Monday, 23 July 2018

Rebecca Review

Number 139 on the top 1000 films of all time is one of Alfred Hitchcock's earliest films: Rebecca.

Based on Daphne DuMaurier's book, Rebecca follows an unnamed young woman (Joan Fontaine) who is a companion to the snooty Edyth Van Hopper (Florence Bates.) This young woman then falls in love with recent widower George DeWinter (Laurence Olivier.) After a whirlwind marriage, the second "Mrs DeWinter," soon suspects things to be out of place, as she realises that George might not be over the death of his first wife.

Rebecca struck me highly as a great example of film noir.  The film began slowly with perhaps too much focus on the set up of the DeWinter's relationship.  Obviously this is important to see and to set up, but I feel it was overdone.  While it was amusing to see the demanding and bossy Edyth Van Hopper at first, after a while it became a little tedious.

However, once the setup was over, we were left with an interesting murder mystery, as the circumstances surrounding the first Mrs DeWinter's death became suspicious.  Laurence Olivier was great as the conflicted Mr DeWinter, even if his character was used as an exposition device at times.

Joan Fontaine was equally good, as the naive, but well-intentioned second Mrs DeWinter.  It was difficult not to feel for her, as she felt further out of place in her husband's opulent lifestyle.  Yet she also has agency, as when she discovers the truth behind the first Mrs DeWinter's death, she is determined to protect her husband at all costs.

With stylistic angles, a complicated narrative, strong performances and Hitchcock a.k.a the Master of Tension, steering the ship, this is a must-see for fans of the noir genre.

Die Hard review

Number 138 on the top 1000 films of all time is the action block-buster Die Hard.

John Mclane (Bruce Willis) is an NYPD, visiting his estranged wife, Holly Gennero-Mclane (Bonnie Bedelia) in LA, wanting nothing more than a quiet Christmas.  However, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) a West German terrorist, has other ideas.  He and 11 others invade a soiree held by Holly's work place and takes everybody hostage, with the intention of stealing $67 billion worth of bearer bonds.  It is up to John Mclane to save the day.

If you're not a fan of action movies, then I recommend giving Die Hard a miss, because Die Hard is the quintessential action film.  It has your lone hero (Mclane) forced to overcome incredible odds (12 terrorists) to save the attractive, but largely useless love interest (Holly.) Throw in a few explosions and shootouts for good measure.

While this might be boring for some, and understandably so, I did really enjoy Die Hard.  It was an entertaining and engaging watch.  Also two things helped it surpass the average action movie.  The first was its self-awareness.  There were multiple references to action movies and actions stars like Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  These helped to provide some light-hearted relief.

The second aspect was Alan Rickman.  In his debut film role, Rickman served up a great villain in the form of Hans Gruber.  The best villains are never the evil cackling, moustache-twirling, let's kill everybody villains.  In fact, these villains are usually the most one-dimensional.  The far superior ones are the more emotionally controlled, cold and calculating ones with Hans Gruber definitely falling into the latter category.  Gruber was utterly ruthless and his sheer emotionless about his heinous acts made him even more frightening.  He was a great adversary for John Mclane and Rickman did a great job as Gruber.

Sure you could argue his henchmen were 2D meatheads, but what could you expect from henchmen?

So, while some may scorn Die Hard, as a tedious repetitive action film, I think it was a great watch, with some lovely meta-humour and a masterful performance from Alan Rickman.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Carnivorous Carnival review

Dear Reader,

we have come to the end of the second season of a Series of Unfortunate Events.  In this series, the Baudelaire orphans have met bullies, traitorous guardians, far too many rules, mysteries and paperwork.  Their journey has not been enjoyable to watch and yet you are still watching it and you are still reading my reviews.  From this I can only assume you are a masochist and you like to hurt yourself by watching this distressing television series.  Why, oh why, you want to do this, I do not have the faintest idea.

The Carnivorous Carnival immediately shakes up the status quo.  Instead of beginning with Lemony Snicket's pleas for you not to watch this show, we are treated to a flashback of the VFD headquarters in their prime.  Set in the Mortmain Mountains, we see Dr Montgomery, Aunt Josephine, Jacquelyn, Larry-the-Waiter and even Lemony and Jacques Snicket, enjoying a costumed ball.  And then Lemony reveals the terrible news that "Olaf knows." He runs out and sees that Olaf is about to attack Lemony's love, Beatrice, which is when we cut back to the main narrative.

This was an enjoyable diversion, as it was interesting to see something that hitherto we've only heard about.  We've been dripfed information about VFD across these two seasons and while this was enticing, it only works as long as we get a satisfying payload.  And this definitely qualified.

Anyway, from this great little flashback, we then jump to Count Olaf who is driving to the Hinterlands to reach the Caligari Carnival.  He wants to speak to the psychic, fortune-telling, Madame Lulu, who he hopes can tell him whether one of the Baudelaire parents is still alive.  We've already discussed why placing Olaf front and centre has led to him quickly losing his menace.  However, there is another reason why he and his henchpeople aren't as villainous as they are in the books.

And that's for the simple reason that they are not treated as villains.  In the books, they are scary, because they are presented as such.  They are threatening and nefarious.  However, within the series, they're portrayed as bumbling buffoons.  They're constantly making mistakes and squabbling with one another.  While this provides a lot of the show's humour, it does seriously hurt their role as villains.  Maybe if they did more to qualify their villainy, rather than buffonery, they'd be scarier.

But unbeknownst to them, they are carrying the Baudelaires who have hidden in the car trunk and are also looking for answers.  They arrive at Caligari Carnival - an amusement part which has seen better times.  The paint is peeling, the roller-coaster has broken down and the souvenirs are lousy.  In charge of the carnival is the fortune-teller Madame Lulu.  She entertains Olaf and his henchpeople, while the Baudelaires plan their next move.  Suspecting that Lulu is a fraud, they don costumes to look like "freaks," and then apply for work in the freakhouse.

Violet and Klaus share a costume to become the two-headed freak "Beverly and Eliot," while Sunny dresses up like a wolf to look like "Chabo the Wolf Baby." Their costumes trick Lulu, Olaf and the others and the Baudelaires go to meet the other freaks in the carnival: Hugo, Colette and Kevin.

And from here, the satire of the Carnivorous Carnival becomes clear.  This episode is very much a parody of freakshows from Victorian times, where people used to laugh at people with deformities.  This is pushed to the max with Hugo who is a hunchback, Colette who is a contortionist and Kevin who looks seemingly normal, but is actually ambidextrous - a word which here means, his right and left hand are equally strong.  Hugo, Colette and Kevin have become resigned to their labels, constantly thinking of themselves as freaks.  

This was a sad point, which I think is strongly poignant today.  Some people with physical or mental deformities feel like a freak, when, of course, they have absolutely no reason to feel so.  This is pushed even further when the "freaks," are made to perform in a show.  Audiences pay to see Hugo struggle to put on a coat and to see Kevin write his name with his left and right hand.  The fact that this is entertainment is pure ludicrousness, but, by being so, also highlights the ridiculousness behind freakshows.

Furthermore, this episode also pokes fun at fortune tellers in general.   Suspecting that Madame Lulu is a fraud, the Baudelaires break into her tent and quickly have their suspicions confirmed.  They find that her 'magic crystal ball' is fake and that she uses dry ice to create a smoky atmosphere effect.  But then they find the most damning piece of evidence, the fact that she has a secret cabinet, which is bursting to the brim with documents, manifestos, newspaper articles and books.  They deduce that this is where she is getting her information from and realise that Madame Lulu doesn't know if one of their parents is still alive.

And this includes a film tape, which has the flashback we saw earlier.  The Baudelaires watch it and think and they discover the true meaning of VFD - Volunteer Fire Department.  Eagle-eyed viewers will know that this was actually revealed to us, right in the very first episode.  The Baudelaires rifle through the library and discover another film, which actually features Lemony Snicket himself.  It was certainly nice to receive some answers after all the questions that have been raised.

But the biggest reveal comes right at the end of the episode, where Madame Lulu reveals herself to the Baudelaires as Olivia Caliban.  She was the school librarian at Prufock Preparatory School who left to help the Baudelaires along with Jacques Snicket who was killed by Count Olaf.

In classic ASOUE style, this episode begins with Lemony Snicket deconstructing a popular phrase - in this case -"the Belly of the Beast." By the episode's end, he promises that all three of the Baudelaire orphans will be in the belly of the beast - in some rather ominous foreshadowing.

From here, we pick up where the first episode leaves off.  The fortune-teller, madame Lulu reveals herself to the Baudelaires as being Olivia Caliban.  She explains that 'Madame Lulu' is just an alias for whatever VFD member is stationed at the Caligari Carnival.  The identity of Caliban's predecessor isn't revealed, but I strongly suspect it of being Kit Snicket.  Book readers know who I'm talking about.

And then Caliban explains to the Baudelaires what she's doing in the carnival in some unnecessary exposition.  While it is obviously important that the Baudelaires know the full story, we as readers have already seen it unfold, and thus we didn't need to hear it again.  Anyway, Olivia and the Baudelaires begin planning their escape tot he VFD headquarters in the Mortmain Mountains, but they are interrupted by Count Olaf.

Olaf announces that he has found some starving lions int eh Hinterlands and in the next freak show, he will feed one of the supposed freaks to the lions.  The Baudelaires return tot he caravan where they join Hugo, Colette and Kevin.  They are then visited by Esme Squalor who is wearing a "I love Freaks" dress in a transparent attempt to prove that she sympathises with the so-called freaks.  This was a nice comment on how some people will act in the insincerest of ways to get what they want.  Esme is a manipulator and her manipulation works on Hugo, Colette and Kevin.  Having internalised their "freak status," they are deeply flattered by Esme's dress.

Angered by Madame Lulu's flirtations with Count Olaf, Esme demands that whichever "freak" is chosen to be thrown to the lions, should push Madame Lulu in instead.  In return, they will be admitted into Olaf's acting troupe.  Having been constantly beaten down, Hugo, Colette and Kevin are desperate to be accepted into a community and thus jump at the opportunity.  This was a nice comment on self-fulfilling prophecies.  Despite having nothing wrong with them, they've been so demeaned by society, they've come to accept and believe in their labels.

While they are receiving this news, they're eating some Tom Ka Gai - a Thai soup cooked up by Sunny Baudelaire.  Her cooking talents are well-known in the books and it's nice they're being included within the TV series.  it's some good character development.

The day of the show arrives and as promised, Count Olaf has brought a the pack of starving lions roaming the Hinterlands, back to the carnival.  it attracts a large crowd including the familiar faces of Mr Ramona and Miss Bass - the Baudelaires' teachers at Prufock Prepatory School.

And it is Beverly and Eliot - Violet and Klaus' freakish, two-headed alter ego who is chosen to jump to the lions.  Abhorrent to the pure idea of Esme's plan, they try to lure Olaf into a trap by asking him to throw them to the lions.  He chickens out and chaos ensues, as everybody rushes to throw Violet and Klaus to the lions.

Madame Lulu pushes them to safety and they escape with Sunny, before Olaf throws her to the lions.  The crowd, once delighted at the thought of violence are disgusted by Lulu's gruesome death.  This in itself is an interesting comment on our relationship with fear and violence.  some of us love watching horror films for the thrill of being scared.  However, when the violence becomes too real, the thrill quickly dissipates.

Another reason why Lulu's death was effective was because it helped to raise the stakes.  Just when it looks like the Baudelaires have found another friend and ally, they are cruelly taken away from them.  it is another obstacle placed between them and their goals.

After Madame Lulu's demise, the Baudelaires return to her tent in the hopes of finding the answers to the questions surrounding their lives.  They find a map to the VFD HQ in the Mortmain Mountains.  before they can investigate further, Count Olaf intrudes and announces his plans to burn down the carnival, beginning with Madame Lulu's tent.  He steals the map and plans to go to the VFD HQ.  he invites the disguised Baudelaires to go with him.  Knowing their only alternative is to wander the Hinterlands, they reluctantly accept.  Olaf then takes Sunny with him to ride in the car and instructs Violet and Klaus to burn down the tent, along with Madame Lulu's vast library of information.  With the new additions of Colette, Hugo and Kevin, there isn't room for Violet and Klaus, who will have to ride along behind in a trailer tied to the car.

And as Count Olaf begins driving along the Mortmain Mountain trail, he reveals that he's known who the Baudelaires were all along.  He knows he only needs one.  Baudelaire - in this case, Sunny - to get the fortune, so he orders Hugo, Colette and Kevin to cut the trailer loose.  The episode and the season ends with the trailer hurtling downhill and all three Baudelaires firmly within the belly of the beast.

VFD and Cultural References

1. Caligari is a reference to the 1920 German horror film: the Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
2. The final film sees Lemony Snicket talking about Stain'd-upon-the-Sea, which is the setting for the prequel series of ASOUE: 'All the Wrong Questions.'
3. The title of this series is said a few times within the episode...could this series get any more meta?
4. Vicious Feline Display
5. Various Fakery Disguises
6.Verified Film Distribution
7. Volunteer Feline Detectives
8. Volunteer Fire Department - the real meaning of VFD.
9. Valley of Four Drafts

Judgement at Nuremberg review

Number 136 on the top 1000 films of all time is the 1961 courtroom drama, Judgement at Nuremberg.

Inspired by the infamous Nuremberg Trials, Judgement at Nuremberg focusses on Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) an American district judge in charge of the trial of four Nazi officials.  Defending them is Hans Rolfe (Maximellen Schell) Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and William Shatner appear in supporting roles.

Courtroom dramas by definition take place within a courtroom. To stop these kind of films from becoming stilted and boring, you need strong writing and even stronger performances.  Judgement at Nuremberg certainly delivered on this front.  Ethical issues a-plenty were presented and tackled with great skill.  This was most evident through Spencer Tracy's great performance as Dan Haywood.  It was clear the moral dilemma that he was struggling with.  What's important to remember is how the film is set at the birth of the Cold War.  America, terrified of the threat of Communist Russia, wanted Germany as an ally. 

This meant that judges like Haywood were under high pressure to treat Nazis leniently.  And this is exactly what happened.  At the end of the film, it is revealed that of the 99 Nazis who were sentenced to jail, by the film's 1961 release, none of them were still serving the sentences.

But the other element which comes into play is Haywood's conscience.  He knows that these officials played a part in the Holocaust and finds it difficult to believe that they weren't aware of the full atrocities of the Holocaust.  Also, unlike the American prosecutor Tad Lawson who staunchly condemns the officials, as cruel-blooded murderers, Haywood wanders whether if it was really that simple.  Haywood's struggle with this dilemma was one of the diving forces of this film and Spencer Tracy played the part well.

Maximillen Schell was also brilliant in his role as Herr Rolfe, the lawyer defending the Nazi officials.  He was utterly convincing as Rolfe.  You could tell that he believed everything he said, and his own arguments posed their own moral questions.  He argues that his defendants were acting out of a misguided patriotism - post-WW1 Germany was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles - and they were only following orders.  Although does this excuse their actions? Perhaps if ever single soldier recognised the immorality of their actions and stood up against their commanders then maybe the worst of the Holocaust could have been avoided.  Obviously, that's an oversimplified version of a vastly complicated subject, but it's interesting to think about.  Schell won an Oscar for his role and it was well-deserved.

Rolfe also argues about the moral implications behind the American decision to drop a-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These bombings killed 200,000 people, most of which were civillians.  True, this helped to bring WW2 to a close, but do the ends really justify the means in this situation.  Again, this is only my oversimplified opinion, but it is still an interesting question to ponder.

But, most interesting of all, is the quandary about whether we should condemn the majority for the actions of the minority.  Haywood is reluctant to do this, hence his efforts to come to as an objective decision as possible.  It's easy to let emotion guide us and say that all Germans were Nazis, and wonder how any of them could claim to be ignorant of the horrors of the Holocaust, but again, are things really that simple?

With a 3-hour run time, things do get a bit slow in places, but be patient and give Judgement at Nuremberg a chance.  Just be prepared to put your thinking cap on as it poses some real ethical quandaries.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Hostile Hospital Review

Dear Reader,

if you think that after seven installments, the lives of the Baudelaires would have improved, then you are sorely wrong.  Within this sorry episode, the Baudelaires encounter fire, mysteries and a severe amount of paperwork.  There is very little happiness or joy in this episode and so I beg you to read a review of a happier TV series.

It's safe to say that after the Vile Village, the Baudelaires are at the lowest they've ever been.  Not only have they been separated from the Quagmires, but they have also been framed for murder.  In the last episode, we saw Count Olaf capture Jacques Snicket and trick everyone into thinking Snicket was Olaf, before murdering him and framing the Baudelaires.

From here the Baudelaires go on the lam, a phrase which here means, they have to go on the run from the law.  They run away from the Village of Fowl Devotees, where they then encounter the Last Chance General Store in the middle of the desolate wastelands.  And they meet none other than Count Olaf there.  I've said this before but having Count Olaf appear right at the beginning of the episode is becoming a tired motif.

The best villains are ones who are unpredictable and the fact that we can bank on Olaf appearing at the start of every episode makes him predictable and thus boring.  He's quickly losing his menace.  Anyway, he gives chase to the Baudelaires who only escape by virtue of the VFD or Volunteers Fighting Disease.  This group of hippies believe that singing and positive thinking is the best way to get better.  The VFD were a great installment - a rare bit of light relief in a program that was getting even darker.  I also think they served to criticise anti-vaccinators or critics of modern medicine, claiming that it's a business designed to make money for the company fat cats.

The parody continues when VFD takes the Baudelaires to the Heimlich Hospital - an underfunded hospital, which prioritises paperwork above all.  From here, it's clear where the satire in this episode lies - of the medical industry in general.  Of hospitals suffering from budget cuts and a greater emphasis on paperwork than patients.  Things are so bad that Heimlich Hospital is only half built and the constructed half has dim lighting and dirty corridors.  It's interesting considering that ASOUE is American where healthcare is privatised.  You'd expect these types of hospitals in countries such as Britain, where I'm based, where the desperately underfunded NHS is falling apart - only being supported by the countless, hard-working doctors and nurses.

Anyway, when the Baudelaires arrive at the hospital, they meet the severe Babs - the Dean of Medicine.  VFD goes off to start singing to all of the patients, while the Baudelaires go to the Library of Records to find answers to the mysteries surrounding their lives.  From there, they meet the librarian Hal, a kindly and trusting man with poor eyesight.  He is dedicated to filing records, but not to reading them under any circumstances.  

However, hot on their heels are Olaf, Esme Squalor and their henchmen, wearing their ridiculous disguises.  But they're stopped in their tracks by Babs who insists they fill in paperwork, going so far to claim that paperwork makes the money go round.  We also learn a little about Esme Squalor's motivations.  Unlike Olaf who is solely interested in the Baudelaires' fortune, Esme wants the mysterious sugar bowl, which she claims that Beatrice stole from her.  Who is Beatrice? We don't know yet.

From here, Count Olaf devises a plan to incapacitate the mentally unstable Babs in a scene , which wouldn't look out of place in a horror movie.  There were lots of references to famous horror films, but this chase scene was well-shot.  Dim lighting, quirky angles and scary music made for a great little homage to horror films of old.  The scheme works and leaves Olaf in firm control of the hospital.

Having been unable to gain access any files with Hal around, the Baudelaires decide to swap a set of fake keys with Hal's keys and they break into the library at night.  Knowing that Hal trusts them, the Baudelaires wrestle with the immorality of this decision, but they decide this is for the greater good.  This in itself adds a moral dimension to the show.  As book-readers know, as the Baudelaires' situation grows more and more direr, they have to do more immoral things.  But are they doing the wrong things for the right reasons? Are the things they're doing right? Could they ever be right?

They break into the library and discover the Snicket File - an old movie reel where Jacques Snicket reveals he is the brother of the author of ASOUE - Lemony Snicket, and also reveals that there may have been a survivor of a fire.  Which survivor? Which fire? We don't know, as Esme Squalor breaks into the Library of Records and chases after the Baudelaires.  Klaus and Sunny escape, but Violet is caught by Esme and the first part of this episode ends with one of our protagonists in real danger for the first time.  Separating our protagonists is always a good way of raising the stakes, as we get to see how they act when they have to depend on solely themselves.  We also see how far they'll go to become reunited with their family and friends.

And how far do the Baudelaires go? Well, to search for their sister without being spotted, Klaus and Sunny disguise themselves as Doctor Faustus.  While looking for a patient list to find Violet, they meet VFD and then see Count Olaf disguised as a doctor.  There's a great moment where both parties instantly see through each other's disguises, but can't say anything, for fear of revealing themselves to VFD.  However, the Baudelaires do manage to steal Count Olaf's patient list.

Meanwhile, Violet tries escaping with Babs, but they're quickly caught again and Violet is anaesthetised.  While it's nice to see our protagonist take our action, this seemed like a bit of a pointless endeavour, which didn't accomplish anything for the narrative.  

But the two younger Baudelaires realise Violet's name has been written in anagram form and quickly deduce what room she has been hidden on.  However, Olaf has already taken her away for surgery - a cranioectomy, a word which here means, the removal of a head of a teenage girl so that a dastardly villain can steal her fortune, and he requests for none other than Dr Faustus to perform the surgery.  

Playing for time, Klaus begins stalling, recounting his knowledge of knives and surgery.  The ploy keeps everyone distracted enough for him to turn off the anaesthesia, leading to Violet waking up.  Just as it looks like the plan hasn't worked, Klaus claims that the correct paperwork hasn't been filled out, meaning he cannot continue the operation.

However, I think more could have been done to increase the tension of this scene.  As this is a kid's show, it is unlikely that Violet's head would have ever been sawn off, but I think they could have drawn out Klaus' stalling a little more to really amp up the suspense.

Esme Squalor then demands that Klaus gives her item she's been looking for in exchange for Violet's life.  Thinking he means the Snicket File, instead of the Sugar Bowl, he hands it over.  Olaf then reveals Klaus' identity to everyone.  And this is when Hal, having discovered his library being broken into, arrives and begins accusing the Baudelaires.  While this is happening, Olaf watches the Snicket File and discovers there has been a survivor of the fire.  In a fit of rage, he destroys the file, inadvertently setting fire to the whole hospital.

The Baudelaires escape through a window, while being pursued by Olaf's henchperson of an indeterminate gender.  Meanwhile, Olaf and his henchpeople all escape the fire and prepare to drive to safety.  This includes the Henchperson of Indeterminate Gender who in the book 


perishes in the fire.  This was an interesting departure from the book, but a welcome one I think.  The henchperson of Indeterminate Gender is one of the funniest of Olaf's cronies and I would miss them if they died.  Maybe the producers thought that this would be too dark of an addition to a show, which is more of a comedy.

Anyway, the Baudelaires realise that their only option is to climb into the boot of Count Olaf's car.  They climb into the belly of the beast and allow Olaf unwittingly drives them away to their next misadventure.  And in the very last shot of the episode, we see an unknown set of hands grabbing the sugar bowl from the hospital.  Who could it be? Jacquelyn or Larry-the-Waiter who were thankfully absent from this episode.  Maybe it was Olivia Caliban who's also been absent.  I reckon it could be Kit Snicket.  Book-readers already know who I'm talking about.

VFD and Cultural References

1. Volunteers Fighting Diseases is the only VFD reference I picked up on.

2. Dr Faustus is a reference to Dr Faust, a German folktale about an academic called Faust who sold his soul to the devil in return for unlimited knowledge.

3. There were three references to adaptations of Stephen King books here.  During the scene where Count Olaf is terrorising Babs, we see the two white-faced powdered women holding balloons, like in It, and standing like the twins in the Shining.  Furthermore, when the henchperson of Indeterminate Gender breaks into the room where the Baudelaires have been hiding, they say "here I am.  Nurse Lucafont," a great reference to the iconic "Here's Johnny" scene within the Shining.

4. At the Last Chance General Store, when the shopkeeper asks if he recognises the Baudelaires, Klaus replies that they're child-actors.  While I have found some of the meta-humour growing old, this was a hilarious exception to the rule.

5. And finally, the Heimlich Hospital is obviously named after the Heimlich Manoeuvre.  

Pan's Labyrinth Review

Number 133 on the top 1000 films of all time is Guillame del Toro's dark fantasy film: Pan's Labyrinth.

Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth follows two inter-twining narratives.  The first focusses on a little girl called Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who discovers that she is actually Moanna, the princess of the underworld.  She meets a faun (Doug Jones) who gives her a series of tasks, so that she can gain immortality.

Ofelia's stepfather is the villainous Vidal, a Fascist Falange captain, in charge of the village Navarra.  However, there is civil unrest, as Vidal is in a guerilla war with the local resistance movement who are determined to overthrow him.

This is an intensely creative film.  Rooted heavily in Spanish folklore, as well as Del Toro's immense imagination, the visual effects were great.  They were a mixture of practical and special effects and the practical effects were just excellent.  Considering how complicated and fantastical some of the creatures are, you would expect them to be CGI, but actually it's a physical actor in a physical costume.  Ofelia's guide through the labyrinth is a faun who was played brilliantly by Doug Jones.  Within the labyrinth, Ofelia also meets the terrifying Pale Man - a child-eating monster, which was once again Doug Jones in a costume.  Pan's Labyrinth won the Oscar for best make-up, which is well-deserved.  The make-up, animatronics and costume design were simply superb.

Beyond the visual element, the world of Pan's Labyrinth was well-realised.  Although it steeped in Spanish mythology, I could definitely see Roman and Greek influences too.  Ofelia being pursued by the Pale Man through the labyrinth is definitely comparable to the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth.  Ofelia's different challenges could be compared to the trials of Sisyphus.

Complimenting Ofelia's story is the narrative concerning the despicable Captain Vidal.  From the off, it is obvious that Vidal is a cruel sadist and Sergio Lopez's portrayed the character well.  Vidal was an evil character, but still a watchable one.  There is one particular moment where Vidal torments a stuttering resistance fighter that if he can count to three without stuttering, he'll be set free.  This is where we see his sadism at its worst.  Considering the horrors of the fascist regime, it only makes sense that Ofelia will retreat into this fantasy world.

If I were to criticise something, I would say that maybe Vidal's narrative overshadowed Ofelia's one.  And I don't think this was right, as Ofelia's narrative was the primary one.  However, while, Ofelia's narrative was visually stunning, I didn't find it as compelling as Vidal's narrative.  I found Vidal's character to be far more interesting to watch and I think it's just because of how evil his character was.  And I also think that Del Toro focussed far more on the guerilla war between Vidal's forces and the resistance movement, than on Ofelia's challenges to become immortal.

Although this is a small criticism really.  The visual effects were marvellous and Sergio Lopez was terrifying as Vidal, but Ofelia's narrative was central above all.  Pan's Labyrinth has been likened to an adult-version of Alice in Wonderland, which I would agree with.  So, next time, you feel like escaping into a fantasy world, I'd recommend Pan's Labyrinth.  Just expect it to be a brutal and bloody ride.  This is a film, which engages with some adult themes.  This is definitely not a kid's film.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Vile Village Review

Dear Reader,

if you are reading this blog, then obviously you like to read distressing stories of attractive and intelligent orphans confront horrific events, such as stringent rules, villains and being burnt at the stake.  If this is the case with you, then I beg you to read happier tales.  Meanwhile, I will work to keep this blog where it belongs, at the bottom of the Search Engine rankings

If the Austere Academy was a parody of education, and the Ersatz Elevator of wealth and fashion, then the Vile Village is one of small town life and of the Spaghetti Western genre.

Their latest misadventure sees the Baudelaire orphans arrive in the village of VFD or the Village of Fowl Devotees - a small village which is populated by crows and residents who adhere to strict rules.  Under the aphorism of "it takes a village to raise a child," the whole village will raise the Baudelaire orphans.  Well, their handyman Hector will, while the rest will just boss them around and make them do their chores.  Meanwhile, Hector is too skittish to speak up against them - he is just the latest in a long line of helpful, but ineffective adults.  However, Hector is brave enough to defy the townspeople in private, by building a self-sustaining mobile home in his secret barn.

However, where the Baudelaires go, Count Olaf is sure to follow.  And where Count goes, so does Jacques Snicket and Olivia Caliban.  Snicket confronts Olaf in the town saloon, where it is revealed that Olaf was once a good man who fought evil and fires alongside Snicket.  However, then something happened which catapulted him into a lifetime of villainy.  These were interesting nuggets, which helped to develop Olaf's character.  But Snicket gets the best of Olaf and imprisons him in the town jail.  And then the police catch him, send him to jail and the Baudelaires live happily ever after.  Right?

Wrong! Nothing ever goes right in this story.  Actually, that's not true, the Baudelaires discover couplets that could be written by none other than Isadora Quagmire.  The Baudelaires suspect that within these couplets is a clue to the Quagmires' location.  But before they can investigate any further, they encounter no other, than their previous guardian and Count Olaf's girlfriend, disguised as police officer Luciana, who reports the news that Count Olaf has been captured.  But it's really Jacques Snicket who has been crudely made up to look like Count Olaf.  Although, curiously, Snicket also has a tattoo of an eye on his ankle.

And where is the real Count Olaf? Disguised as the ultra-annoying Detective Dupin.  When the townspeople want to just fine Snicket for his supposed villainy, Olaf calls for him to be burnt at the stake and then mob mentality takes hold.  Snicket is taken to jail.  The Baudelaires plead for Hector to help them free Snicket, but when he refuses, they take it upon themselves.

However, their rescue plan goes awry when it emerges that Snicket has been murdered.  And on that note, the first part of this episode ends.

And just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for the Baudelaires, Olaf then frames for Snicket's murder, by using the very items, they were using to break Snicket out of jail.  This was a nice diversion from the books, where Olaf plants evidence.  I preferred the TV version, as it shows how the plans of our heroes can backfire on them.  Anyway, the Baudelaires are sent to jail with Hector being too skittish to defend them.

Once in jail, the Baudelaires figure out that the Quagmires are trapped in the fountain in the centre of town.  Klaus also comes to the sad conclusion that today is his 13th birthday, which was a nice human moment.  With this realisation, Klaus becomes resigned to his fate, claiming that nothing short Deus Ex machina will save them now.  But trusty Violet uses their prison rations, as well as a wooden bench to create a battering ram to smash their way out of jail.  From there, they free the Quagmires only to discover that the townspeople are still baying for their blood.

Deus ex Machina then arrives in the form of Jacquelyn and Larry-the-Waiter.  However, they do little to deter the townpeople who then tie them up.  This was a nice example of how unrealistic Deus ex Machina can be, but it is also another example of how useless Jacquelyn and Larry actually are.  I can't think of how many times they've actually helped the Baudelaires.

Anyway, Hector finally gains the courage to start up his self-sustaining, hot-air mobile home, just in time to rescue the Baudelaires and Quagmires.  And so, all five orphans and Hector live happily ever after.  Right? Wrong.  Hector drops a ladder, which the Quagmires are able to climb up to safety.  However, their slow progress, allows Esme Squalor to begin firing at them using a harpoon gun.  When it becomes obvious that the mobile home can't take anymore damage, the Baudelaires decide to let their friends fly to safety, rather than endanger them.

Meanwhile, Esme Squalor unintentionally harpoons one of the VFD crows, breaking the most sacred rule of the town.  The townspeople turn on Olaf and Esme, who only just escape.  Now fugitives, the Baudelaires ride off into the sunset, accompanied by a score, which could be straight out of a Sergio Leone Western.

I still continue to enjoy this show.  Sure, the meta-humour, as well as Lemony Snicket's interludes have lost their novelty, they are still enjoyable to watch.  But what I love most is just how different parts of society are parodied.  In perhaps the darkest installment yet, VFD is ravaged by mob psychology, as the townspeople become suspicious of outsiders.  The set design and production continues to amaze.  From the Sergio Leonesque score and the Baudelaires riding of into the sunset, we already know this to be a parody of a Western.  But there also sweeping landscape shots of the Hinterlands - wastelands desolate enough to be reminiscent of the Western frontier.  Detective Dupin is a grotesque parody of John Wayne/Clint Eastwood cowboy characters - the characters who are always cool, regardless of how dire the situation is.  And don't forget the saloon and town jail, which wouldn't be out of place in one of the Dollars' films.

But what me the most about this episode is how dark it was.  Zack Handlen of the AV Club has written extensively about how ASOUE has always felt like a low-stakes drama.  The threat Count Olaf poses is underminded by his constant blundering.  True this is a kid's show, but even kid's shows need threatening villains.  And this is what this episode did.  By killing the heroic Jacques Snicket, and having the Baudelaires almost being burnt at the stake was an effective way of injecting some immediacy into a show that is becoming overfamiliar.

VFD and cultural references.

1. Village of Fowl Devotees - the most obvious reference was the only one I spotted.
2. The deconstruction of Deus Ex Machina was effective to watch