Saturday, February 10, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Anyone who has studied fairy tales soon realises that, at least in their original form, they often have content we today would not consider suitable for children. Pan's Labyrinth is just such a fairy tale. The movie is at times beautiful, at times horrifying, and at yet other times it is both simultaneously. More than any film in recent years, Pan's Labyrinth captures the feel and look of the fairy tales of old.

Pan's Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944, when Franco's regime was still active in fighting dissidents. The movie centres on Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero), a little girl who goes with her mother to live with her stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal (played by Sergi Lopez). With the repression of Franco's fascist regime taking place everywhere around her, Ofelia soon finds herself swept up in a fairy tale world (which may or may not be imaginary) in which a faun informs her that she is a princess.

On the surface the harsh reality of Franco's fascist government might seem at odds with the sometimes horrifying fairy tale world which Ofelia visits. And yet del Toro weaves the two disparate worlds together to form a seamless whole. Like any good fairy tale, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is more horrifying--the sometimes fantastic creatures Ophelia encounters (such as the cannibalistic Pale Man) or the all too commonplace evils committed by her stepfather Captain Vidal. Del Toro is so successful in blending fantasy with reality that it is impossible to tell if Ofelia's fairy tale world is imaginary or real (I lean towards the latter myself, although I can see why others might disagree).

Not only is the script by del Toro and his direction impeccable, but words simply cannot do this the imagery of Pan's Labyrinth justice. Guillermo del Toro does what any good director should do--he shows the audience things that they have never seen before. Pan's Labyrinth was made with a budget of only $16,000,000, and yet it looks like a much more expensive film.

This is not to say Pan's Labyrinth is a great film simply because of del Toro's considerable talents. The movie also has a great cast. At only 11, Ivana Baquero already seems like an accomplished actress, lending Ofelia a vulnerability that is all too real against the backdrop of Franco's Spain. Sergi Lopez makes Captain Vidal one of the most black hearted villains to appear on the screen in years, and yet he is also utterly realistic. No cardboard cutout, the viewer understands all too well why Vidal is the way he is. Maribel Verdu also does well as Vidal's housekeeper, who has her own share of secrets.

To put it simply, Pan's Labyrinth is simply a great film. It is by far the best movie that Guillermo del Toro has ever made (which given the high quality of his other movies is really saying something). Indeed, it amazes me that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate Pan's Labyrinth for Best Picture or del Toro for Best Director. Although I have yet to see all the nominees for Best Picture, I can definitely say that Pan's Labyrinth is the best movie of 2006. In fact, I rather suspect that years from now film historians will look back and see the failure of Pan's Labyrinth to receive nominations for both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars as a grave injustice. It is one of those few films which one simply must see.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Disney Returns to Cel Animation

Yesterday Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Feature Animation, announced that Disney was bringing back hand drawn animated films. For those of you who do not know the significance of this, it was only a few years ago that Disney announced it was no longer making traditional, cel animation movies. Instead, it would only make computer animated films, which at the time dominated movie screens. Of course, since then a good deal has changed.

For one thing, Disney's first computer animation film, Chicken Little, met with only modest box office success and mixed reviews. For another, since then Disney acquired Pixar, the computer generated animation studio whose films they had distributed for years. Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, and John Lassiter, also of Pixar, were then put in charge of Disney's animation unit as its president and Chief Creative Officer respectively. Ironically, then, it took Pixar, the company that put CGI on the map, to bring back hand drawn animation at Disney. Of course, this wouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Pixar. Lassiter has worked on cel animation features, and both Catmull and Lassiter are admirers of classic animation, including that, perhaps especially that, of Walt Disney.

At any rate, I am glad to hear Walt Disney will once again be making hand drawn animated films for the big screen. While I am a big fan of computer animation (I've seen most of the Pixar and Dreamworks movies in the theatre), I have always loved hand drawn animation. And I still think there is a place for it in today's world of CGI creations. It seemed to me a grave injustice that Disney decided to stop making cel animated films to begin with.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Tige Andrews and Frankie Laine Pass On

Recently two individuals have passed on with whom I rather suspect that younger readers (if I have any--I imagine this blog skews much, much more towards Generation X than Generation Y...) are probably not familiar. The first was Tige Andrews, whose name many readers might recogise from The Mod Squad.

Andrews died January 27 at age 89 from a heart attack. He was born March 19, 1920 in Brooklyn to parents of Syrian descent. Andrews served in the Army during World War II. After his return to civilian life he graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He made his first appearance on Broadway as part of the ensemble in Mister Roberts. Later he would take over the role of Schlemmer in the play. Roberts would make a few TV appearances in the early Fifties (Kraft Television Theatre, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and so on), but the turning point in his career would be 1955. That year he again appeared on Broadway in The Threepenny Opera. It was also that year he was cast in
the role of Wiley in the movie version of Mister Roberts. He would also appear in various episodes of The Phil Silvers Show as Private Gander.

Over the next few years Andrews would appear in such films as Onionhead and A Private Affair, but his career would mostly be on television. He guest starred on such shows as Playhouse 90, Zorro, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, Star Trek, Gunsmoke, and The Fugitive. It was in 1968 that he was cast in the role of Captain Greer, the officer in charge of three young undercover officers. Andrews stayed with the series for three years and was even nominated for an Emmy.

Following The Mod Squad, Andrews guested on such shows as Kojak and Murder She Wrote.

I must admit that I was never a big fan of The Mod Squad, although I have to admit that it did have a good cast. As one of that cast, Andrews did display considerable talent. And I remember his well from his guest appearances on various shows in the Sixties.

The other individual to die recently was singer Frankie Laine, perhaps best known as the man who sang the theme to the TV show Rawhide. He died yesterday at age 93. Laine was born Frank LoVecchio on March 30, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. He started singing as a child, but did not decide to pursue it as a career until he was 17. Unfortunately, it would be quite some time before he met with success. He worked dance marathons during the Thirties and later performed small jazz clubs. He worked a variety of jobs in addition to singing, including stints as a factory worker and used car salesman. It was 1943 that he moved to Hollywood and he sang in the background of various movies and even dubbed the voice of Danny Kaye in The Kid From Brooklyn. In 1946 Hoagy Carmichael discovered Laine in a Los Angeles club. The end result was a recording contract with Mercury Records. He also soon had his first his hit, "That's My Desire," a song then six years old.

Laine would continue to have hits throughout the late Forties and Fifties, including "Mule Train," "Shine," "Jezebel," and "When You're in Love." In 1955 he had his own variety show (Frankie Laine Time) and appeared on many variety shows of the era (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Perry Como Show), and so on). Of course, his best known work would come in 1959 with the theme to the TV show Rawhide). He would also perform the theme songs to the TV shows Gunslinger and Rango, and the theme to the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles.

Laine had fewer hits in the Sixties, although he still had a few (remarkable for an older artist in the wake of rock 'n' roll and the British Invasion). Declining health would force Laine to release fewer and fewer albums throughout the years.

I must confess to always having liked Frankie Laine. "Rawhide" has always been one of my favourite TV theme songs, and I always loved the song "Mule Train." He definitely had a strong voice--he could be heard even without a microphone! Indeed, Laine marked a sharp break from the crooning style of such singers as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. And in being influenced by the rhythm and blues singers of the era, Laine's vocal style could be considered a forerunner of early rock 'n' roll. At the same time, however, it is hard to peg Laine in any given genre. Although generally considered a jazz artist, he performed songs that could be considered country, folk, gospel, and even rock 'n' roll. One thing about Frankie Laine, he was certainly unique.