Pan’s Labyrinth


It is not a surprise to learn that the Pan’s Labyrinth’s screenplay is an early draft of The Devil’s Backbone’s screenplay. Both have the same context (Spanish civil war) and the same aim: to depict fascism. Strangely, to that purpose Guillermo Del Toro will not use a dramatic construction. Instead, he will build an architecture of symbols through which the mise en scène enhances the power of evocation. Thus the following is less a review than an analysis of the peculiar style Del Toro applied to that achievement.

At first look, the movie seems to revolve around a confrontation between an innocent child and a monstrous military captain. But in truth, it represents a microcosm overwhelmed by fascism. The Devil’s Backbone was already laid on that structure. But in that case, through fantasy, Del Toro made a bunch of characters lost in an orphanage surrounded by the desert into a deep allegory of the world. A ghost was the core of this allegory. In Pan’s Labyrinth the title explicitly tells us that this time the fantasy will be embodied by Pan, the mythological figure. Nevertheless, we pass from ghost story to fairytale without any variation in the filmmaking style.

Then, this year, there is a big opportunity for a critic to compare Del Toro’s style improvement with another fantasy film using powerful symbolic expression: The Fountain. Indeed, in Aronofsky’s latest film, the look of the world in which the characters evolved seems like an emanation of their own perceptions. This is the classical tale of the knight fighting to serve his queen. The character played by Hugh Jackman is the Man and the one played by Rachel Weitz is the Woman. They are mythological figures. However, they convey a philosophical conception of death. To Izzy death is the traditional rebirth, to Tommy it is the ultimate negation. The rich Mayan iconography mirrors Izzy’s conception, while the coldness of the laboratory translates that of Tommy. The clash of those different cinematographic canvases increases the emotion resulting from the conflict between the characters. Hence, in the space that is the chaos of reconciliation, both Tommy and Izzy’s vision of death merge: the Tree of Life (Izzy) is contained within a glass spaceship (Tommy). But in the first place, despite this stylisation, Aronofsky shoots his characters to solicit their humanity, which is concentrated in their eyes, voices and bodies. In two words, the symbolic frame is just but a powerful mind’s illustration filmed in a realistic way.

Paradoxically, Del Toro conceived his film in a rather opposite perspective. In Pan’s Labyrinth everything becomes a symbol from the actor to the background set-up. Del Toro is an erudite creator to whom the images and icons of past ages are the manifold fragments of an occult and mystic Truth. In his point of view, directing a film is the art of putting together those fragments in a coherent discourse. Hence, in Pan’s Labyrinth a broken watch can speak to the viewer with the same power as the acting does. Del Toro’s filming transforms statue into actor and actor into statue, because the lineament of the image (in a painting or sculpture conception) and the meaning they convey are worthy of dramatic emotion. Watching a Del Toro movie is like penetrating into a great pyramid and reading the hieroglyphs through the moving shadows cast by a torch. Del Toro’s mise en scène process, rather than writing then applying spectacular cinema technique, is to write with symbols and icons. Akin to a writer, Del Toro must find the appropriate symbol as much for its meaning as for its beauty and assemble them into relevant and aesthetic cinematographic syntax.

This might sound like a boring way to make a movie, an intellectual way. Indeed, Del Toro’s style is that of an intellectual, but his subjects are those of an alchemist: lethal potions, ancient books, hourglass, subterranean worlds, labyrinth, mutations, monsters, evils and secrets. He shares a similar fascination for history and mythical inscriptions as Terry Gilliam, but less absurd and crazy and more mystic and solemn. The Pan’s Labyrinth ending echoes that of Brazil. In both there is no escape from reality but dreams and madness. Into his crucible Del Toro has mixed a plenty of ancient images (taken from books, paintings and films) and obtained a modern and melancholy conception of contemporary days still threatened by the shadow of fascism.

Kevin L.:

I’m stunned. Of the famed Three Amigos, aka Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, I’ve always considered the latter to be the goofier, lesser of this trio of Mexican filmmakers. Granted, I’d only seen his comic book movies (“Blade II”, “Hellboy”) until now, and when I watch the rest of his filmography (something I’m certain to do now) I might realize that his genius has been present along. But still, even his long-time fans seem to feel that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a huge leap forward. Goofy third wheel? Hell no! Based on his latest picture alone, which is superior in every way to anything Iñárritu and Cuarón have made so far, del Toro is clearly the leader of the pack.

Jean Carlo already expressed better than I could the way del Toro uses mythology, symbols and icons to powerfully illustrate the horrors of fascism. In its perfect (yes, perfect) use of the cinematic medium to convey profound truths, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a masterpiece by any standards. But what makes it even more exceptional is that, as JC also pointed out, this is hardly a purely intellectual experience. Every frame of the film is full of what Robert Plutchik defined as primary emotions, be it anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, curiosity, acceptance or joy – though the latter is in short supply in the dark times depicted. To that end, the visuals work wonders but so do the actors, each and everyone flawless, from little princess Ivana Baquero to Ariadna Gil as her disheartened mother, Maribel Verdú and Álex Angulo as embodiements of the Resistance and Sergi Lopez as one of the most evil figures to ever grace the screen. And let’s not forget Doug Jones who, through amazing prosthetics and make-up, portrays Pan in a wholly otherworldly fashion.

You could say that “Pan’s Labyrinth” is like a cross between “Schindler’s List” and “The Wizard of Oz”, but the brutal realism of one and the mesmerizing fantasy of the other aren’t just thrown on top of one another, they’re perfectly (yes, perfectly) fused in a way that makes the real feel fantastic and the fantastic feel real. Like Jean Carlo, “The Fountain” was my favorite film of 2006, but even that wasn’t quite as fully achieved as del Toro’s film, which never ever hits a false note. Guillermo can go anywhere from here – I’ll never underestimate him again.

Apocalypto


Jean Carlo Lavoie :
If the function of movies is to stimulate the mind, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a spectacular failure. Fortunately, it is not. It is the critic’s job to translate into language the efficiency of the aesthetic forms. This time, I bet they will not be doing it accurately, upon a movie as extreme and iconoclastic as Apocalypto. Maybe they will not understand it. Excuse me! I wanted to say: THEY WILL NOT FEEL IT. Let me try a little explanation of my own.

At the beginning, after a hunt, the Mayan tribe is resting around the fire and the old sage is telling an ancestral tale. It is about how men had been initiated to the primal secrets of the universe by the animals and how, even though they possessed all the responses, their deep thirst of the soul had not been quenched. Here Gibson discloses quite clearly the thematic base of the story. But starting his film by an explosive hunting scene, he defines quite clearly the aesthetic frame through which his narrative will be depicted, too. Hence, Apocalypto is a fucking action film raving for blood. However, the intentness and sincerity that Gibson applies to his filmmaking elevates this journey on the screen over the standard height of ordinary action films. Indeed, he did not try to please neither the popcorn moviegoer, nor the trendy “I-can’t-appreciate-an-image- by-myself” critics, but just himself, in a sadomasochistic way that evokes some of his famous creations as an actor (The Road Warrior, Lethal Weapon, Payback).

Even tough Braveheart had been constructed on the same peculiar personal impulse as Apocalypto, its medieval guises had assured it a big box-office success. But nobody likes Mayan history, except historians. And surely they will not find what they’re looking for. The reconstitution of the old world of this dead civilisation interests Gibson in the same way that the legend of the Scottish warriors did: because they leave him free to create pagan and mythological combat sequences in which the principles and laws of the contemporary occidental world have been evacuated. To return at the source of human nature, he has to search inside worlds in which Nature keeps its place. On the steep mountains of Scotland or through the tangled jungle of the Mayan empire, Mel Gibson’s characters plunge into a primal trance and use edged weapons to pour the blood of their own species.

What is it all about? Nothing else than that. It is sufficient. Apocalypto is an action film, less lyrical than The Last of the Mohicans and virtuoso than Predator (its visual references), but crazier than both of them. It exposes the rage, pain and limit of the human body into a fascinating raw bareness. Gibson’s acute camera wins its challenge with the powerful expression of a true (and mad) “auteur de cinéma”. No one can deny this. It is a statement that anyone who has watched the screen rightly could not refute. SO, WATCH THE SCREEN RIGHTLY!

Kevin L.:
Jean Carlo did a good job of summing up the raw power of “Apocalypto”, but I still want to add a few of my thoughts about this wonderfully batshit insane flick. There’s definitely a Predator vibe, with the hunter hero becoming the hunted and, eventually, turning the (sacrifice) tables again and showing his hunters what hunting is really about! And on top of the jungle action, there’s also quite a bit of “Predator”-style male bonding and rowdy humor.

There’s also an Aguirre, The Wrath of God thing going on, in the way it gives you the feeling that Mel Gibson didn’t recreate the Mayan empire with special effects and movie magic but actually went back 500 years in time and captured all the glory and barbarism on display with his high-definition Genesis cameras. Likewise, the film fully embraces, Herzog-style, the madness and the violence that Man is capable of. And it’s not just Man against Man, but also Man against Nature. When you get down to it, Man is just another animal, after all. Woman is not forgotten either, as the male struggles are juxtaposed with the most essentially female ones, namely childbirth and motherhood.

Beyond those influences, Gibson’s own artistic voice resonates loud and clear, from his rather disturbing sense of spirituality and mysticism to his idea of honor versus fear and his fixation on purity through pain. “Apocalypto” is filled with amazing sights and riveting sequences and, while it is indeed somewhat simplistic as far as plot and character go (which is also true of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ), its often purely visual action storytelling has got a relentless drive that is indeed undeniable.

Miami Vice


What is Michael Mann’s secret? The nervous cutting, the realistic sound, the dark-blue atmospheres, the melancholy twilight panorama, the cheesy music, the weird but efficient HD shots? No, they are not exactly the secret, but the means to concretize it. Then, what is “it”? Like all great creators, it is a personal vision of the world. However, there is a big distinction in the case of filmmakers because they can use the real world to recreate their own world. And the specific skill required for this kind of work is the inquiring glimpse into the unseen. And believe me, Mann possesses it in spades. Let me explain.

All of Mann’s outcast characters evolve through a material zone similar to their mental landscapes. The three dissidents of The Last of the Mohicans wander through the forest, outside of the official paths and between French, English and Amerindian territories. The cop and the thief in Heat are always searching for something into deserted industrial areas. The De Niro character even dies in a place like this. In Miami Vice, Mann conceived this specific material zone all along the boundaries of the cities and countries. Where did he pick all these location to shoot? Miami? I don’t know and I don’t care. What is important is the expressionist effect on the viewer, who knows instantly the guys on screen are not ordinary guys like him. Because, Mann’s Miami Vice it is all about that: out of the ordinary guys.

Again, as in Collateral, one of the two lead actors drops the ball when it comes to character intensity. The emptiness of Colin Farrell eyes is particularly hopeless, but not sufficient to ruin the film. Beyond this little casting matter, Mann delivers a less moving, but clearer movie than Heat about the essential affinity between cops and crooks. He demonstrates that their affinity is not through a grey, non-Manichean morality, but in the straight nature of their life’s thrills. The cops’ first aim is not to catch the crooks because they have broken the law. And the crooks’ motivation is not to escape the cops to break the law. Actually, all of them love playing a competitive game: who is stronger than the other? That is the question! That is why they are doing this job. They don’t care about right or wrong when they hear the bullets whistling, smell the scent of the powder, see the threatening features of their enemies and use guns, cars, boats and planes to win.

We never see the people who don’t carry guns, like you and me, in Miami Vice. That is the way the characters are out of the ordinary guys, not that different but more powerful. Unfortunately, it is not wisdom that rules the world, but strength. And the one who dares to handle a gun gets the strength to rule the world. The problem, now is that the rulers of our world are playing on a worldwide scale the same game as Miami Vice‘s cops and crooks. However, in this case, the stake is not a big shipment of drugs but the destruction of the world. Yes, the Mann’s last opus is another prophetic “film de genre”. Fuck all the stupid bad reviews about an overly tricky plot or a not charismatic enough duo, the film hits its goal: transporting the viewer where he is not usually allowed to go. Enjoy the journey.

Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

Lady in the Water


Kevin L.:
This is not a popular belief, but it’s true: over his last five pictures, M. Night Shyamalan has created one of the most consistent and thematically rich film cycles of the decade. Forget his boast that he’s “made four studio movies, super-personal, from [his] original screenplays [that] are the most successful four consecutive originals Hollywood has had in the last decade.” I’m not talking about how financially successful his movies have been – for all I know, “Lady in the Water” will crash and burn at the box-office and break his streak. What is so amazing to me is how Shyamalan has kept furthering his personal mythology and subtly stretching his style over the past 7 years, building up to the keystone that is “Lady in the Water”.

There’s a moment late in the film, during a nakedly emotional monologue by Paul Giamatti, when it all came together for me, as it often does for Night’s protagonists at the end of their stories. Suddenly, I fully understood what I vaguely suspected before: everything’s connected when it comes to Shyamalan movies. It’s always about finding back your faith (Signs), discovering your hidden powers (Unbreakable), realizing that you can’t isolate yourself from the undertoad i.e. the fear of the death of the ones you love (The Village), and understanding the true nature of your existence (The Sixth Sense). Each film has more specifically targeted one of these themes, but they all cross-pollinate each other, especially in “Lady in the Water”, where they all come together.

Yet, before it’s even hit theaters, the Indian-born, Philadelphia-based filmmaker’s latest has raised all kinds of controversy and been widely ridiculed. It even inspired a book, The Man Who Heard Voices – Or How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairy Tale. I guess I can see why some wouldn’t get it. “Lady in the Water” is a delicate balance of creature feature, ensemble comedy, broken-soul drama and yes, fairy tale. The resulting concoction shouldn’t work, really, but doggone it, it does! I laughed, I cried, I jumped in my seat, I dreamed. It’s E.T. all over again.

Then why don’t people recognize it as an instant classic like Spielberg’s own bedtime story? A sea nymph dwelling in a swimming pool needs help from the inhabitants of an apartment building to be flown back to her world by an eagle before grass-covered wolves get to her. How is that sillier than an extra-terrestrial stranded in a backyard who needs help from suburbia kids to phone home and return to his planet before the army gets to him? Easy: Night had the balls to make almost all of his characters full-grown adults.

Shyamalan doesn’t even end there. He’s pushing it all the way, introducing quirky characters like a stuttering superintendent (the always brilliant Giamatti), a bunch of potheads, a bodybuilder (Freddy Rodriguez from “Six Feet Under”) who only pumps one side of his body, a crossword puzzle buff (Jeffrey Wright) and his breakfast cereal obsessed son, a Korean hipster and her hard-ass mother (exactly like Lane and her mom in “Gilmore Girls”!)… Night baits his detractors even more by casting himself as a writer who will change the world AND throwing in a jackass know-it-all film critic character (Bob Balaban)!

I’ve mentioned “E.T.” and my buddy Couture went for the “Neverending Story” comparison while we were chatting after the film. I could go as far as linking “Lady in the Water” to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It’s that epic and magical… Only, instead of taking place in Middle-Earth, Narnia (NARNIA!) or whatever, it’s set in contemporary Philadelphia. For a lot of people, that will make it harder to go along with the quest, the rules and so on. Even I was a tad iffy about it for a while, but once it got me, it got me gooood. That one smile from Bryce Dallas Howard‘s titular character at her most beautiful? Perfection, pure perfection.

Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by KL) :
Shyamalan’s latest is clearly a Shyamalan film. By this apparently obvious phrase, I’m referring to the auteur theory. In other words, the touch of the director if easily recognizable from beginning to end. A unique touch, one that can suggest that supernatural things lie under the grayness of everyday routine. Up to Signs (Shyamalan’s pre-The Sixth Sense films are voluntarily omitted from this discussion), the supernatural was hidden behind the surface and the shyamalanesque heroes reached it by progressively purging themselves of their doubts and illusions. However, The Village, through its striking final twist (possibly the most meaningful one in whole oeuvre of the Philadelphia prestidigitator), made a full 180 turn. Indeed, the Ivy character actually had to surpass her superstitious fears to go through Covington forest and discover reality, i.e. the true nature of her world. Hence the film, in direct opposition of its predecessors, went from the supernatural to reality (a reality whose strangeness was perhaps even more troubling than any form of supernatural). A priori, Lady in the Water could be linked to the first three. But the supernatural is replaced by fantasy. Let me explain.

The supernatural depends of a relation to reality, it exists in contrast to it. Fantasy, though, springs from a parallel and self-sufficient world, it substitutes itself entirely to the one we know; it’s an alternate reality. A character is often sceptical of the supernatural when it encounters it, while the authenticity of a fantasy seems indubitable. Until now, Shyamalan’s oeuvre was strained between the desire to believe and the tormenting doubts:: Malcolm Crowe perplexed by Cole Sear terrors, David Dunn questioning his “super-powers”, Graham Hess refusing to hope for divine intervention, Lucius Hunt’s indecisiveness regarding the hostility of Those We Don’t Speak Of, Edward Walker having second thoughts about the underlying values of his ideals, etc. With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan delivers a bona fide profession of faith, which works into his genre shift from the supernatural to all-out fantasy.
Unfortunately, this thematic transition doesn’t extend into a renewal of the filmmaker’s ways. Lady in the Water, the sublime visual and musical inspiration of which is enough to make it into a powerful and poetic entertainment, suffers from two major narrative mistakes that holds it back from becoming the great film it could have been. To illustrate my point, I’ll refer to the fantasy masterpiece that is E.T., to which Shyamalan constantly gives knowing nods. In Spielberg’s movie, the characters go through an adventure with an extra-terrestrial. When they see him for the first time, each automatically knows he’s crossed over into another world (fantasy), because E.T.’s appearance is as explicit as it gets. In Lady in the Water, on the other hand, the Story character, around whom the plot revolves, is more of a supernatural being, because you don’t really think fantasy or magic upon looking at her. Sure, her extremely pale body, the changing colors of her hair and Bryce Dallas Howard’s unique face give an otherworldly effect, but not enough to instantly convince. This understated treatment, which worked in Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, undermines the credibility of the film. Shyamalan would have benefited from being as fanciful with Story as with the Scrunt, for example.

The other mistake concerns the character of Cleveland Heep. Shyamalan’s admitted intention to tell a bedtime story, which he otherwise succeeds at, doesn’t fit well with the annexation of a tragic dimension. Or at least, if fairy tales and tragedy are not absolutely mutually exclusive, here, in this film, a melancholy and ordinary (as we almost all are) Heep getting to accomplish the extraordinary would have seemed less affected. Because, again true to himself, Shyamalan contradicts his subject by tacking on artificially, though probably unconsciously, his usual obsessions and fears to a film that’s far from asking for them. If the symbiosis would have worked, I’d have been the first to applaud this tragic fairy tale, but the movie being what it, i.e. unequivocally plunging into fantasy (mostly), humor and candor, Cleveland’s repressed torments become accessory, maybe even cumbersome, like the symptoms of the worried mind of an author who doesn’t entirely assume the mutation he set out to accomplish.

Lord knows that I believe in the auteur theory, and I admire the vampiric appropriation of his subjects by Shyamalan, but in this case, I dare say he should have further succumbed to his devotion to Spielberg and less to his own demons. If he worried about telling a story without enough pathos, someone should have assured him that his visual style alone can give any cliché unequaled poetic depth. For instance, the final sequence sends all fantasy filmmakers back to the rank of common naturalists. The eagle! for God’s sake! the eagle! Such be the flight that my soul aspires to take on the day of my death. Just for that, my dear Shyamalan, I’ll let you stay on your king of kings throne. It ain’t like I didn’t warn you: I believe in the auteur theory!

“It was about strangers coming together. It was a recipe for the repair of the world. It was a comedy. It was a horror movie. It was a bedtime story, one he had invented for his daughters, one he had told them night after night. He wondered why he was struggling so much to get it to work in the form of a screenplay, the writing form that defined his life. And then he figured it out. This movie was more personal to him than anything he had ever written. It carried all his prayers. It was a self-portrait.”

“[In The Wizard of Oz], a trio of misfits comes together and helps a little girl get home – it’s a win-win. The residents of the Cove come to the aid of a creature called Story who’s trying to get back home. They help her and she helps them. The whole thing may be a dream, or not. Most significantly, the movie was about faith, about what you can achieve if you believe. Dorothy is going to get herself home, one way or another. Lady dealt with the same thing.” – From Michael Bamberger’s brilliant THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES

Post-finishing the book, post-second viewing musings of Kevin L.(07/29/06)

Went to see “Lady in the Water” again. Then walked home, taking my time. Thinking about it the whole time. Went to have a couple of beers. Still thinking about it.

Can I even put into words my response to this film?

I know everyone hates it. I can see the supposed flaws myself. But man! Before and after getting the inside scoop from Bamberger’s book, I could sense anyway that Shyamalan was putting his everything in this movie, trying to create magic in an age of cynicism. Way too many people aren’t able to lose themselves in fantasy storytelling anymore, they’re the kind of blasé motherfuckers who, if “The Wizard of Oz” or “E.T.” were released today, would say that they are corny nonsense.

Sure, it’s a different world we live in than 1939 or even 1982. And no, I’m not saying that Night’s movie is a timeless classic like those other two. But in a summer ruled over by sequels and remakes, at least, it stands out as a movie that’s trying to create a new canvas upon which audiences can project their own hopes and dreams.

I’ve said already how I love the cast of characters and the way Shyamalan goes back to the themes of his previous pictures, but I totally passed over one of the strongest elements of “Lady in the Water”: how damn well crafted it is. The first time I watched the film, I was mostly trying to follow the wonderfully silly and intricate plot. Whereas on outing #2, I was able to fully take in the ever inventive camerawork and gorgeous eternal magic-hour quality of the light… Christopher Doyle might be a crazed drunken pervert but gosh darn it, the man can shoot a movie better than anyone else. Say what you will about the story, but if you were to play the flick with the sound off, the naysayers would be hard-off trying to deny its beauty.

Until next time…

***

Hello sir,

I just finished your book, which I devoured in five days, in between
my two viewings of Lady in the Water (which I loved too, go figure).
It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve ever read – I was more
fascinated and laughed more than with most fiction.

I was particularly taken with your depiction of Christopher Doyle.
What a great character – the crazy genius deserves his own book!

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for your amazing work. I’ll be
going back to your words for years and years to come.

Cheers,
Kevin L.

***

Sir–
Oh, if only I had more readers like you–thanks so much. Yes,
Doyle’s a boo, no question. Best, Michael Bamberger

Silent Hill


Before we get into this review properly, it is necessary to define in part the challenge presented by the adaptation of a video game like Silent Hill. A veritable renaissance of survival-horror games, of which Resident Evil was the standard until now, Silent Hill is indeed recognized for having elevated the “psychological” level of distress and horror thanks to universes, atmospheres and scenarios as elaborate as they are audacious, taking significant inspiration from cinema (Lynch, German expressionism, Hitchcock), literature (the Bible, Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King) and painting (Francis Bacon, Jérôme Bosch, H.R. Giger). However, the matrical film amongst all has been Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder and its famous sequence in which the hero, laid on a stretcher, goes through a hospital progressively transforming into a hellish asylum where a bloody middle-age battle would have occurred. Consequently, in its storytelling but mostly as far as imagery goes, the video-ludic saga of Silent Hill proves to be a coherent and evocative mythology. Director Christophe Gans and writer Roger Avary obviously understand this. In fact, to get a general idea of the spirit of this mythology as found in the film, one only has to imagine the blend of sadness and horror that would come from the discovery, at the end of a somber hallway, of a rusty scalpel bathing in the entrails of the fetus of a deformed baby.

That said about the source material, let’s see in what the movie consists – in a word, in what Gans’ contribution consists. Initially, it’s important to point out that the filmmaker never managed so well with his bulimic cinéphilie, which until now was both the strength and the limit of his work. A strength in as much his films consisted so far of passionate, virtuoso reminders of the building of his identity in reference to the images from movies, comic books and video games that made up the sentimental threat of his life. A limit because his films were less sustained narratives than a series of episodes connected to each other. With Silent Hill though, his cinéphilie manifests itself more fully as an intuition in the art of filming than as a compulsion to quote his masters. It is, this time, serving the subject (the adaptation of the game) more than itself.

Starting there, how did Gans structure his film? As an authentic exploration of the world of Silent Hill. In other words, he didn’t fool himself in creating a factitious intrigue, mobilizing characters packed with psychology (though the characters are firmly camped in their simplicity and the story, if in withdrawal), he guessed that upon the richness of the material, he only had to apply himself in ingeniously and especially cinematically presenting it to the viewer and reintroducing it to the gamer. Hence, even though the Silent Hill mythology conveys fears and fascinations that the Freud of The Uncanny wouldn’t have renounced, it is amazing to see to which extent Gans’ mise en scène is physical and visceral. Never has an actress struggled as much to survive an danger emanating from darkness since Cameron’s Aliens. It’s in this fascinating paradox that the picture finds its narrative dynamic. In every survival game, as indicated by the genre’s name itself, the main aspiration of the protagonists is to survive by escaping a threat that can take many forms, the energy thus deployed by them being the irrepressible instinct of survival. In Silent Hill, Gans plays around another instinct, the maternal instinct. Rose (Radha Mitchell) wants to retrieve her daughter lost in Silent Hill, and to that end she’s even ready to “face the darkness of Hell”. In that sense, instead of trying to escape the damned town (which might have been the goal in a traditional survival), she goes deeper into it, flashlight in hand, with savage determination, which can only delight the moviegoer who, overcome by curiosity, only has to accompany her through the disconcerting mysteries of Silent Hill. As for the guide, whose camera is to filmmaking wonders what Trinity running up walls in The Matrix is to action, he just signed what could be his best film (though I have a preference for Le Pacte des loups). And now? Let’s hope he’s thinking of going back to his abandoned Bob Morane project with Vincent Cassel.


Putain que ça pourrait être grandiose!

Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by K. Laforest)

King Kong


The latest film from Peter Jackson is monstrous. I know that when we’re talking about a monster movie, it’s natural to qualify it as monstrous. But here, the monstrosity is not just the prerogative of the creatures populating Skull Island, it defines the film as much in its themes as in its style. Consequentially, those who swear only by measure, accuracy and economy will see in “King Kong” nothing but an indigestible and overblown film where each detail refuses to be just a narrative beat or a piece of a whole, instead coming into its own as a moment of glory. In fact, as is often the case in Jackon’s cinema, “King Kong” includes more than one film (have fun counting down all those included in “Heavenly Creature” and “The Frighteners”). It is simultaneously a romantic comedy, an adventure film, a disaster movie, a creature feature, a horror flick, a tragedy, an intimate story and a metaphysical drama.

Let’s not be mistaken, I’m not saying that the film contents itself with evocating here and there, in specific moments, the spirit of the aforementioned genres, but that these eight genres coexist, not always harmoniously, but always fructuously in spellbinding paroxysm. Hence, whoever, when buying his ticket, was only looking for one of two of those things, inevitably finds himself overwhelmed by the others. Imagine how perplex someone who comes for a disaster movie will be when he’ll have to sit through not only a conventional romantic subplot but a whole bona fide opening half hour of romantic comedy. Nonetheless, since some of these films within the film will certainly be spotted, negatively or positively, it seems justified to me to devote myself mostly to the intimate story and the metaphysical drama, the parts that will assuredly go over the heads of the critics, who seem unable to recognize that spectacle in no way excludes a form of self-expression, and of the audience, who simply doesn’t give a squirt about metaphysics as long as their popcorn satisfying drips with butter.

The Two Monsters

The film in its entirety is held together by two monsters: the first is human and is named Carl Denham, the second is animal and it’s Kong. Between the two is a woman or an angel (it’s hard to decide), Ann Darrow. One can’t be sure, but it’s possible to state that Denham is the soul of the first hour and a half and that Kong constitutes that of the second, the movie running over 3 hours and 7 minutes. These two characters are different in many aspects, but Jackson tackles them in sensibly the same way, i.e. by enscribing them directly on screen as full-on myths and also as receptacles for his own doubts and feelings as a megalomaniac creator. This dual function of Denham and Kong is expressed through both the screenplay and the mise en scène. Yet, whereas its obvious to the viewer that when a filmmaker depicts a director character on screen, it’s because he’s willing to talk about himself in his film, it’s not as evident when he’s shooting a giant gorilla. But, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that Jackson, in the manner of Flaubert with his Bovary, could cry out: Kong c’est moi!

The myth incarnated by Denham is undoubtedly that of the adventurer-filmmaker, in the tradition of Huston, Herzog, Coppola, Friedkin, Stone and, of course, Welles. By adventurer-filmmaker, I mean those ambiguous artists who, when making movies, are after exciting experiences in various corners of the world more than simply putting their visions on screen or, more exactly, can’t conceive obtaining something powerful on screen without a shoot accomplished in more or less the same conditions that what they aim to represent. They are obsessed with the idea of blurring the limits between reality and fiction, unafraid to have blood or mud splash unto the camera lens during a take. It’s not surprising that, during a production in which he might have never set a foot outside a studio, Jackson attached himself with such fury to painting this myth, in a way to remain connected to his subject: an adventure tale on an unknown island. Otherwise, he seems to have poured into Denham a vast residue of guilty conscience. The character inspires serious ethical questions. How far can we go in the pursuit of an ideal? At what point does the ambitious artist transform into an insane demiurge? Is a masterpiece worth the price of a human life? For, all through his obsessive quest, where lies, treason, manipulation and deadly accidents succeed each other, Denham never ceases to raise those questions in the viewer’s mind. You can bet that, when you’ve gone from your backyard in New Zealand, where you had to build rails to do travelings, to the reigns of the Hollywood adaptation of one of the greatest Heroic Fantasy novels, you had to gather a few little cases of conscience on your way up.

As for the Kong character, he represents the myth of might and loneliness: sole survivor of his species, he reigns with fury over Skull Island. His power will be perfectly illustrated during slices of bravery (the confrontation with the three T-Rex), where the strength and the agility of the gorilla is only equaled by the virtuosity of the camera that captures it. Yet, if Jackon is assuredly interested by this dimension of the myth, the other dimension might fascinate him even more. To this regard, the first glimpse we get of Kong clearly confirms this intention. Indeed, it’s by a close-up on his (angry) stare and not by an establishing shot revealing the amplitude of his height that he is introduced. As is, this means that the singularity of his soul will occupy the screen as much as that of his appearance and his spectacular actions.

For Jackson, the 1933 “King Kong” was a decisive cinematic shock, like the revelation, blinding and intoxicating, that the impossibility of fantasy could be attained through the miracle of cinema, to a degree of realism unequaled by the other arts. However, the character of Kong imposed itself in his imagination as much as an object of identification as an artistic aspiration. In other words, if Jackson recognized himself in the loneliness and the feeling of exclusion of the giant ape, the possibility of concretizing fantasy on screen also made its impression through the traits of that beast. On that basis, in all of his trajectory as a filmmaker, through every of his major characters: the killer couple Pauline/Juliet, Frank Bannister, even Aragorn, king of Gondor, hidden under the modest clothes of Stryder the ranger, and through each of the fantastic creatures: the clay figurines of “Heavenly Creatures”, the Grim Reaper from “The Frighteners” and the entire bestiary from “Lord of the Rings”, it’s always the shadow of the big gorilla from Skull Island that’s being sketched, as much in the loneliness that he symbolizes that in the dream that he incarnates. Then, how can we be surprised that Kong is at the same time the most realistic and the most moving creature ever directed by Jackson? Be it in the stunning reflections of soul in his eyes or in the wounds and scars that cover his body and reveal the struggle that has been his life, Kong never ceases to express Jackson. If that isn’t intimate cinema, I don’t know what is.

The most dangerous island of all time

Skull Island: the most dangerous island of all time. To fully grasp Jackson’s goal in creating this island, which is at the heart of his tale, one has to understand the poetic candor of the two hyperboles: the most and of all time, as a child would hear them, eyes bugging out, as he’s being told of the adventures of the sailors of the Venture. In short, he tried to put into images once upon a time on the most dangerous island of all time. And he succeeded at it, down to every skull in the background, every cyclopean tree and, especially, every creature bursting into the frame. On Skull Island, the senses of the moviegoer like those of the heroes are never allowed to rest, they are solicited until exhaustion (as some have criticized the movie for, incidentally). But Jackson, with the excess that we associate to him, also confines this visual invasion by a hungry Nature to pure metaphysics. Hence, when the heroes are about to be slaughtered by the natives (close relatives of the Orcs in “Lord of the Rings”) or when they’re literally assailed by insects as big as mammals in the bottoms of a crevasse, the mise en scène stops treating these events as thrilling dangers (“Will they get out of this one?”) to instead approach them as ineluctable phenomena (“Here is how things are.”).

Consequentially, the fate of the characters doesn’t relate to their adventure but to the human condition, as it was before the rise of civilization. In this case, the question isn’t Shakespearean like the famous “To be or not to be?”, but strictly animal: devour or be devoured? The viewer witnesses speechlessly, maybe even inhabited by a certain malaise, the representation on film of the inhuman cycle of Nature, as it acts beneath the comforting mask of society (a man dying from cancer would be the most exact example). Basically, the metaphysical drama addressed above is our moral blindness in its face. But thanks to Jackson’s instinctive talent (this theme might not be intentionally developed by him) and the transcendental acuity of cinema, this blindness is partially overcome.

Review by Jean Carlo Denham Lavoie (translation by K. Laforest)

Johnny!*JEAN CARLO WORD OF THE DAY*
Demiurge
dem·i·urge, n.
A deity in Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and other religions who creates the material world and is often viewed as the originator of evil.

The Brothers Grimm


The question that imposed itself following the Don Quixote debacle (Lost in La Mancha) was: how would Terry Gilliam artistically manage through this failed dream in his next picture. Indeed, the adventures of the ingenious hidalgo, blending adventure and the absurd, seemed destined to be translated on screen by Gilliam, for whom these two specific themes always constitute the fundamental principles of his inspiration. The announcement of the Brothers Grimm project stimulated twin expectations, namely (1) what would come of the finally official meeting of the maestro with the fairy tale universe of the famous German philologues (considering that Time Bandits already flirted with it: dwarf, giant, ogre, demon, enchanted forest, inaccessible castle, etc.) and (2) would Gilliam, under the guise of a new film, subterraneanly make his Don Quixote?

The Grimm Tales
Firstly, let’s clarify one thing right away. Despite what suggests the title, which openly refers to historical figures, the film is in no way based on true events. In fact, here, Jacob et Wilhelm Grimm are two purely fictional characters (even though they allegorically entertain some correspondences with their homologues) literally integrated into the mythical world that, in truth, they extracted from German folklore to introduce it into “Litterature” during the first quarter of the 19th century.

Paradoxically, the Grimm tales, by definition elliptical masterpieces stripped of all suspense and dramatic accentuation, don’t rely on any defined imagery. In a word, no visual descriptions are provided. Hence, their typical narration takes its charm and its power from the unique manner in which it reorganizes the causality of events (the ineluctability of fate that always rewards the good and punishes evil, for instance). Consequentially, while it carries a whole bestiary of wonders, it contents itself with simply naming them. Here’s an example from The Raven: ” He found that the light came from a house which looked smaller than it really was, from the contrast of its height with that of an immense giant who stood in front of it. “. By mean of a pleonasm establishing a proportional rapport, the giant is introduced, with nothing else added regarding his appearance. Thus it goes with every element of the numerous tales.

On that basis, reading the Grimm’s work requires an enormous imaginary collaboration from the reader. Hence, it isn’t by chance if they have always fascinated filmmakers and painters. Now we have one of the most fertile imaginations in the history of cinema setting out to depict, according to his vision, all these places and creatures without faces or scenery. Time to see the unseen.

Shifting Into High Gear
No! Gilliam didn’t shoot a Don Quixote disguised under the tinsels of a fairy tale. Surprisingly, The Brothers Grimm qualifies in the category of gothic horror thrillers (kind of a cross between the wave of gothic films of the 1950s and the ’90s serial killer movie fad) in the vein of Sleepy Hollow, Le pacte des loups, From Hell, etc. The Brothers Grimm shares many affinities with Tim Burton’s superb yet misunderstood film. Starting from a banal screenplay signed Ehren Kruger (The Ring, The Ring Two, The Skeleton Key, Scream 3) not unlike how Burton worked from a mediocre Andrew Kevin Walker script, Gilliam deploys a visual canvas amazingly coherent and inspired. Like the dreamer from Burbank, Gilliam, without neglecting the intrigue, concentrates all his talent in developing the peripheral themes that it involves in its wake and delivers a furious adventure flick, evolving around the grounds of a fairy tale instead of the pure thriller the scenario commanded. Like Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the multiple feats of this film are worth more by themselves than the pursuit of the object of their cause. Unwittingly, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are propelled through a succession of rollicking rides and ferocious fights, where strange weapons intersect with mysterious characters, rooms of torture, bizarre creatures and spells as cruel as they are unusual.

However, where Gilliam most surprises in comparison with the three movies cited above, in which the notion of cinematographic rhythm was often pushed aside in favor of editing and shot composition (using typically “Gilliamesque” wide-angle lenses) aiming almost exclusively for the aesthetic exposition of the created universe (the characters sometimes fading into it as if they were pure accessories), is in calibrating his mise en scène in function of the heroic or absurd actions of the various protagonists. In other words, the Hitchcockian rigueur Gilliam applied to the extremely complex and dense 12 Monkeys (which explicitly references Vertigo) seems to have permanently inflected his work and conferred to his highly graphic style a new dimension, which some might be inclined to mistake for conformism. To the contrary, the sequence where Lena Headey confronts a monster wolf with a bow constitutes one of the most brilliant moments of bravery of the whole oeuvre of the auteur of Brazil, with dynamism and iconic postures marrying with a grace comparable to the exploits of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings.

On Which Side of the Mirror?
In addition, this latest opus is the occasion for Gilliam to explore one of the eternal paradoxes of creation, i.e. that, in a challenge against rationality, the creator invents a world impossible and fantastic, while being aware that this very creation denounces both the imposture and the unalterable logic of reality. As such, the journey of the Grimm brothers can be interpreted as a metaphor of the cinéaste’s introspection. Indeed, Will and Jacob Grimm are grifters who profit from credulity and popular superstitions to set up hoaxes, then intervene as skilled exorcists. Consequentially, they conceive scenarios, direct actors, arrange special affects and gather crowds to concretize their plots. However, when the representation happens, the diabolical effect elaborated is as convincing for the moviegoer as it is for the fooled villagers. Basically, it operates as if it had been directed by Gilliam in the 21st century with CGI (which is the case) and not by two poor crooks at the end of the 18th. This obvious shift causes a mise en abyme, through which the viewer endlessly attempts to pin down Gilliam’s rapport with his art, be it in Jacob chasing his Chimera like a madman or Will the lucid craftsman who cleverly manipulating the audience. Until the finale, when the brothers are literally subjugated by an enchanted mirror, as if in front of a movie screen (what are camera and projector if not complex amalgams of lenses and mirrors?) they desire to jump through.

Hence, after seven features and a short (Crimson Permanent Assurance), the visionary former Monty Python continues his exploration of History, myth and dreams of mankind, while surveying his own nature as an artist with unshakeable integrity. The mark of the greats.

Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by K. Laforest)

Johnny!*JEAN CARLO WORD OF THE DAY*
Philologue
Phil”o*logue, n. [Cf. F. philologue.] A humanist specializing in classical scholarship

Sky High


In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, when Peter Parker administers a solid and spectacular ass-whupping to Flash, the musclebound pretty-boy who humiliates him daily, in view of Mary Jane, the viewer enjoys an incredible catharsis by seeing a fantastic event (a young man suddenly invested with super-powers) correcting a real injustice (geeks worldwide getting beat up day after day by cool guys). Sky High happily offers this same catharsis through almost two whole acts.

However, unlike Spider-Man, whose diegesis* brilliantly reconciles the roughness of reality with comic book conventions, Mike Mitchell’s film evacuates from the start any correspondence with the world in which we live (this is perfectly illustrated during the prologue and the epilogue, which are narrated through authentic drawn panels, before switching to flesh and bone actors). Consequently, whereas tragedy could ineluctably strike the destiny of the characters of Spider-man, in Sky High, the moviegoer can watch quietly, confidently waiting to savor the inevitable triumph of “sidekicks” over “heroes”. Yes, because as soon as they enter superhero school, students are assigned their future vocation depending on the effectiveness of their powers: heroes or sidekicks (the film being a rather potent fable denouncing the dissensions and the devalorization of students, caused by academic evaluation systems). Young Will Stronghold, who’s the son of the most famous superhero couple in the world (The Commander and Jetstream) but whose powers have yet to manifest themselves, is relegated among the sidekicks, who he will befriend and defend, but not without betraying them first.

As you can see, Sky High is more of a teen flick than a superhero movie. The story of the uncool guy who becomes cool, forgets about his uncool friends, joining the ranks of those who are already cool, beforing realizing that, after all, being cool is not as cool as he thought, etc. is nothing new, but it’s sympathetic nonetheless and there are a lot of comic twists on the codes and themes of comic books (for instance, students engage in a game called “Save the Citizen”, which has them trying to save a plaster dummy before it’s shredded by a hellish machine).

This has been done before, of course, notably in the masterpiece that is Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, which Sky High is far from being able to rival with. Still, with its aesthetic that marries the colorful and deliberately psychotronic world of the 1960s Batman series and Ultraman movies (for the comic book elements) with the politically correct and naively reactionary one of the old Father Knows Best TV show (for the family relationships), Mitchell’s picture is frankly entertaining. Finally, just to see Kurt Russell in his Commander costume making a tuna sandwhich in his kitchen or Bruce Campbell playing the asshole coach with the whistle, Sky High is worth checking out.

Review by Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by K. Laforest)

Johnny!*JEAN CARLO WORD OF THE DAY*
Diegesis: the narrative that includes all the parts of the story that are not actually shown on the screen, such as events that have led up to the present action; people who are being talked about; or events that are presumed to have happened elsewhere; in fact, all the frames, spaces and actions not focused on visually in the film’s main narrative.