Category Archives: Fantasy

Sea my friends: Ponyo, on a Cliff by the Sea ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

If you are not particularly in the mood to watch summer movie viscera exploding across the screen in a sea of gore, I do have an alternative suggestion. The newest film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki has finally reached U.S. theatres (in limited release right now).Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a slight but lovely tale in the Hans Christian Andersen vein, infused with the lush visual magic we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli.

A young boy named Sosuke, who lives (wait for it)…on a cliff by the sea discovers an amorphous ocean creature with vaguely humanoid features floundering on the beach one.  Naming “her” Ponyo, he lovingly nurses it back to health. Imagine his surprise when the little fish begins to mimic human speech (at the point where she says, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” I couldn’t help but wonder if Miyazaki was homage to the classic “Fa loves Pa!” line from Day of the Dolphin).

Sosuke’s affinity and kindness toward his “pet” is soon reciprocated via a  wondrous transmogrification; it’s sort of a puppy-love take on Wings of Desire. Complications ensue when Ponyo’s dad (a Neptune-type sea  god) registers disapproval by unleashing the power of the ocean.

Although many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes are on display, they are less strident than usual; still, I think this is the director’s most accessible and straightforward storytelling since My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll admit, in the opening scenes I was initially a bit dismayed that the animation seemed more simplistic than usual (at least by Studio Ghibli’s own standards); but as the film unfolded I came to realize that the use of soft lines and muted pastels is a stylistic choice that meshes perfectly with the gentle rhythms of its narrative.

My review is based on a screening of the Japanese PAL DVD that is already available. I still anticipate catching it on the big screen (always preferable), especially for some gorgeous and amazingly detailed underwater milieus, and a powerful sequence of an ocean tempest that features the most breathtaking animation I’ve seen in quite a while. Overall, it may pale when compared to, say, Spirited Away, but in my experience, there is no such thing as “mediocre” Miyazaki. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Love is blue: Watchmen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2009)

I was a weird kid. I never went for the superhero comic books in a big way. I do vaguely recall going through a Classics Illustrated period (Journey to the Center of the Earth kicked major ass, and I think I wore out my copy of Treasure Island). Then, when I was around 9 or 10, I discovered MAD magazine…and all bets were off. I made an exception when I discovered the Adventures of Tin Tin books in my early 20s, but steered clear of  the Marvel/DC stable of caped crusaders, endowed with Special Powers and clad in skin tight suits.

So, I knew going in that I was not in the target audience for Watchmen, the latest graphic novel-to-film adaptation from the DC Comics stable. For those unacquainted with graphic novels, just think Classics Illustrated with sex, ultra-violence and just enough substantive exposition to help you convince yourself you’re reading something akin to literature (sounds like a great pitch for an HBO series). Despite my misgivings about the genre, I was unexpectedly dazzled by Sin City a few years back; so I tried to keep an open mind.

Director Zack Snyder (300) had a formidable task; not only did he have to condense a 12 volume series of graphic novels into feature film length, but he had to deliver a product that would both placate detail-obsessed fan boys and entertain the rest of us without leaving us confounded (or dozing) when the auditorium lights come up.

I can’t speak for the fan boys, but I found the establishing premise of the film intriguing. The story is set in a sort of parallel universe version of mid-1980s America, where an altered course of history has radically changed the sociopolitical fabric of the country from WW 2 onward. The ‘x’ factor lays in an assortment of free-agent superheroes and heroines who have lent their talents to the U.S. armed forces since the 1940s. Actually, super-‘spooks’ might be a more accurate descriptive, as an Oliver Stone style back-story montage behind the opening credits appears to indicate.

In this version of history, thanks to these caped crusaders, America “wins” the Vietnam War. And disturbingly, President Richard M. Nixon has been elected for a fifth term (in this reality, Woodward and Bernstein have been “neutralized”). The Cold War is still in full swing, with a possible nuke-out with the Soviets looming on the horizon. In our post 9-11 world, with the economy on the brink of collapse, this actually plays like a quaint scenario, n’est-ce pas?

With one exception, these superheroes are not blessed with invulnerability; they are just as fragile and flawed as any schmuck on the street; the moral compass doesn’t always exactly point to Truth, Justice and the American Way, either. By 1985, the vigilantes have fallen out of favor with the fickle public; masked avenging has been subsequently outlawed and most have been driven into retirement, or gone underground. When one of the retirees is murdered, it’s time to get the band back together, spearheaded by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). The mystery, as they say, is afoot.

After a promising start, the story bogs down. The screenplay (adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse) while complex and cerebral for what is essentially an action film, is a bit too complex and cerebral for its own good. Pains are taken to flesh out  the back story of each character; this is a good thing, but can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it raises the bar on the cardboard  characterizations you usually get in a superhero movie. Unfortunately, it also accounts for most of the 162 minute running time. By the time  credits rolled, I had completely forgotten  that there was a mystery afoot.

Still, there was a lot I liked about the film. It has a  “dark city” noir atmosphere that I’m a sucker for, as well as great costume and set design. The performances are  uneven,  possibly attributable to the sometimes overreaching script. Jackie Earle Haley is a standout as Rorschach; I enjoyed his Chandleresque voice-over performance, which vacillates somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s menacing whisper and Lawrence Tierney’s caustic growl.

Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino are all quite good. I didn’t recognize Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as “Moloch the Mystic” until the credits rolled. The film has an interesting soundtrack; although I had mixed feelings about hearing a somewhat lengthy lift from Philip Glass’ symphonic score for Koyaanasqatsi (a film I’ve seen many  times).

Still, the sci-fi geek/film noir enthusiast inside of me was hooked by the Blade Runner-like mash-up of those two genres (not that I’m suggesting that this is in the same league as Ridley Scott’s cult classic). You can take that as a guarded recommendation.

SIFF 2008: Half-Life **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Global warming, family meltdown.

Variety has already beat me to the punch (damn you, sirs!) and dubbed writer-director Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life as an “Asian-American Beauty”, so I’m going to describe this provocative suburban dramedy as The Ice Storm meets Donnie Darko. An audacious melange of melodramatic soap opera, dark comedy, metaphysical conundrum and apocalyptic doom, the beautifully photographed Half-Life ambitiously poses a causality dilemma: Which came first, the dystopian society or the dysfunctional family?

The dystopia is our near “future”. Global warming has created worldwide coastal flooding, displacing millions. The sun (possibly dying) belches massive solar flares, wreaking havoc with technology and environment. Perky news mannequins chirp about a Tiananmen Square style massacre of environmental activists and tsk-tsk over a family murder-suicide conducted via chainsaw. A world gone mad!

Phang uses this sense of looming catastrophe as a metaphor for the emotional storms raging within the souls of her protagonists (much the same way that Ang Lee did in his dark suburban drama The Ice Storm) The global chaos serves as the backdrop for the travails of the single-parented Wu family, living in a Spielbergian California desert suburb and led by the exasperated Saura (Julia Nickson).

Saura is the classic “mad housewife”; perpetually exasperated and dead on her feet from trying to juggle a full time job and still spend quality time attending to the needs of a live-in boyfriend (Ben Redgrave) and her two children. Saura, along with her introverted 8-year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and confused teenaged daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) have all been dealing with abandonment issues since Dad took a hike some time back.

Young Timothy, who becomes the central character, escapes from all the fucked-up adult behavior that surrounds him (and possibly averts years of therapy in the process) by losing himself in escapist reveries, triggered by his imaginative crayon doodles. These brief but visually arresting scenes are nicely interpreted with a colorful blend of CG enhancement and rotoscoping techniques.  Unfortunately, Phang makes a misstep by taking this concept to a more literal plane. I’ll just say the film veers off into Carrie territory.

Phang wrestles good  performances from a mostly unknown cast, particularly from Nickson, Lake, and young Agate. Redgrave is quite effective playing a type of creepy suburban WASP character that has become an identifiable staple in twisty indie family angst dramas (e.g. Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, Dylan Baker in Happiness, Brad William Henke in Me and You and Everyone We Know).

I didn’t “hate” it- but I’m still vacillating as to whether or not I “liked” this film. I do think it is safe to say that Jennifer Phang shows great promise, and is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.

ADD theater: Funky Forest

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 29, 2008)

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One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is when we see its separate forms jumbled together.

-Jean Luc Goddard

 A mixed-up mix

Mix up your journey to the next journey

Mixers rock

-DJ Takefumi, from the film Funky Forest: The First Contact

 So, do you think you’ve seen it all? I would venture to say that you haven’t- until you’ve sat through a screening of Funky Forest: The First Contact, originally released in 2005 as Naisu no mori in Japan but now available for the first time on Region 1 DVD.

The film is a collaborative effort by three Japanese directors, most notably Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea). Ishii, along with Hajime Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, has concocted a heady “mixed-up-mix”, indeed. There is really no logical way to describe this blend of dancing, slapstick, surrealism, sci-fi, animation, absurdist humor, and experimental film making, married to a hip soundtrack of jazz, dub and house music without sounding like I’m high (perhaps I already sound that way in a lot of my posts…nest ce pas?), but I will do my best.

There is no real central “story” in the traditional sense; the film is more or less a network narrative, featuring recurring characters a la late night TV sketch comedy. Some of these disparate stories and characters do eventually intersect (although in somewhat obtuse fashion). The film is a throwback in some ways to comedy anthologies from the 70s like The Groove Tube, Tunnel Vision and The Kentucky Fried Movie; although be forewarned that the referential comic sensibilities are very Japanese. If a Western replica of this project were produced, it would require collaboration between Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg (and a script from Charlie Kaufman).

Although there are no “stars” of the film, there are quite a few memorable vignettes featuring three oddball siblings, introduced as “The Unpopular With Women Brothers”. The barbed yet affectionate bickering between the hopelessly geeky Katsuichi, the tone-deaf, guitar strumming Masuru (aka “Guitar Brother”) and the pre-pubescent Masao, as they struggle with dissecting the mystery of how to get “chicks” to dig them is reminiscent of the dynamic between the uncle and the two brothers in Napoleon Dynamite and often quite funny. It is never explained why the obese, Snickers-addicted Masao happens to be a Caucasian; but then, the whole concept wouldn’t be so absurdly funny, would it?

The vignettes centering on the relationship between Notti and Takefumi, a platonic couple, come closest to conventional narrative structure. Then there are the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights-influenced trio of giggly “Babbling Hot Springs Vixens”, who tell each other tall stories in three segments entitled “Alien Piko Rico”, “The Big Ginko Tree” and my personal favorite, “Buck Naked and the Panda”.

You will need to clear some time-Funky Forest runs 2½ hours long, in all its challenging, non-linear glory. So is it worth your time? Well, it probably depends on your answer to this age-old question: Does a movie necessarily have to be “about” something to be enjoyable? At one point in the film, Takefumi goes into a soliloquy:

The turntable is the cosmos

A universe in each album

A journey, an adventure

A journey, a true adventure

Journey, adventure

Journey

Needles rock. Needles rock.

Music mixer and the mix

There is another clue on the film’s intermission card, which reads: “End of Side A”. This may be the key to unlocking the “meaning” of this film, which is, there is no meaning. Perhaps life, like the the movie, is best represented by a series of random needle drops. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey (OK, now I think I am stoned.) With a spirit of winking goofiness running throughout all of this weirdness, perhaps the filmmakers are paraphrasing something Mork from Ork once offered about retaining “a bit of mondo bozo”. God knows, it’s helped me get through 52 years on this silly planet.

Sky-high Fe: Iron Man ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Robert Downey, Jr. forges a head.

The season of popcorn has now been officially thrust upon us with the release of Iron Man, the latest live-action “issue” produced from the seemingly inexhaustible stable of Marvel Comics superheroes.

This marks the fourth feature film and the second fantasy-adventure in a row from director-writer-actor Jon Favreau (Made, Elf and Zathura: A Space Adventure). Despite his growing list of director’s credits, Favreau the actor is probably still most recognizable for his role as the neurotic, lovelorn stand-up comic in Doug Liman’s 1996 cult film Swingers. Favreau also wrote the screenplay for that film, which means that you can credit (or blame) as being responsible for injecting the catchphrase “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” into the pop lexicon.

For his new film, Favreau turns screenwriting chores over to Mark Fegus, Hawk Otsby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway; but those paying close attention will catch a clever visual homage to Swingers in the opening sequence, which takes place in (you guessed it) Las Vegas. Favreau has a cameo as one of the nattily attired security men for wealthy inventor/industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who is in town to accept a recognition award for his ingenious achievements in the advancement of weapons technology. Stark is a cocky eccentric who enjoys the typical pursuits and distractions of a rich playboy, when not ensconced in the high-tech basement laboratory of his (movie fabulous) cliff mansion in Malibu. He is attended to by trusty gal Friday, Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow).

While on a junket in Afghanistan to demonstrate and promote sales of his latest missile technology, Stark’s military escort convoy is ambushed and he is captured by a group of terrorists, who then demand that he construct a crude prototype of his latest invention for their further development and use. Thanks to the assistance of a fellow prisoner, a doctor-inventor (natch), Stark instead constructs an armored suit with built-in weapon technology and jet-propulsion capabilities, which enables his eventual escape. You know-the kind of thing anyone can MacGyver just by re-purposing a few odds ‘n’ ends that you might find lying about…

Stark is quite shaken by his experience, and is particularly traumatized by the realization that the terrorist’s cave complex was chock-a-block with crates of weaponry labeled “Stark Industries”. He calls a press conference after his return to the states. Stricken by his conscience, he announces that his company will detach themselves from the propagation of the war machine and instead devote research and development to high-tech products that will be more beneficial to humanity (now that’s a “fantasy”). The scene reminded me of that oft-played newsreel in which atomic bomb developer Robert Oppenheimer utters his mournful epiphany: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (which precipitated the anti-nuke crusade he embarked on for the remainder of his life).

This sudden and unexpected change in the corporate mission statement doesn’t settle well with Stark Industries’ longtime VP Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) who thinks the CEO has gone off his rocker. The duplicitous Stone’s machinations eventually lead to his transmogrification into Iron Man’s first arch-nemesis, “Iron Monger”.

The film is thankfully bereft of the headache and/or vertigo-inducing f/x overkill one usually encounters in this genre (the reason I generally avoid the comic book inspired action flicks these days; chalk it up to the joys of aging). The action sequences are exciting and quite well done, but parceled out in just the right amounts. The emphasis is on character development, helped along quite nicely by a talented cast. Downey’s knack for physical comedy enlivens a hugely entertaining montage depicting the construction of his “new and improved” body armor. Downey keeps getting better, and despite the fact that he is not the first actor one thinks of as the “superhero type” he is perfectly cast here as the complex Tony Stark. You could say… the irony suits him well (insert groan here).

Paging Dr. Leakey: 10,000 B.C. **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 15, 2008)

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A fact is a fact. Director Roland Emmerich makes great movie trailers. C’mon-admit it, you loved watching the White House blow up real good in the previews for Independence Day. For The Day After Tomorrow, he had you at the tornado-fueled disintegration of the “Hollywood” sign. You cried like a little schoolboy when Matthew Broderick exclaimed “He’s pregnant!” in the trailer for the 1998 remake of Godzilla. And I know that you haven’t been able to avoid the TV teasers for his latest epic, the prehistoric adventure 10,000 B.C. (unless you’ve been living in a…oh, never mind).

Emmerich is the heir apparent to the late Irwin Allen (aka “The Master of Disaster”); he has the same penchant for producing audience pleasing spectacles unencumbered by complex narrative or character development. But you can’t argue with his marketing savvy.

For his new film, Emmerich takes a break from the apocalyptic gloom and doom and plunders Aesop’s fables, Atlantean legend, Mel Gibson, John Ford, Steven Spielberg, the Discovery Channel’s Walking with Prehistoric Beasts and even his own 1994 cult favorite Stargate to concoct a hunk of cave-aged cinematic cheese that barely sits on a Ritz.

The story (co-scripted by the director with Harald Kloser) allegedly takes place sometime around, oh, 12,000 years ago and concerns a small tribe of mammoth hunters. The men (who all appear to have been cloned from Counting Crows’ lead singer) hunt, naturally, whilst the women busily gather (and still find time to maintain their perfect Bo Derek cornrows). The tribe is led by an aging matriarch and seer named, appropriately enough, Old Mother (Mona Hammond, channeling Cousin Itt from The Addams Family).

Old Mother prophesies big doings for a young hunter named D’leh (uncharismatic leading man Steven Strait). D’leh apparently is the Chosen One (chosen for what, specifically, is not made quite clear). There is a bit of exposition provided via some underwritten narration (voiced over by a palpably disinterested Omar Sharif, who sounds like he would rather be playing bridge). One thing is made quite clear…D’leh is destined to eventually knock sandals with pretty, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle).

However, before D’leh’s destiny can be, er, fulfilled, his beloved is kidnapped by a band of Persian-looking horsemen, referred to by the mammoth hunters as the “four-legged demons”. D’leh forms a posse with his best bud Tic’ Tic (Cliff Curtis, probably pondering how the hell he got from Whale Rider to here) and the chase is on.

Many perils lie in wait, like roving packs of huge, wingless avian raptors, who turn the tables on Thanksgiving by gobbling up humans like so many delicious birdie num-nums. D’leh takes a tumble into an animal trap, and makes like Androcles with a larger-than-scale saber-toothed tiger. As the dynamic duo pursues their quarry, they pick up reinforcements in the unlikely form of a tribe of African warriors (Dr. Leakey is spinning in his grave). We also learn some interesting facts about the local geography. Although the mammoth hunters appear to live on a sub-arctic taiga, rimmed by snowy peaks, they are only a day or two’s stroll from grassy African style savannahs, lush tropical rainforests, and a vast sandy desert. But hey, it’s only a movie, right?

The story climaxes in an opulent desert city that looks like a leftover movie set from Apocalypto (or Cleopatra) replete with pyramids, toiling slave laborers, high priests sporting bejeweled feathered hats, and a god-king who demands the odd human sacrifice.

So should this post have been titled When Anachronisms Ruled the Earth? Mmm, maybe. (I also toyed with 10 IQ,  Mammoth Misfire, Dude, Where’s My Spear?,  Two Years Before the Mastodon, and Yabba Dabba Doo Doo …but hey, I don’t want to bore you with details about my “process”). One gloriously incongruous moment that elicited unintentional laughs and nominates the film for future camp status: a climactic, mascara-streaked crying scene (even the Geico Caveman would find Evelot’s “raccoon eyes” a bit out of place 12,000 years before the debut of Maybelline and Max Factor).

You’re probably getting a vibe that I’m not recommending that you go out of your way to shell out your ten bucks for this one? Well, that depends. The CGI creations are convincing, and there are a few rousing action scenes, if that’s what you’re in the mood for. If you have a soft spot for the prehistoric adventure genre to begin with, you will likely be more forgiving to Emmerich’s liberal use of “artistic license” (when I was 11 years old, ogling Raquel Welch for 90 minutes while she ran around in a bear fur bikini, fleeing from hungry dinosaurs, do you think I was stressing out over epochal accuracy?). If you’re an anthropologist, you will definitely want to avoid this one like the Plague (that was, like, back in the Middle Ages… with Robin Hood and all those dudes…right?)

In dreams: Paprika (****) & The Lathe of Heaven (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2007)

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It’s no secret among fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions  can touch (well, post-Blade Runner).

One of the more adventurous anime directors is Satoshi Kon. In previous work like his TV miniseries Paranoia Agent, and in several feature films, Kon has displayed a flair for coupling complex characterization with photo-realistic visual style;  making me forget that I’m watching an anime. Most of Kon’s work has drawn on genres that one does not typically associate with anime: adult drama (Tokyo Godfathers), film noir (Perfect Blue), psychological thriller (Paranoia Agent) and character study (Millennium Actress). Kon’s latest, Paprika, is the first of his films that I would call “sci-fi”… and it’s a doozy.

A team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This dream machine is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look under the hood. In the wrong hands, however, this could become a very dangerous tool.

As you have likely guessed, “someone” has hacked into a DC mini and begun to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (akin to someone slipping acid into the punch).

Things get more complicated when these waking dreams begin taking sentient form and spread like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality”. A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious.

“Mind-blowing” doesn’t begin to describe this Disney-on-acid/ sci-fi murder mystery, featuring  Kon’s most stunning use of color and imagery to date.  Kon raises some philosophical points (aside from the hoary “what is reality?” debate). At one point, Paprika ponders: “Don’t you think dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious vents.” Perhaps Kon is positing that the dream state is the last “sacred place” left for humans; if technology encroaches (any more than it already has) we will lose our last true refuge. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.

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While watching Paprika, I was reminded of one of my favorite sci-fi “mind trip” films, The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel, the film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979. A coveted cult favorite for years, it was reissued on DVD by Newvideo in 2000.

The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering  profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.

When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.

The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality.

This is an intelligent and compelling fable with thoughtful subtext; it is certainly one of the best “made-for-TV”  sci-fi films ever produced. I should warn you that  picture quality and sound on the DVD is not quite up to today’s exacting A/V equipment specs; apparently the master no longer exists, so the transfer was made from a 2” tape copy. Don’t let the low-tech special effects throw you, either (remember, this was made for public TV in 1979 on a shoestring). Substantively speaking, however, I’d wager that The Lathe of Heaven has much more to offer than any $200 million dollar special effects-laden George Lucas “prequel” one would care to name.

War is unhealthy for children: Pan’s Labyrinth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2007)

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In 2001, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro used the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. Six years later, del Toro has returned once again to the tumultuous Franco era, this time with a twist of dark fantasy in his wildly imaginative and visually striking Spanish-language drama, Pan’s Labyrinth.

12-year old newcomer Ivana Bacquero delivers an impressive, nuanced performance as the film’s central character Ofelia, an intelligent, introverted girl on the verge of puberty who still clings to her childhood fascination with fairy tales. She and her very pregnant mother have just set up quarters with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (the always brilliant Sergi Lopez), a brutal, sadistic Fascist officer charged with mopping up stubborn rebel forces entrenched in the Spanish countryside.

With nothing resembling love or affection forthcoming from the odious Vidal, and with her mother becoming increasingly bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia finds an escape valve by retreating ever deeper into a personal fantasy world, which she enters through an imaginary gate in a nearby garden. This is not necessarily Alice through the looking glass, as you might think; this is a much darker world of personified demons and monsters borne from Ofelia’s subconscious take on the real-life horrors being perpetrated by her monstrous stepfather and his Fascist henchmen.

In some respects, the film reminded me of 1973’s Spirit of the Beehive, also set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, and likewise centering on a lonely young girl retreating into a private fantasy world in response to feelings of estrangement from her family. While there are also some similarities here to the likes of Alice In Wonderland, Spirited Away, and The Secret Garden, be advised that this is not a feel-good fairy tale with a warm and fuzzy ending that you want to sit down and watch with the kids. The fantasy elements are closer in tone to Brothers Grimm morbidity than Tolkien whimsy; and del Toro pulls no punches depicting the horror and suffering that takes place during wartime.