Shaun of the Dead (2004)

★★★★

Director: Edgar Wright

Release Date: April 9th, 2004 (UK); September 24th, 2004 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Horror

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

It has been almost 10 years since we first met the instantly relatable yet spatially anarchic Pegg, Frost and Wright trio. Since 2004, their fumes of hilarity have glazed earlobes the world over, excellence exhaled from the likes of Hot Fuzz. But before Pegg and Frost had an unruly, conspiring cultist town to deal with, the duo wielded shovels and cricket bats in a war against zombies. The epitome of wholesome comedy-horror, Shaun of the Dead wittingly embraces society’s increasing individuality and detachment — a hapless trait infused even more in today’s world — before sending it spiralling in a zombie rage. The zombie adage it apt too, a smart comparison that evokes humour because the notion cuts so close to the bone. Perhaps a few characters are too incidental to warrant their on screen presence, but part one of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is damn tasty regardless.

Working in an electronics shop where he commands disrespect, and still living with his overweight, uninspired room-mate Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun (Simon Pegg) is pitifully meandering through life, unwilling to commit and unable to justify. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) bemoans Shaun’s discrepancies, in particular a monotonous infatuation with the local pub, the Winchester. As Shaun spends many a day lethargic amongst the comatose masses, juggling fractious relations between Ed and another house guest, and failing to win over the love of his life, he must be pretty certain that it cannot get any worse. Only, it can. Zombie worse.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost front this raucous outing, and their gag-full chemistry is one of the prevailing positives. As down-on-his-luck lead man Shaun, Pegg exudes the everyday. His demeanour is casual, occasionally showing the slightest hint of enthusiasm, only to be shot down by an ungrateful colleague or a disappointed friend. Even Shaun’s motivational methods leave a lot to be desired (“There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in meat pie”). You can see part of yourself in Shaun; well-meaning but gobbled up by a generically infectious culture, and Pegg’s bedraggled showing is suitably so. Though when the going gets heroic, Pegg is just as believable. His camaraderie with Nick Frost acts as the driving force behind the film’s intelligent wit. Frost portrays Ed, who’s a bit of a git. Ed is sort of like Shaun, only a lot further along the waster-scale. Rude and lazy, he seemingly exists only as the semi-loveable pain in Shaun’s backside, though he does emit a semblance of smarts every so often. The duo bounce comedic mouthfuls off each other for the duration, and they never get stuck in a rut. If the key to comedy is timing, these two have the art of early arrival down to a T.

At the forefront of Shaun of the Dead — which often harks knowingly back to zombie classics such as George A. Romero’s Dead series and Sam Raimi’s maniacal Evil Dead — is this concept of reviewing society as a failed collective unit. Although the zombie undead are the primary antagonists throughout, the narrative is really about the zombie alive — us humans. Director Edgar Wright, who also co-wrote the clever script with Pegg, smartly highlights numerous zombie-esque characteristics of the modern being: from waking up still tired after a late night, to ambling around streets unaware of anything other than oneself, to sitting slumped and mouth-gaping in tune with the other morsels on public transport. And each of these distastes are depicted before any actual zombie shows up. Wright’s almost satirical outlook on our isolated existence is smart, and is actually the most horrifying realisation that comes to fruition during the film, as opposed to the limb-deprived monsters. “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation,” proclaims Shaun, an admission boasting more truth than realistic application.

Unlike the slow zombies afoot, Shaun of the Dead advances at a brisk pace and never threatens to dwell on a gag for longer than necessary. In fact, many of the funniest lines are quipped as humorous sound bites, again playing off the excellent chemistry between the front pair. Moreover, lengthy jokes interspersed throughout the zom-com tend to work (for example, a certain rifle in a pub) meaning each pay-off feels validated. There aren’t many things more frustrating than a film-long gag that loses steam before reaching the station, or worse, breaks down on arrival. The meaningful pace adopted by the filmmakers ensures proceedings are camp, as the people involved don’t take the goings-on super seriously, generating a healthy spirit throughout. Of course, there’s a genuine societal pondering going on as aforementioned, but encasing this sincerity is a plethora of over-the-top gut removals and blood splattering. Perhaps the most outrageous scene of the lot involves three humans, as many pool cues, a zombie and an oddly beat-by-beat consistent rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Why outrageous? Because we’re having such a good time.

The tremendous Bill Nighy appears inconsistently as Shaun’s apparently disapproving step-dad, but should have a bigger role. Nighy’s lack of connection with Shaun acts as an embodiment of the film’s appraisal of civilisation, whilst at the same time provides the funniest moments external to those involving Pegg and Frost. His lack of sufficient screen time rankles even more so in the presence of peripheral characters Diane and David, played by Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran respectively. Both Davis and Moran are fine in their roles, but Moran’s spiteful, bitter David is unlikeable and therefore not worth investing in. His constant appearance coincides with hardly any character development, and therefore acts as a regular surplus to requirements reminder. Generic isn’t necessarily bad, especially considering the film’s self-awareness. However irrelevance is bad, and both David and Diane are just that. Kate Ashfield remains appealing as Liz even when denying Shaun, which is a testament to her solid performance. Peter Serafinowicz partakes in a small role as the grumpy room-mate, relinquishing more than one hilarious and angry diatribe.

Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead delivers on two levels: as an accessible cautionary tale denouncing a cultural phenomenon of zombie-like monotony in society, and as a camp, witty and downright amusing banterfest with a splurge of chopping, ripping and cutting. Imperfections are not absent, but nor are they wholly adverse, and the excellent script maintains a rollicking pace throughout. Anyone for a Cornetto?

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.

The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.

On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.

James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.

Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.

The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.

Ray (2004)

★★★

Director: Taylor Hackford

Release Date: October 29th, 2004; January 21st, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Music

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren

Ray Charles’ drive and charisma gave him a larger-than-life persona, so big that even a severely musically deficient 20-year-old knows who he is. Unfortunately, and indeed surprisingly, Taylor Hackford’s biographical drama about the electric man struggles to maintain the energy that Charles himself boasted in abundance. This is by no means down to Jamie Foxx’s sizzling turn as the title character, or the foot-stomping, arm-swinging music splashed throughout, but instead is a result of a pretty dreary and repetitive narrative presenting a story that deserves so much better.

We see music in his eyes. His effortless piano-playing hands are reflected in those iconic sunglasses. Ray Charles is at one with sound. This is the opening shot of Ray and if you didn’t know already, you do now — he is the music man. The film details the rise of Ray Charles Robinson, a young boy who became a pioneering musician after a childhood ravaged by tragedy and loss. Growing up in the 1930s on a Northern Florida plantation, young Ray and his brother are cared for by their head-strong mother as they bounce with liveliness amongst the dust. The duo share a close bond and get up to just about as much mischief as any other child does, but it is the tragic loss of his brother that kick-starts the chain of events which will eventually see Ray completely blind and hugely successful. His mother, played magnificently by Sharon Warren, teaches Ray that his deficiency is only such at the surface, that he needs to learn to live and strive on his own (“Remember you’re going blind, but you ain’t stupid”). Warren may just be the star-turn behind Foxx here, as she movingly portrays a woman who is a beacon of strength driven by frailty, and justifies the inclusion of countless conveniently placed flashbacks.

Ray’s childhood in Florida is depicted throughout the drama by way of a number of flashbacks, and these provoke part of the film’s main problem. Unlike the rhythm heard from Charles’ music, Hackford wrestles unsuccessfully in his attempts to generate and maintain a rhythm on-screen. From the get-go proceedings are frantically hurrying forward, making it difficult to catch a breath never mind work out where and when we are. One moment a young Ray Robinson is shown as he grows up, the next he is moving away to school and then before you know it Ray Charles is belting out soulful music to the needy masses. The film is long — overly long at two and a half hours — and by the time the first sixty minutes are up, the audience has seen just about everything there is to see… so we see it all again. Charles develops a drug habit, he plays a gig, he records a song, he takes some more drugs, he buys a house, another gig, recording studio, perhaps the odd forced flashback for narrative continuity, and so on. The film begins to drag, which is a shame considering its subject matter defined entirely the opposite: pizazz and meaning.

Another obstacle in the film’s way is its over-wrought lightheartedness. Besides the death of Ray’s brother (the resonance of which gets lost amongst the rapid progression of proceedings), there is too much feel-goodness going on. Of course, the underlying message that Ray’s blindness should not hamper him, nor should it make us feel sorry him, is a wholly positive one and should be placed on a pedestal for the viewer to see and hopefully learn from. His wife Bea (Kerry Washington) enforces this notion of positivity: “How can I pity someone I admire?”

That being said, the life lived by Charles was without doubt a tumultuous one, one which incorporated extensive drug use and adultery, and these issues are sidelined to an extent in favour of jovial music and exuberance. Often arguments end in laughter when they need not. Perhaps this genuinely was part of the man’s all-round demeanour — his music certainly alludes to joyfulness. However, creative license appears to be prevalent as intentions to make Charles look like a bad guy are non-existent. Again, considering its enormous run-time, delving into the depths of some of the more unattractive issues in Charles’ existence would’ve benefited the film — when a smidgen of Ray’s post-addictive exterior is displayed it is tough to watch and this is more of what the film needs in order to really tell his story. Charles does not need to look like a bad guy — by all accounts he wasn’t one — but rather a good guy who done a few pretty bad things.

On the plus side, Jamie Foxx knocks the proverbial ball out the park and then some in his performance as the soul singer. In a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Foxx truly brings Ray Charles to life on screen. The key to his successful embodiment is just that: an outstanding use of body movement and facial expressions. Unable to deliver the goods through his eyes, which often provide the backbone to showing emotion, Foxx incorporates all of Charles’ movements and intricacies by way of a rasping shriek or emblazoned smile. It is evident that Foxx has worked hard to achieve what he does, and his award-winning achievements are magnetic.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who was nominated for an Academy Award in recognition of his work on The Pianist, and maybe his offerings in Ray should have earned him a second nomination. Alongside Foxx’s charismatic performance and a collection of delightful music, Edelman’s expert, scene-setting shoots provide Ray with all of its energy and charm, in spite of the dreary screenplay. Regardless of how repetitive it might get, or any imagination-scarcity it might suffer, you cannot help but smile when Ray Charles learns how to play “Mess Around” on the piano.

Ray is not a bad film by any means; it provides the vehicle for an incredible embodiment of one of the most influential men in music history courtesy of Jamie Foxx, and also accommodates a number of grin-inducing moments alongside an exclusively feel-good message. The film is let down, however, by a lack of creativity in the narrative department, turning the story of an incredible man’s inspiring journey into a bouncy-castle of repetition before long.

By the end, or even the middle, it sort made me just want to go and watch Walk the Line again.

Man on Wire (2008)

★★★★★

Director: James Marsh

Release Date: August 1st, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Biography

Everybody hates the dentist. Everybody except Philippe Petit.

The Twin Towers were a symbol of innovation. A duo of iron giants, they stood over New York reminding the world that anything was, is, possible. Writing about the pair of incredible architectural feats in the past tense is probably something, even 12 years on, nobody will ever get used to.

It is this melting pot of romanticism and tragedy that surrounds the Twin Towers which gives Man on Wire an extra layer of emotional weight. But even without that, even minus the tinge of sadness you get upon remembering the towers are no longer around, Man on Wire is an absolute triumph.

The documentary recounts a story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it were a narrative film. Philippe Petit is an ordinary man, a French high-wire walker whose aspirations exceed the ordinary and go up. A long way up. Supported by his congregation of close friends, he strives to reach impossible heights and to walk on top of the world. It’s 1968, and Petit finds himself flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room when he comes across an article promoting the impending construction of the world’s tallest buildings: the World Trade Center. Petit rushes out of the dentist. He doesn’t need to get his teeth checked. He’s going to walk between the Twin Towers.

Director James Marsh lets the story of Petit and his cohorts (because it is their story too) play out both through real-time interviews with the participants and by way of caper-like reconstructions of the day. The heist-esque portrayal of Petit’s attempts to the reach the top of one of the towers generates mischief and even comedy at times, particularly when Petit himself is describing his game of hide-and-seek with the guards in the building. Petit and co are, by all accounts, going against the law as the sneak their way into the buildings as maintenance men, and the group refrain from shying away from this as they retell their tale.

The lightheartedness achieved by Marsh is admirable (though the thought of walking across a wire suspended at 1,368ft does generate a nervous chuckle), however the film truly hits its stride through the group’s emotional, passionate narration of their incredible journey. Philippe and his friends, girlfriend, and colleagues all seem invested in their story — how can they not be? As the preparations develop, Petit’s metaphorical dream builds. Ironically, the main barrier in his way is the lack of physical existence of his goal: the towers do not reach completion until 1973, five years after the Frenchman darted out a dentist’s waiting room with dazzled eyes. Throughout the film, the purpose of the towers (which obviously lies in commerce, work, and the proverbial “American Dream”) becomes somewhat twisted towards Philippe’s ambition. Just for a moment the construction of the towers seems solely to be for one man to ascend and walk across them: “Of course, that’s why the towers are there… for Philippe.”

The group’s preparations take them to Sydney, Australia and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a suspended Philippe walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cathedral respectively. The second traverse sees Philippe stride above an ongoing mass, almost in a God-like manner. The underlying connotations of dreams and reaching the clouds play out as the documentary progresses, further reinforcing just how overly-ambitious Petit is. His counterparts react differently as they recount their roles in the preparations and the event itself; we see genuine outbursts of emotion ranging from tears to laughter. At times there is a frustrated sense of animosity between the members of Petit’s troupe, adding to the intense drama — is this one man’s dream for himself, or a group’s dream for one man?

As the film nears its nail-biting conclusion — and nail-biting might just be an understatement — it hits the audience with an unexpected burst of poignancy. We want Philippe to succeed, to fulfil his dream, to fulfil the dream those close to him share vicariously. Marsh intersperses the drama with astonishing ‘home-video’ footage taken of Philippe as his air-walking escapades reach spine-tingling heights (the Frenchman even draws images of his previous wire-walks on a wall of one of the towers, as if to remind himself that they are part of a natural progression). The Twin Towers are displayed often and with purpose, reminding us about the sheer scale of Philippe’s dream.

And then Philippe Petit dances at the top of the world. From below he is as small as his name proposes and even smaller still as the remarkable man obtains a pair of gigantic steel legs. The moment is extraordinary; it is profound. But it is also effortless. The tension relieves and the documentary captures a truly emotionally evocative moment. This is the real Philippe, in complete isolation, suspended above a busy world. He elates, “I must be a castaway on a desert island of my dreams”.

Man on Wire delivers bundles of heart and soul, provided by way of James Marsh’s wonderfully diced concoction of Philippe and company telling their story, backed up by grainy, very real home-video footage and jaunty re-enactments. The title of film suggests simplicity, and in a sense the visual of Philippe Petit lying in mid-air between the Twin Towers is just that, but his journey to the sky is something quite extraordinary.

Crazy Heart (2009)

★★★★

Director: Scott Cooper

Release Date: February 5th, 2010 (US); March 5th, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music; Romance

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Folkish melodies and acoustic guitar strums are the backbone of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, a charming tale about a worn out country musician who finds hope and inspiration in a new, unexpected romance as he tries to get his career — and life — back on track.

Jeff Bridges is Otis “Bad” Blake, an ageing country singer/songwriter devoid of much enthusiasm unless alcohol is present. Maybe he lived a more frivolous and extravagant lifestyle in his younger years, but nowadays his tours consist primarily of small town bars and bowling alleys. If he makes it through a set list without choking on a beverage or vomiting in a bin, he’s probably having a pretty good day. Bridges is excellent as Blake and delivers equally well in conversation as he does in song. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s youthful journalist Jean Craddock is a recent divorcee who catches the eye of Blake and emblazons him with a new lease of life. The two actors strike up a a very equitable dynamic and make a seemingly unrealistic relationship, a believable one.

Just as Blake and Craddock’s romance progresses and the country man’s life and career both begin to reattach themselves to the rails, Blake encounters a number of alcohol induced demons, including a number of unsavoury incidents involving a car accident and Craddock’s four-year-old son, whom Blake has come to care dearly for. These issues increasingly drive a wedge between the pair and as their relationships begins to unravel, the film starts to lurch over the edge, peering cautiously into the depths of despair and darkness. Teetering on the edge of the abyss is as far as the drama gets however, as the film does not quite have the courage of its convictions.

And that is the main problem with Crazy Heart (perhaps the only problem). Too often characters are faced with a level of pain and anguish which, if prompted a little more, would generate additional degrees of empathy and frustration for them — and Blake in particular — from the audience. For a man who is surviving mainly on scraps and minuscule effort, who finds a beacon of light through love and family and who then goes on to throw all of that joy and security away by making stupid decisions, Blake seems to be dealing with life relatively well. Yes, he has a drinking problem, but he has the same drinking problem at the beginning of the film as he does after the collapse of his relationship. Scott Cooper is very close to writing and directing a perfect fable of loss and redemption, but the tone of Crazy Heart lingers a touch too high when it should be free-falling a great deal lower – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an example of a film that shares many similar narrative elements with Crazy Heart, but which hits depths lower than Cooper’s film and is all the better for it, albeit more heart-wrenching.

However, what Crazy Heart does not have in depth-plummeting ordeals, it makes up for in wonderful characters, tremendous performances and an incredible plethora of music. Produced in part by Coen favourite T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack to the film has bounce and soul and meaning; it is no surprise that the film’s headline song “The Weary Kind” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Often the songs develop the characters, be it through Colin Farrell’s rendition of “Gone, Gone, Gone” establishing his young, successful Tommy Sweet, or Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, which perfectly describes both the singer’s previous ambitions and current realisations (“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while”). Burnett’s musical involvement in filmmaking rarely signals disappointment, and his work here is another shining example of getting it right.

Jeff Bridges is the stand out performer in a film where much of the focus is on him, delivering a performance which returned the second of the film’s two Academy Awards in 2010. He is a part of just about every scene, yet his presence is always welcome and never wearisome. Bridges emits near-defeat and hopeful optimism in equal measure when required, his emotions often dictated by the outcome of interactions with the protégé-turned-star Sweet or the smitten Craddock. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as Blake’s lifelong friend Wayne, contributing melodically to match.

When the foot stomping ends and the guitar strings go silent, Crazy Heart simmers down to a very enjoyable film that boasts an exceptional lead performance and is littered with great songs, each of which do their job in encapsulating the moment. It doesn’t quite hit the perfect note all of the time, but it is not a long way off.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

★★★★★

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: October 11th, 2006 (Spain); November 24th, 2006 (UK); January 19th, 2007 (US)

Genre: Drama; Fantasy; War

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú

From the all-encompassing mind of Guillermo del Toro comes Pan’s Labyrinth: a tale about imagination and innocence; a fable comparing the evil we do know against the good that we do not; a story about a young girl whose reality is not quite in sync with those around her. Del Toro’s filmmaking abilities are completely transparent here as he creates a fantasy world that is utterly encapsulating. Not only is the narrative a success, so too is the technical prowess displayed throughout. In one word, Pan’s Labyrinth is not far from timeless.

In 1944 following the Spanish Civil War, Spain is crippled by fascism. Ofelia, a young girl influenced by fantasy stories and fairy tales, travels with her pregnant mother to a fascist command centre in rural Spain. The leader of the centre is Captain Vidal, an authoritative fiend who is also the father of the mother’s unborn child, and whose brutality juxtaposes Ofelia’s virtuous curiosity. It is clear from the beginning that Ofelia’s imagination is the driving force behind her energy and exuberance — as soon as she sees an unusual creature her precious books (and her hat) hit the ground as she heads off in pursuit. This early scene in essence epitomises the film, conveying Ofelia’s disconnect with the real world in favour of her intrigue towards one that is only found in fairy tales.

Ivana Baquero stars as the aforementioned Ofelia, and is outstanding as the young, wide-eyed dreamer. Much of the success of the film rests on her shoulders — she must pivot between the harsh, murky reality where her mother is ill, and the wondrous, mysterious realm presented to her by a faun she meets. “Is that you?” the faun exclaims emphatically, as though it has been waiting an eternity to ask. Ofelia learns from the mythical creature that she is in fact a princess separated from her kingdom. This first interaction between Ofelia and the faun is a telling one, as the girl appears more at home now than at any other previous point in the film. Her reality is fantasy. Unlike anybody else placed in the same situation, Ofelia does not get startled when she meets a creature not-of-this-earth, and instead introduces herself as calmly and invitingly as she would a family member: “My name is Ofelia. Who are you?” the girl wonders gently.

The warring backdrop is far from Ofelia’s mind throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, as it appears Del Toro is highlighting the separation of good and evil. This separation is at its most prevalent by way of the glaring comparison between the monstrous Captain Vidal — who represents tyranny and abnormality — and the faun — whose description of himself as “the mountain, the woods and the earth” is more natural and pure than anything Vidal represents. The film’s ‘good versus evil’ branch also plays in tune with Del Toro’s more violent approach to a story which would normally be directed towards a young audience. Blood, guts and broken bones all see the light of day here and given the prominent fairy tale aspect of the narrative, the enterprising inclusion of such elements is surprising (recalling leg-hacking in Shrek or head-munching in Cinderella is proving a tad difficult). The presence of such a degree of violence is completely warranted however, as it represents the harsh, unwanted situation that Ofelia’s real life presents her with, a real life that in itself does not capture the youngster’s interest.

Sergi López is utterly menacing as Captain Vidal, who is the epitome of vulgarity. López’s presence is overarching in every scene, be that whether he is towering over the relentlessly inquisitive Ofelia, or ordering around his housekeeper Mercedes, with as little compassion as he can muster. Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdú, acts as a beacon of hope in amongst the madness, as she works for the captain against her beliefs in order to spy for a group of rebels situated in the surrounding forests. Verdú successfully juggles sadness with fierce determination, creating a character who the audience roots for alongside Ofelia. Numerous mythical beings and some genuinely creepy monsters (one in particular renders stealing buffet food a no-go zone) are expertly displayed on-screen in awesome detail, both visually and audibly.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has created a film that is wonderful to look at and tremendous to listen to. Del Toro delivers a multitude of characters and creatures, some to love, others to despise and a few to cower away from. Most significantly however, the Mexican director tells a story that is not overawed by style, and one which looks set to keep on championing imagination for decades to come.

Persepolis (2007)

★★★★

Directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

Release Date: December 25th, 2007 (US limited); April 25th, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Biography; Drama

Starring (English version): Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands

Identity is a prevalent and important theme interwoven around Persepolis, as the prominent juggling of identity faced by the central character, Marji, results in her lifestyle, motives and ideals constantly meandering through the unsettled revolutionary waters of late 20th century Iran. Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, the film combines overarching realism, titbits of humour and elements of struggle in a war-stricken Iran, along with encapsulating comic book-style animation, to create an often harrowing but always compelling tale of growing up through suppression and oppression.

Set both pre and post-revolution — from the late 70s to the early 90s — Persepolis focuses on the childhood and primitive adult years of co-director Marjane Satrapi, whose middle-class family is part of the struggle for peace and equality in Iran. From an early age, Marji is predisposed to influence from her parents in regards to the political events in her country. She soon finds herself staunchly marching around the house and loudly proclaiming, “Down with the Shah!” If that is not enough, she writes a good-will list of rules to be adhered to in the future. Marji dreams of being a prophet and is often seen conversing with God or her absent grandmother, who acts as a beacon of right throughout the film. It is evident that as a child Marji is full of enthusiasm, but has yet to grasp the severity of goings-on in Iran — only loosely following her parents’ and grandmother’s ideals.

The release of Marji’s uncle, Anoush, from political imprisonment sees him return home, in turn generating the first real spark of political inspiration in Marji. Anoush showers Marji with incredible tales of his struggle against the regime. It is here that the first true sense of identity arrives in the young girl; shortly after, she and her friends are seen chasing the son of a “communist-killing” officer down the street with nails. The comic book style of the film comes into significant effect for the first time here as Marji and her friends break into sinister-looking grins whilst they purposefully hound their target. The obvious humour evoked by way of the comical artwork in the scene juxtaposes the menacing group of young, easily-influenced children who reflect a dangerously manipulated society in general. It is clear that Marji is a long way from complete identification, as her proposed method of retaliation against the boy — or the authoritarian government — is violence, rather than her family’s peace-driven ideals.

As Marji grows into her teens and older, her self-identification becomes stronger. She becomes more outspoken and confident. She dabbles in punk-rock and wears clothing perceived to be unsuitable for a female. She attends ‘black-markets’, where vendors are selling everything from Stevie Wonder cassettes to playing cards to nail polish. The secrecy around selling these normally highly common, everyday items highlights the overly-harsh and suppressed lives Marji and other residents of Iran are facing. Woman are essentially forced to cover entire bodies in garments out in public. There is no freedom of expression — a trait which Marji is becoming increasingly aware of and willing to utilise. As Persepolis progresses and Marji enters her 20s, the situation in Iran becomes tighter and increasingly restricted — the struggle to maintaining an identity proves to be more and more difficult to overcome and uphold for Marji. During some time spent in Austria, of which she is not fond of, Marji is asked where she is from. “France,” is her timid reply.

The film flies along at a rapid pace, as around 15 years of Marji’s life plays out on screen. Even with this quick flow to it, Persepolis remains compelling and insightful, and never becomes difficult to follow or understand. The film does run into a problem, however, when it unavoidably leaps over large sections of time. There is one scene involving Marji, God and Karl Marx where this rushed feel to proceedings is clearly evident, as the scene is in need of more time to develop in order to enable Marji’s dire situation to play out in its entirety. This would further highlight the overwhelming effect of the struggles she has faced from such a young age — Marji is devoid of any identity, and her woes here are a result of that. The scene in question does still find time to conjure up another moment of genuinely funny comedy. Unfortunately, this comical moment would have been better placed in any other part of the film, rather than this heavy one.

Persepolis is co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud, who joins Marjane Satrapi in telling an honest, believable story. Although written and directed by Satrapi, there is no obvious bias towards the central character (Satrapi herself). For example, Marji is portrayed in a number of situations as the wrong-doer and the film does not shy away from this. Instead it takes another character, more often than not the grandmother, to talk some sense into Marji. “IN-TE-GRI-TY, does that word mean anything to you young lady?” the grandmother — with whom many of the best scenes involve — exclaims disapprovingly in one situation. These instances display the film as completely realistic and genuine. The audience forgives Marji for any negativity or flares of anger, because she has suffered amongst these uncompromising traits her entire life.

Events are predominately presented in black-and-white. This is an attempt by Marjane Satrapi to ensure that the characters and places do not come across as foreign — Satrapi has mentioned that her aim was to stress the very real possibility that any country around the world could fall victim to such afflicted circumstances. The black-and-white element works on another, perhaps less obvious level too. It makes the gloom appear gloomier. The woman, dressed entirely in black, appear merely as two eyes, a nose and a mouth, without any real semblance of energy or identity. People and places seem very distant. There is an explicit lack of modernity — something society normally associates with individuality and freedom. In this sense, the cinematography does a solid job in ensuring, at times, that the bleakness is truly bleak.

Although it faces one or two issues in terms of a narrative overload, Persepolis benefits from the unusual comic-book style it bears and triumphs both logistically and thematically. It is not only a penetrating look at the Iranian Revolution and the political instability of late 20th century Iran, but it also intuitively tells a story of struggle and the strength of identity.

Credit: Film4
Credit: Film4

Sideways (2004)

★★★★★

Director: Alexander Payne

Release Date: January 21st, 2005 (US); January 25th, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Alexander Payne’s critically acclaimed Sideways is best described by the wonderful Roger Ebert as a “human comedy” because it is inherently funny in that you will laugh regardless of how you feel or where you are, and because it is about engrossing and affecting human beings. None of the four featured characters are perfect, some less so than others, yet on varying levels they all merit more than a degree or two of admiration; even though the two males in particular do the wrong thing too often. In Miles’ case, his inability to move on or tell the truth relentlessly hampers himself, whereas Jack’s carelessness and naivety frequently has a negative impact on those closest to him.

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) spends most of his time teaching wearily, writing unsuccessfully, or drinking wine because it is the only thing he knows for certain that he is consistently capable of doing. A wine-aficionado, Miles decides to take his soon-to-be-married best friend and former college room-mate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a week-long wine-tasting expedition as a final farewell to single life. Jack used to be a fairly successful actor but now plies his trade doing voice-over work for television adverts. Both men are opposites: Miles is quiet and very often lifeless in comparison to his overly energetic best friend. The one thing that both men have in common though is their shared struggle in accepting what they have (Jack) or what they no longer have (Miles).

One of the most endearing elements of Sideways is the relationship which Miles and Jack share. Externally, the duo appear to have very little in common, yet much like the wine they are drinking, there is a vintage dynamic between the pair. This strikes in the premature stage of their road trip as Jack’s first words to Miles are, “Where the fuck were you, man?” It is not before long, however, that both men are effortlessly trading life-stories and bonding over an expensive, rare bottle of wine. Jack is reassuring, but Miles is worried that the book he has written will not be accepted by the publishing company. From the outset, it is apparent that the film is in good hands as Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church generate a believable on-screen chemistry. For every quiver of uncertainty from Giamatti, Church responds just as you expect a best friend would — quickly and decisively.

It is not long before the men reach their destination in the Santa Ynez Valley, at a restaurant which Miles eats in regularly on his trips, called The Hitching Post. Miles is recently divorced from his wife, who has moved on and is getting married again. A waitress at the restaurant, Maya (Virginia Madsen), knows Miles from previous visits and it soon becomes apparent through his inability to hold a conversation with Maya that Miles’ likes her, but does not have the conviction to do anything about it. Perhaps this is because he shows no signs of getting over his wife. During another morning spent wine-tasting, the men run in to Stephanie (Susan Oh) and discover that she is a friend of Maya’s. Miles’ reluctance once again prevails as he is forced into a double-date with the quartet, whereas Jack’s over-exuberance is in full effect. With his marriage taking place in just a few days, he selfishly desires one last fling, highlighting his struggle to be happy with the cards he has been dealt.

Both men’s problems are derived partly from their lack of clarity with each other. The duo have been close friends for a lifetime and it is apparent that more often than not their focus has been solely on themselves rather than on trying to sort out the other’s problem. Miles is fully aware of Jack’s misdemeanours — he is having an affair with another woman days before his marriage — but Miles too busy struggling with his own relationship-less inadequacies to notice. On the flip side, Jack seemingly has been too tentative in the past when it comes to trying to get Miles to realise that he must let go of what he can no longer hold on to. The two woman that the men meet on the trip are key players in the goings-on: Stephanie, unaware of Jack’s impending marital status, acts as an appealing alternative, and Maya is the cure to many of Miles’ problems if only he would take the time to focus on her.

Even amongst the abundance of drama and difficulty, Sideways still finds a great deal of time to be funny and witty. This is in no small part down to the combination of a well-written script, the rapport between those involved and a jaunty, caper-like soundtrack. The two leading men find themselves in their fair share of comical situations, be that whilst playing a round of golf or when trying to retrieve a missing wallet. These absurd antics remain humour-filled despite the heavy emotional element which surrounds film, showcasing the versatility of not only the actors, but also of the director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor.

The performances in Sideways are second-to-none. Thomas Haden Church delivers the perfect foil to his partner-in-crime’s unenthusiastic disposition as he is suitably loud and obnoxious, yet maintains a level of subtle affection towards the other characters. Sandra Oh is headstrong and teasing opposite Haden Church, playing her significant part in the proceedings solidly. Much like you would not necessarily picture Paul Giamatti’s Miles and Thomas Haden Church’s Jack as best friends, it is even more unlikely that Giamatti and Virginia Madsen’s characters would share affection. However both actors make it utterly likely. One scene in particular stands out between the pair and involves Giamatti gingerly describing why he admires the pinot noir grape so much: “it is hard grape to grow”; “not a survivor”; “needs constant care and attention”; “only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential, can then coax it into its fullest expression.” He is describing himself, and Madsen’s gracefully delivered, touching reply makes for an extraordinary exchange.

It is no wonder Sideways was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning Best Adapted Screenplay. Alexander Payne creates compelling characters who increasingly flourish in their surroundings and as they come to understand each other. It is funny, moving, sad, and hopeful all at the same time, as it tells the story of people who are lost, but who just need each other in order to find themselves again.

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

★★★★★

Credit: IMP Awards
Credit: IMP Awards

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Release Date: October 24th, 2008 (US); May 15th, 2009 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

From the eccentric mind of Charlie Kaufman comes Synecdoche, New York, the story of a debilitated theatre director who, fearing his impending death and the loss of his identity and legacy with it, decides to create a grandiose production based on his life in order to leave something behind.

Synecdoche, New York is like a Chris Nolan film blown way out of proportion. Which, by the way, is not necessarily a negative thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a turn at a man, Caden Cotard, who is slowly losing his grip both on life physically and mentally, as his perceived reality becomes something of a concoction of what is real and what is not real. Suffering from numerous ailments which are taking a toll on his health, Caden’s decision to devise an out-of-this-world (literally) theatre production in a massive warehouse in the theatre district of New York strikes up a number of questions about life, both for himself and for the audience (or, myself at least).

His inability to sustain a relationship with any woman plays an integral role in throughout film. He has three significant relationships during its course: his wife at the beginning who moves to Berlin to pursue her career in art, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener); an actress who is part of his cast and who becomes disenfranchised with Caden’s obsession about his production, Claire Keen (Michelle Williams); and Caden’s long-time assistant and box office manager, Hazel (Samantha Morton). Caden also has a less than productive relationship with his therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) and a non-existent to heart-wrenching affiliation with his misguided daughter, Olive (Robin Weigert). Perhaps this lack of a consistent connection and commitment mirrors Caden’s loss of a base in real life — he seemingly cannot sustain a healthy absolute existence — thus prompting him to focus all of his energy into an epic-scale production where his life, and all of those around him, he is able to view from the outside, as if it were fiction.

“Does anyone have any idea what the hell is going on?” Credit: Yahoo! Movies

Having only watched Synecdoche, New York once, I am absolutely certain there are a number of elements I missed whilst viewing the film, but one that definitely stuck out was Caden’s seemingly bleak view regarding his own life. For example, he is left almost angered at his original wife’s success over in Berlin, so much so that he continues to increase the scale of his own production, as opposed to Adele’s dedication to miniature art-work. Caden does not feel the world he lives in notices him (his wife and daughter have left him, his health continually deteriorates) and the only time it does muster something up for him — a MacArthur Fellowship — he takes that as a sign to build a legacy that he believes will have to be noticed and highly regarded when he inevitably passes. As the film progresses, so too does Kaufman’s direction and informal misdirection, as Caden’s life becomes increasingly blurred and entangled with the lives of his and his casts doppelgängers, with each doppelgänger hired to portray significant players in his own life as a part of his production. As a viewer, it is often difficult to distinguish between what is actually happening in Caden’s life, and what is a part of the production — even his actors often need to ask Caden to halt proceedings in order to talk in reality — adding to the overarching trench of mind-numbing facets on display.

Hoffman is exceptional as the lead character, forcing Caden’s anguish down the viewer’s throat, leaving a lump in it and generating total empathy for the character. At this stage in the game, average performances are not on the menu when it comes to Hoffman, who seems to be churning out one gourmet dish after another. The supporting cast all provide the necessary emotion and disconnection towards Caden, with Samantha Banks in particular standing out as Hazel, who seems not to share Caden’s fear of impending death as she decides to live in a burning house where death crackles along every wooden beam. Michelle Williams, pre-Blue Valentine fame, effectively acts as a fountain of sympathy towards Caden, before her disillusionment evokes the eruption of a fiery side. Charlie Kaufman certainly deserves praise for successfully carrying out the seemingly unenviable task of progressively directing doubt and fictitious elements into the film, without going overboard and turning proceedings into a complete mesh of insincerity.

“Not a clue.” Credit: The Film Stage

In the midst of all the gloominess and lack of clarity, Synecdoche, New York boasts characters who are crying out (again, literally) for sympathy and who, regardless of their faults — of which there are many — deserve sympathy from the audience. After being left speechless at the contents of the film itself, the emotion followed through like a ton of bricks for me. Although much of the film is based on deciphering what is real from what is not, there is a distinct element of something present which is grounded in everyday life. At its very simplest, the film is a portrait of a middle-aged man who is struggling through his job when we first see him on-screen, whose health is continually threatened and whose relationship(s) is crumbling. Okay, so it is not grounded in my everyday life (I am not quite middle-aged yet), but it certainly provides a commentary on a potential and very realistic life.

This is without doubt the most challenging review I have written, and it probably does not make a whole lot of sense if you have not seen the film (it might not even make any sense if you have), but to me that is in fitting with the surreal, but equally rational, thought-provoker that is Synecdoche, New York.

It will make you think, and then it will make you think again.