Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Written by: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López

“My mother told me to be wary of fauns.” — Maribel Verdú as Mercedes

•  •  •

Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaking magician, and we don’t deserve him.

Moviegoers haven’t earned a man who would give up his salary to ensure that he could make the film he wanted. Or a man who wrote the English subtitles himself, because he was disappointed with the lack of depth in the translation for his previous films. When directors and writers like del Toro put such care into their projects, we as an audience can do nothing but applaud.

And I did that in spades when I finally sat down and watched this film. I was surprised by the dark and ominous world del Toro created. Not knowing much about Pan’s Labyrinth prior to viewing it, I was under the impression that it was a children’s movie with fantastical creatures and beasts.

It’s got the creatures and beasts, but it is by no mean’s a children’s film.

In situating this dream world amid the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (a conflict I admittedly and shamefully have little knowledge of), del Toro does not shy away from the atrocities that occurred between the rebels and Francisco Franco’s army. And to place a child — the wonderful Ivana Baquero as Ofelia — not only right at the heart of that grisly reality but also in a horrifying fairy tale world, Pan’s Labyrinth delivers a fantastically frightening ambiance that any parent thinking of showing this movie to their child should be wary of.

The real magic of this movie, however, is the way the filmmakers brought characters like Fauno and the Pale Man to life. One of my main gripes with movies in the 21st century is their overuse of digital special effects. But del Toro insists on using as much real makeup and mechanical costume design as possible.

Monsters are scarier when you can see that what’s on screen could actually reach out and grab you. The visual realness gives them power over the imagination that digital ghouls just don’t have.

Every time the Fauna appeared on screen I was entranced by the way it moved, and the actor underneath the suit — Doug Jones — brings a slightly unhinged and dangerous element to the character who we are supposed to believe has the best interests of Ofelia at heart. Jones does double duty in the film, also playing the Pale Man in one of the best horror scenes I’ve seen in my life.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that demands repeat viewings, and I plan on sitting down with it again very soon. With a director like Guillermo del Toro, I know that there is so much more to discover within the story. 

Aliens (1986)

Aliens

Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron and David Giler

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn

“That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?” — Bill Paxton as Private Hudson

•  •  •

I really wanted to like this movie, damn it.

Even in 2017, the hype was undeniable. James Cameron, fresh off his legacy-launching job at the helm of The Terminator, was directing the sequel to arguably the best science fiction film of the 20th century. Everyone I’ve talked to about Aliens has heaped praise upon it. I went into this movie expecting it to be bigger and scarier than the original.

But it’s just bigger. And more annoying.

The original Alien thrives by putting a small crew in a claustrophobic hellhole from which there is no escape. It works because the smaller cast makes each character actually take on a life — whereas Aliens brings an entire squad of marines into the picture, for the sole purpose of being able to have more kill sequences without running out of human ammo. But I just can’t bring myself to care about any of those characters. In fact, they’re not even characters —  they’re just pawns being sent out to be destroyed en masse.

This movie is aggravatingly predictable across the board. In the first film, Ian Holm plays a traitorous android whose sole mission is to get the “perfect organism” back to the company, with the rest of the crew ID’d as expendable. In the sequel, we have Bishop, an android who from the start Ripley distrusts and despises loudly and openly. But of course James Cameron isn’t going to play the same villain trick again, and there’s a sense that Bishop has to do something to redeem the viewers’ negative impressions of androids (which of course he does).

Paul Reiser with his charming baby blues plays Burke, the new company man. Let’s not forget that this is the same company that sold out the crew in the first film in order to get the alien back to Earth and study it. But don’t worry! Everything is different now, and Burke assures Ripley that he wants to help destroy these creatures at all costs, which no sane viewer can buy for even a millisecond.

This all sets up a suicide mission in which the characters plunge down onto a space colony that has been torn apart by the xenomorph aliens. Everyone’s dead. Well, except for Newt, the young girl who has somehow survived while hiding among the wreckage, just waiting for Ripley to show up. Ripley takes on a motherly role for the child, and the dynamic between the two is one of the real enjoyable aspects of Aliens. Sigourney Weaver received an Oscar nod for best actress, and I have to believe that the scenes between her and the young actress Carrie Henn are a big reason for the nomination.

The movie’s strongest moments come through effects and makeup, and there are some truly dazzling sequences. The xenomorphs remain terrifying, and now that there’s an entire horde of them, chaos and violence follows wherever they roam. And that can be a whole lot of fun, don’t get me wrong.

But I can’t excuse the lazy storyline that just doesn’t have enough emotional bite to captivate me. There was a phenomenal sequel that could have been made here. Cameron just didn’t make it.

The French Connection (1971)

French

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Ernest Tidyman (screenplay); Robin Moore (based on the book by)

Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey

I absolutely love this film — and I feel a little guilty about that.

There are so many great things about this classic Best Picture winner, but it’s hard to watch this movie from 46 years ago and not see some of the culturally problematic layers.

But first, the good stuff: The most famous scene of this movie is the frenetic car chase that features Gene Hackman as Detective Popeye Doyle (one of the all-time great character names). If The French Connection doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, you need to at least watch this scene, as Doyle speeds through the streets of New York, trying to keep pace with an elevated subway train on which a French assassin is trying to escape. The fact that this was filmed in 1971 completely blows my mind, and the trivia behind the filming itself is even crazier.

According to IMDB, the filmmakers shot the scene without getting the proper permits from the city. So although the NYPD did help them with traffic control, there were parts caught on camera where civilian drivers make their way into the path of the speeding car. According to Hackman, one of the cars that he slams into was that of a resident of the neighborhood who was just pulling out onto the street.

Aside from the car chase you have a pretty classic cop movie in which New York City takes on a role as one of the main characters. It’s one of those films that makes you want to take a trip and see the sights that you’re watching in front of you. Roy Scheider adds a needed balance as the good cop to Hackman’s bad cop, and Fernando Rey knocks it out of the park as the cunning French baddie.

So how does this movie make me uncomfortable? First there’s Popeye Doyle, who, despite having an amazing name, continually shows himself to be a racist, sexist character. Actor Peter Boyle actually turned down the role because of the character’s unsavory tendencies. Obviously racism and sexism are nothing new to films, but  because Doyle receives so little pushback from any other characters, the movie comes off as lacking some self-awareness.

There’s not a single female character worth noting in this movie. In fact, there might only be two women, and they’re both sexualized in some way. And when Doyle and his partner go looking for drugs on the street, they go to the black neighborhood bars and rough the patrons up. And while those scenes are unfortunately realistic of what police work was like in the 1970s, it’s not easy to watch nearly 50 years later while realizing we haven’t evolved past that behavior much at all.

That said, The French Connection has landed somewhere in the list of my top 100 movies of all time. I hate that I have to apologize for parts of it, but what director William Friedkin was able to put together is a thrilling police drama that films like The Departed and shows like The Wire obviously draw inspiration from. It’s a classic for a reason.

Speed (1994)

SpeedArt

Directed by: Jan de Bont

Written by: Graham Yost

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock

Spoiler Warning

Thank god for Keanu Reeves. I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when I was 9 years old, and I was convinced that it was the greatest movie ever made. But ever since I have been admittedly lax in keeping up with Mr. Reeves’ career (other than grabbing a VHS copy of The Matrix at a garage sale a few years back).

So I’m proud to say I have finally seen what may be the pinnacle of Keanu. Speed isn’t a flawless film, no. And it’s definitely not the best film in which Keanu Reeves has starred. But when a friend of yours does an impersonation of Keanu at a bar, Officer Jack Traven is the character they’re channeling. The buzzed-haired LAPD cop trapped on a bus that can’t go below 50 mph who delivers a continuous flow of eyeroll-worthy lines. Just take this exchange from the opening scene of the movie, when an elevator in a downtown L.A. skyscraper is wired to blow at any second:

Cop: Anything that will keep this elevator from falling?

Keanu: Yeah. The basement.

That’s just flawless screenwriting, Graham Yost. Bravo.

This movie made $121 million at the U.S. box office in 1994 (when the average ticket price was just $4.08). It was a summer sensation, and rightfully so. I mean, a metro bus jumps over a huge gap in the downtown freeway. That same bus eventually has an explosive collision with a 747 on the LAX runway — and there’s still 25 minutes left to go in the movie after that. Dennis Hopper gets decapitated on the top of a subway car!

It just doesn’t let up.

I watched this movie with a huge grin on my face. It was the perfect amount of cheesy action and laughable dialogue. I found myself talking at the screen multiple times, even yelling “Oh noooooo,” when the first bus driver is shot.

Don’t make the mistake I did in waiting more than 20 years to watch this Keanu Reeves tour de force. It’s seriously fun the whole way through, and I can’t recommend it enough for some summer laughs.

 

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

illustration

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

This is one of those movies that, in a way, gave impetus to the idea for this blog. I’m not exactly sure how I got to be 25 years old without ever seeing this 1982 Steven Spielberg classic, but the fact that I did really seemed to upset people.

I talked with my parents on the phone recently, and they were adamant that we had watched this movie together as a family — but I don’t believe them. Or at least I wasn’t alive yet when the family watched it.

Anyway, seeing E.T. for the first time as an adult in 2017 admittedly does take away some of the magic. Some of — OK, a lot of — the child acting is grating, and the special effects obviously don’t cause the same jaw-dropping reactions they would have if I had watched the movie when I was younger.

If I had seen those kids on their bikes flying in front of the moon 15 years ago, my imagination would have run wild. I would have wanted to hop on my bicycle and zoom around the neighborhood as soon as the credits rolled. Watching it today, it’s hard not to just see the ridiculous use of green screen.

That said, Spielberg is a master at creating atmosphere, and the alien invading suburbia plot works so well in E.T. I especially like how the only adult showed in the first half of the movie is protagonist Elliott’s frustratingly clueless mother. All other adults — including the great villain-turned-hero “Mr. Keys” — are filmed from the waist down until the very end of the film.

So Spielberg creates this world that we experience from the child’s point of view, which is incredibly smart in making us believe this boy-alien relationship. It blocks out any encroaching “realness” of the outside world, and keeps the viewers — like the children — in a bubble.

There’s a scene in the middle of the movie that really stood out for being from an earlier time. Most people probably remember it because E.T. cracks open a few Coors and gets comically drunk while Elliott is away at school. But do you remember what Elliott was doing at school? He and his classmates are about to dissect frogs. But before they do this, they have to freaking chloroform live frogs in a jar.

Is this the way the world used to work? Did schools actually pass out live frogs and tell children, “OK, you take it from here.”

“They won’t feel anything,” the teacher tells the class as he instructs these 10-year-olds to kill a living creature. Elliot famously saves the day, and the result is a flurry of frogs hopping out of the windows.

Thirty-five years after its release, E.T. struggles to stay enjoyable in ways that other earlier Spielberg films (Jaws, Jurassic Park) don’t. I really don’t want to harp on the child actors too much, but Henry Thomas is just bad. Really bad. He can pull off amazement and wonder, but line delivery just isn’t his strong suit. I kept feeling like I wanted to escape his performance, but there was no way out. He’s in it nearly every scene — and it wore me down.

So, what’s the deal with this blog anyway?

I’ve always loved going to the movies. It’s the perfect excuse to get a huge, overpriced Coke and some popcorn layered with a liquid that they tell us is butter, but we all know was most likely concocted in some underground laboratory out in the desert.

Growing up in the internet age, however, I’ve put off watching movies more and more. My attention span in college decreased so much so that I couldn’t even read entire news articles online or in print — and I was a journalism major.

But two years ago I decided to jump back into movies with a mission — to see all of the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards aired. If you’re not familiar, that’s not always an easy feat. The nominees are released in January, and the award show typically airs in late February. So basically you get a little over a month to see up to 10 movies. For someone who isn’t always up to the “time commitment” of watching a film, this is asking a lot.

But Oscar leadup has been one of the real joys in my life the past couple of years. I’d race from work to the theater to catch a late showing of The Revenant or Hidden Figures. Sometimes I’d try to fit in two or three films in a weekend, and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of all of them with my friends. It was a way to connect with people, and in those months I learned about wonderful filmmakers like Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and John Crowley (Brooklyn).

But even though I’m now familiarizing myself with the newer highlights of cinema, there are still so many films that I’ve missed. Some of them are blockbusters that any sane person should have seen as a child (E.T. … believe me, I know). While others are more recent movies that just slipped under my radar. Some of these I’ve wanted see for years but just never got around to making the time.

Well, now I’m making the time, damn it. I’m making my own constant film festival at Films I Should Have Seen By Now. And I invite any film buffs or casual movie fans to tag along.

I’m still not exactly sure precisely what this blog will contain, but I’m going to try not to make these strictly reviews. Each post will focus on one movie, and other than that I don’t really know what to promise. You’ll get some of my opinion, definitely, but I also want to show what I’ve learned from each movie.

So grab a seat, lather some butter goop on your popcorn and enjoy your day at the movies.