Thursday, December 14, 2006

13th Dec 06 - Stranger Than Fiction

Remember when Jim Carrey made a host of wacky comedies, carving himself a role as THE comic actor of choice, and then he made a serene, gorgeous film called The Truman Show that threw up interesting ideas about life and showed he had a different kind of acting bone in his body? Remember that? Well guess what Will Ferrell’s done…

Yup, Stranger Than Fiction is, like The Truman Show, an unusual story with a few sparks of humour, but overall a darker tone for what you might consider a ‘mainstream’ film. It features an actor known for loud crazy outbursts acting all quiet and subdued. And has a God-like character overseeing everything. It’s deja-vu, but in a really good way.

Stranger Than Fiction has Ferrell as Harold Crick, a solitary man who leads quite a boring little life, until he suddenly starts to hear a woman’s voice narrating everything he does. Cut to struggling author Kay Eiffel played by Emma Thompson, whose new book is about a solitary man called Harold Crick… The trailer made this look like one of those ‘quirky comedies’ made for Christmas, that try to be clever but end up being shit. But I found myself pleasantly surprised to see a bold idea that unravels into a fascinating study of how you face your life, and your own mortality.

Ferrell is the driving force, and like Carrey, he pulls off the crestfallen look with charm, only occasionally descending into his trademark shouts. It’ll be interesting to see if he pursues this change of acting, or go back to what he does best. He’s supported by the brilliantly dowdy Emma Thompson (come on the Brits) and the likeable, nearly too cute Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the token love interest with a bit of sass.

This film engaged me. The plot engaged me, the characters did, and I actually had those emotion thingys that people talk about. I liked it. But here’s why it’s not getting top marks.

It’s a neat idea that’s nicely done, but it’s a little bit lazy. Characters are mega-clichés. Harold is an accountant who’s boring and is obsessed with numbers (stretch of the imagination, that one. Though seriously, I know many accountants and most are a nice bunch with only a healthy liking for figures). The novelist is a bit weird and a chain-smoker who wears a big cardigan. They drag in Queen Latifah, (who, if she wants to be taken seriously as an actress, should really change her name from ‘Queen’) who plays the most pointless role as an assistant to Kay. A role that should have been described as ‘filler so novelist has someone to explain her feelings to because I can’t be bothered finding a better way to show it.’ Similarly, the use of Kay as narrator to Harold feels ever so slightly like cheating. We get to hear everything he’s thinking and feeling without any effort at all. Magic.

But despite that barrage of pickiness, this is still a solid film, and a refreshing addition to your everyday multiplex. Maybe in more creative hands this could’ve been a masterpiece. As it was, this is an enjoyable, engaging film with a strong cast and a reasonably original idea. It gets a point for creating an absorbing two hours, and I’m giving it an extra point because I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. Clawing its way at my impending ‘Top 10 of 2006' (will it make it? Stay tuned to find out…) Stranger Than Fiction gets CF2.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

6th Dec 06 - Pan's Labyrinth

According to the 80’s classic, Labyrinths are huge mazes full of strange Jim Henson creations, jolly musical interludes and David Bowie’s gigantic crotch. My tip of the day is this: Do not expect the same from Pan’s Labyrinth.

Expect instead a dark, textured, disturbing-as-hell piece that’s most certainly not for kiddies. It’s Spain in 1944, and young Ofelia travels with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a captain dealing with the remnants of the Spanish civil war. Ofelia loves reading elaborate fairy tales, and as her mother battles with a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia stumbles across a strange labyrinth filled with mysterious beasties. So far so blah – it could easily be one of those made-for-Christmas kiddie flicks with words like ‘magical’ and ‘enchanting’ attached to it.

But this is from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who’s responsible for things like Hellboy and Blade II. His new film is enchanting, but enchanting in the same way that a dripping hell-beast slowly dragging itself over the ground towards you might be enchanting. You’re certainly captivated, but you’re definitely freaking out at the same time. Guillermo designed the beasties himself, the most notable being ‘the Pale-Man’, a hairless baby-eater who inserts his eyes into his palms before commencing chase. Bowie’s crotch was disturbing, but christ, the Pale-Man would scar you for life if you encountered that as a child.

But the labyrinth inhabitants aren’t the only nasty things in this film. Ofelia’s new step dad, Capitan Vidal, is what you might call a bit of a twat. A violent fascist with a fondness for torture, who makes the giant toad Ofelia must deal with look like a cuddly rabbit. The action is split evenly between Ofelia’s adventures in her labyrinth and the ongoing battle between the Capitan and the resistance.

The look of Pan’s Labyrinth is darkly fantastic, but the sound of it adds brilliant texture. Slightest sounds – the creak of leather boots, the sharp crack of a bullet, the thwack of a hammer against face – are enhanced, making Ofelia’s world feel very much alive. The violence is brutal and shocking, but expertly cut. Very little gore is seen, but you most certainly feel it.

The parallels between the real world and the mythical are generally obvious (you'd have to be a fool not to notice the link between scary, monsterous daddy and scary, monsterous, err, monster) but cleverly executed, and the two compliment each other to produce an unsettling but compelling experience. It boasts a strong cast, prominent direction and awesome effects (considering the budget was around $13m – compare that to the $200m of Superman and you realise how absurd Hollywood can be).

For having a substantial impact on me, Pan gets an extra point, and I’m giving it another for portraying fantasy without relying on too many clichés or singing dwarves. Therefore, Pan’s Labyrinth stomps in with a chilling CF2. Watch it. Be enthralled. But don’t expect a fun romp in a maze. Or a big British crotch.