PG

As the name might imply, this is a show about a team of young superheroes–or teenage sidekicks, to be more precise–who work alongside the Justice League. It starts when fellow sidekicks Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad go on an unauthorised mission together and end up saving Superboy, a Superman clone, from the evil lab that created him. Their mentors still don’t think they’re ready for the Justice League, but after seeing what the four kids are capable of, they agree to let them form a super-team of their own. Miss Martian, Martian Manhunter’s niece, and Artemis, a Green Arrow protege, are quickly added to the group (presumably to balance out the testosterone), and eventually it expands to include more than a dozen former sidekicks. But after a few covert crime-fighting missions together, the Team (no, they never get a proper name) begin to realise most of their enemies are connected through a shadowy organisation called the Light. And they’ve barely scratched the surface of the Light’s nefarious plans.

This was one of the first DC shows I ever watched in full, and it was a great gateway into the rest of the DC universe. It has a gigantic cast, plucked from every corner of comic continuity, and almost every character is at his/her best. I went into this show knowing a little bit about Batman, Superman, and the Flash, and that was it. I came out of it as a huge fan of the rest of the Bat-family (particularly Nightwing), the rest of the Flash family, Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, and quite a few other heroes I’d never heard of before. And as I’ve become a more informed fan, I’ve just come to appreciate this show’s unique take on many of its characters even more.

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For example: Best. Lex Luthor. Ever.

But the main reason I love this show has nothing to do with my love for DC. It has to do with my love for smart stories about smart characters. The cast of Young Justice is almost entirely made up of master strategists, cunning manipulators, and double agents, all trying to outwit each other at once. This naturally leads to a convoluted plot full of unexpected twists, in which nothing is quite as it seems in the beginning. It’s great fun. And the fact that many of these smart characters are teenagers, who do occasionally act like normal teens when they’re not saving the world, does surprisingly little to hinder the fun.

In fact, the characters are a big part of what makes this show work. Like Justice League Unlimited and other great super-team shows before it, Young Justice manages to give every one of its many, many main characters a chance to shine. (At least for the first season. More on that later.) But on this show, it’s usually more than just a moment in the spotlight. Each member of the original Team has a layered personality and a complex character arc that lets them grow and change naturally over the course of the show, which is pretty impressive, considering each episode is only a half hour long and a lot of that time has to be spent advancing the plot. While some of the protagonists’ actions can seem dumb or annoying at first, there’s almost always an understandable reason behind them. The show also doesn’t shy away from showing the kind of impact a crime-fighting lifestyle could have on a teenager. Everyone on the Team struggles with issues related to their job, from Robin’s fear of becoming as ruthless as Batman to Miss Martian’s insecurity and anti-heroic tendencies. Not to mention the drama that naturally results from a bunch of hormonal teens working together. But they all manage to rise above those issues whenever the day needs saving, which is fun to see.

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They’ve even got a sweet day-saving ship!

Unlike some of my other “faves,” however, I will admit this show has flaws. Its soundtrack and voice acting aren’t nearly as good as anything in the DCAU, for example, and it tends to rely a little too heavily on exposition. Also (and this is a minor spoiler, so…sorry) Season 2, dubbed “Young Justice: Invasion,” starts five years after the first season’s cliffhanger ending. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it means a lot of important character development happens offscreen, which is usually a bad thing for any story. It also introduces a ton of new characters, some of whom never get enough development for us to really care about them, and it stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit, since some of the major plot points from Season 1 really shouldn’t have taken five years to resolve. On the other hand, some of the new characters do get plenty of development, and they’re fantastic. Blue Beetle and Impulse are the stand-out examples, but there are others. Also, skipping ahead five years means Robin ages into Nightwing, which is always a good thing.

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For…multiple reasons.

Story-wise, the second season is as good or better than the first, and after the first few episodes, the time skip problems get much less irritating. So overall, I’d say the good outweighs the bad. Which is also true for Young Justice as a whole. It has some of the best animation I’ve ever seen in a TV show, tons of cool action, and unforgettable characters. It’s also incredibly tightly plotted. Not a single episode could be considered “filler.” Not a single character is expendable (except maybe Lagoon Boy from Season 2, because he sucks). Not a line of dialogue is ever wasted.

And yet, this show only has two seasons at the moment. It seems to have endured Firefly levels of sabotage from Cartoon Network, where it first aired, with long hiatuses being imposed with no warning, episodes airing at the wrong times, etc. It was cancelled after the second season, and the reason I’ve heard cited most often is that it wasn’t selling enough toys. But thanks to ongoing fan support and tons of views on Netflix, it’s been renewed for a third season, to be called “Young Justice: Outsiders”! I’m pretty excited. Even though it won’t be on Netflix, apparently. And I have to wait until 2018, apparently.

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I need a time machine.

In the meantime, there are always DVDs…and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this show, I highly recommend  you make every effort to do so.

Grade: A for Aster

Dunkirk

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

-Winston Churchill, 4 June, 1940

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Dunkirk
Director and Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, etc.
Soundtrack Composer: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Release: June 21, 2017
Rated PG-13

On 26 May, 1940, 400,000 mostly British and French troops are stuck on a beach near the port town of Dunkirk, France. Their efforts to stop the German army from invading France have utterly failed, and now they’re being picked off by German bombers while they wait for an inadequate number of British navy ships, and a whole lot of tiny civilian boats, to carry them over the narrow channel between Dunkirk and southern England. In this movie, we follow three groups of people: a few of the soldiers on the beach, the crew of a little boat that aids in the evacuation, and an RAF pilot in the air. Each one follows a different timeline, with the movie’s events taking place over about a week for the soldiers, a day for the boat, and just over an hour for the pilot.

Ever since I first learned about it (which wasn’t until college, sadly), the story of “the little ships of Dunkirk” has been one of my favourite chapters of World War II history. It’s a story of courage and determination in the face of defeat, and it shows that it’s possible to bring something good out of failure. Many historians believe the Dunkirk evacuation was one of the major turning points of the war, because it allowed the United Kingdom to keep a good chunk of its army (338,000 soldiers were successfully evacuated) and it gave the British people enough of a morale boost to keep fighting when the Nazis attacked their homeland.

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“We may not have won, but at least we…successfully ran away!”

So even if this movie wasn’t made by my favourite director of all time, I still would have had high expectations. And all of them were entirely met. This is exactly what I wanted out of a movie about the Dunkirk evacuation, and it’s the best war movie I’ve seen so far (though since I only watch one a year, that may not be saying much).

Although the timeline of events can get complicated–which should be no surprise to any Nolan fan–in most ways, this is a very simple movie. It recounts a single historical event with no larger context, no philosophising about causes and effects, and no sources of drama outside said event. Many of the central characters don’t get names, or are named in such quick bits of dialogue that they’re easy to miss. Dialogue in general is minimal, and there are no big monologues or expositional speeches. With the exception of the boat crew, who get one or two tidbits of backstory by the end, we never find out anything about the lives of the main characters–whether they have families, what they did before the war, what hopes and dreams they have, nothing. All we see is who they are in one particular moment of time, and we’re asked to root for them (or not) based on that. And honestly, I think it works. The actors, who include some Nolan regulars but also several newbies, all do a fine job. Their performances made it easy for me to sympathise with each character, despite not knowing much about them. Of course, the desire to survive is pretty universal, so that also makes it easy to sympathise with the characters’ goals.

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Tom Hardy, reprising his role as “Awesome Dude in a Mask.”

If I were to describe Dunkirk in one word, that word would be “intense.” From the beginning to just before the end, the tension never lets up. There’s never a moment when someone isn’t in immediate danger, and thanks to Nolan’s trademark practical effects and realistic filming, that danger always feels incredibly real. The soundtrack often consists of nothing but percussive sounds meant to simulate a heartbeat, the ticking of a watch, or the tide coming in. And just because the movie’s not rated R doesn’t mean its visceral portrayal of combat can’t be disturbing sometimes.

The story doesn’t shy away from showing the gruesome and, even worse, monstrously unfair side of war. It also shows some of the shadier aspects of what really happened, such as the Navy’s preference for evacuating British soldiers at the expense of the French, and no one ever really gets a big heroic moment to contrast all that. But there are lots of little heroic moments. Like the pilot’s decision to keep fighting the bombers instead of flying back home when he gets low on fuel, or the civilian boat captain’s many detours to rescue survivors of wrecked boats and planes before he even gets to Dunkirk. At its heart, this is a story about ordinary men doing all they can to help others in the worst of circumstances. And even though the events it covers were a real-life military disaster, the movie ends on a hopeful, even triumphant note. It shows the value of continuing to fight and give one’s all to a cause, even when there seems to be no hope of success. By the time the Churchill speech I quoted above is recited in the movie, I was able to hear it with a whole new perspective.

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“All we did is survive.” “Sometimes that’s enough.”

This is a beautiful film, both visually and thematically. It doesn’t quite reach the mind-bending heights of some of Nolan’s other masterpieces, but it does an excellent job of reproducing an amazing true story that needed to be told. Dunkirk is an experience no one should miss.

Grade: A

Movie Quote Monday!

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“You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple, and miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you could make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was the look on their faces…”

-Robert Angier on performance, The Prestige

War for the Planet of the Apes

So here’s a franchise I never thought I’d be into…yet here we are.

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War for the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback
Stars: Andy Serkis and some other people
Soundtrack Composer: Michael Giacchino
Rated PG-13

When the movie begins, the war that started in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still raging. Caesar, our charismatic ape leader, and his people are being hunted by an army of humans led by a slightly insane man called The Colonel. After a particularly fierce battle, The Colonel finds Caesar’s hiding place, and, well…let’s just say things get personal. While most of the apes head out to find a home far from the redwood forest and its human inhabitants, Caesar teams up with three of his oldest companions and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Along the way, they pick up an adorable human girl who happens to be mute, and another ape who has learned to speak, despite not belonging to our original band of escaped lab rats. But as the group gets closer to his goal, Caesar finds himself as much at war with his inner demons as with the humans.

Man, how did I get sucked into this trilogy? When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I hadn’t seen any of the previous Apes movies. (Still haven’t.) I thought the name sounded stupid. (Too many “ofs.”) And generally speaking, anytime a monkey or an ape shows up in a story, I start taking things a little less seriously. But I watched the movie at a friend’s house after it came out on DVD, and it wasn’t half bad. Then I had to review the second movie for a college project, and that one wasn’t half bad either. So when the third one came out, I thought, “Why not?” and went to see it on opening night.

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Guess I’m a sucker for apes on horses or something.

There are a couple things in this movie that particularly stood out to me throughout the whole viewing experience. One is the music. Now I know why Michael Giacchino’s Spider-Man score was so underwhelming: he was saving all his talent and skill for this movie! This film relies on music every bit as much as dialogue and cinematography to tell its story, so it’s a good thing the soundtrack is so thick with atmosphere, suspense, and emotion. There are many scenes that would have been just okay on their own, but with the soundtrack, they become masterpieces. Whether it’s  a minimalistic drumbeat or a majestic choral piece, the music is always perfectly suited to what’s going on in the story. At times it reminded me of the feeling I get when listening to an early John Williams score. That’s how good it was.

Secondly, I’ve always been impressed by these movies’ ability to create believable human emotions in characters that are both fully digital and, well, very much not human. This movie does it again...but even more so. There were many times when I completely forgot I was watching CGI apes. Their performances just seem so real, thanks to a combination of great acting and freaking miraculous animation. And in this movie, those performances get to take centre stage. My biggest problem with Dawn was that it spent a lot of time on bland, uninteresting human characters, when I only cared about the apes. This movie fixes that problem by focusing almost exclusively on its simian characters. There are really only two humans with any significance to the plot: the young girl and The Colonel. And they’re both quite interesting, actually, so I didn’t even mind the few scenes that focus on them.

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She’s too cute! I can’t stand it!

The apes are still the most interesting, though. Maurice the orangutan is awesome as always, and the new member of the crew, Bad Ape, provides some much-needed comic relief in what is often a very dark film.

But can I just talk for a second about how amazing Andy Serkis is? Yes, the animators deserve a lot of credit for putting his facial expressions and body language onto Caesar, but he’s the one who had to make those facial expressions in the first place. He inhabits the role with so much power and pent-up emotion, and then every once in a while, he EXPLODES and it’s beautiful to see. Over the course of three movies, he really has created an iconic character in Caesar, right up there with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. As good as certain other elements are, his acting is the heart and soul of this whole trilogy. The man is great at what he does, and if there were any justice in the world, he’d have at least two or three Oscar nominations under his belt by now.

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I know, dude. It’s messed up.

So the movie has a lot going for it, production-wise, and that’s a mighty good thing, because this is a story about talking apes that asks its audience to take it 100 percent seriously. It is a bleak, tragic film about a post-apocalyptic war that occasionally delves into heavy philosophical territory. And it’s about apes. Who, I kid you not, fling poo at one point. If anything–the acting, the special effects, the writing–had gone the slightest bit wrong, this movie would have become a farce.

But fortunately, almost nothing seems to have gone wrong on the production side, so I can actually identify with things like Caesar’s desire for revenge, and his fear that he’s becoming more like his old enemy, Koba. Like in the previous movies, the toxic cycle of fear and hatred comes up a lot. In addition to the usual prejudice between humans and apes, we also see both apes and humans betraying each other out of fear, and Caesar finds his own hatred driving him to do more morally questionable things. And as it becomes clear that the apes are getting even smarter and humans are starting to regress, some questions come up about what really makes them different from one another. Speech? Culture? Violence? Or does it not even matter? Does the amount of mercy and compassion you’re capable of showing matter more than the amount of body hair you’ve got?

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“SO EMOTIONAL!”

There’s a lot of religious symbolism in this movie, which surprised me for some reason. It’s pretty common for post-apocalyptic stories to feature vaguely Christian-sounding cults with insane leaders, and sure enough, the villain in this movie has delusions of God-hood. Since the other two movies didn’t show any tendencies in that direction, I guess I wasn’t expecting it here, but I didn’t necessarily mind it. It’s not usually too heavy-handed, and it does set up a nice contrast between the villain, with his twisted ideas of what sacrifice for the greater good looks like, and Caesar, who knows more about what it really means. There were also a few times when I was vaguely reminded of certain current events (the building of a wall becomes a plot point in the second half) but fortunately, it never felt like the movie was trying to push a political message. It’s much too subtle for that. Very few things are spelled out for the audience.

Overall, what we have here is a well-made, often moving, always gorgeous film that is well worth watching and discussing. It’s the best movie in the trilogy, and it’s the best movie about apes I’ve ever seen. And Andy Serkis is just the best.

Grade: A for “APES! TOGETHER! STRONG!”