Thursday, January 04, 2007

Guillermo's Labyrinth

One of those movies you really want to see in a theater is Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), the new masterpiece by Guillermo del Toro.

I've seen his studio fare -- Hellboy and Blade II both visually arresting comic book genre winners, and Mimic which del Toro claims Bob Weinstein ruined -- but missed his first breakthrough indie out of Mexico, Chronos, as well as his 2001 The Devil's Backbone, which begins a Spanish Civil War trilogy in which the new release is #2. After the Hellboy sequel for Sony, he's making #3, incidentally titled 3993, "A ghost story about 'the hostages left to fortune by the past' set in 1990's Spain and with connections with Spanish Civil War in 1939."

And what really got me intrigued over this past month regarding del Toro is that he's 1/3 of the Mexican film industry's "Three Amigos", along with Alfonso Cuaron, who also straddles Hollywood and pure personal expression between Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. At a recent Charlie Rose gathering the day the Three Amigos were in town to receive their special Gotham Award, the other two cracked that Alfonso never has to worry -- one of his pictures has earned $800,000,000.

Cuaron and del Toro met when they were getting jobs directing episodes of the same series in Mexico City, later del Toro literally walked himself into Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's life after seeing his short film, and the three of them have been a support unit together ever since.

So what are the odds that Pan's Labyrinth should be playing in the theater right next door to Inarritu's Babel in the great big Century City AMC?

Meanwhile, Cuaron's Children of Men, playing in just two Oscar qualifying theaters in L.A., is set to go wide I think unexpectedly strong, per enthusiastic word of mouth of both people I know who saw it.

So I think these three guys, in the meat of their careers, are where the concentration of action is right now. These are the guys with a shot at being in the Scorsese league at his age. These are actually the guys who know how to shoot action (in the case of the older two, big studio quality action).

They cut their pictures themselves, in their homes, they come over and kibitz each other, they crit each other's scripts, they cry on each others shoulders, their families are friends. All their kids love del Toro's two-story library filled with fantasy literature and art.

And what a feel for that literature del Toro possesses so deeply. He not only understands the fairy tale, the fable form, but he's smart enough turn it in on itself, to make the central question of Pan's Labyrinth not a mere celebration of the power of fantasy, but a question of fantasy's value in a world as cruel as...ours.

I really don't want to give much away about the picture because I went into it pretty clean, having only seen one short clip from the beginning, just enough to make me sure I wanted to see it. It was what I'd call the Spirited Away moment, where a smart, bold, lonely young girl first encounters the Other Side, when you could say she first steps over. And while her encounter with that world can be read as personal hallucination, heartbreakingly so, the feast is the spectacular vividness of the encounters that makes us believe -- or desperately want to believe -- it's all real.

But del Toro's directorial control is so accomplished that the fantasy world plays thematic fugues with hardened reality, a Brechtian construction of 1944 Spain when only a few bands of rebel Republicans remained after the movement was put down by Generalisimo Francisco Franco's brutal rightwing military. The situation in the real world is pure oppression; in the fantasy world, the young girl is given tasks to perform before the full moon. If she is successful, will her life outside the fantasy world be saved?

Even more impressive than the two Amigos pics showing side-by-side at this most commercial of theaters, it was a Wednesday night and our theater was packed, all of us enthralled like we haven't been in I can't say how long with this, a Spanish-language release. Maybe Spanish is a draw for a Southern Californian audience, but in any case it was one of those rare cases of an art film as a mainstream movie experience. Big, big screen stuff.

I won't go into it but the performances are all great, from the little girl to the women you can't believe is the same one from Y Tu Mama Tambien, to the heart of darkness, Capitan Vidal himself. And ruling the other darkness, the one English-only speaker in the cast/crew, Doug Jones (Hellboy, upcoming as Silver Surfer), playing Pan and, oh most unnervingly, the Pale Man.

I'll stop right there.

It's been 24 hours since I came out of the movie, and it sure doesn't shake easily. The psycho-sexual connections, making sense of the wealth of imagery, only now seem to come to light. The conundrum of the reflecting plots, the twin plights as a full-grapple stalemate between the necessity to confront and the necessity to escape indescribable oppression, between the costs of each. The ultimate strength of the movie is how seriously del Toro takes each of those questions, and how masterful he is at making it a fully realized, harrowing journey into two worlds that are nothing but labyrinthine traps, each with their own subtleties and cul-de-sacs.

Lastly, del Toro has a charming fascination with the mechanical age, or rather that fantastic version of it some kid at the turn of the previous, the 20th Century might have dreamt on a summer twilight in a field of crickets. As with Chronos and Mimic, the mechanical and the insectual are as one. Is this recurring fetish a manifestation of his masculine voice, incarnated in this film as guiding angel? Is it the balance to Pan's labyrinth as a manifestation of hers, a conflicted maze of tween womanhood? Or is the whole movie a metaphor about saving a child, and whether fantasy saves her, saves others, saved del Toro?

It's more Luis Bunuel than Walt Disney, pits Jean Cocteau against Lewis Carroll, as I'm pretty sure all are invoked somewhere in the picture, and with its final image gives you license to decide for yourself.

This recommendation comes with the warning that there are some very lovely but very graphic scenes, I'm glad it's rated "R" so I don't accidentally take my 8 year-old.

But aside from that I'm just wondering, in the non-documentary standpoint, if Pan's Labyrinth isn't the best movie of the year?

As in, without a doubt, the most memorable journey.


Reel Fanatic said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Cuaron's Children of Men, and I have to agree with you that when it goes wide this weekend it should make a mint .. Sci fi that smart is just a much-too-rare breed these days ... I'm hoping that it does well to encourage them to release Del Toro's movie wide enough to reach my little corner of the world, but it doesn't look too likely

Mark Netter said...

I wouldn't be surprised to see Pan expand since it's doing gangbusters here -- sold out shows in Hollywood last night according to a friend, that's even the late show on a Thursday night!