May 18, 2009

The Complete... Guillermo Del Toro - Part 3

Populist Auteur

First off, sorry it's taken me so long to get to this. I promise to get through future Complete... series faster. Anyway, we left off last time with Guillermo Del Toro freshly confirmed as a bankable Hollywood director who could make a little money look like a lot, and deliver mainstream films that pleased audiences and critics alike. The world was essentially his oyster. Rather than take on a big money job Del Toro finally took the oppurtunity to make a film he's since said would have been his first, had he been able to make it at the time. A sister film to The Devil's Backbone, again setting a fantastic story against the Spanish Civil War.

Pan's Labyrinth [2006]
Del Toro's most clearly personal work, Pan's Labyrinth concerns a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who moves with her pregnant, sickly, Mother (Adriana Gil) at the insistence of her Stepfather (Sergi Lopez), a Captain in Franco’s fascist army, currently concerned with trying to put down a rebllion. In the nearby woods Ofelia discovers a maze, and at its end a faun, who tells her she is a long missing Princess of a fairytale kingdom, and sets her three tasks to complete by the full moon. The synopsis seems fantasy led, but in fact about two thirds of the film takes place in the real world, and deals more with the harsh reality of Franco’s Spain, and the brutality of Captain Vidal. This is a smart choice, because it grounds the film in a grim reality that makes Ofelia’s wish to escape into a fantasy world, any fantasy world, even one so dark as this often appears, easily understandable and seductive for the audience. This also allows the fantasy to work, because by establishing one believable world, and grounding us in it for some time, Del Toro makes it easier for us to believe in the fantasy world.

The design is as stunning as we’ve been conditioned to expect of this filmmaker. Every single shot of this film is packed with detail, things that you hardly notice the first time you see them, but which enrich the experience at both visual and metaphorical levels. One of my favourites is that Captain Vidal’s private quarters are underneath the main building of the mill he and his soldiers have taken over, and his desk right in front the workings of the mill’s water wheel. This is a beautiful piece of composition, especially when Vidal is trying to fix a watch in the same shot, and also fulfils Del Toro’s obsession with villain’s fascination with clockwork, but it’s also a subtle and clever statement about what Vidal stands for – the imposition of regimentation, which Ofelia is trying to escape, both in the real world and by going into Pan’s world.

I was sure, even before I saw a single frame of it that Pan’s Labyrinth was going to be stunningly beautiful. The first teaser poster, showing a tiny young girl walking into a tree whose shape was unmistakably uterine, was so striking, and so unusual that even if the film ended up being bad I was sure from that image that it would never be dull or ugly. It isn’t. There are so many visuals here that will live in the memory that picking out highlights seems almost futile, as if you’re damning the rest of the film by faint praise. Still, things like the backwards opening, the mandrake root, Pan himself, whose appearance subtly changes each time we see him and Vidal sewing up his own cheek in front of the mirror are all indelible pieces of film.

Then, of course, there’s the Pale Man. Del Toro is a master at seducing an audience before scaring the wits out of them, and he’s never done it better than he does here. The Pale Man is the product of your most beautiful nightmares, and the mix of the amazing suit design, the sound effects that make it sound as if his leg bones are breaking with every step he takes, and Doug Jones’ supremely deft physical performance (which he also brings to Pan) makes this five minute sequence, one that isn’t actually particularly integral to the film, perhaps the finest moment of a great film.

Of course the visuals aren’t the only thing that Pan’s Labyrinth has going for it. If Del Toro had a real weakness in his previous films it was as a writer, but this script is clearly a labour of love and everything about it fits together beautifully. The characters are all extremely well rendered; even the supporting characters have dimensions, complex motivations, and purpose within the film. It’s a genuinely moving story, and one that, to Del Toro’s enormous credit, even knowing how it will end, never lacks for impact. This is especially true of the real world portion of the story, which is gritty and violent to a pretty shocking degree, particularly in a scene in which Vidal beats a young man to death with a bottle, this violence is so at odds with the strange beauty and lyricism of the fantasy world that it brings you back down to earth with an unpleasant thud.

Del Toro also draws strong performances from his entire cast. Sergi Lopez, as Vidal, is a true standout. He’s a true monster, scarier than even the Pale Man, because Vidal chooses his evil, but Lopez never makes an unrealistic choice. Everything is underplayed, he never rages, never explodes, his violence is utterly controlled and clinical. It’s this absolute coldness that makes the performance so blood-chillingly memorable. Again showing a facility for directing children Del Toro draws a warm and vital performance from 11-year-old Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, who brings real three-dimensionality to her performance, which is real, but without the distracting precociousness of a Dakota Fanning. There’s also a strong show from Maribel Verdu, whose quiet determination works well for the kitchen maid who becomes a surrogate parent to Ofelia.

I love the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth, because even though the film has a circular structure it still holds surprises, and is moving on a couple of separate levels, it takes a special filmmaker to have you end his movie smiling, and fighting away tears, and yet makes both of those conflicting emotions feel completely natural. This was Del Toro’s first truly great film, showing a total mastery of every aspect of the story he’s telling. It's unlikely to be be his last masterpiece, but it will always be his first.

Pan's Labyrinth was a critical smash, and instantly catapulted Del Toro to the first rank of working auteurs. It collected a mass of awards, including several BAFTA's and Oscars, but missed out, sadly, on the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's box office take wasn't going to trouble the Top 10 of the year, but for a subtitled release it did spectacularly well, making almost £2 million in the UK and $37 million in the US, against a budget of roughly $18 million. This really left Del Toro free to pick and choose, and gave him the ability to demand creative control of his next film.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
In Summer 2008 critics described one superhero film as deep, dark, morally complex and brilliant. Sadly that’s how they described The Dark Knight, the most overrated film of that year, when they should have been describing the most underrated mainstream film of 2008, Guillermo Del Toro’s sadly overlooked Hellboy II: The Golden Army, in those glowing terms.

It is said that in cinema the law of diminishing returns is all but incontrovertible. For every Godfather Part 2 or Empire Strikes Back there are hundreds of Robocop 2’s, hundreds of Speed 2’s. Given that Hellboy was a deeply flawed, if fitfully brilliant, film there was little hope of its sequel being a great movie, but great Hellboy II most certainly is, it is, at last, the perfect coming together of the artistic and the mainstream sides of Guillermo Del Toro’s cinema, as achingly beautiful to behold as anything he’s ever done, and as roaringly entertaining a blockbuster as had been released for years. Make no mistake, this is mainstream entertainment at its very finest.

Most mainstream cinema is stupid, simplistic, or both. Not so Helllboy II, unusually for a summer movie its themes are genuinely thought provoking, the moral dilemmas of its leading character truly thorny, and even as an audience you’re never sure that the ‘villain’ of this piece isn’t in the right, at least in some respects. The backstory, dealt with in a gorgeous opening sequence redolent of the underseen British film Strings, concerns The Golden Army, an indestructible force created for and Elf king’s war against mankind, after much bloodshed the king had a change of heart and called a truce, breaking up the crown that allowed him to control the army and giving one piece to men while keeping two. Thousands of years later, with Elves and their like endangered, the king’s son Nuada (Luke Goss) comes out of hiding to reunite the crown pieces and use the Golden Army to wage a new war.

The great thing about Hellboy II as a sequel is that it appears to have recognised the flaws of its predecessor and jettisoned them, as well as seeing the first film’s strengths, and building on each of those. This is particularly the case with the villain, who at one point tells Hellboy (Ron Perlman) that they should be on the same side, that humanity hates both of them and neither of them belongs to the human world. It’s a fantastic point, one that is undeniably true, and which throws up a whole new side to this film. Hellboy was used as an agent of the apocalypse in the first film, but never when he was in control of himself, here there’s always the possibility that he could come to see things Nuada’s way, because in a lot of ways Nuada isn’t wrong, which makes both the story and the villain much more interesting than in the previous film. Luke Goss is still no Shakespearean actor, but he’s perfectly fine as Nuada, and gives the character weight and pathos, as well as, once again, seriously impressing when it comes to the acrobatic and rather hard hitting fight sequences.

This is also a much more varied film than the first, thanks in large part to an increased budget (increased only modestly though, this film looks as good as any $200 million production, but cost just $73 million), which allowed Del Toro to let his imagination run riot when it comes to monsters, especially the many that populate the outstanding Troll Market sequence. Hellboy II is a constant visual feast, be it the astonishing shopkeeper whose face is a city in miniature, the giant one eyed troll Mr Wink, or the more subtle work on Nuada and his sister Nuala’s (Anna Walton) alabaster skin, there is something in just about every frame to take your breath away. Compared to the endless Sammaels of the first film this increased imagination allows Del Toro to craft a greater range of action scenes, from the Godzilla like sequence with the elemental, which has a genuinely moving and beautiful ending, to the sharp, punchy, fight between Hellboy and Wink, and the battle with the massed ranks of the golden army, to mention just a few.

The returning characters are as compelling as ever. Ron Perlman simply is Hellboy, he’s so good that you never question the logic of the character (which, since he’s an almost ageless demon, is a hell of a trick to pull off) the conceit of this monster as a simple blue collar guy is as funny as ever, and Perlman’s warm and funny performance makes him a truly engaging and entertaining hero. Doug Jones gets a great deal more to do as Abe Sapien this time out, getting to lend his voice as well as his ever impressive physicality to the character this time out. He matches David Hyde Pierce’s performance from the first film well, but it just feels more natural this time, more connected to Abe’s movements, it also allows Abe to develop more of a rapport with the other characters, key to the film’s funniest scene in which Hellboy and Abe, both down about their relationships (Hellboy with Liz and Abe with Princess Nuala) get drunk and sing along to Barry Manilow together. It’s a scene that absolutely shouldn’t work, but it’s extremely funny, and so well played that it becomes one of the film’s highlights. Selma Blair is still the weak link, she doesn’t really have much purpose here, other than as a plot device, but she outdoes herself in her one big moment in the movie, in the sequence featuring one of Del Toro’s most memorable creations – the Angel of Death.

That sequence, which opens the film’s fantastic third act, is one of the best of Del Toro’s career. It’s nightmarish, it’s so beautiful that and frame could hang on a gallery wall, but it is the drama of the scene that makes it so compelling, and the way that it promises so very much for the surely inevitable Hellboy III. The first time I saw this sequence and Liz said “Him” the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I can’t say enough good things about Hellboy II, it’s just about the perfect blockbuster. It runs at a terrific pace, but makes just enough room for character, so that it never threatens to become empty spectacle. It’s packed with memorable characters and brilliant design (check out the little clockwork mechanism used to give new character Johan Krauss (Seth MacFarlane) expression). It has depth, complex morality and darkness in spades, but it also manages to maintain a fun, light tone, and be on occasion uproariously funny. It’s the complete entertainment package, a film that improves on every viewing, and very possibly the best superhero film I’ve ever seen.

Next comes The Hobbit, a pair of films to be produced in association with Peter Jackson. This makes me nervous, because much of it will be dictated by what Jackson has done before, including some of the casting, and most importantly the look of the film. It’s already been stated that the films will be styled to link up with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. That being the case I can’t see why you’d have Del Toro direct them. You hire this great filmmaker for HIS vision, not to interpret and link up with someone else’s vision. That said, I’ll be seeing them, and anything else Del Toro makes, on opening night, if not before.

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