Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Never work with children or faries

Some big cinemas have their own magazine which reviews films coming out soon. Oh, sorry, did I say review? They summarise the plot and say it's good. It's despicable! This style of quote-whory awfulness is wonderfully well mocked at The Weekly Blurb.

Alas, I have joined their ranks! I kinda, accidentally got myself a job reviewing films for our local arthouse cinema club. I say review? I mean promote. So here's the review I posted off for Pan's Labyrinth:

Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar, but do not let the subtitles put you off.

During the Spanish civil war, Ofelia and her pregnant mother move to join her stepfather, a strict fascist captain whose outpost is under attack from plucky rebels hiding in the forest. Ofelia discovers a faun who tells her that her true father is king of the underworld, and she can rejoin him if she completes three tasks…

Although on the surface it obeys traditional fairy-tale conventions such as illogical prohibitions which are inevitably broken and things coming in threes, Pan’s Labyrinth is very much a film for adults. It is dark and surprisingly violent, with the magical world turning out almost as horrific as the real one. Unhampered by Disney, it takes a step closer to the sinister tones of the original, uncensored, Brothers Grimm tales. This is a 100% cuteness-free zone. Even the eponymous Pan is at times threatening.

Yet at its core, this film is really about the effects of war. While Ofelia is busy evading giant frogs and demons, the real world goes on and it is here the story dwells for the majority of the movie. It offers as much for afficionados of gritty period drama as for fantasy fans.

11-year-old Ivana Banquero as the imaginative heroine proves that not all child actors are ghastly. But the real triumph here is the look of the film. The director Guillermo del Toro spent years compiling sketches, doodles and notes, which transform themselves into an array of beautiful and strange images – monsters, magic gates, trees and enchanted books. The story is packed with inventive touches – particularly the many uses of a stick of chalk. The world created has a beautiful, earthy feel, with the characters dressed and dwelling within mossy natural tones. The golden lighting is supported by whimsical, beautiful music. The film can be appreciated on many layers. Decide for yourself whether the characters are just symbols and if the fantasy is merely imaginary…

Well at least I didn't lie. What I didn't say was that, frankly, I found it a bit disappointing. Perhaps I was expecting too much, or the wrong thing? After all, there’s an obvious fault in an advertising campaign which focuses solely on the eponymous faun, when the film seems far more skewed to the real world of the war. It’s like how reviews of Donnie Darko always focus on the rabbit. Unlike Pan however, Frank's shadow covers the film like Harry Lime does The Third Man or Kurtz does Apocalypse Now. Pan himself felt incidental to the plot. You needed to love and hate him, like Frank. Perhaps you lot did? I certainly didn't...

It was billed as a fairy tale for adults, and that’s almost right – at least, it’s certainly not a film for the kiddies. But at the same time, it wasn’t quite adult enough. The sadistic captain was, at his core, a pantomime baddie. The resistance was all good, and the fascists all evil. Perhaps this was a by-product of the fairytale thing (fairytales, after all, not being known for their moral complexities) but still…I would have appreciated a more intelligent plot, and characters with more than a single visible trait. Yes, the music was wonderful, and yes the lighting was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. But that never excuses what was basically a simplistic plot.

More critical was that I found it unengaging. There was never a point where I really, truly cared about the characters or plot (excepting general humanity). Yes, I cried at the end, but only a little bit and I’m a dead easy cry anyway. My family found it perfectly acceptable to chatter throughout.

This all boils down to a conflict of impressions. I see how someone who picked the dvd up on a whim, or had it sprung on them at Cannes could be entirely blown away. But after all this time, I built up a picture of the film I wanted it to be (incidentally, it’s also the film I’ve always wanted to write…) and felt cheated when my own ideas turned out wrong.

It almost needed to be more foreign and strange. I usually note, after watching a foreign film, that half the joy was it not obeying the usual story conventions. Pan could have been made by anyone in Hollywood. I always kind of knew what was going to happen next

There needed to be a serious suggestion that it wasn’t real. I understand there is a web debate about this anyway, but there’s very little evidence that it wasn’t. The fantasy world wasn’t really nasty enough for me. The wyrd needed to creep into the world with spiderlegs, not merely be “and now, a scene in the forest”.

What it needed was Terry Gilliam. Specifically, that odd little way all his films feel dirty, grotesque and unpleasant, without a visible cause. Pan was way too clean.

And Pan himself…this is a personal thing, but after months of exposure to marketing, I had a fixed idea of what he should sound like. I was wrong. And I don’t like being wrong. I imagined a bit more Frank the rabbit and less Saw III. Frank’s voice, I would follow anywhere. It’s got that intoxicating otherworldly quality…this is a serious flaw in the film for me, but not the fault of the filmmakers.

So my original review still stands - I meant everything I said in it. I just glossed over the fact that, while it's clearly "a good film" in every single way, it didn't live up to my (admittedly massive) expectations. I can still recommend it to the world even if personally I disliked it. Can't I?


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